TULSA, Oklahoma—By almost any measure, this has been a terrible month for Tulsa Mayor G. T. Bynum.
Like almost every other city in America, Tulsa was the scene of major protests after the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis sparked major protests. Demonstrators tried to take over an interstate highway and some even marched to Bynum’s house, an act he called “intimidation.” In a city that was the site of the nation’s most notorious massacre of black residents, hundreds of whom were murdered in their homes by a white mob, the mayor’s insinuation that he felt threatened by unarmed protesters didn’t sit well in the black community.
It only got worse. Bynum, a mild-mannered 43-year-old with tortoise-shell glasses, gave an interview on national television that downplayed the role of race in a widely publicized police shooting. No sooner had he apologized for his “dumb and overly simplistic” comment than one of his highest-ranking officers said that police should statistically be shooting more black people “based on the crimes committed.”
In the middle of all this, President Trump, whose provocative rhetoric after Floyd’s death inflamed tensions across the country, announced he would come to Tulsa to hold his first rally since the coronavirus pandemic had ended his public campaigning. Bynum, a moderate Republican, has stressed he had nothing to do with Trump’s visit, but he resisted repeated calls to cancel the rally at the 19,000-seat BOK Center in downtown. He did not respond to interview requests made to his office. In a public statement, he said that an event in the middle of a spike in Covid-19 cases “isn’t ideal.”
Now Tulsa, population just under 400,000, is preparing for the arrival of tens of thousands of Trump supporters and counter-protesters. High steel fencing lines streets through downtown, which Bynum placed under curfew starting Thursday night in fear that “organized groups who have been involved in destructive and violent behavior in other States are planning to travel to the City of Tulsa for purposes of causing unrest in and around the rally.” Trump torqued up the tension Friday morning with a tweet threat: “Any protesters, anarchists, agitators, looters or lowlifes who are going to Oklahoma please understand, you will not be treated like you have been in New York, Seattle, or Minneapolis.”
Whatever happens over the coming hours and days is unlikely to make Bynum’s job easier. Even before Floyd’s death spurred the Black Lives Matter movement into overdrive, Bynum found himself in a political vise increasingly familiar to mayors in cities across the conservative heart of the country. He represents a city where Republicans outnumber Democrats by about two to one. But over the course of his four years in office Bynum has made conscious efforts to reform a police department that arrests black people at twice the rate of white people and that has been condemned for controversial killings of black men. In February, Bynum appointed Tulsa’s first black police chief.
But like so much in the Bynum administration, the move has failed to resonate with some black voters, who regard Police Chief Wendell Franklin as a police force insider rather than a true agent of change. In recent days the pace of that change, and Bynum’s commitment to it, has come into question as the mayor has tried to mediate a fraught negotiation about civilian oversight of the police. Almost everyone involved—the police union and Black Lives Matter supporters—have expressed feelings of betrayal by the mayor who they accuse of flip-flopping on the issue.
At a Wednesday press conference, Franklin said, “The eyes of the world are upon us now. We are ready.”
Bynum’s leadership of Tulsa once had a sense of destiny.
His uncle, grandfather, and great great grandfather all held the same position. Elected in the summer of 2016, Bynum seemed eager to bridge racial divides that have lingered for nearly a century. He declared he wanted “One Tulsa,” and launched a fact-gathering mission to quantify racial disparities such areas as policing, education and housing and created the Mayor’s Office of Resilience and Equity to pilot reforms.
Then, just weeks after he was elected, a white female officer shot and killed Terence Crutcher, an unarmed black man who had stopped his car in the middle of the road. The shooting was captured on video by a circling police helicopter. The officer was charged with manslaughter. There was a flurry of national attention but in the black community the outrage never disappeared.
Then in 2017, it happened again. Tulsa County deputies shot Joshua Barre, a mentally ill 29-year-old black man who was wandering the street with two knives. Only three weeks before, the officer who shot Crutcher had been acquitted.
Bynum, meanwhile, promoted economic investment in the predominantly black neighborhoods of North Tulsa. And, to address long-standing fear and anger from black residents toward the Tulsa Police Department, Bynum proposed in January 2019 establishing an Office of Independent Monitor to provide oversight, based on a model he admired in Denver.
The mayor also responded to the request of leaders in the black community, such as the Rev. Robert Turner, to create a commission to investigate the whereabouts of mass graves from the 1921 massacre and placed the pastor on the commission. City officials and community leaders hoped bodies could be exhumed and given a proper burial for the centennial anniversary next year.
“I think the mayor has done a good job of engaging that, more so than any mayor I can remember in Tulsa,” said Corbin Brewster, the chief public defender of Tulsa County. “Then you have Trump announce he’s going to have a rally... That just magnifies all those fissures and second guessing and pressure on our city officials.”
But others feel the problems are self-inflicted. The Office of Independent Monitor stalled after pressure from the police union and disagreement on details among city council and activists.
And Turner nearly quit the committee charged with overseeing the survey and excavation of mass graves from the massacre because of how slowly the city was moving and how narrowly it conducted its search. The work is now on pause indefinitely as a result of the pandemic, even though the state has largely opened up.
But the days after the George Floyd killing have been especially challenging for Bynum, who has seemed to pinball between defensiveness and stubborn insistence on “law and order.”
Not long after he complained of “intimidation” by activists, Bynum appeared on a conservative talk radio show on June 1. He continued his criticism while defending law enforcement. Within the day, however, he met with the activists, including the Rev. Turner, and agreed to a number of their demands, such as ending LivePD in Tulsa, a reality law-enforcement show featuring local cops on the beat. He agreed to meet with the Crutcher family, which had filed a civil lawsuit against the city, and to re-new his push for the Office of Independent Monitor.
Conservatives accused him of flip flopping. Jerad Lindsey, chairman of the Tulsa Fraternal Order of Police described himself as “completely blindsided.” He added that the mayor owed the police officers of Tulsa an explanation.
Meanwhile, public relations disasters kept exploding around Bynum.
On June 8, Major Travis Yates of the Tulsa Police Department, made national headlines with his remark on local talk radio that police were “shooting African-Americans about 24 percent less than we ought to be, based on the crimes being committed.” The mayor condemned the comments but Yates kept his job, pending an internal investigation. Shortly thereafter, Tulsa Police made national news again, this time with a video of police officers roughly arresting black teenagers for walking in a street.
In the midst of this, Bynum appeared on “CBS Sunday Morning” in a segment about the historical racial strife in Tulsa, saying that it was drug use rather than race that played a factor in the killing of Terence Crutcher. “After meeting with the mayor and thinking we were moving in the right direction, we hear him make those egregious comments,” said Tiffany Crutcher, the twin sister of Terence who has risen to prominence in Tulsa as an activist after creating the Terence Crutcher Foundation to advocate for civil rights. “I was nauseated.”
Bynum apologized. “When your friends start calling you and repeatedly use the phrase ‘I know your heart’, it is a good indicator you’ve screwed up,” he wrote on Twitter. But the damage was done.
Within days Tiffany Crutcher recruited a board member of her foundation, Greg Robinson, to run for office against Bynum in August, bringing the total challengers to seven. “This is part of our three-year push for change,” Crutcher said. “We just felt we needed to take it to the next level.” Crutcher is his campaign manager.
Meanwhile, the Fraternal Order of Police isn’t forgetting Bynum’s remarks either.
Lindsey told me the mayor has “not yet” but is close to losing support of the police. “We are giving him a lot of latitude because Tulsa is a unique place and this is a unique time in history.” Still, the police union opposes his proposal for the Office of Independent Monitor, arguing that it will result in less policing, not better policing. Lindsey said the cops in Denver told him they work in fear of residents reporting them to the city’s OIM for doing their jobs. “What is the easiest way to not get a complaint?” he asks. “Not to engage. You have guys sitting in parking lots; they don’t drive neighborhoods.”
A five-minute drive in Tulsa can take you from the growing camp of defiant President Trump supporters at the BOK Center to a place that feels both far away and uncomfortably close: the Vernon Chapel A.M.E. Church, which was burned in the 1921 Black Wall Street massacre that killed some 300 black Tulsans.
The church was soon rebuilt, but it now needs million in repairs it can’t afford. Annual revenue is $200,000 per year, and the congregation is elderly and few—just 135 worshippers. “I know churches with Sunday School classes larger than our whole membership,” Pastor Turner told me this week. “But God chose us to be his vessel.”
Turner, 37, keeps a bullhorn and a sign at his desk that reads in all caps: REPARATIONS NOW. He has led the fight to identify and excavate the mass graves of victims of the Tulsa race massacre and secure compensation for their descendants, many of whom make up his congregation.
His church is responding to Trump’s presence by hosting two rallies: one on Friday, the anniversary of Juneteenth, the celebration of the symbolic end of chattel slavery in 1865, and the other one opposite the president’s rally on Saturday evening. Raising the profile of the event, is the Rev. Al Sharpton, who is flying in to deliver an address Friday night. Meanwhile, the Trump campaign is claiming so much enthusiasm that it has rented a second venue near the BOK Center for an overflow crowd.
“Unless he has changed his political strategy, I’m concerned that [Trump] is going to charge them up,” said Turner. “His last campaign was very high on vitriol and bombast. So you get filled with that for however long he’s going to speak, and God knows what those folks are going to want to do.”
The National Guard has been activated, but Turner is worried enough that he is not counting on them or local police alone to keep the peace. So he has hired private security for his rally. “As a Christian I do not worry,” Turner says. “As a human being, I have concerns. I just pray to God to protect us. I know he can. I pray he will.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misstated the anniversary of the Juneteenth celebration.