A shakedown in Tulsa

2 June 2021

1:18 AM

2 June 2021

1:18 AM

Cockburn was vaguely aware that yesterday, May 31, marked the centenary of one of America’s darker episodes, the ‘Tulsa Race Massacre’ of 1921, when a mob of white residents rioted in Greenwood, Oklahoma, aka the ‘Black Wall Street’. Today, President Biden is in the city, to offer his sympathies to the surviving victims and their descendants.

The rampage left an estimated 300 black Tulsans dead, 11,000 homeless and scores of black-owned businesses, school, churches, hospitals and homes in ruins. In the intervening years, the city has done its best to try and pretend the whole thing never happened. There have been no statues or memorials, official commemorations, or public apologies. Until the early 2000s, it wasn’t even in the local history books of Oklahoma schools.

A century later, the city council finally decided to do something about it. They began by passing a resolution last month, condemning the violence and its subsequent omission in classrooms and public spaces. Specifically, the resolution regretted the ‘past and present attempts to obscure the truth…[and] the continued legacy of racism, white supremacy and prejudice in the United States’.

And on Monday May 31, the 100th anniversary of the riot, a number of commemorative events around the city were held. Chief among these was to have been a nationally televised day-long concert dubbed ‘Remember & Rise’ at Tulsa’s ONEOK field, featuring an assortment of pop stars, poets, city officials, campaigners, politicians and national leaders. There was going to be a live performance from a Cockburn favorite John Legend and a song from America’s Got Talent winner Brandon Leake. Mayor Bloomberg was going to appear on a video screen. Tickets sold out within half an hour of going on sale.

But it turns out that not everyone is quite so eager to be healed. The event was canceled a few days ago, supposedly when Damario Solomon-Simmons, the lawyer representing three centenarian survivors of the tragedy, demanded a dramatic increase in return for his clients’ presence at the event. Oklahoma state senator Kevin Matthews, the Chair of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Commission, confirmed initial meetings with Solomon-Simmons and other survivors’ representatives, had settled on the Commission agreeing on $100,000 for each survivor, as well as $2 million for a reparations fund. It just doesn’t feel like justice if you don’t get handsomely paid.

But that was not enough, oh no. On May 23, a week before the celebration was due to take place, Matthews alleges Solomon-Simmons was touch, explaining his clients would be unable to attend the ceremony unless their individual fees were increased, to $1 million each. Meanwhile, he continued, the promised reparations fund would now have to be $50 million instead of $2 million. Organizers, understandably, were baffled.

‘We could not respond to those demands,’ Matthews told the AP. ‘To be clear, I absolutely want the survivors, the descendants and others that were affected to be financially and emotionally supported. However, this is not the way.’ The event was canceled. Survivors including Viola Fletcher and Hughes Van Ellis did attend other commemorations, though, including a soil dedication ceremony at Stone Hill. Today President Biden is in Tulsa promising to take steps to shrink the racial wealth gap and ‘commit together to eradicate systemic racism and help to rebuild communities and lives that have been destroyed by it’.

Cockburn knows to pick his way carefully through the minefield of contemporary discourse on such matters, yet feels impelled to wonder aloud at the astonishing display of greed. The survivors in question deserve the city’s contrition and respect, without doubt. But how do you put a price on an apology? A century after the massacre a respectful financial gift should be accepted as a token of wholehearted apology, rather than being jacked up by avaricious attorneys into a price for goodwill.

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