The Privilege to Riot

 American history, current events  Comments Off on The Privilege to Riot
May 312020

Rage, grief, and frustration at yet another death of an unarmed black man at the hands of the police – over a petty allegation involving a measly $20.00 – lit fires, lit consciences, lit businesses, lit the streets all over the country. In what can only be an escalation of the problem of inequitable policing of black communities, police departments have fired tear gas, rubber bullets, and judgment on the people protesting state-sanctioned violence against them. White leaders in these communities demand order, and that is just the thing that has led us to this place.

Blinded or lacking vision, white folks lecture protestors on the “right way” to respond, and it only brings the echoes of Nina Simone to mind:

“They told me to wash and clean my ears
talk real fine just like a lady
and they’d stop calling me Sister Sadie…
I don’t trust you anymore
you keep on saying go slow”

White communities have had ample opportunities to demonstrate that they will respond and correct the problem of violence against black citizens, but they have failed to do so. The chance for appeals to reason together have passed.

But, whites in positions of power over communities across our country care less for justice than they do for property. Perhaps, they cannot understand why anyone would destroy what they cherish over all else. Store fronts inspire them to affronts, and then they deny blacks violence as an expression of grief and outrage – making public violence a white privilege. Police departments comprised mostly of white men have the power and authority to do violence while society denies it of the others who are only given the receipt of that violence.

Pushing back against mostly-white voices demanding “peaceful” protests, there are those who rightly note that our country was founded on a history of protests and violence. They equate today’s opponents of government oppression with those who fostered the American Revolution. They cover Black Lives Matter with the mantle of Washington, which must rankle conservatives who do not see democracy in the U.S. in the same vein as colonial oppression. This defense – while well-intentioned – misses the history of violence as a privilege in our country.

Until the 1960’s race riots in the United States were mostly eruptions of white communities. In New Orleans, Tulsa, Rosewood, Mobile, Beaumont, New York City, and a host of other places, white people attacked black citizens and their neighborhoods. Today – with our short memories – we associate race riots with black anger, which is yet other way racism pervades our culture and thinking. Negative violent behavior is associated with black communities, though our history demonstrates a horrifying number of mob actions by whites against black citizens.

For the most part, those white citizens have not been held accountable for the murders, arsons, and community devastation achieved at their hands. As Tulsa nears the 100-year anniversary of the destruction of North Tulsa by whites, many of those responsible for that violence remain in histories as prominent leaders (and whose descendants inherited their socioeconomic legacies). Only recently did the almost entirely white City Council finally strip the name of one of the same from a city street. Even that was a five-year effort; the first attempt blocked by a farcical argument that removal would obscure the history involved – as if the honor would magically become ironic if allowed to remain.

None of these white communities suffered for the violence they committed against their black neighbors. Their brutality did not prompt a shared cultural view of whites as savage, violent criminals. It did not lead to economic loss, and instead that burden lay on the black victims who survived the whites’ attacks. Devastated black communities have struggled to rebuild from assaults against them, while the fortunes of their white neighbors continued to blossom – often thanks to the destruction. White privilege is a product of the violence that remains, itself, the prerogative of white supremacy in our society.


In Tulsa, Brady Street A Sign of Violent Culture

 current events  Comments Off on In Tulsa, Brady Street A Sign of Violent Culture
Nov 292018

For the second time in five years, the city council of Tulsa, Oklahoma is debating renaming a street that originally honored city founder and KKK member W. Tate Brady. Technically, the council changed the name in 2013, the first time it took up the issue. Thanks to a compromise then, Brady Street remained Brady Street, but thereafter it was supposed to honor famed photographer Matthew Brady — who had no connection to the city — as a replacement for Tate Brady. That the current discussion focuses again on the latter Brady’s character demonstrates that the street name continues to be a memorial to his legacy.

This is Tulsa’s version of the monument debate occurring in various municipalities around the South. There are no statues honoring Confederate leaders here. That’s largely because, in Oklahoma, the rebels were Native Americans, and white Tulsans who wanted to venerate the Confederacy in the Jim Crow era wouldn’t erect a monument to Stand Watie, a Cherokee and General in the CSA over the forces in Indian Territory. In lieu of monuments then, heroization took a more ethereal form: the proliferation of hagiographic societies. Tate Brady and his peers — many of whom came from Texas, Arkansas, and other slave states — founded local chapters of the Sons of Confederate Veterans to celebrate their white fathers.

Brady was central to luring the 1918 national reunion of Confederate veterans to Tulsa. He bragged to a state meeting in 1916 about pitching to the national reunion organizers. He claimed one of them asked him, “Gentlemen, are you going to make us and our folks ride with and stop at the same hotel as the n—-rs?” Brady reported that he was “proud to tell them that nothing of the sort would happen if they would come to Oklahoma.” He noted that the state legislature had already enacted Jim Crow laws that “puts the n—-r where he belongs,” segregating “him so that he need not be a stench in the nostrils of the white people of our community.” When held, the Tulsa reunion’s guest of honor was Nathan Bedford Forrest II, Grand Dragon of the KKK in Georgia.

Many of the Sons of Confederate Veterans joined the KKK, including Brady. The violence associated with Klan activities would hardly trouble the city leader. He once assaulted a fellow businessman in public. On another occasion, he participated in the torture of labor organizers, along with the local sheriff. Victims reported that Brady personally applied tar and feathers to their wounds after they had been whipped. Law enforcement officers and other city leaders didn’t hold Brady accountable for these violent acts. His behavior was tolerated because that was acceptable in the city’s culture.

By his own admission, Brady was a Klan member in 1921, when, as a night watchman, he presided over the murder of black citizens and destruction of homes and businesses during the Tulsa Race Riot. It was not the case that Brady used his leadership position to help squelch the massacre or rescue the victims of white rioters. He was not a crusader for justice, the rule of law, or peace — during the riot or its aftermath. Consistently over his lifetime, he promoted violence and intimidation in the community, contributing to a brutal bigoted culture which lingers even as the city approaches the centennial of the massacre.

Tellingly, the street that bears Brady’s name runs just along the edge of the boundaries of the old predominately black-owned neighborhood in a commercial district that thrives today as a downtown playground for white Tulsans. Meanwhile, the black community has never regained its financial standing. Urban redevelopment has not resulted in racial diversification in the district — or in obscuring the legacy of the Brady name. Hence the call once again to reassess the propriety of the keeping it on a street sign.

At a recent hearing where city leaders renewed the name change debate, Councilor Karen O’Brien defended Brady, saying people disregard the good things he did, focusing instead on his connection to the KKK. She compared this to students fixating on a math teacher’s error, despite other correct work. Obviously, Brady did more than commit a small miscalculation in promoting violence and white supremacy in Tulsa — just as white Tulsans have more than simply perpetuated divisions in the community in failing to remove Brady’s name from a place of honor all this time.

Four years after the race riot, Brady shot himself in the head at his kitchen table. The violence he embraced claimed even him in the end. This was the legacy he left: an oppressive social order kept in place through vicious means. Tulsa, a city plagued by violence and disturbing disparities of opportunity for minority groups yet today, still bears the marks of Brady’s character, along with his name. Nothing short of a cultural shift will lift the name and the legacy of brutality from Tulsa, and of that change, the city council must give a sign.