100 years after the Tulsa massacre, prison reform is long overdue in my home state of Oklahoma

tulsa blm
A child runs the the street during the Juneteenth celebration in the Greenwood District on June 19, 2020 in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Juneteenth commemorates June 19, 1865, when a Union general read orders in Galveston, Texas stating all enslaved people in Texas were free according to federal law.

  • Our country is finally starting to acknowledge our history of racial violence and inequity.
  • Real criminal justice reform is possible under the Biden Administration.
  • We can only unify as a country if we commit to social justice.
  • Senior Pastor Mareo D. Johnson leads the Seeking the Kingdom Ministries in Tulsa.
  • This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
  • Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.

In my hometown of Tulsa, Oklahoma, and across the United States, Black Americans are concerned about losing a loved one to a police shooting. Police are supposed to protect and serve, but many of us fear being murdered by them. As a pastor, I see firsthand how that fear grips my community. However, I’ve noticed a shift in our country. America has finally acknowledged that we have a policing problem.

Tulsa has a long history of racial inequity and violence. The city’s tragic past will be in the national spotlight later this year as we mark the 100th anniversary of the racially based riot that destroyed a thriving Black community. As a kid, I grew up hearing about the achievements of those who created the prosperous African American enclave of Greenwood, also known as Black Wall Street. I also heard about the murderous white mob that overran the town in 1921, killing 300 people or more and leaving Greenwood in ruins. Recently our mayor initiated the search for the mass graves from the massacre, a gesture that begins to heal the wounds of our past.

There’s not a single Black person in Tulsa who doesn’t feel the collective trauma of that racial violence. That fear is not based only on the heinous attack on Black Wall Street, but on the way law enforcement has disproportionately been wielded against the city’s Black residents in the 100 years since.

I helped found the Tulsa chapter of Black Lives Matter in 2016, after the fatal police shootings of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, Louisiana and Philando Castile in Minneapolis, Minnesota. One of our first actions was to hold a protest against the excessive use of force by police against Black people and to unify the community. Just three months later, Tulsa experienced its own fatal police shooting of an unarmed black man, after an officer opened fire on Terence Crutcher, a father of four who had recently celebrated his 40th birthday. Once again, we held protests calling for justice, this time in our own hometown. But the police officer in that case was acquitted at trial. She later found work again in law enforcement, as a sheriff’s deputy.

Another form of violence in our community is the number of people locked up for petty crimes or simply because they have a drug addiction. In an analysis of Tulsa police data, Black people in Tulsa were arrested at 2 to 2.5 times the rate of non-Black residents between 2012-2016. Instead of receiving rehabilitation for non-violent crimes, they often are put in one of Oklahoma’s many private prisons. These facilities operate as businesses: the more inmates they have, the more money they make. I’ve seen how this has negatively impacted youth in my congregation and in the community. Instead of their parents receiving rehabilitation, they are incarcerated, which leaves them without a mom or dad at home. It’s a terrible system that fuels recidivism.

Tulsa needs social programs that help people like youth recreation centers, vocational education, and mental health and rehabilitation services. We would be a better community if we invested in our people rather than in incarceration, which in the long run would be more cost effective.

This issue is personal for me. I experienced the criminal justice system as an inmate, including serving time in a private prison. I went from being released from incarceration to enrolling in a community college to attending Victory Bible College, where I was able to pursue my calling as a minister. I thank God that I have been able to break the vicious cycle through my faith. The time I spent as an incarcerated person is just one of the reasons why I am passionate about this work and why I’m determined to give back.

In recent weeks, I have had reason to feel hopeful. President Biden’s announcement this year eliminating federal private prison contracts was a first step in keeping his campaign promises on criminal justice reform. Biden’s platform can change people’s lives in my community, and is long overdue. Senator Bernie Sanders is also pushing President Biden on these important issues. It’s a great start, but it’s only a start.

We need funding for true rehabilitation and real criminal justice reform, like ending mandatory-minimum sentencing. We also need to end cash bail, and to do away with the death penalty. Biden has promised to take all these steps but he hasn’t always been a champion of criminal justice reform. Early in his career, he embraced policies that contributed to mass incarceration. He now seems to be rectifying some of those past wrongs.

Here’s another reason I have renewed hope: In Tulsa – a city that had a racial massacre 100 years ago – our mayor last year hired our first Black chief of police. The work we did this past year paid off because I was able to sit down with the new chief a few weeks ago to discuss our concerns and develop positive solutions, so every member of our community feels safe.

The Biden Administration has shown that it is also ready to make positive change and is committed to unifying our country, which I believe can only be achieved through social justice. There is a lot of work to do, and we must keep demanding more action, but we are moving in the right direction.

Senior Pastor Mareo D. Johnson resides over Seeking the Kingdom Ministries in Tulsa. He is the founder and director of Black Lives Matter Tulsa.

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