On August 25th, Tulsa will have their most dramatic difference in choice for Mayor in a generation. On one side a person who expected to be Mayor since they were born into a politically influential family and afforded every advantage. On the other side is Greg Robinson, a civil rights leader from North Tulsa with wisdom and experience far beyond his years.
History can be made in Tulsa. In Martin Luther King's famous "Letter from a Birmingham Jail," King lays out his concern about the white moderate. The person more concerned with "order" than justice who continues to divert, delay and undermine the cause of justice with hesitation and indecision. These are the people that will march in protest or speak bravely when people are watching, but who use their position and privilege to maintain the status quo.
In this moment of national calamity, Tulsa, Oklahoma has a choice. We can rise and meet the moment with the bold embrace of progress and forge new paths where prosperity is shared by all and problems are addressed directly. Or we can maintain the current direction and allow those who have hoarded power for generations to keep us on a path of destruction. We take a look at the record and ask that Tulsans demand better for themselves and their neighbors.
George Theron Bynum IV is your typical, dynastic politician. His grandfather, uncle and great, great grandfather were previous Tulsa Mayors and he's rubbed shoulders with a who's, who of Tulsa elite since he was brought home from the hospital. Bynum was born into all the advantages to become a Tulsa mayor but none of the experiences with average people that would make a great Tulsa mayor who understands how people struggle during turbulent times.
Bynum's professional resume is thin and his recent political work is pathetic. This is a man who can manage just enough "leadership" to apply the correct pressure on a pair of scissors to slice through a ribbon, but if you want much more, you're on your own. He honed this singular skill doing the sort of political work anyone who's been given everything should expect. A little US Senate staffer work here, some lobbying and government relations there, always careful to look out for the interests of those who matter most, the extremely wealthy and powerful.
If leadership is managing expectations and delaying justice, Bynum is delivering just that. Now if you want a leader who can address structural racism or inequality or even deliver basic public health policy in a pandemic, he doesn't seem to have had THAT kind of experience. He's never needed it.
It ranges from abysmal to mediocre. In the four years Bynum has been Mayor, we've had a few defining moments which we'll break down here. First, the murder and brutalization of Tulsans by the police. Second, the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa race massacre. Third, the Black Lives Matter protests and fourth, the COVID pandemic.
Among his limited successes is he guided a bond proposal to success, welcomed the opening of a grand new park and largely avoided making Tulsa or Oklahoma look terrible in the national press. We only have to pay people $10K to move here! This seems like a low bar, but in the age of Trump, it is what we've got.
Bynum's record on police violence starts with the brutal murder of Terence Crutcher. Terence Crutcher was killed in the time between when Bynum was elected and when he officially took office. In a strange sense of prophecy, his entire term is defined by his complete inability to deliver any form of justice for this murder. While his term starts poorly in this regard, it does not meaningfully improve.
Here are some of the most egregious incidents of police violence during Bynum's term:
- Sept 2016 - Murder of Terence Crutcher
- June 2017 - Murder of Joshua Barre
- August 2018 - Murder of Joshua Harvey
Since 2016, TPD has killed 18 people. Tulsa police kill 4-5 people on average each year (they killed two this past week, both armed with nothing more than a knife). Many of these situations did not require deadly force. A tragic combination of poverty, violence, mental health and addiction are factors more than anything else. As a point of comparison the United Kingdom, a country of 85 million people has had a total of 19 people killed by police since 2016. A country with a population 20x as large as Tulsa has had the same number of police killings in four years as Tulsa!
Killings are only part of it. Studies and conversations find routine policing is often heavy-handed, excessively violent or dehumanizing of the citizens they are tasked to protect. Whether it is officers justifying the shooting of African Americans or arresting teens for jaywalking, all evidence says Tulsa police have a problem.
Where does Bynum stand on this? Well, he doesn't know. Here, here, here and here are statements he's made on the matter. I would try to summarize them but they are all over the place. They range from saying we should do better to making excuses for the police to blaming the victims of police violence on national TV. With "leadership" like this, it is no wonder things don't get better! How could the police take accountability seriously from a person who doesn't even know where they stand?
Maybe words aren't his thing, what action does Bynum want to take on the issue? Study it (Equality Indicators). Another study (Human Rights Watch). Talk about it (Community conversations). Delay (Pull year old proposal for Office of the Independent Monitor). Whatever all this means in June of the 2020 election year and COVID. Ouch. The city of Tulsa has spent years and many dollars studying, discussing and proposing solutions to this issue. The findings? Yep, we have a real problem with police violence, arrests and community trust, serious economic disparities and a host of other things. What do we have to show for it? A Mayor still learning the rules of engagement in June 2020 and using it to manage (lower) expectations. Justice delayed is justice denied.
Tulsa Race Massacre and Black Lives Matter Protests
Whether this tactic of delay is purposeful or due to incompetence doesn't matter. In light of the George Floyd murder and the Black Lives Matter protests as well as the rapid arrival of the 100-year anniversary of the Tulsa race massacre, people need action. We can blame the city charter, the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP), the city council, mean racists on the internet, politics, or whatever, but at some point, talk is cheap. We need action and we need to listen to the experts, community voices and leaders who have been incredibly clear FOR YEARS about what needs to happen.
A good politician synthesizes all these interests and charts a course and delivers the goods. They lead the public, often busy with their daily life, to address the problems we actually have, not constantly get derailed by reactionaries from inside and outside the power structure. Everything isn't always a popularity contest! Bynum says on one hand that he acknowledges the problems over and over and over but on the other hand delays and shifts blame as if he is powerless to do anything about it. Tulsa has a strong Mayor system. The Mayor holds considerable direct power over the city apparatus, who gets hired and fired at the top levels and he sets its priorities. We can always manage to find money to pay people to live in Tulsa or clear the way for "progress" but when it comes to putting even basic constraints on the police and their ability to kill people or brutalize teenagers, suddenly he is powerless. Not exactly "Byunmite."
The Coronavirus Pandemic
Nothing has exposed Bynum's feckless leadership like this pandemic. Despite hitting dozens of countries extremely hard and several major cities and states in the US weeks earlier, Oklahoma has had one of the worst outbreaks in the world. Bynum displayed the same thoughtless public health policy as our national and state leaders in the face of this disaster. Instead of an aggressive mitigation strategy based on science and public health experts, we took the wait until things are terrible to do the absolute bare minimum strategy. Now, five months later, we are further from ending this than we were when it started.
Despite public polling showing mask wearing, shutdowns, activity restrictions, relentless public education and other manner of public health policies are WILDLY popular, Bynum managed to delay and twist until practically forced to act and craft a fairly incomplete mask mandate. This confusion and lack of leadership trickles down and across our local communities but originates from the same rotten thought process as Gov. Stitt and President Trump. What makes this especially obnoxious is that many city leaders often express frustration they aren't doing more! Not that they can't do more, but they refuse to do more. Instead of LEADING, Bynum has taken every opportunity to drag his feet until pushed and prodded into action. Given his lack of leadership on racial discrimination issues, this shouldn't be surprising, but you'd think a pandemic that affects the entire city, even rich people, would spur him to action, but you would be wrong.
On top of this he chose the unfortunate role of playing host to the laughably disastrous Trump rally in June a day before Juneteenth. It's no wonder we've struggled to control the virus! His penchant to blame others and take only partial responsibility was on full display. Whether it was lying about the BOK Center being responsible for saying yes to the rally or claiming concern about the Trump rally, but all while being sure to be part of the photo op with the President. One was never quite clear where he stood. Afterward, he presided over two straight months of dramatic case increases. This is the opposite of the leadership we need in a pandemic. Instead, that fell to unelected health officials who repeatedly pointed out this was a bad idea or the absurd cautionary tale of our Governor getting infected or the death of Herman Cain. This is our public health policy?
In more regular times, we might laugh at the spectacle, but absolutely none of this is funny and the outcomes are tragic. By screwing around for five months, now schools across our communities are virtual and ones going in-person risk horrible outbreaks. Because of delays on ANY public health policy like masking and shutting down non-essential things like bars and other high risk activities, parents are left scrambling on how to be a worker, teacher and parent every week for the foreseeable future as in-person school is increasingly unlikely. Hundreds have lost their lives and thousands face mountains of medical debt due to hospitalizations. Instead of crushing the curve as communities all over the world have done, Tulsa continues to struggle with an outbreak on the verge of overwhelming our hospitals. The Mayor, ignoring the advice of public health officials and listening to the most reactionary voices in our community has allowed the coronavirus to win. While Gov. Stitt sits at 34% approval STATEWIDE (certainly even lower in Tulsa) for his handling of COVID, Bynum can't claim to have done much better despite being Mayor of the second largest city and in a form of city government that affords him tremendous direct power.
Bynum spent May following Stitt's disastrous lead, June managing the Trump visit debacle, and July finally getting a mask ordinance in place and hoping it is enough. If fact, he waited until the second week in AUGUST to get money from the state for COVID response, money they have had since March, all so he could get a picture with Gov. Stitt and that giant check! Bynum's cowardice has cost lives. Real lives of Tulsans that could have been saved had he had the courage to defy two very unpopular leaders and follow the advice of health professionals. Voters have the power to correct this.
Time for a Change
If the thesis here isn't clear, it is time for a change. Greg Robinson is the change. The son of a civil rights leader and a powerful leader himself, he can speak to the complexities of racial and economic justice. He has spent years of his professional life on the front lines of education, activism and community service listening to the people impacted the most and focused on the policy fixes that will make real differences in the lives of Tulsans. His boldness, at challenging a well-financed incumbent, shows he is not a leader waiting for the political winds to blow just right before seeking to make moves. This moment demands more. Our future demands more. Tulsans have the opportunity to show that the politics of indecision and cowardice have no place here. That Tulsa's history needs to finally be addressed, not with empty words and justice denied but with the urgency of now and courage. It is time to elect a leader who is ready to meet the moment. Greg Robinson is that leader.