New Oklahoma laws slammed for targeting protesters, silencing Black voices

Exclusive: Oklahoma joins dozens of Republican-led efforts to punish anti-police brutality protesters amid calls for police reform on the federal level

A crescendo of chords tracing along piano keys slowly give way to a soulful voice singing the first verse of Terence Crutcher’s favorite song.

Terence Crutcher
Terence Crutcher (Photo: Family of Terence Crutcher)

I’ve had some good days,

I’ve had some hills to climb,

I’ve had some weary days,

And some sleepless nights,

The lyrics of the gospel song “I Won’t Complain” deeply resonated with Terence, a father of four, who could be found in church every Sunday singing with the choir. Terence lost his right eye after being badly beaten in a robbery. His twin sister, Dr. Tiffany Crutcher, says he turned to drugs to cope in the aftermath before finding solace and strength in the church.  

“He said he was going to make me proud,” she recalled Terence saying in one of their last conversations back in September 2016. Terence was enrolled in a music course at Tulsa Community College and had just left campus when his SUV suddenly stalled in the middle of the road. Within minutes of police arriving on scene, and despite being unarmed, Terence was shot and killed by Tulsa police officer Betty Shelby.

Shelby was tried and acquitted of first-degree manslaughter and is now a deputy sheriff in Rogers County adjacent to Tulsa.

Read More: 3 other officers still awaiting trial after Chauvin guilty verdict

Former Tulsa police officer Betty Shelby
Former Tulsa police officer Betty Shelby. (Photo: Tulsa Police Department)

“We got an indictment for the first time in the history of Tulsa’s police department because of our rally cry, because we raised our voices, and because we marched in the streets,” Dr. Crutcher noted. But now she fears state leaders are trying to silence their collective voices by passing new laws targeting protesters.

After swiftly passing through the Oklahoma House and Senate, Governor Kevin Stitt signed House Bill 1674 into law on Wednesday. The new law criminalizes marching on public streets and highways but conversely grants criminal and civil immunity to people who drive through crowds of protesters on roads and “unintentionally” injure or kill them. 

The new measure directly addresses an incident in Tulsa last June in which a truck drove through a group of Black Lives Matter protesters on Interstate 244. Three people were seriously injured in the melee including a 33-year-old man who fell from the overpass and is now paralyzed from the waist down.

Read More: Oklahoma governor signs 3 anti-abortion bills into law

Governor Kevin Stitt (R-OK) speaks during a roundtable at the State Dining Room of the White House June 18, 2020 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Armed with a bullhorn and his bible Reverend Dr. Robert Turner witnessed another horrific encounter between a driver and protesters on the same highway just days apart.

“We stopped to kneel, I led them in prayer … it was a very frantic moment,” the lead pastor of the historic Vernon AME Church recalled in an interview with theGrio. “It was so sad and devastating how this individual, driving an RV, just plows through the crowd and we’re like ‘what are you doing? Stop! Stop!’ and he just continues to go through the crowd.”

The Tulsa district attorney declined to press charges against the driver following the incident.

“This person is afraid for their life and they’re the one that ran over some people and knocked some people off a bridge and we immediately passed a law to say that that’s OK,” State Sen. Kevin Matthews, D-Tulsa, scoffed. “But we haven’t passed one law, or even let it get out of committee, to protect the people that are being killed that are unarmed! The people that are being killed by people sworn to protect and serve!”

Oklahoma State Sen. Kevin Matthews
Oklahoma State Sen. Kevin Matthews (Photo: Oklahoma State Senate)

“Throughout the 58th Oklahoma Legislative Session, we have seen politicians at the Oklahoma Capitol push agendas that chill free speech and infringe on the rights of protesters,” Nicole McAfee, Director of Policy and Advocacy at ACLU of Oklahoma told theGrio. “And we know this is just the beginning in a lengthy list of legislation aimed at communities who took to the streets to make their voices heard in the wake of George Floyd’s murder.”

According to a recent New York Times report, Oklahoma is just one of several states pushing new anti-protesting legislation.  Notably G.O.P lawmakers in 34 states have introduced 81 anti-protest bills during the 2021 legislative session alone.

Read More: Arizona GOP wants felony for protesters who damage statues

“It is a sign of privilege by those who take such stands,” Rev. Turner maintains. “They’re in a privileged position to not look at the issue we’re talking about. They’re just upset we’re talking about it and they’re upset at the way in which we’re talking about it and that’s a sign of white privilege.”

Additionally, the Republican-controlled Oklahoma legislature passed House Bill 1643 making it illegal to film and/or publicly disclose identifying information about police officers and public officials “with the intent to threaten, intimidate, or harass”  House Bill 2095 will allow for some types of protesting, such as unlawful assembly, to be prosecuted as racketeering. While the state senate also recently debated and passed SB 803 which prohibits schools from teaching “divisive concepts” under the guise of diversity such as “the United States is fundamentally racist or sexist.” 

“The stress of making these arguments in a vacuum where no one is listening, where we continue to in this state and legislature support those doing the harm and damage, rather than the ones that are harmed and damaged, it is frustrating,” State Sen. Matthews fumed. As one of just two Black men currently holding seats in the Oklahoma Senate he continued, “it appears to me that here in our state there is such a fear of people of color.”

Members of the Refuse Fascism movement protest against police brutality prior to a political rally for President Donald Trump on June 20, 2020 in Tulsa, Oklahoma. (Photo by Michael B. Thomas/Getty Images)

Matthews is also the Oklahoma Senate Democratic Caucus Chair and Chair of the 1921 Race Massacre Centennial Commission. As the city of Tulsa prepares to commemorate 100 years since the horrific siege of Black Wall Street, Matthews noted the ongoing collaborative efforts of the commission, democratic caucus, and other local groups to protect and fight for the rights of Black Oklahomans.

“All of these bills and all of what has happened to Terence Crutcher, Eric Harris, Monroe Bird III, Joshua Barre, it is in my opinion because of fear,” Matthews said. “We propose to be in the Bible Belt, with people espousing strong spiritual feelings and beliefs, and in my bible fear and faith do not reside together.”

Faith is also what has kept the Crutcher family afloat as they continue to fight for justice through the Terence Crutcher Foundation as well as alliances with other victims’ families and social action groups.

“I believe it is our lived experiences that will change these laws that will tug at the heartstrings of our policymakers and lawmakers,” Dr. Crutcher reflected. Still hopeful the lyrics of her brother’s favorite song will come to fruition.

He dried all my tears away,

Turned my midnight into day,

I won’t complain.

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