Although 2020 has dealt a decade’s worth of blows and is not yet over, Tulsa remains strong, Mayor G.T. Bynum said.
“Think about everything we’ve been through,” Bynum offered in a Thursday livestream. “Think about everything you and your family have been through, … and yet, here we are — still moving forward.”
The comments were made during the annual Tulsa Regional Chamber State of the City address, in which Bynum reflected upon the challenges of the year but focused on how Tulsans have stepped up to the plate.
While acknowledging the big-picture reckoning around racial disparities, raging global pandemic and divisive national election, Bynum focused the challenges of the year into three city-specific key events: the first confirmed Tulsa COVID-19 case in March, the protests led throughout the city in the wake of Minnesotan George Floyd’s death in May, and the shootings of Tulsa Police Officer Aurash Zarkeshan and the late Sgt. Craig Johnson in June.
“Our city’s been knocked down, but we didn’t stay down,” Bynum said. “Each time we stood back up. We stood up, and we looked for our neighbors who needed our help.”
The first confirmed case of COVID-19 in Oklahoma was announced March 6, a time when the U.S. reported only 14 virus-related deaths and Gov. Kevin Sitt compared the figure to seasonal flu deaths.
As cases and concern grew, the city enacted increasing guidelines and restrictions until the municipality was largely shut down 22 days later, Bynum said. Health care workers, emergency responders and essential workers marched to the front lines day after day, and community members innovated, organizing PPE drives, hanging Christmas lights, adapting to virtual meeting platforms and adjusting to alternate restaurant delivery methods.
“In short, Tulsans took what was in front of us, and we handled it,” Bynum said. “Day by day, and step by step.”
In a few short months, the public’s focus shifted to another type of widespread virus — a virus which, Bynum pointed out, took form long before the Floyd’s death in police custody.
Bynum had listeners step into the shoes of history through a short exercise: Imagine you’re in your home at night, he began, just as summer is about to start.
“And late that night, there’s a knock at your door,” Bynum continued. “And the person at your door tells you that a riot has commenced and for your own safety, you’ve got to come with them to a downtown arena. You go to that arena, and then you’re locked inside for three or four days. During that time you have absolutely no way of knowing what’s going on outside the walls of that building.”
When you’re released, you find your entire neighborhood burned to the ground, he said.
“Your home and all the possessions and memories it contains are burned to the ground,” Bynum said. “Your business is burned to the ground.
“And in the days ahead, you realize there are members of your family who have gone missing, and no one can tell you where they are, and yet not a single person is ever convicted of doing this to you, to your family or your neighbors. No one tracks your missing family down. You’re told to forget it, to not talk about it and to move on.
“Imagine that happening to you.”
That’s what happened to Black Tulsans who survived the Race Massacre of 1921, so the pain and anger that came forward during the summer protests in the wake of Floyd’s death should come as no surprise to anyone, Bynum said.
He spoke about the city’s efforts to close the life expectancy gap between residents of north and south Tulsa, brought on for the former by historic economic underinvestment, lack of access to reliable transportation and lack of access to quality nutrition.
In the past four years, the city has attracted more than a billion dollars worth of private investment to north Tulsa, Bynum said, while forging educational partnerships and programs to ensure that the jobs created in the area go to those who live there. The city has also financed the construction of a grocery store at Pine Street and Peoria Avenue and a Bus Rapid Transit service along the latter road.
And the conversations sparked by the protests flourished until a new tragedy shocked the city.
“That day in my mind is a blur,” Bynum said, speaking of the day he received the phone call from Tulsa Police Chief Wendell Franklin informing him that two officers had been shot in the line of duty.
“After four years of discussing policing, that morning our community was reminded that every single police officer protecting our community is someone’s kid, someone’s friend; often someone’s spouse or parent,” Bynum said.
“Every officer has a unique story about why they pursued this calling. Every officer has people around them who love them and worry about them in the dangers they face every time they serve our fellow Tulsans. And every officer chooses to take that risk in 2020, in a time when scrutiny and second-guessing about their motives and conduct has never been greater.”
Bynum’s voice broke when he recounted Zarkeshan’s surviving the deadly attack.
In the mayor’s first visit to the hospital, he said only a prayer for the then-26-year-old, he said. The second time, Zarkeshan gave him a thumbs-up, and the third, he shook his hand.
“No handshake in my life has ever meant more than that one,” Bynum said.
Gallery: How to prepare for a COVID-19 winter