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In Tulsa, Where Race Relations Are Raw, a White Mayor Feels the Heat

On what has become a solemn date in Tulsa, a group of Black leaders met with Mayor G.T. Bynum on the first of June. It was the 99th anniversary of one of the deadliest race riots in American history, when a Black neighborhood in the city was destroyed by a white mob in 1921.

Those gathered at City Hall to applaud the mayor’s commitment to police reform included a community organizer named Greg Robinson II and the twin sister of Terence T. Crutcher, an unarmed Black Tulsan who was shot and killed by a white police officer in 2016.

In a matter of weeks since the City Hall meeting, though, Mr. Robinson and Mr. Crutcher’s sister, Tiffany Crutcher, have turned into two of the mayor’s fiercest political rivals, as Mr. Bynum has lost support among many Black residents.

Mr. Bynum, a white moderate Republican, apologized for telling a national news outlet that the death of Mr. Crutcher, who had his hands in the air through much of the confrontation with officers, had more to do with drugs than with race. And he angered many Democrats who once supported him by welcoming President Trump’s campaign rally in June, an event that health officials said helped lead to an uptick in coronavirus cases.

Tulsa’s mayoral election is Tuesday, and as voters prepare to cast their ballots, a crowded field of candidates are trying to unseat Mr. Bynum. Among them is Mr. Robinson, who has been gaining momentum in his bid to become Tulsa’s first Black mayor. Ms. Crutcher has signed on as Mr. Robinson’s senior campaign adviser.

“We refuse to live in a city that has only worked for certain people for the last 100 years,” she said.

Mr. Bynum, a former lobbyist who has been mayor of Tulsa, Oklahoma’s second-largest city, since 2016, is reeling politically from multiple angles, including the repercussions from hosting the president’s rally during the pandemic and his struggles to find his footing as the white mayor of a city where Black activism is surging.

“No other mayor is having to face the electorate in the middle of the heat of this pandemic and the wake of the murder of George Floyd,” said Mayor David Holt of Oklahoma City, a white Republican and a longtime friend of Mr. Bynum. “Right now, it’s Covid-19 and it’s the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd and the racial inequalities that flow from that. People are at a heightened emotional state because of all of those issues.”

Mr. Bynum, who declined to be interviewed for this article, has become one of several mayors in the country to face political challenges from the families of victims of police violence.

The brother of Stephon Clark, an unarmed Black man killed by the police in Sacramento, Calif., in 2018, had planned to run against Mayor Darrell Steinberg, but dropped his bid last year.

The mother of Trayvon Martin, the unarmed Black teenager who was shot and killed by a neighborhood watch volunteer in Florida in 2012, ran against the mayor of Miami Gardens for a seat on the county commission in Miami-Dade County, but lost in a tight race last week.

It was unclear whether Mr. Robinson’s grass-roots campaign was capable of defeating Mr. Bynum, who has the support of the city’s most influential groups and businesses. But the mayor’s re-election and Mr. Robinson’s candidacy have played out as Tulsa has been grappling with its legacy of racial violence as never before.

The history of the Tulsa race massacre has drawn new national attention, helped in part by the HBO series “Watchmen,” in which the riot was a recurring theme. Long-delayed excavations of suspected mass graves have gotten underway, backed by Mr. Bynum.

The mayor, who turns 43 on Friday, is a former city councilman who worked for two Oklahoma Republican senators, Don Nickles and Tom Coburn, in Washington in the early 2000s. Three members of Mr. Bynum’s family served as mayor before him: His paternal great-great-grandfather R.N. Bynum from 1899 to 1900; his maternal grandfather, Robert J. LaFortune, in the 1970s; and his uncle Bill LaFortune from 2002 to 2006.

Mr. Bynum has been praised by his supporters for talking frankly about race and acknowledging the horrors of Tulsa’s past, particularly in pushing the city to search for mass graves.

“It is hard for me to imagine that any Tulsa mayor has been more conscious of the racial issues in Tulsa and the racial history in Tulsa, and has tried, really from the time of his campaign, to reconcile those issues,” said Mr. Holt, the mayor of Oklahoma City.

But Mr. Bynum has seen his support among Democrats, Black leaders and at least one of his own former aides weaken over what they see as a series of missteps.

Many expected Mr. Bynum to publicly resist or to speak out against holding Mr. Trump’s rally in June at the 19,000-seat BOK Center in Tulsa. The event did not attract the expected overflow crowds — the arena was at least one-third empty —  but even so, Black leaders gathered that Saturday in the Greenwood neighborhood, the site of the 1921 riot, to call on the mayor to cancel the rally.

“What I got so disappointed with G.T. about was that he did not have the courage to say no to Donald Trump,” said Judy Eason McIntyre, 75, a Democrat and former state lawmaker who is Black and who voted for Mr. Bynum in 2016 but has now endorsed Mr. Robinson.

Jack Graham joined the mayor’s staff as an intern in 2017, and was hired full-time as an aide last year. He was impressed with Mr. Bynum’s work to make Tulsa more competitive in attracting businesses, including trying, unsuccessfully, to woo Tesla to build a new plant in the city.

But as the president prepared to hold his rally in Tulsa, Mr. Graham said, the mayor put politics over public-health concerns. Mr. Graham submitted his resignation the day of the Trump rally, and posted the letter on Twitter.

“The Mayor Bynum that I was working for at the time was not the same mayor that I had been working for three years previously,” Mr. Graham said in an interview. “Our duty as government officials in any executive position is to, first and foremost, protect the health and safety and well-being of the citizens that we represent.”

Mr. Bynum was sworn in as mayor 11 weeks after the shooting of Mr. Crutcher in 2016. Mr. Crutcher’s death, captured on police video, shocked many people in Tulsa and continues to linger over Mr. Bynum’s tenure.

The son of a pastor who was known by friends as “Big Crutch,” Mr. Crutcher was outside his abandoned S.U.V. in the middle of a street when he was shot by a white officer. An autopsy showed that Mr. Crutcher was high on PCP at the time. The officer, Betty Jo Shelby, was charged with first-degree manslaughter but was acquitted.

Mr. Bynum has been criticized by Black residents for his handling of the aftermath of the shooting —  criticism that stands in sharp contrast to the praise Mr. Bynum’s predecessor received from Black leaders.

Dewey F. Bartlett Jr., a white Republican who is more conservative than Mr. Bynum, was the mayor at the time Mr. Crutcher was shot. Mr. Bartlett, who spoke at Mr. Crutcher’s funeral, was applauded for helping to defuse racial tensions in the city after the shooting, including by allowing Mr. Crutcher’s relatives and Black officials to view the police videos before the footage was publicly released.

In June, Mr. Bynum was asked on the “CBS Sunday Morning” program if he agreed with those who said Mr. Crutcher would not have been shot if he had been white. “No, I don’t,” Mr. Bynum replied, adding, “It is more about the really insidious nature of drug utilization than it is about race, in my opinion.”

Mr. Bynum later apologized in a long Facebook posting.

“I would hope that my work during 8 years on the City Council and 4 years in the Mayor’s Office would speak louder than one dumb and overly simplistic answer to a complex question, but I understand if it doesn’t,” the mayor wrote. “My greatest fear — as a husband, a dad, and as a mayor — is letting down the people who count on me.”

The CBS program was broadcast six days after the June 1 meeting at City Hall with Black leaders. Ms. Crutcher said that when she saw it, she felt deceived by the mayor.

“We just couldn’t believe it, after we had just had the meeting,” said Ms. Crutcher, a physical therapist who moved to Tulsa from Alabama to work on civil-rights issues in her brother’s memory.

That same week, a Tulsa police major said on a talk-radio show that officers were “shooting African-Americans about 24 percent less than we probably ought to be, based on the crimes being committed.” And then a viral video showed Black teenagers who were confronted by the police for jaywalking and then were wrestled to the ground and handcuffed. The street had no sidewalk.

Ms. Crutcher said she began preparing to run against Mr. Bynum herself. She and a group of friends, including Mr. Robinson, met one night later in June at a friend’s kitchen table to discuss who should challenge the mayor. After hours of deliberating, the group chose Mr. Robinson, who worked on President Barack Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign and who was initially reluctant to run.

Tulsa remains haunted by the riot of 1921. A white mob burned, looted and destroyed Greenwood, a Black neighborhood in North Tulsa that was so economically vibrant that it was called “Black Wall Street.” The death toll was estimated at 150 to 300 people.

That trauma still lingers in the community, perhaps most visibly today in North Tulsa.

The area has long been the political and cultural heart of Black Tulsa. It struggles with crime, poverty and abandonment, and was where Mr. Crutcher was shot and killed.

Last year, an analysis by Human Rights Watch found stark disparities between North Tulsa and other parts of the city, and between Black and white Tulsans citywide. The group’s research found that people in North Tulsa experienced more frequent and lengthier police stops, and had higher unemployment and poverty rates. In Tulsa as a whole, Black residents were 2.3 times as likely as white people to be arrested.

Mr. Robinson said the mayor failed to do enough to improve North Tulsa.

“He forced me to run against him, because we’ve waited for too long,” Mr. Robinson said.

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