Marching for justice: The leader behind Tulsa’s grassroots group trying to oust Sheriff

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When a furniture delivery truck driver pointed his fingers like a gun at Cleo Harris’ 14-year-old son along Riverside Drive that April day, Harris’ first thought was anything but peaceful.

The teen was holding a sign that read “Black lives matter” as he stood with his father and others protesting Tulsa County Sheriff Stanley Glanz after the fatal shooting of an unarmed man by a reserve deputy.

Harris had warned the teen that drivers might shout profanities. They might use the N-word at black protesters. But he had not anticipated a white driver taking aim at the boy and pretending to shoot. Pop. Pop. Pop.

“I will never forget it. This is my child,” he said later, recalling how as a parent his first impulse was to jump on the truck and pummel the man.

But Harris did nothing of the sort. He’d been constantly urged by protest organizer Marq Lewis to keep the peace, so all he did was wave.

“You have to stand up and look the enemy in the eye and let him know how intelligent and peaceful you are to address these issues,” Harris said. “He (Lewis) always finds a way to encourage you to do it the right way.”

Lewis’ group, We The People Oklahoma, has drawn hundreds to march in protest of Glanz in the weeks since an undercover gun buy ended with the sheriff’s longtime friend and campaign chairman, 73-year-old Robert Bates, shooting and killing Eric Harris. Bates said he confused his handgun with his Taser.

While other cities have erupted with violence over controversial shootings of unarmed black men, these marches in Tulsa have remained peaceful, despite real anger over revelations of alleged corruption in Glanz’s office. Cleo Harris (no relation to Eric Harris) credits Lewis’ leadership and charisma.

“He knows how to spark positive energy. He loves everybody. He gets every race involved. He mixes them all up,” he says.

Marq Lewis, founder of We The People Oklahoma, has led peaceful protests in Tulsa for a group that's seeking to oust Sheriff Stanley Glanz. Kelly Kurt for The Frontier
Marq Lewis, founder of We The People Oklahoma, has led peaceful protests in Tulsa for a group that’s seeking to oust Sheriff Stanley Glanz. Kelly Kurt for The Frontier

“What I love about Marq,” says the Rev. Marlin Lavanhar, senior pastor of All Souls Unitarian Church, “is that he starts every rally with a chant, `We’re for peace.’ He starts by saying, `Here’s our culture. Why are we marching? We’re marching for peace. We’re marching for justice.’

“That just speaks to the heart of what he’s trying to do.”

The man who stayed

It’s busy downtown on May 14, the first day of Mayfest; Kenny Chesney is playing the BOK Center. Clusters of women headed to the show in cowboy boots and short skirts cast sideways glances as Lewis takes up a megaphone outside the courthouse and begins to shout:  “Glanz gotta go now!”

“Glanz gotta go now!” echo some three dozen protesters, who faced $10 event parking this evening to rally and collect signatures on the group’s petition calling for a grand jury investigation of the sheriff.

“We may be few in number, but we are mighty in voice!” Lewis yells to the crowd, a mix of black and white faces, several of them with children in tow.

His group’s signature drive is a week old when he sits down the next day over a cup of hot chocolate at a downtown coffee shop and frets about how the pricey parking kept people away. This 40-year-old man with a beaming smile and a sprinkle of gray in his goatee has other worries too. He feels like the weight of Tulsa is on his shoulders.

“It’s a lot of pressure,” Lewis says. “I have to watch everything I say. If I say one thing wrong, it could create a spark of a riot.”

Protesters stand outside a concert at Tulsa's BOK Center as part of an effort to garner signatures for a petition seeking a grand jury investigation of Sheriff Stanley Glanz.
Protesters stand outside a concert at Tulsa’s BOK Center as part of an effort to garner signatures for a petition seeking a grand jury investigation of Sheriff Stanley Glanz.

Lewis never intended to stay in Tulsa long, let alone take the lead role in protest of the county’s longtime sheriff.

He came to Oklahoma eight years ago after being transferred from Atlanta as a telecommunications engineer with Level 3 Communications. Four months later, he was laid off. He planned to move on, but decided to see first if he could make it as a self-employed photographer and videographer.

He found opportunity for his video services in Tulsa, and even directed an independent film. But Lewis was shocked by what he saw as the city’s polarization along racial and economic lines.

“When I came here, I thought I was coming to one city. I came to four cities – North, South, East and West,” he says. “On the north side, 25 percent of the children go to bed hungry every night. That’s an epidemic.”

Lewis grew up on the East Coast, raised by a mother who worked for the government, a father who was a minister and an aunt who was an educator. He was brought up to believe  “that you cannot be comfortable with the status quo. You have to push yourself to greatness,” he says.

He felt compelled to form We The People Oklahoma last year after attending a vigil for 19-year-old Jeremey Lake, who was shot and killed allegedly by an off-duty Tulsa police officer whose daughter Lake had been dating.

“A lot of times what happens in a police brutality situation is they have one rally or one vigil and then drop it. That’s not social justice,” Lewis says. “Social justice is a continual form of pressure to create this atmosphere, this awakening from the community.”

After the Eric Harris shooting, Lewis expected leaders – especially clergy members in north Tulsa – to react.

“People kept calling me and they said, `Marq, we have to do something.’ I was waiting to see who was going to raise a stink over this,” he says. “And no one did anything.”

Sitting in a McDonald’s at 12 a.m. after meeting with community members, Lewis realized that if he wanted action, he would have to act.

“I called a rally the next day,” he says. “We haven’t stopped since then.”

Keeping the peace

With a megaphone in hand, Lewis commands attention both in voice and physical presence. “What do we want?” he shouts across the courthouse plaza.  “Justice!” comes the answer. “When do we want it?” “Now!” “If we don’t get it?” “Shut it down!

“He’s like a big teddy bear,” says Laurie Phillips, the attorney who represents Lewis in the grand jury petition. “He’s not intimidating, but he has stature.”

Lewis leaves little to chance in working to keep his protests peaceful.

He works with a core team of fewer than 15 people. The group’s rallies take place in daylight hours only. Volunteer marshals often mingle in the crowd to watch for any problems. Lewis personally recruits friends to help ensure diversity in the crowd and he encourages marchers to walk with people of different races.

Protesters march with We The People Oklahoma at a May rally. The group circulated a petition seeking a grand jury investigation of Tulsa County Sheriff Stanley Glanz. Kelly Kurt for The Frontier
Protesters march with We The People Oklahoma at a May rally. The group circulated a petition seeking a grand jury investigation of Tulsa County Sheriff Stanley Glanz. Kelly Kurt for The Frontier

“We didn’t make the narrative about race, even though the racial aspect has a lot to do with it,” he says, explaining the group took its cue from Eric Harris’ brother, Andre, who has said race wasn’t an issue in the shooting. “We controlled the narrative to corruption and also training.”

But Lewis believes black Tulsans have had a need in the shooting’s wake to vent their frustrations about perceived over-policing. He encouraged additional gatherings for them so “they can cry, yell and scream and talk about injustice. This is something I feel that other cities didn’t do,” he adds.

Lewis has accused black clergy of complacency after Eric Harris’ death and failing the community “completely.”

The Rev. Warren Blakney, pastor of North Peoria Church of Christ and the former head of the local NAACP chapter, says he supports Lewis’ protests but calls his “very nasty comments concerning clergy” unwarranted.

While Lewis’ group marches, pastors have met with county commissioners, state lawmakers, even officers within the Sheriff’s Office, he says.

“You cannot know the battles that have been fought behind closed doors,” Blakney says. “My concern is that there is no immediate oversight to the sheriff’s department. When you can pretty much do what you want to do without being accountable to anyone, then I think these incidents are going to occur more and more often. That’s the battle I’m waging.”

The Rev. Gerald Davis, pastor of Church of the Restoration Unitarian Universalist in Tulsa and leader of a coalition formed in the shooting’s aftermath called The United League for Social Action, says he also supports Lewis’ efforts. The coalition’s approach, however, is more deliberative.

Participants spent time sharing their stories before coming up with a list of demands that included Glanz’s resignation, specialized training for government officials and a federal investigation into Eric Harris’ death.

“Some people say, `You all are too deliberative. I want to get out there’. Fine. You have We the People,” Davis says. “This is affecting all of us in different ways. You respond in a way that you feel comfortable responding.”

All of the efforts – from the marchers in the street to action at the state level – are needed to address “what appears to be culture ripe for corruptness,” says state Sen. Kevin Matthews, D-Tulsa.

Matthews worked with a Republican, Sen. Ralph Shortey of Oklahoma City, on a bill requiring reserve deputies to undergo additional basic training hours, as well as receive continuing education annually. The bill, which passed the Senate but was not taken up by the House before the session’s end, was a start – but more must be done, including the hiring of minority officers, Matthews says.

“We are all looking for solutions. We need to be solution-based, not anger-based.

All lives matter,” he says. “We want to stop having unarmed folks die at the hands of law enforcement.”

The traffic stop

Ask the activist, ask the minister, ask the state senator if they’ve had a bad experience with law enforcement in Tulsa. These black men all point to traffic stops in which they were questioned but never ticketed.

“I’ve been stopped two or three times in Tulsa,” Blakney says. Why? “I was driving a pretty decent car at a time of night they didn’t think I should  be driving.”

A state trooper once drew his weapon on Lewis, who says he’s a licensed carrier, after he lifted his left hand a few inches from the steering wheel and pointed to where his gun was in the center console. “He said, `I almost shot you.’ I said, `Why would you do that?’ He said, `I thought you were going to shoot me,’” Lewis says.

Matthews, a retired Tulsa firefighter, describes a traffic stop while coming home from a movie with his youngest son. It ended with Matthews on the ground, surrounded by law officers with guns drawn.

Encounters that smack of racial profiling,  they say, are not at all unusual for black males in Tulsa.

“If we didn’t have the police in the community we’d have some real problems,” Blakney says. “However, we do need sensitivity for police in terms of how they handle the young black male. Because a boy has his pants sagging, or because he has a pick in his head, or because he plays his music loud or has a swagger in his walk, does not mean he is a criminal.”

What is unusual in the aftermath of the Harris shooting is that people from all parts of Tulsa have joined in the protests.

The allegations of corruption in Glanz’s office go beyond a black-and-white issue, Lavanhar says, noting that “corruption at this level of government affects everybody.”

“You see black and white folks working together for a common purpose,” Lavanhar says. “So if we give the sheriff credit for one thing, it’s unifying us across race and across geography here in Tulsa to realize we don’t want this level of corruption.”

“It’s totally unprecedented,” says Lindsey Vandeventer, as she collected signatures at All Souls for the grand jury petition. While a lack of accountability within the Sheriff’s Office “is a universal truth everyone can get around,” she believes high-profile police shootings are making the issue harder for the broader community to ignore.

“I really believe strongly that white folks who can see that what is happening is wrong have a responsibility to take action to that end,” she says. “I think when that happens, we’re going to seen an incredible amount of change.”

What Lewis hopes is that his efforts not only bring greater accountability from the Sheriff’s Office but also unite Tulsa. He would like to see the creation of a citizens review board that lets a wide variety of people have a voice in efforts aimed at preventing over-policing.

“We’re not going to be settled with just having a rally,” Lewis says. “If we’re not creating a dialogue, we’re not changing anything. The goal is to change.”

On Friday, more than a month after beginning its drive for a grand jury investigation of Glanz’s office, We The People Oklahoma carried 510 pages of starting dialogue to the Tulsa County Court Clerk’s office.

The pages contained 8,865 signatures.


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