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In the days after what authorities describe as racially motivated shootings that killed three people and wounded two more earlier this month, the national spotlight was on the crime-ridden neighborhood, where iron bars on windows belie the toys strewn in people’s front yards. The Rev. Jesse Jackson and the national president of the NAACP showed up. Local church and civic leaders pledged things would finally change for the better.
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But after two men were arrested for the shootings and the furor finally died down, Wilson and others in Tulsa’s predominantly black north side were left with more doubts than hopes the area would truly improve.
“Ain’t nothing going to change around here,” said Wilson, 30, who has lived on the north side all his life and inherited his tiny home from his grandmother. “It’s like a little Vietnam here, everyone walking around with their AK-47s.”
Marquis Harley notes he’s still afraid, even though the suspects are behind bars.
“When night comes, I’m inside,” the 21-year-old Harley said. “Around nine o’clock, all I hear is gunshots.”
That’s not to say the shooting rampage wasn’t terrifying. The fear was palpable as police canvassed neighborhoods for a white shooter they said had targeted victims as they were walking near their homes. All of the victims were black.
After a tense two-day search, police arrested 19-year-old Jake England and 33-year-old Alvin Watts early Easter Sunday. Watts is white; England’s attorney has said England is Cherokee Indian. They face charges of first-degree murder, shooting with intent to kill and malicious harassment.
Authorities believe England may have wanted to avenge his father’s shooting death by a black man two years ago. However, England has said he has no ill-will toward black people.
The shootings happened not far from one of the nation’s worst race riots more than 90 years ago, where as many as 300 blacks died. Today, beyond Tulsa’s oil mansions and downtown bustle, some black residents still consider this northeastern Oklahoma city of 391,000 divided. The north side today is pocked with blight, vacant lots and its share of crime – what the past three decades or so didn’t take here, the recession did.
Standing near a sometimes-basketball court overgrown with weeds and sprinkled with glass shards, Harley and 20-year-old Terance Brown describe what summer life is like in north Tulsa for young black men.
“All you see over there is a barber shop and a liquor store,” Harley said, gesturing down the street. He mows lawns for extra money and says he wishes he could buy up some of the abandoned houses on his street – the ones with plywood covering windows and doors, spray-painted with the street addresses because the weeds are too tall to see the numbers on the curb – so more young people like him would move in.
“It’s just crazy what they do out here,” Brown said. “I’ve been shot before. … And I’m just an innocent bystander getting out of the car.”
Theophilus Ballard, an 84-year-old retired truck driver who was born in Tulsa and came back to live here in 1974, said the north side has always been worse off than the rest of the city, and he doesn’t expect that to change now.
“I don’t know. People just live better over there, I think, than they do over here. If you have a good job and plenty of money, you want to get away from here,” he said.
Others, though, do have hope.
At the First Baptist Church North Tulsa where Jackson preached about redemption, senior pastor Anthony Scott said the black community is still riding the euphoria of the weekend, when talk turned to hope and revitalization.
“It’s really incumbent on leaders like myself to bring that to fruition, to rebuild hope and trust and rebuild infrastructure,” Scott said. “I do feel like the common citizen in north Tulsa feels like they’ve finally received genuine sympathy and concern from the Tulsa community, and they don’t want that to go away.
“There might be a sense of, `here we go again,’ but this expression of grief and concern from the entire city has certainly given them a feeling that there aren’t two Tulsas, but one.”
State Rep.-elect Kevin Matthews, a retired firefighter whose district encompasses north Tulsa, said the city needs to acknowledge the “blatant disparity” between north Tulsa and the rest of the city in terms of infrastructure, grocery stores and businesses with good-paying jobs.
“We have so many people leaving right now,” Matthews said. “They want to go where they can drive two blocks to a franchise chain to eat. People are wanting to go to where schools are opening instead of closing. Therefore, what’s left is those people that don’t have that opportunity and they don’t have a voice.”