Tulsa Race Massacre: Reparations lawsuit survives motion to dismiss and will go ahead, judge rules

Judge Caroline Wall said the motion to dismiss was ‘granted in part’ and ‘dismissed in part’, essentially allowing the case to continue, but it’s unclear what will happen next, including details about a potential lawsuit, according to Michael Swartz, one of the plaintiffs’ attorneys.

Lawyers for the plaintiffs pleaded Monday afternoon for the judge to allow the case to move forward so that survivors and descendants of victims of the massacre can have their day in court.

A crowded courtroom in Tulsa erupted in cheers and applause at the judge’s decision, including the three remaining survivors who are all over 100 and were in the courtroom for the hearing that took place. lasted for hours.

“I’m shaking with emotion,” said U.S. Representative Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas, who sat in the crowded courtroom on Monday.

The lawsuit was filed in March 2021 and is intended not only to set the record straight on what happened between May 31 and June 1, 1921, but also to create a special fund for survivors and descendants. of the massacre that killed at least 300 people. and the once booming neighborhood of Greenwood destroyed.

On top of that, the plaintiffs’ attorneys are racing against time. Three of their clients are over 100 – Viola Fletcher and Lessie Benningfield Randle are both 107 and Hughes Van Ellis is the youngest at 101. This could be their last chance for some semblance of justice.

Damario Solomon-Simmons, an attorney for the plaintiffs, told CNN he received a text message from Van Ellis – also known as Uncle Red – which read:

“News flash, communication with one of the other attorneys” — speaking of the defendants — “Please let them know they are trying to wait for the three survivors. We are not going anywhere. leaves with three exclamation marks.”

"It is shameful."  Massacre survivors' lawyers demand Tulsa be the next city to pay reparations

Judge Wall’s Monday ruling on the 100-year-old case means America could be held accountable for past injustice and could lay the groundwork for similar cases in the future, Solomon-Simmons said.

At Monday’s hearing, the three survivors were seated in the front row of a crowded courtroom with only standing room on all sides and in the back. US Representative Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas was among the crowd.

“We are dealing with government-sanctioned violations and abuses,” Lee said ahead of the proceedings on Monday. “I live in a government that must respond to the grievances of the people.”

Solomon-Simmons entered the courtroom before a cheering crowd. He pleaded the case to move this lawsuit forward.

“They’ve waited over 300 years to have their day in court,” Solomon-Simmons said of the three survivors. He argued that the main purpose of this case was to repair the harm caused by the defendants, arguing that there was no time limit for something that had an ongoing effect.

“Injustice plus time does not equal justice,” Simmons said.

The lawsuit names 7 defendants

The lawsuit names 11 plaintiffs, including survivors and relatives of survivors. A total of seven defendants are named, including the city of Tulsa, the Oklahoma Military Department and the Tulsa Development Authority.

Six months after the lawsuit was initially filed, some defendants in the case, including the County Board of Commissioners and the Tulsa Metropolitan Area Planning Commission, have filed motions to dismiss. Defendants’ objections included arguments that the case lacked standing because some plaintiffs failed to prove that they suffered concrete bodily harm and that their alleged injuries could not be repaired by the court. . A hearing was held in September, but no decision was made at the time.

A judge has given plaintiffs until Jan. 31 to make new submissions and defendants until March to respond, Solomon-Simmons said. CNN has contacted the defendants for comment.

US marks 100th anniversary of Tulsa Race Massacre

“We asked him for another day of hearing because his mother (Viola) Fletcher will be 108 on May 10, and we asked Judge Wall and … we said, ‘Look, this issue needs to be resolved before this lady does not reach the age of 108. And that’s why she granted this hearing,” he said.

The lawsuit also seeks to formally declare that the actions of that day and the century that followed “created a public nuisance” for the plaintiffs and their descendants as defined by Oklahoma law.

The next steps after Monday’s hearing would be the discovery stage or the gathering of more evidence, the two attorneys told CNN.

“And that’s why it’s so important. There’s so much we don’t know about the massacre. There’s so much we don’t know about the ongoing damage,” Solomon-Simmons said .

John Tucker, who represents the Tulsa Chamber, argued Monday that a public nuisance charge cannot remedy the ills of society, and he cited extensively from the November decision in which the Oklahoma Supreme Court ruled. reversed a district court ruling that ordered Johnson & Johnson to pay the state $65 million for its role in the opioid crisis.

“We believe the district court’s extension of the public nuisance law has gone too far,” Oklahoma Supreme Court Justice James Winchester wrote in his opinion at the time, adding that the public nuisance of the state cannot be extended to the opioid pandemic.

Tucker also argued that the massacre happened too long ago to warrant a charge of public nuisance. While plaintiffs likened the massacre to an oil spill that has long-lasting effects, Tucker disagreed. He argued that the massacre, which the plaintiffs described as a triggering act, cannot be compared to an oil spill which is still on the ground and causing damage – to which some people in the gallery made sounds of disapproval.

Tucker further argued that this was a matter that should be dealt with by other branches of government, not the courts, and that the judge would exceed the mandate of the legislature by allowing this matter to proceed to trial.

The effects of the racial massacre linger 100 years later

Efforts have been made in recent years to raise awareness of the massacre.

The 2018 news that the bodies of the victims may have been found, along with the storylines of two popular TV shows – “Lovecraft Country” and HBO’s “Watchmen” – helped revive interest in this dark period of history. American history. (CNN and HBO have the same parent company.)

However, many details of what happened that spring have been lost to time.

What is known is that at the time, Tulsa had something most cities didn’t have: the Greenwood district was a thriving black shopping center, home to several millionaires and about 300 owned businesses. to blacks. It is colloquially known as Black Wall Street.

The events leading up to the massacre began on May 30, 1921, when Dick Rowland, a 19-year-old black shoe shiner, fled an elevator in a downtown building after the teenage operator of the elevator gave a cry. Rape rumors then circulated, Rowland was arrested, and White Tulsans formed a lynching mob.

Black Tulsans arrived at the jail to defend Rowland, scuffles broke out, a gun went off and, as then-Sheriff William McCullough told Literary Digest, “Hell went down.” unleashed”.

This photograph shows men marching with their hands raised during the Tulsa Race Massacre on June 1, 1921.

The mob devastated about 35 blocks in 16 hours, arresting thousands of black residents, while robbing, beating and killing others. Historic photos show entire blocks engulfed in flames and black people lying in the streets.

To make matters worse, insurance companies have rejected numerous claims for what would now amount to tens of millions of dollars in property damage, including the destruction of two black hospitals and 1,256 residences, according to the Greenwood Cultural. Center.

“There’s still no hospital in North Tulsa today. So it’s been 101 years since that hospital was ever rebuilt,” Solfanelli said. “When you think about the generational wealth that was lost when Greenwood was lost, then I think people can step back and say, ‘Wait a minute, imagine if this happened to my great-grandparents. “”

Solomon-Simmons told CNN what makes Greenwood special isn’t its destruction, black communities have suffered similar events throughout history.

“It’s special because of the size and extent of the destruction. It’s special because we have so much documentation, we have real videos, we have hundreds of photos, we have hundreds of claims insurance that have not been paid and we have three living survivors,” he said. “If Black can’t win this, how can we win?”

CNN’s Sonia Moghe, Nicquel Terry Ellis and Eliott C. McLaughlin contributed to this report.

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