The day Tiffany Crutcher watched her brother’s killer walk free, Crutcher dedicated her life to fighting for justice for Black victims of police brutality. Terence Crutcher was unarmed when he was fatally shot in 2016 by Tulsa Police officer Betty Shelby, who was acquitted by a jury. Five years later, Crutcher remains at the front of Tulsa’s fight to change policing and bring justice to Black Oklahomans.
In an Oklahoma Watch feature “A Mile In Another’s Shoes,” an initiative to give voice to the voiceless or call attention to the plight of those affected by public policy, Crutcher talks about advocating for Black victims of police brutality and the generational trauma that fuels her.
I was born and bred in Tulsa, Oklahoma. North Tulsa. Black Tulsa. I grew up a preacher’s daughter. And that’s a lot of what I remember, going to church singing in the choir, being a servant, a church usher. My family has a musical background. My mom was a master pianist. My dad, a masterpiece pianist and organist. And all of my siblings were musical, too. I had three brothers. I was the only girl. My twin brother, Terrance, was a singer. He loved gospel music. Our home was the neighborhood home. And my mom and dad, they were the neighborhood parents. It was a fun time and everybody knew everyone in the neighborhood. It was just a beautiful childhood.
I’m a descendant of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre. My great grandmother was Rebecca Brown Crutcher, who was a survivor of the massacre who had to flee in fear of her life. My mom Leanna just recently passed away due to COVID-19 this past January. She went into the hospital on December 14th, the exact day that they administered the first vaccine in Oklahoma. And she never came home. They said she wouldn’t make it through Christmas, but she was fighting. And they say she would make it through new years, but she fought really hard. That’s where I got my fight from.
I used to be a healthcare provider but now I’m a full-time social justice advocate. I started the Terence Crutcher Foundation in honor of my twin brother after he was killed by a Tulsa police officer. Our mission is simply to create just communities free from violence and harm.
Terence was the compassionate one, very giving and very warm. He was a very loving individual. Even as a kid, he loved to share. He loved to split his cupcake or his candy, or make sure that everybody had a piece of the pie.
On Sept. 16th, 2016, Terrance was leaving Tulsa Community College. He had just started his first day of class. He was taking a music appreciation class. I remember talking about this class that he was getting ready to start on our birthday, Aug. 16th, when he told me, “I’m going to make you proud.” Terence had been dealing with drug addiction and depression. He had lost his right eye in the early 2000s when he was jumped and robbed and some guys literally beat his right eye so badly that he had to go into emergency surgery to have it removed. Shortly thereafter, Terence started dealing with depression and, in trying to deal with the aftermath of that, he turned to drugs. He was trying to turn his life around and we were all really excited for him.
After he was leaving campus, my brother’s vehicle stalled in the middle of the road. And officer Shelby went to check it out. I don’t know what happened between the time he left school and when he died. But he was unarmed. And according to the officer Shelby’s testimony, it looked like he was having a mental health breakdown or he was high on something. So, instead of giving him the help that he needed, she gave him a bullet.
When we heard the verdict, we were numb. I couldn’t believe it. My mom had this quiet strength. But that day, she fell into the walls of the elevator and started screaming, “She killed my baby.” It was so sad. And then the press was waiting. Everybody wanted our reaction. I didn’t want to, but I mustered up enough strength. And that’s when I declared that I would not rest until I transformed policing. And not just in this city. Not just in this state. But in this country. That’s when I decided that I would not let hate, racism or bigotry control my brother’s story. We were going to control his story. We were going to humanize him. We were going to keep this legacy alive.
And so we started the Terence Crutcher Foundation in his name. And we realized at that point that we couldn’t bring Terence back, but I knew that I could fight and, and leave something in his name to make sure that his children and his grandchildren didn’t have his same fate. They are the reason why we exist today.
We launched Demanding a Just Tulsa, a coalition of activists that advocate for police reform by speaking at city Council meetings, and organizing protests and community events. We demanded changes to police deescalation policies and community policing in a meeting with the Mayor and police chief on the 99th anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre. One week after the death of George Floyd, we led a march that shut down the eastbound lanes of I-44 and inconvenienced a lot of people who needed to be inconvenienced. And we’ve fought for reparations for the survivors of the Tulsa Race Massacre.
This is a marathon. We can’t dismantle a system that’s been in place for 400 plus years overnight. I’ve had to really redefine what winning looks like. Not one policy has changed, but I think we’re at the precipice. And last year, I had to find more strength to fight two pandemics, the pandemic of a novel coronavirus and the pandemic of systemic racism and police brutality. The killing of George Floyd, that added another layer of stress on top of reckoning with the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre and being on the front lines of that and the reparations fight. It has been very, very difficult.
But I do think we saw some small victories in all that. To actually see George Floyd being killed on video, screaming for his mother, I think that was a turning point. And that’s when attitudes started to shift and people started to say, “you know what, this isn’t just an isolated incident. This is a problem.” I had so many white people, so many friends reached out and say, “we’re going to get this right. We promise you Dr. Crutcher, we’re going to do the hard work.” That made me feel good. But it was also kind of like “Terence was killed four years ago. Why didn’t you see it then?” So, you know, I vacillate about it. But it’s a starting point. And I have to accept that everybody reaches that point at different times. But to see educators and doctors marching with me, white people lying on the ground, and marching on the highway, shutting it down with me, it really made me feel like people cared and that change was going to come.
When you talk about generational trauma, it reverberates. Starting with the Tulsa Race Massacre to my twin brother’s death to now my mom’s death with COVID-19. Trauma reverberates through my family’s history.
Terence Jr. Is the spitting image of his father. And he just had a little boy, Terence’s grandson that he’ll never meet. He’s three months old right now. He is the reason why we fight. And we want to make sure that we can create communities that are safe for Terence’s son and his grandson and his children to walk outside, free. We have a vision and a dream just like Martin Luther King did that our children can walk outside and not be victims of harassment or racial bias. That they can ride their bicycles without being pulled over and stopped. And that they could ride in a car and not be afraid. That’s my generational vision for the city of Tulsa, for the state of Oklahoma.