Marq Lewis is the voice and leader of We the People Oklahoma, a group that champions peaceful activism and First Amendment rights.
Marq Lewis is the founder of We The People Oklahoma and TulsaPeople’s Tulsan of the Year.
Marq Lewis considers himself a lifelong activist, but he may have found his most meaningful cause when he founded We The People Oklahoma (WTPO).
Through it, he and his fellow grassroots activists played a significant role in the ouster of longtime Tulsa Sheriff Stanley Glanz — one of the largest political scandals to hit the city in decades — by peacefully using the law to spotlight a blight within it. The civic leadership demonstrated by Lewis earned him TulsaPeople’s annual recognition of Tulsan of the Year.
“What WTPO has done under the able leadership of Marq Lewis is nothing short of remarkable,” says attorney Hannibal B. Johnson, author of “Black Wall Street” and “Images of America: Tulsa’s Historic Greenwood District.” “WTPO galvanized a rainbow coalition of Tulsans around issues of governmental accountability.
“Professional and polished, WTPO emerged as a model of civic engagement, asking tough questions, following up rhetoric with remedies and offering a positive vision of the way forward,” Johnson says. “It is not enough simply to criticize governmental leadership. Our responsibility as citizens demands that we know, care and act. WTPO has shown us that informed citizens, duly mobilized and capably led, cannot only speak truth to power, but also reconfigure power itself.”
The Rev. Dr. Marlin Lavanhar, senior minister of All Souls Unitarian Church, echoes Johnson’s sentiment.
“Marq Lewis and WTPO showed us that with good leadership a small group of concerned citizens can use peaceful, direct action and challenge the most powerful people and institutions in this city and beat back corruption,” Lavanhar says.
“Marq was bold, positive, responsible and determined and he rallied average Tulsans to believe that our sustained efforts can uncover the truth and defeat the old boys network and years of cronyism.
“In this age that is often characterized by distrust of government and law enforcement, and so full of cynicism about our democracy, Marq has redeemed many people’s hope in the possibility of a Tulsa and an America that is of the people, by the people, for the people.
“The likelihood that people of many backgrounds will take the risk of coming together and standing up for justice has been greatly enhanced by the success of Marq Lewis and his organization.”
Seeds of a movement
Surprisingly, Lewis — a native North Carolinian — has lived here only eight years, coming to the city in 2007 for a telecom job. He was laid off after only four months, but Lewis stayed in Tulsa, working as a freelance photographer and videographer while developing an interest in local history such as the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot, and in subsequent issues such as the renaming of East Brady Street, which once honored a city founder and KKK member Tate Brady.
The seed for WTPO was planted with the February 2012 killing of Trayvon Martin, a young black man shot by a neighborhood watch volunteer in Sanford, Florida.
“The climate of the country became, ‘We’re sick and tired of this,’” Lewis says. “That’s when the hashtag started — Black Lives Matter.”
Lewis paid close attention as history repeated itself at a manic pace. Every few months, it was the same story again, he says. Somewhere in America, someone in authority shot an unarmed black man.
Over and over, Lewis watched communities’ outcry foment into despair, then anger, then open protests as the same narrative played out. The officer felt threatened; the victim looked suspicious, was committing a crime or arguing with the officer; no charges were filed against the lawman.
“A lot of times what happens is that people just feel like no one hears them and they don’t have a voice,” Lewis says. “So, that’s what we did. We allowed the expression to come forth, and people started talking about issues within Tulsa.”
Lewis and a handful of activists — sometimes 30, sometimes as few as four — began traveling around town and engaging with neighborhood communities.
“We just kept going,” he says. “Every weekend we would go to different areas of the city and just talk about police brutality.
“Then, Jeremy Lake happened,” Lewis says.
On Aug. 5, 2014, 19-year-old Lake was shot to death in northwest downtown Tulsa by his girlfriend’s father, Shannon Kepler, an off-duty, longtime Tulsa Police officer.
After a Missouri grand jury did not return an indictment against Officer Darren Wilson for the August 2014 shooting death of Michael Brown, Lewis had had enough. In a show of solidarity with the Ferguson, Missouri, protestors, he held a rally at Tulsa’s City Hall. A local movement was born.
In the wake of Lake’s murder and the ensuing protests, Lewis and company decided to formalize their movement with a name.
“At first our group was called ‘Shut It Down,’ which was really radical,” Lewis explains. “But then we changed it to ‘We The People Oklahoma’ — something more constitutional, because it’s about understanding our laws and our rights.”
The killing of Eric Harris
On April 2, 2015, the Tulsa County Sheriff’s Office (TCSO) conducted a sting operation in north Tulsa that ended in a familiar tragedy.
Eric Harris, 44, met with undercover deputies in the parking lot of the Dollar General store in the 2000 block of North Harvard Avenue to sell them a gun. As a convicted felon, it was illegal for Harris to own the gun. Harris got wise to the sting operation and made a run for it moments before they could arrest him. Several officers quickly chased him down and tackled him.
That’s when Reserve Deputy Robert Bates, a 73-year-old insurance executive participating in the sting, yelled “Taser!” and then pulled out his revolver and shot Harris in the back.
“I shot him! I’m sorry,” Bates exclaimed.
As deputies continued to pin the bleeding Harris to the ground and handcuff him, Harris yelled and screamed in pain.
“Oh, my God, he shot me! He shot me!” he said. “I can’t breathe!”
“F*** your breath,” Deputy Joseph Byars responded.
The whole incident was caught on an officer’s sunglasses camera; the aftermath was caught on dashcam footage.
Harris’ death made international headlines. The sunglasses cam video, leaked to the Tulsa World, went viral, yet another chapter in the national narrative of law enforcement officers killing unarmed black men.
Although the shooting itself appeared to be an accident, Byars’ callous response to the dying man carried echoes of Eric Garner, the Staten Island man who died on July 17, 2014, after a police officer choked him. His last words were “I can’t breathe!” which became a hashtag and rallying cry for the Black Lives Matter movement.
“Like everyone else watching (the Harris video), I was like ‘Oh, this has to be a joke,’” Lewis says grimly. “We just came from Eric Garner … and then to hear ‘Eff your breath’ — you can’t script this stuff.
“I’ll never forget that day,” he continues. “We had our meeting at Church of Restoration with Rev. Gerald Davis. People were saying, OK, this is happening here. This is not New York, this is not Baltimore, this is happening right here. What are we going to do about it?”
Lewis, the son of a minister, says his activism was borne out of a socially conscious, politically engaged family.
“I got it from my grandmother,” he says. “She was an activist and handicapped. I saw her go back and forth to city council and argue, hold rallies in her wheelchair to get handicapped access and parking in her building.”
As he grew up, Lewis found heroes in the civil rights movement. He cites Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Ralph David Abernathy and
Jesse Jackson as major influences.
Today, he finds inspiration in, among others, Jamal Bryant, pastor of the Empowerment Temple AME Church in Baltimore.
“Bryant is always traveling, being on the front lines … There are a lot of other ministers and leaders that echo the sentiment, ‘We cannot sit down and accept the status quo.’”
Marq Lewis may be the face, voice and leader of WTPO, but he’s the first to acknowledge that Laurie Phillips is the group’s secret weapon.
Attorney Phillips runs a private practice in a modest office near East 15th Street and South Denver Avenue. She has been a sole practitioner for five years; before that, she was with Tulsa firm Frasier, Frasier & Hickman. Like Lewis, she credits her family for her activist DNA.
“My parents were labor leaders, my dad was president of the Machinists Union — when there was a Machinists Union — and my mom was a member and officer of the Office Professionals and Employees International Union. She worked for the Transport Workers Union,” Phillips says. “So, activism has always been (part of us) — it’s the family business, so to speak.”
Phillips met Lewis at The United League for Social Action (TULSA), during an event organized by the Rev. Davis and held in the wake of Harris’ death. She gave him her card and told him to call if he ever needed anything. He promptly took her up on the offer.
“I called her and asked, ‘How do we get Glanz out of office?” Lewis remembers. The options included Glanz resigning on his own or the call for a grand jury. Initially she mostly offered advice regarding compliance for protests and demonstrations.
Meanwhile, damning information trickled out in a steady stream about the nature of Robert Bates’ close friendship with Sheriff Glanz. Soon after, revealing internal documents leaked to the media painted a picture of a department in disarray.
It appeared Bates was allowed on the sting, despite his age and deficient training, because of his relationship with Glanz and the money and vehicles he donated to the sheriff’s office. The businessman-come-deputy also was chairman of Glanz’s 2012 re-election campaign.
Bates was charged with second-degree manslaughter for the death of Harris. A status conference is set for Jan. 5, at which point a trial date might be determined.
Lewis led the public call for Glanz to resign, holding multiple well-attended protests and garnering a flurry of media attention. But the sheriff remained defiant, insisting he’d done nothing wrong, even as several of his closest deputies resigned or were fired.
The grand jury
Finally, Lewis picked up the phone and again called Phillips: “OK, so how do we get started?”
Oklahoma is one of only six states in the U.S. that allows citizens to initiate a grand jury through a petition requiring 5,000 signatures.
Phillips instructed Lewis on how to initiate the petition and gave him a crucial piece of advice: Seek a civil grand jury, not a criminal one. Civil grand juries are designed for exactly this kind of situation.
In this case, that means seeking a bill of removal for a public official who is not subject to impeachment. Whereas a criminal grand jury is an all-or-nothing proposition — either there is sufficient evidence a law was broken or there’s not — a civil grand jury is a mechanism for citizens to hold their government accountable and ultimately determines whether criminal charges should be pressed.
On May 6, Lewis and Phillips filed their petition to empanel a grand jury to investigate allegations of wrongdoing and seek a bill of removal for Glanz. Lewis took up a collection from WTPO members to pay the $135.70 filing fee, and Phillips instructed the activists on the rules of collecting signatures.
On June 19, Lewis and Phillips submitted 8,865 signatures for the petition. Of those, the Tulsa County Election Board verified 6,647. On July 20, despite rigorous objections and hail-Mary motions from Glanz’s legal team, a grand jury convened.
On Sept. 30, 2015, the grand jury returned two misdemeanor indictments and a bill of removal against Glanz, along with a list of recommendations to the sheriff’s department. Glanz announced his resignation the same day.
Undersheriff Rick Weigel is currently overseeing the department as numerous candidates campaign for election as Glanz’s replacement. The vote will occur April 5. Lewis and Phillips recently met with Weigel and offered him a list of suggestions on how to restore the public trust with TCSO.
“We have received (WTPO’s) statement and requests,” TCSO spokesperson Deputy Justin Green says. “We are reviewing those and having our attorneys review to see if those are things we feel necessary to implement here at the agency. There may be some that we do implement and some that we do not, but we are giving serious consideration and looking into them.”
TCSO and WTPO met in mid-December to discuss the progress the department has made in the grand jury’s recommendations and addressed questions the group had regarding certain jail protocols.
After six months of work involving strategic protests, signature gathering and media engagement, Lewis and WTPO have successfully commanded the attention of our community and its leaders. Their victory with the grand jury has attracted attention from other citizens seeking to rectify injustices, perceived and real.
“Most of the calls we’re getting are from family members of people incarcerated at David L. Moss who can’t get their needed medication,” Lewis says. “(These are) people who are mentally ill and need daily medication, but are having trouble accessing it while in jail.”
Additionally, he says WTPO has received requests to assist in matters ranging from advising groups in other cities on how to initiate their own grand jury petition to spearheading an investigation into a rural water supply just outside of Tulsa that might be contaminated with E. coli.
Even as the TCSO scandal winds down, Lewis estimates he still spends over 50 hours a week working on issues related to WTPO.
The mission continues
On a sunny, unusually warm November afternoon, the day after misdemeanor charges were filed against Glanz for willful violation of the law and refusal to perform official duty, Lewis and a dozen activists — who Lewis refers to as his core team — gathered under the Meadow Gold sign on Route 66 near East 11th Street and South
Peoria Avenue. They weren’t there to protest, and the mood was jubilant.
Rather, the diverse crew of activists, dressed in their Sunday best, assembled to take a photograph for WTPO’s forthcoming website. After a watershed year, Lewis is taking the next step in formalizing the movement — building an infrastructure with volunteers that will allow concerned citizens and the group to communicate and collaborate more effectively.
Lewis’ phone won’t stop ringing with calls from citizens in need and he shows no signs of slowing on his mission to inform Tulsans of their rights as citizens and demand accountability from our leaders.
– State Rep. Regina Goodwin
We the People Oklahoma’s Five-point Plan for Policy Change
Recommendations for Tulsa County Sheriff’s Office
1. Hiring and training Immediate audit, verification and updates of employee records, including training records, plus disciplinary action for non-compliance. // Review of hiring policies for inclusiveness.
2. Personnel policy Restrictions on reserve deputies regarding task forces, firearms, conflicts of interest and more. // An annual $2,500 cap on donations to TSCO plus a required public report.
3. Oversight and transparency Immediate implementation of a six-member oversight committee. The committee would review citizen complaints, review evidence and make recommendations to other departments. // Committee would be allowed access to relevant files and information. // Timely resolution of complaints (90-120 days). // Internal Affairs division should operate autonomously, collecting data and producing annual use of force reports.
4. Equipment Stricter body camera and dashcam requirements, plus rules to make footage accessible to civilians. // De-militarization efforts via decreasing use of no-knock raids, SWAT teams and military weaponry, plus banning tear gas.
5. Public policy Limit patrols to the county area, and not cross into other jurisdictions, including city jurisdictions. // Create stricter rules on deadly and excessive force, including bans on certain techniques and intervention requirements. // Establish and fund a Mental Health Response Team. // Develop better communication with community regarding operations. // Ban stops for matching an overly-generalized description of a suspect.
Source: We The People Oklahoma