Dialogue, empowerment, change
Pastor Mareo Johnson leads the local Black Lives Matter chapter, mentors ex-inmates, and works to better North Tulsa
Top row: Michael Roby-Wallace Sr., Theo Manuel, and Tonisha Hood; bottom row: Mareo Johnson, Chastity Williams, La Rue Luke Simmons
“Black people, I love you. I love us. We matter. Our lives matter.”
—Alicia Garza, co-founder of Black Lives Matter
Those words were written on July 13, 2013, the day George Zimmerman was acquitted of the murder of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. The quote would serve as inspiration for the name of the soon-to-be Black Lives Matter movement. The group formed in response to Zimmerman’s acquittal and was propelled quickly to the national stage after the police killing of Michael Brown and the subsequent uprising in Ferguson, Mo.
With the support of the national chapter, organizers from 18 cities left Ferguson and started their own BLM chapters founded on 13 guiding principles including loving engagement, collective value, globalism, and diversity. Since their formation, BLM has won a lawsuit for 92 plaintiffs against the Baton Rouge Police Department, they sat down with President Obama in 2016, they met with both Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton to discuss racial justice and policing reforms, and they were awarded the Sydney Peace Prize in 2017. The Toronto chapter traveled to the St-Bernard-de-Lacolle border in Canada to support Haitian immigrants. Co-founder Patrisse Khan-Cullors wrote a book called “When They Call You a Terrorist.” The list goes on.
BLM may not be dominating headlines like they did in the recent past, but the movement continues to grow. After almost five years in existence, BLM has expanded all over the world, with at least 30 chapters in the United States and others in Canada, the United Kingdom, and Australia.
Locally, the Tulsa BLM chapter was created on July 6, 2016, after the killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. Pastor Mareo Johnson, president of BLM Tulsa, was central to its formation. After attending marches in downtown Tulsa following the shootings, Johnson wanted to see the marching continue, as a way for the community to continue to come together in solidarity.
“There [were] quite a few showing up—it was growing as we marched, [there were] people on motorcycles, kids on bikes—they would just join. That’s when I said it’s in my heart to start something; we need a chapter,” Johnson said.
From there, Johnson took a trip to Tennessee, where he met with representatives from various BLM chapters around the country to consult on starting one here.
Johnson also is the senior pastor at Seeking the Kingdom Ministries, Inc., is the workforce chair of the nonprofit organization North Tulsa Economic Development Initiative (NTEDI), serves on the Legal Redress Committee for the Tulsa branch of NAACP, and makes regular visits to the David L. Moss Criminal Justice Center and transitional houses like Tulsa Re-entry One-Stop and Tulsa Transitional Center to help men reintegrate into society.
Considering his many roles and responsibilities, it’s difficult to envision what a day in his life looks like.
“My day-to-day is dealing with each aspect of my roles. It all connects, being a part of NTEDI, being a minister, being an activist; each entity complements the other and it ties in. That’s how I know it’s [my] purpose.”
The types of calls Johnson receives range from social justice issues, such as discrimination on the job, to those from people requesting prayers.
“That’s my passion, to help people,” he said.
Johnson’s influence and leadership qualities were both obvious and helpful when an angry crowd gathered outside the courthouse the night officer Betty Shelby was acquitted of manslaughter for the shooting of Tulsan Terence Crutcher.
“I told them this is not the time [for violence], and that is not the way,” Johnson said in an interview with the Tulsa World.
Johnson described Crutcher as a close friend who worked sound for him at his services.
“We used to talk quite a bit. He was always encouraging me with BLM. When I first wanted to start a group here, he was one of the people I was talking to. Terence was one of my main supporters and encouragers as far as ministry [goes].”
While the death of Crutcher and the acquittal of Shelby served as a painful blow to the community and the movement, Johnson said it motivated more people to get involved.
“He really inspires a lot of people,” said Eric Reynolds, the assistant vice president for BLM Tulsa. “As far as him getting BLM together, he’s doing an excellent job. I see change, I see forwardness that wasn’t there before BLM. He tries to listen to everyone.”
Johnson wasn’t born a leader. It was a role he grew into. Years of gang life and two stints in prison eventually led to his spiritual transformation. For Johnson, his past isn’t something he looks back on with shame or regret; he sees in his history invaluable experiences that give him strength, perspective, and purpose.
“I know now, when I look back on everything, that it was all God’s plan. Because I was there to see [and experience] what happened to me, personally and right here,” he shared.
Johnson lifted his shirtsleeve, running his hand across a number of cavernous scars that appeared to be from teeth marks.
“A police dog,” he explained. “That night, I had surrendered and [the officer] just let the dog go on me: ‘Get him!’ So this dog is eating my arm up and I’m hollering, screaming. The meat was showing, and I leaned up against a fence. I was huffin’, I was tired, and he kicked me in my private parts, the policeman, and said ‘You’re not hurt, n-----!’ I have experienced personally how crooked that system can be, the injustice on the inside, the mistreatment of inmates, the racism.”
In an effort to stop violence, BLM Tulsa also extends their message to local gangs.
“If we say black lives matter, then black lives have to matter to black people. They have to matter to us, too,” Johnson said.
According to Johnson, gang members are willing to hear his message because many of them want to change.
“I’ve mentored a few guys. I ran into a person a few years back, he’d seen my change and it inspired him because he told me if it could happen for me it could happen for him. Now, he’s doing good.”
“I once didn’t care about killing another black man in a rival gang. I didn’t really care if they were black. It was just hate,” Johnson said.
He has also written rap with positive messages as a creative way to engage his community.
Other components of Johnson’s work as president of BLM Tulsa include empowering and lifting up young people—he visits Edison High School to meet with students who formed a BLM group there, and he also speaks to youth at Langston University.
Johnson hopes to bring to Tulsa Public Schools a movement called “Black Lives Matter Week of Action,” which started in Philadelphia and has spread to Seattle, New York, and Chicago. This year, the event was held during the second week of Black History Month, where educators across the country taught lessons on structural racism, intersectional black identities, and black history, with the intention of continuing the dialogue throughout the school year.
“Mareo helps us stay motivated and engaged in the community by being involved with different organizations and bringing that knowledge back to us,” said Bee Deville, a member of BLM Tulsa. “Being that bridge from organization to organization helps us stay motivated.”
Through his work around Tulsa, Johnson hopes to change the opinions of those who view BLM as an anti-police terrorism group and values the allies here who believe in their nonviolent mission of peace and unity.
“My mother always told me growing up, [in] a lot of situations in black movements and struggles there were white people there helping, assisting in the freedom. She always made sure I understood that. So when I see the solidarity that’s what I think of. BLM as in solidarity with white organizations, too. That’s a beautiful thing,” Johnson said.
“Mareo is strictly for change, he’s strictly for correcting the corruption that’s in Tulsa,” Reynolds said. “I think Tulsa should give this organization and this man the opportunity to continue to fight for change; that’s what we came together to do. I just want Tulsa to know that. Let’s fall behind him, not fight against him.”