Authorities in the central U.S. plains city of Tulsa, Oklahoma, have charged two men with murder in connection with shootings Friday that left three black people dead and two others wounded. Bail for the two suspects was set at $9.1 million.
Police arrested the two suspects without incident early Sunday morning, putting an end to two days of anxiety in Tulsa's black community. The two suspects are 19-year-old Jake England and 32-year-old Alvin Watts.
Tulsa police spokesman Jason Willingham tells VOA that the arrest of the two suspects has brought relief to a city where black residents in particular were worried about more violence. “Obviously there is still a lot of investigation to do, there are still a lot of questions that we are looking for, so we are not done; but having these two guys in custody really helps," he said.
On Sunday, ministers from African-American churches gathered with ministers and representatives of other communities in a service to commemorate the shooting victims. The Reverend Warren Blakney said such incidents are a threat not only to blacks, but to the entire city. “When one person is lost in our community, it diminishes all of us. We are affected by the death. We are affected by the shooting. We are affected by what happened," he said.
The shootings in Tulsa's black neighborhoods came at a time when questions were being raised about the shooting of a black teenager in Florida by a Hispanic man who was part of a neighborhood watch group. Although Tulsa has not had any major racial problems in recent years, the city does have a stain in its history from a 1921 riot, in which mobs of white men attacked blacks, who fought back. Unofficial tallies of the dead run as high as 300, with blacks making up the majority of victims.
But Jason Willingham says the legacy of that tragedy has spurred the community to promote racial harmony and to act quickly to deal with incidents like last week's shooting spree. “Certainly the 1921 race riot is something that, obviously, we are not proud of; however, because those events occurred, we are a better community today. I would not even come close to describing Tulsa, Oklahoma, as a hotbed for racial tension. While we have our problems, just like any community, I would say it is a peaceful community and racial tension is minimal," he said.
Although both suspects appear to be white, an acquaintance of Jake England describes him as being of Cherokee Indian descent. A large percentage of people in eastern Oklahoma have Native American blood because the area was used for relocation of eastern tribes in the 19th century before Oklahoma became a state.
England's father died two years ago after being shot by a black man, and police say revenge may have been a motive in this case. Friends of the 19-year-old suspect also say he was emotionally distraught by the suicide of his fiance in January. In postings England reportedly made on Facebook last week, he used a racial slur in referring to the man who killed his father.
African-American community leaders say they believe the shooters were motivated by racial prejudice, given the fact that all the victims were black, but they praise the police for having responded quickly to stop further violence.