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Justice for Greenwood: Tulsa’s DNA collection program is a 'scam'

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Justice for Greenwood
A screenshot of a Justice for Greenwood community meeting held Aug. 25

A nonprofit that advocates for survivors and descendants of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre gave details at a Thursday night community meeting about its stance that Black Tulsans should not submit DNA to the city.

Eric Miller, an attorney working with Justice for Greenwood, said during the virtual meeting entitled “DNA Databases: Know Your Rights” that the city’s program to identify descendants of massacre victims through self-submitted DNA is asking for a lot in return for a little.

“The city of Tulsa’s program is the worst possible scenario. The city stopped exhuming remains and are preventing further exhumations. They’ve obtained DNA from only two remains but are now requesting hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Black Tulsans provide DNA for the city’s program,” said Miller.

Calling the program fake and a public relations scam, Miller said there are not enough protections in place to shield the identities of donors. He pointed to the 9/11 Commission as an example of a program with appropriate guardrails.

“The city could have paid for the donations and made a privacy firewall in the manner of the 9/11 victims’ DNA collection, but it’s not done that,” said Miller.

Intermountain Forensics, the company working with Tulsa, has been put in a tight spot, according to Miller.

“We recognize it’s the city of Tulsa that’s put them in a very difficult position, forcing them to take the heat for the city’s own failure to properly fund and properly develop sufficient privacy protections.”

Elizabeth Joh, a law professor at UC Davis, also spoke at the meeting. She echoed the concerns about privacy, saying DNA uploaded to public databases as it is in the city’s program is readily available to law enforcement. It can be used to identify more than one person, as well, since DNA is shared among blood relatives.

“Once you provide genetic information to any kind of database, whether that’s a government database or the ones we’re talking about here, commercial databases or so-called nonprofit databases, you’re losing control of that information. Not just for yourself, but for your entire genetic family tree,” said Joh. “That becomes a rich source of information.”

Joh said even though online DNA databases have big stores of data, there are few regulations since they’re a relatively new development.

Greg Robinson, member of the 1921 Graves Investigation Public Oversight Committee, said the city is not meeting with his group as much anymore, either.

Robinson said before the race massacre centennial, when attention on Greenwood was heightened, the city was holding monthly meetings with the committee. Now, the city has moved to quarterly virtual discussions.

“An issue as important as DNA isn’t something we’ve been able to have a robust discussion about in a forum where the public oversight committee can do their job and give access of that information to the public,” said Robinson.

According to Robinson, the committee has only met with the city once since March and requests for monthly meetings have been turned down or ignored by Deputy Mayor Cassia Carr who’s been tasked with management.

Reached by phone Friday, state Rep. Regina Goodwin who’s also a member of the oversight committee said it’s more like an “out of sight” committee and the city has never given the group its due.

“An oversight committee should provide direction and leadership and oversight, and that’s never been the case,” said Goodwin.

Ultimately, both Miller and Joh strongly advised against submitting DNA to the city at this time.

Before joining Public Radio Tulsa, Elizabeth Caldwell was a freelance reporter and a teacher. She holds a master's from Hollins University. Her audio work has appeared at KCRW, CBC's The World This Weekend, and The Missouri Review. She is a south Florida native.