How Tulsa, Oklahoma Reflected a Fractured Nation During the Trump Rally

TULSA, Okla. – To the Rev. Robert RA Turner, pastor of the Vernon African Methodist Episcopal Church, which was the only building to remain partially standing on Greenwood Avenue after the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, a tangible division in everything from politics to health and science It is part of everyday life here.

In this city, the vast majority of the white population votes for Republicans, and in the 2016 election, just over 65 percent of the state voted for Donald Trump. In predominantly white South Tulsa, some stare when they see people wearing masks to reduce the spread of the coronavirus. However, the Turner Church in North Tulsa has delivered more than 60,000 free meals to those in need and to those desperate for the crisis.

Tulsa, last week, was a city perhaps as divided as the country around it. And it was where the President’s sparsely attended rally raised a kind of mirror over how fractured the nation has become.

Tulsa Mayor GT Bynum, who is white and Republican, has publicly supported a civilian police oversight commission while leaving the police union with a different impression and downplaying the role of race in the police shootings they left behind. two black men killed since he was elected in 2016. In the days before Trump held a campaign rally here on Saturday night, a senior police officer denied that systemic racism shaped the police department of the city. In fact, the officer said, department officials “probably should” shoot blacks more often. Bynum and the police chief, who is black, denounced the officer’s comments.

“This is a place where no district attorney has launched a single investigation into a racial massacre that occurred here in 1921,” said Turner, whose church is now the only black-owned property on Greenwood Avenue, once the center The pulsating Tulsa Financial District known as Black Wall Street. Turner joined a group that asked Bynum to cancel the Trump event. “And a good part of the population still has no idea what happened here.”

After the Trump rally, Vernon AME projected a giant Black Lives Matter sign on the side of his sanctuary, creating a kind of lighthouse at night. When Tulsa police unloaded pepperballs on a group of protesters who gathered near the BOK Center where Trump spoke, about 1,000 marched to a space near the church.

“This is the most divided we have been since the Civil War,” said Bill Schneider, professor of public policy at the Schar School of Politics and Government at George Mason University, in a telephone interview after the rally.

“In a way, I would say that the things that are happening now happened in many places before the Civil War,” Schneider said. “The churches, organizations, all kinds of institutions were dividing. Back then, it was on the subject of slavery. Now, Donald Trump is really over. “

Outside the BOK Center on Saturday, those divisions manifested in large and small ways.

Sisters Lori Levi and Donna Fitzsimons came from Detroit with a trailer full of Trump merchandise. The women parked three blocks from the BOK Center, as close as the police and barricades allowed. On the day of the rally, the sisters barely had time to eat.

Two of his best sellers included a red T-shirt with “45²” printed on it, and a black shirt with an American flag and a cross along with the words “JESUS ​​IS MY SAVIOR” and “TRUMP IS MY PRESIDENT”.

Customers unmasked at Brietta’s Buttons, the Trump mobile goods store owned and brought to Tulsa by Michigan sisters Lori Levi and Donna Fitzsimons, on June 19, 2020.Janell Ross / NBC News

“People want to show Trump, our President, a little support and a lot of respect,” said Levi, who is white, after explaining to a second person in a line of nine unmasked customers that there were only XLs left of “JESUS ​​IS MY SALVADOR “” design. Levi was not surprised. “Many of them feel that this is what our country really needs, much more respect for our president.”

The Trump event, ultimately attended by a fraction of the 1 million people the campaign had predicted, came a day after Oklahoma health officials announced that, although deaths from coronavirus had decreased in the state, 1,728 new cases of coronavirus were detected, a jump of 140.3 percent the previous week. And by Monday, the state joined the ranks of those who reported a record number of cases. The Trump administration also announced Monday that two of its employees who attended Saturday tested positive for the coronavirus, although they wore masks during the demonstration.

Just three miles northeast of the BOK center, at a small Greenwood district store opened by Cleo Harris Jr. on Martin Luther King Jr.’s day this year, Harris and his entire family also struggled to keep up with the sudden demand. of your merchandise. Cubicles and shelves that for months had been full of T-shirts with phrases like “Black Wall Street” and “I can’t breathe” were running out. The clients, most of them masked, wanted more.

Harris, who is black, had to rush in and buy shares of blank T-shirts at retail price at Hobby Lobby, the store chain perhaps best known for challenging what they considered a violation of religious freedom inherent in the birth control coverage mandate. from Obamacare.

“This is an extension of my T-shirt ministry,” said Harris, who started his business in a corner of Tulsa almost seven years ago with a T-shirt he designed that said, “Kill racism, not me.” Last weekend, he put his son and grandson to work screen printing more new designs.

“I have some ideas, some information that I’m trying to spread,” Harris said. “Racism is really the core of the country’s problems. We can talk about it all we want, but to change that, it is white people who will have to step up. “

The nation’s current divisions did not begin and end with Trump, said Schneider, who served as a CNN political analyst for 20 years. This period of increasing division began in the 1960s with Richard Nixon, a Republican, or, as some in the Republican Party would say, with Democrat Lyndon Johnson. Schneider said Nixon gets his vote to sow the seeds for America’s current divisions because, like Trump, he mobilized them and used them for political gain.

In the 1968 election, Nixon had the worst performance in Mississippi, a state where he claimed 13.5 percent of the vote. After embracing “the Southern strategy,” telling white Americans angered by the social and legislative changes designed to promote equality that they, the majority, were being unfairly nullified and in particular danger of rising crime, Nixon added a new group to the ranks of the Republican Party. Schneider said. A more outspoken spokesman for white supremacy, George Wallace, cut the profits of Nixon’s white voters that year. But white southerners and those from other states caught up in what Schneider called “racial resentment” flocked to the Republican Party for the next 50 years. Since the 1968 elections, Democrats have failed to win a majority of the white vote in every presidential race. In the 1972 election, Nixon performed best in Mississippi, winning 78 percent of the popular vote.

“Nixon doubled the racial backlash in the Republican Party,” said Schneider, whose research focuses on public opinion and elections. “Since then, we have had presidents who were divisive. Clinton was divisive. Obama was divisive. The second Bush was divisive. But Trump is unique because he decided to make those divisions a source of his strength, to deliberately and openly exploit those divisions for his own benefit. “

For Dolly Campbell, Trump’s visit to Tulsa represented a kind of real-world civic exercise.

Campbell, who was not wearing a mask, pointed to his three unmasked children sitting in camp chairs under a beach umbrella leaning against a fence in downtown Tulsa. The family arrived Friday from their home in Oklahoma City.

“I brought my children precisely because I want them to see this rally, to see the protesters and to see that everyone in this country is entitled to their opinion,” he said.

Moments earlier, Campbell had engaged in a brief screaming fight with a black woman detained at a nearby stoplight. The woman, also without covering her face, pushed her upper body through the passenger window of a sports coupe and shouted curses at the president, his supporters, and contempt for the lives of blacks.

A supporter waves a flag before a campaign rally for President Trump at the BOK Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma, on June 20, 2020.Charlie Riedel / AP

Campbell, who is white, made sure to deposit her children in the security of a nearby hotel at night. But she and her new friends gathered on the sidewalk to camp there overnight to keep their places in line and enter the rally. She sees Trump as the only politician who understands and speaks for Everyman, a president whose policies have improved the economic lives of every group of Americans. Trump, Campbell said, is a man who cares a great deal for those who are neither powerful nor wealthy.

“Let me put my aluminum foil hat on,” Campbell joked, “but this country is breaking my heart. This country is so divided and I think there are a lot of powerful people who make sure that we stay that way, that people don’t support Trump because if we were more united we could accomplish almost anything. “

A few blocks from Campbell, a few yards from the Detroit sisters’ mobile store, Crystal Hines and Charles Lunn, who are black and also from Oklahoma City, decided to display their Black Lives Matter posters.

As Hines, Lunn, and their two children, all wearing masks, headed from their car to a space near the BOK center filled with Trump protesters, fans, and vendors, two or three people whispered hostile warnings that they should stay away.

They had to introduce themselves to voice their opinion, Lunn said. They would witness another dangerous event in Tulsa. In addition, warnings about the danger near the rally discount the danger African Americans face on a daily basis, he added.

“There is the possible danger here and the constant danger of living in the United States. I have to worry about them, “Lunn said, pointing out to her children, including her 20-year-old son,” that the police will stop them and what will happen in the next four years. And it’s hard to reconcile and resign yourself to the dangers every day. “

Violence at Trump protests in 2016 and the number of Trump supporters brandishing weapons near the BOK Center on Saturday prompted the family’s only concession to immediate security.

They left Tulsa before nightfall.