How Tulsa, Oklahoma, mirrored a fractured nation during Trump's rally

Outside Tulsa's BOK Center, where the president's rally took place last weekend, divisions manifested in ways big and small.

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By Janell Ross

TULSA, Okla. — To the Rev. Robert R.A. Turner, pastor of Vernon African Methodist Episcopal Church, which was the only building left partly standing on Greenwood Avenue after the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, a palpable divide over everything from politics to health and science is a part of everyday life here.

In this city, the vast majority of the white population votes Republican, 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 spot people wearing masks to reduce the spread of the coronavirus. Yet Turner's church in North Tulsa has delivered more than 60,000 free meals to the needy and those rendered desperate by the crisis.

Tulsa last week was a city perhaps only as divided as the country around it. And it was where the president's sparsely attended rally held up a kind of mirror to just how fractured the nation has become.

Mayor G.T. Bynum, who is white and Republican, has supported a civilian police oversight commission while leaving the police union with a different impression, and he has downplayed the role of race in police shootings that left two Black men dead since he was elected in 2016. In the days before Trump held a campaign rally here Saturday night, a top-ranking police officer denied that systemic racism shapes the city's police department. In fact, the officer said, the department's officers "probably ought to" shoot Black people more often. Bynum and the chief of police, who is Black, denounced the officer's comments.

"This is a place where not one district attorney has launched a single investigation into a race massacre that occurred right here in 1921," said Turner, whose church is the only Black-owned property on Greenwood Avenue, once the pulsating center of the Tulsa business district known as Black Wall Street. Turner joined a group that called on Bynum to cancel Trump's event. "And a good portion of the population still have no idea what happened here at all," he said.

After Trump's rally, Vernon AME projected a giant Black Lives Matter sign on the side of its sanctuary, creating a kind of beacon in the night. When police discharged pepper balls into a group of protesters who gathered near BOK Center, where Trump spoke Saturday, about 1,000 marched to a space near the church.

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

"In some ways, I would say that the things that are happening now happened in many places before the Civil War," Schneider said. "Churches, organizations, all sorts of institutions were splitting. Back then, it was over the slavery issue. Now, it's really over Donald Trump."

Outside BOK Center on Saturday, those divisions manifested themselves in ways big and small.

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

Two of their bestsellers were a red T-shirt with "45²" printed on it and a black shirt with an American flag and a cross with the words "JESUS IS MY SAVIOR" and "TRUMP IS MY PRESIDENT."

Unmasked customers at Brietta's Buttons, the mobile Trump merchandise shop owned and brought to Tulsa, Okla., by Michigan sisters Lori Levi and Donna Fitzsimons, on Friday, June 19, 2020.Janell Ross / NBC News

"People want to show Trump, our president, some support and a lot of respect," Levi, who is white, said after explaining to a second person in a line of nine unmasked customers that only XLs remained of the "JESUS IS MY SAVIOR" design. Levi was not surprised. "A lot of them feel like that's what our country really needs, a lot more respect for our president."

The Trump event — which was attended by a small fraction of the 1 million people his campaign had predicted — came a day after Oklahoma health officials announced that while coronavirus deaths had declined in the state, 1,728 new cases had been detected, a 140.3 percent jump from the previous week. And by Monday, the state had joined the ranks of those reporting record high case counts. The Trump administration also announced Monday that two of its staff members in attendance Saturday tested positive afterward, even though they were wearing masks during the rally.

Just 3 miles northeast of BOK Center, in a small Greenwood district storefront that Cleo Harris Jr. opened on Martin Luther King Jr. Day this year, Harris and his entire family also scrambled to keep up with the sudden demand for their merchandise. Cubbies and shelves that for months had been full of T-shirts with phrases like "Black Wall Street" and "I Can't Breathe" were running low. The customers — most of them masked — wanted more.

Harris, who is Black, had to rush out and buy retail-priced blank T-shirt stock at Hobby Lobby, the chain store perhaps best known for contesting what it views a religious freedom infringement inherent in the birth control coverage mandate of the Affordable Care Act.

"This here is an extension of my T-shirt ministry," said Harris, who started his business on a Tulsa corner almost seven years ago with a T-shirt he designed that read "Kill Racism, Not Me." Last weekend, he put his son and grandson to work screen-printing more of the newer designs.

"I have some ideas, some information I'm trying to spread," Harris said. "Racism really is the core of the country's problems. We can talk about that all we want, but in order to change that, it's white people who are going to have to step up."

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

In the 1968 election, Nixon performed worst in Mississippi, where he claimed 13.5 percent of the vote. After adopting the "Southern strategy" — telling white Americans angry about social and legislative changes designed to advance equality that they, the majority, were being unfairly overruled and left in particular danger of rising crime — Nixon added a new group to the Republican Party's ranks, Schneider said.

A more overt spokesman for white supremacy, George Wallace, cut into Nixon's white voter gains that year. But white Southerners and those in other states gripped by what Schneider called "racial resentment" moved in droves to the Republican Party over the next 50 years. Beginning with the 1968 election, Democrats have failed to win a majority of the white vote in every presidential contest. By the 1972 election, Nixon had performed best in Mississippi, winning 78 percent of the popular vote.

"Nixon folded the racial backlash into the Republican Party," said Schneider, whose research focuses on public opinion and elections. "Since then, we've 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 overtly exploit those divisions for his own gain."

To Dolly Campbell, Trump's visit to Tulsa represented a kind of real-world civics exercise.

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

"I brought my children precisely because I want them to see this rally, see the protesters and see that in this country, everybody has a right to their opinion," she said.

Moments before, Campbell had engaged in a brief shouting match with a Black woman who was stopped at a nearby traffic light. The woman — also without a face covering — pushed her upper body through the passenger window of a sports coupe and yelled curses about the president and his supporters and disregard for Black life.

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

Campbell, who is white, made sure to deposit her children in the safety of a nearby hotel at night. But she and new friends met on the sidewalk to camp there overnight to hold their places in line to get into the rally. She said she views Trump as the only politician who understands and speaks for the Everyman, a president whose policies have made economic life better for every group of Americans. Trump, Campbell said, is a man who cares very much about those who are not powerful or rich.

"Let me put on my tinfoil hat," 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 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 and just feet 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 signs.

As Hines, Lunn and their two children, all wearing masks, made their way from their car to a space near BOK Center filled with Trump protesters, fans and vendors, two or three people hissed unfriendly warnings that they should stay away.

They had to show up to voice their opinions, Lunn said. They would bear witness to another dangerous event in Tulsa. Besides, the warnings about danger near the rally discounted the peril Black Americans face daily, he said.

"There's the possible danger out here and the constant danger of living in the United States. I've got to worry about them," Lunn said, pointing to his children, including his 20-year-old son, "getting stopped by police and what's going to happen in the next four years. And it's hard to reconcile and resign yourself to dangers every day."

Violence at Trump rallies in 2016 and the number of Trump supporters brandishing guns near BOK Center on Saturday prompted the family's one concession to immediate safety.

They headed out of Tulsa before dark.