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A Trump Visit Lays Bare Two Tulsas, a Mile and a Universe Apart


Saturday, June 20th—cloudy, chance of thunderstorms, brief glimpses of sun—was the kind of day few Tulsans have had much experience with. Going all the way back to 1921, the city of four hundred thousand in northwestern Oklahoma has seldom been in the national spotlight. By early afternoon, several hundred supporters of President Trump had assembled in a parking lot outside Tulsa’s largest arena, the B.O.K. Center, named after the Bank of Oklahoma. The President’s arrival was hours away, but his backers had arrived early for an event at which ticket holders were admitted to the nineteen-thousand-seat venue on a first-come, first-served basis. Dozens of journalists from across the country surrounded them, girding for an evening that could reënergize Trump’s campaign and be one of the worst superspreader events of the coronavirus pandemic. In these strange times, the words of the prophets were written on T-shirts, hats, and men’s bare chests: “Trump 2020: NO MORE BULLSHIT”; “Trump Those Bitches”; “Impeach This,” emblazoned across an image of the President giving, it seemed, his Democratic tormentors the bird. And, in what is surely the most succinct summary of Trump’s attitude vis-à-vis dissent, “Get on Board, or Get Run Over.”

Many Trump supporters declined to be interviewed for this article. Several expressed fears of Antifa. Bill, a white man from Tulsa in his sixties, agreed to be interviewed but declined to give his last name. When asked to describe Tulsa’s greatest achievements and challenges, he played down the city’s current and past racial tensions. “I don’t believe in color myself right now,” he said. “I believe in character. Yeah, but there are a lot of people that believe in a divided city. . . . But, you know, I just look at people. Character instead of color.” Asked the same question, John Goodenberger, a Tulsa native in his twenties, replied: “You know, it’s a good place to be if you are a farmer, but it’s a good place to be if you’re a musician. It’s whatever, it’s got a little bit of everything. I really like that about Tulsa.” He added that the public-school system could need work.

Those answers do not address a century of racial violence in Tulsa. The 1921 massacre of three hundred residents of the city’s prosperous and predominantly African-American Greenwood neighborhood is becoming a widely known historical event only because black survivors offered interviews, oral histories, and written accounts of the attack; whites with direct knowledge of the massacre have been conspicuously silent for the most part, even though it has been estimated that as many as five thousand of them descended upon Greenwood. Six months after the massacre, just west of the neighborhood, the Ku Klux Klan erected a three-story steel headquarters, from which it gained a stranglehold on local politics. Among the group’s members was Tate Brady, a Tulsa founding father whose name has been scrubbed from much of the downtown landscape in recent years.

Racial violence has taken on new forms in the decades since, but it certainly hasn’t disappeared. In 2014, a young black man named Jeremy Lake was killed by his white girlfriend’s father, a policeman named Shannon Kepler. In 2015, a black man, Eric Harris, was gunned down by a wealthy, seventy-three-year-old volunteer policeman named Bob Bates, who said he accidentally fired his pistol instead of his Taser. Older white Tulsans—preachers, the local paper, city leaders and businesses and institutions—tend to call these events tragic one-offs instead of seeing a clear pattern. In a 2018 Gallup poll, sixty-two per cent of white city residents said they felt that the police treated people like them fairly, while only twenty-three per cent of black ones said the same.

As the afternoon dragged on, the sense of giddy anticipation in advance of Trump’s 7 P.M. campaign rally began to turn sour. The influx of hundreds of thousands of Trump supporters that locals had been told to anticipate failed to materialize. The boarded-up windows along the main street—shuttered in anticipation of possible riots—coupled with a tangle-cloud gray sky began to evoke a sense of a town prepared for a hurricane that, impossibly, seemed to be standing it up. The National Guard troops who lined the emptied-out streets seemed to have little to do. Street vendors, both white and black, hawked their wares, but, as 7 p.m. approached and it became clear that the Trump temple was not even close to filling up, tables overstuffed with Trump this and Trump that remained overstuffed.

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