John Thompson is a retired teacher and historian in Oklahoma.
I previously posted on the Profiles in Courage of Tulsans who resisted President Donald Trump’s hideous rally that was appropriately characterized as “Come for the Racism, Stay for the Plague.” That was easy; it was primarily the medical profession that stood firm for the public’s health. The main narrative was the way that Republicans, like Mayor G.T. Bynum, who I previously respected, put Trumpism over principle.
In the wake of Trump’s fiasco, as well as the way that so many Americans did what so many elected officials did not dare, I wonder if historians will see the last week’s resistance across the nation as a turning point. So, this week’s post searches the rally and its opposition for examples of 21st century politics that can be built on.
Mary Jo Laupp, a teacher now known internationally as the TikTok grandma,”” was moved by black TikTok users’ frustration about Trump hosting a rally on Juneteenth. Laupp produced a video saying, “I recommend all of those of us that want to see this 19,000-seat auditorium barely filled or completely empty go reserve tickets now, and leave him standing there alone on the stage.” It went viral and the grassroots registration social media campaign helped leave Trump in front of a crowd of about 6,200.
The New York Times reports:
Ms. Laupp said she was “overwhelmed” and “stunned” by the possibility that she and the effort she helped to inspire might have contributed to the low rally attendance.
“There are teenagers in this country who participated in this little no-show protest, who believe that they can have an impact in their country in the political system even though they’re not old enough to vote right now,” she said.
Of course, many people focus on Trump’s cry-babying over the embarrassingly low turnout, but the TikTok prank wasn’t the only reason why he looked so foolish. Had Trump supporters showed up for the outdoor rally, they could have filled the empty seats in the arena. In other words, while some true believers pledge to die for their President, apparently a large number of potential rally-goers had enough sense to stay away from a COVID “super-spreader” event.
And that brings us to the reason why the K-pop Twitter and Alt TikTok users’ intervention was so valuable. Trump had been bragging that up to 1,000,000 people would show their support for him, and the Frontier reported that as many as 100,000 were predicted to actually show up. It also profiled Randall Thom, a member of “Trump’s Front Row Joes,” who said he had attended 64 rallies. The Frontier explained, “And though Thom said he knows COVID-19 can be deadly — a 24-year-old member of his group died earlier this year from the disease, he said it was worth the risk to see the president.”
How many people in Tulsa and the home communities of Trump attendees would have been infected if tens of thousands of Trump supporters, mostly without masks, had shown up and clashed with Black Lives Matter protesters?
In terms of politics, both the local and national press looked into the thoughts and actions of rally attendees and protesters. Nondoc’s Tres Savage listened to several mixed messages from Trump supporters. A self-proclaimed libertarian said, “I just want the least amount of government invasion that I can have.” Seeming to contradict herself, “she would like to see Trump address issues in the pharmaceutical industry, take environmental action and do something in the agriculture sector ‘like get rid of the big GMOs like Monsanto.’” But she hopes that after a vaccine is developed, Trump would not require people to take it. Her daughter indicated “she won’t be voting to re-elect the president, even though she does enjoy how he trolls his opponents.”
A flag salesman, Jeff Brown, who voted for Trump but indicated that he might not vote this year, complained, “The economy is shit.” Brown said, “I’m not down with it anymore. I’m not a corporate. There’s blood in me. You break my DNA down, I got it all in there. I’m just a regular American.”
Most coverage focused on adults, and the Washington Post’s Robert Klemko also talked with Brown, but mostly he implicitly addressed the effects of the confrontation on children.
Brown told Klemko, “We’re capitalists, we offend everybody equally.” And, “The best seller of the night: [was] an Oklahoma flag with the Osage Nation buffalo-skin shield mashed up with the Confederate flag.” The salesman said that he used to believe the Confederate flag “represented slavery,” but “I have since learned a lot of other variations of the history. … I think that it’s allowed for people to have their own interpretations from their family and their experience.”
So, the salesman makes money from flags like the one that says “Trump 2020: Make Liberals Cry Again,” and his home-schooled son, Joshua Brown, learns supposedly multiple interpretations of history. The 12-year-old “wore a shirt reading ‘LGBT’ with a drawing of the Statue of Liberty above the letter L, a rifle above the letter G, a glass full of beer above the letter B and an image of a bellowing Trump above the letter T.”
Klemko’s reporting suggests that other, worrisome consequences of the rally could emerge over time. Even though the Trump turnout was small, and there was little violence, there was angry shouting and some guns were displayed. A nine-year-old witnessed a white man pepper-spraying a Black demonstrator. A 12-year-old girl, Alex Standridge, witnessed protesters and men wearing MAGA hats trading insults. The girl responded, “I want to be brave like my brothers.”
The Post also reported that a 13-year-old pointed out that one of the police who dispersed protesters with pepper projectiles was carrying a shotgun. And his grandmother offered him a historical interpretation of the Ku Klux Klan:
The whole KKK came out of the Democratic Party. You cannot say that it’s changed. They still use them for their purposes. And their purpose today was pitting them against President Trump, and it breaks my heart, because I value African Americans and they’ve been done wrong by the Democrats.
Nondoc’s Archiebald Browner spoke with Tulsans in the historic Greenwood District, once known as the Black Wall Street community that was ravaged by the Massacre of 1921. While the conversations reported in the Washington Post are far different from my experience, Browne’s observations were very similar to mine when attending Black Lives Matter events and historic celebrations. (My only complaint is that I’m only 67-years-old, but the young BLM organizers always called me “Sir” when repeatedly asking if I’m okay with the heat and would like some water or anything else. And when walking to the rally, I’d see miles of Black neighborhoods with families in the front yards, thanking everyone, but especially white people, for attending. This is one more reason why I believe the numbers of people supporting BLM events were seriously underestimated.)
At any rate, Browne reported, “Just one mile away in the historic Greenwood District, Black people congregated and enjoyed a community atmosphere without having to experience Trump’s rally directly.” Predictably, he heard older Blacks, like Chris Thompson Sr., “telling teenagers ‘not to go over there’ to the Trump rally.”
Different generations continue to hold differing views about how to cause change, but clearly a cross-generational listening process is occurring. Thompson said the American movement will continue, because, “It’s about justice and not to feel threatened to walk around within our skin.”
Browne quotes Thompson:
“I was having a talk with my wife and son, and we are an endangered species if you ask me,” he continued. “You have Black men after Black men. You have the justice system after Black men. You have the White man after the Black men. So where did you win at?
“At the end of the day, I do believe we have to keep maintaining a peaceful, loving walk in this matter because violence with violence is not going to really solve it. It’s going to escalate.”
So, in some ways, America is entering an era of “Which Side on You On?” Trump supporters may not agree with him on all things, and the rank-in-file may be listening more to warnings about the pandemic. But, if this weekend is representative, when true believers say there are multiple interpretations of history, they seem to protest too much. Trumpism’s success has depended on an effort to get everyone on the same page, finding reasons to condemn their opponents.
The rally’s opponents, however, come from very different backgrounds and embrace a diverse set of political tactics. And they were also there to celebrate, not just fight. I suspect that is a reason why Oklahomans seeking justice outnumbered Trump supporters during this pivotal week. The energy at Greenwood came from their sense of community. It will take a community spirit to win these political battles.