On the Ground at Trump's Tulsa Burnout: Pepper Balls, Protesters and a Failing Conman

It was two days before Donald Trump’s arrival, and in the Greenwood neighborhood of Tulsa some ground rules were being laid down.

America, incredibly, was just waking up to the fact that a century ago Greenwood included Black Wall Street, the most prosperous black neighborhood in the entire country. Then, in 1921 its citizens were murdered and their houses and stores bombed by a white lynch mob that killed up to 300 in one of the worst racially motivated massacres in American history. Now, there were rumors that either Donald Trump or Mike Pence might tour the neighborhood.

Folks were not having it. I knew because Cleo Harris told me. Harris owns a store selling Black Wall Street T-shirts and was holding court in his humid shop. “You know, Trump wouldn’t come down here by himself,” said Harris. “He’d have pushed 911 and just be waiting to push ‘dial.’”

Trump had earlier announced his rally would be on June 19th, a.k.a. Juneteenth, a hallowed day in black history, when the nation’s last slaves, in Texas, were notified in June 1865 that they were free, more than two years after Lincoln had issued the Emancipation Proclamation. Trump moved the rally back one day, and earlier in the afternoon quipped that “nobody had ever heard” of Juneteenth until he started talking about it.

This made Harris shake his head and wipe moisture off his forehead. Sweat soaked his “I Can’t Breathe” T-shirt.

“That’s what I’m talking about: arrogance,” Harris told me. “That’s what back when I was in high school we called an arrogant, preppy white kid.”

Harris got nods from the small crowd in his store.

“He doesn’t want to respect the black man,” said Harris. “He wants our black vote. He’s not getting my vote. Period. He’s inciting hatred. He’s inciting racism. First of all, you disrespect by trying to show up on June 19th, knowing that it wasn’t 1776 when we were emancipated.” Harris looked tired. “The government backed down from giving us 40 Acres and a Mule and then bombed us in 1921, when we were supposed to be free. Now this.” Harris grimaced.

“I’ll tell you the only way Donald Trump is coming into my store is in the middle of the night when I’m home sleeping and he breaks in.”

LIKE DONALD TRUMP’s actual presidency, everyone thought 20,000 screaming fans gathering indoors and shooting out COVID-19 droplets while shouting out tired “Lock Her Up” chants was a terrible idea. That included everyone from Cleo Harris to Anthony Fauci to Tulsa’s entire black population, who saw Trump’s appearance on Juneteenth weekend as another fuck-you to their community.

And like Donald Trump’s actual presidency, it still happened.

It was supposed to be a big deal: the reopening of Trump’s America and the beginning of his re-election crusade. The time for the silent majority to re-emerge triumphant and assert its support for the president. The campaign got a million ticket requests, according to the campaign. All the networks descended on Tulsa. The hotels recalled long-laid-off workers.

Of course, Americans had different expectations depending on where they stood on the racial and ideological divide. Some were just here for the spectacle. On Friday night, an overweight man in an American-flag polo shirt and matching floppy hat was chatting up a Summer Solstice wizard on the streets of Tulsa the night before Donald Trump’s grand contagion experiment.

“I’m here for the history,” said the stout man. “This is the first time in American history where a president has just said ‘Fuck you’ to the doctors and scientists.”

Nearby, teens did a dance routine for the Trump die-hards while chanting ‘four more years.’

Me? I was feeling righteous, mainly because I’d just done a vodka shot in a cholera-ridden dive bar where I might have saved a life by persuading a shaggy-haired poet to leave his “Trump Has a Micropenis” poster at home tomorrow.

“You’re probably right,” Nathan Merkel told me. He was a native Oklahoman attempting to make sense of his home state. “I’m trying to connect and have a dialogue. I don’t think the sign helps.”

Good call. I was heading back to my hotel when I overheard the fat man and the sorcerer talking about the implications of tomorrow’s rally. Tim Lilly was the large gentlemen’s name and he had driven up from Dallas to sell flashing American-flag pins for five bucks. The markup was only 40 percent, so he had to sell a lot of them to break even.

“You buy one and I’ll sing ‘The Battle Hymn of the Republic.’”

I bought and he sang. Not bad.

I then asked him about his history theory.

“Trump is putting it all out there. He’s going to be right or wrong,” Lilly told me. His cherubic face lit up like one of his flashing flag pins. “We’ll know in three weeks!”

He anticipated my last question. “I know, I should be concerned because I’m heavyset.” He shrugs. “But I’m not.”

The last I saw of him, he was walking past a woman in a “Make the Democrats Shit Their Pants” T-shirt.

Everyone seemed really happy.  Back at my hotel, a sweaty French journalist who seemingly teleported to Tulsa from a Graham Greene novel made his way to the bar and ordered two margaritas. Someone asked him what the French thought of all this. He wiped the sweat from his forehead with his arm.

“Oh, we think everyone here is fucking crazy.”

Trump supporters make their way into the Bok Center ahead of Trump’s Tulsa Rally.

Amy Harris/Shutterstock

ONE OF THE DEPRESSING THINGS about covering a Trump rally is the mind-numbing similarity of the ‘what got you here’ answers from the president’s supporters. There is a sameness that mirrors the predictability of the vulgarity of their T-shirts reading “Joe Biden Sucks, Nancy Pelosi Swallows” and “Trump 2020, Re-Elect the Motherfucker.”

There is the misinterpretation of bravery. I asked Darrell, a man from Tulsa sitting at the front of the line to get into the BOK Center, why he would risk his health for the sake of a political rally. “We wouldn’t have won World War II if we hadn’t taken risks,” reasoned Darrell.

There is the evangelical belief that Donald Trump, the Kid Rock of presidents, has been sent here by the almighty. “God has forgiven him, and God put him in,” said Risa Holland from Wichita. “I’m convinced of that. We have faith God will put him in again.”

There is the conviction that the forces of evil are conspiring against him and they have names like Soros, Gates, and Schumer. Global pandemic? Specifically designed to fuck over Donald Trump. “I don’t believe in coincidences,” said Vicki Mancuso a retired Tulsan. “You know that the big telephone calls are being made from Soros to Pelosi and to Obama. “They’re circling the wagons and they’re gonna drop a crapload of everything they can down on President Trump.”

I could go on, but, really, what is the point? Are there Trump supporters who vote for him because he has cut regulations and has professed a desire to stay out of foreign wars? Sure, but they aren’t the base that come to the rallies. No, these are American citizens who travel the country like they’re following the demagogic version of Phish. It’s not so much for the specifics — none of those I interviewed could articulate a Trump policy that had made their life better — but for the vibe, which, in this case, is “Life is brutal, short, and — oh yeah, read my T-shirt — Fuck you.”

THE TWO GREATEST flimflam men in fin de siècle America were Donald J. Trump and Al Sharpton. Trump bankrupted casinos and stirred racial hatred by, among other misdeeds, calling for the execution of the Central Park Five, a group of black and Latino young men wrongly accused of raping a woman in New York’s Central Park. Trump stood by his beliefs long after the five were exonerated.

Sharpton bankrupted campaigns, possibly served as an FBI informant, and stirred racial hatred by representing Tawana Brawley after she alleged she had been raped by six white men in New York state. He insinuated that prosecutor Steve Pagones had been involved, and when it was conclusively proven that Brawley’s charges were unfounded, Pagones sued Sharpton for defamation. The minister dodged and weaved before being found guilty of defamation. Still, Sharpton refused to pay the judgment and instead had rich buddies cover his portion of the settlement.

So if you had told me in 2000 that America was going to be a house afire over racial unrest in 2020 and the two main speakers were going to be Al Sharpton and Donald Trump, I would have said we were seriously fucked.

Turns out we were only half-fucked.

Sharpton has done one of those American second acts that F. Scott Fitzgerald famously said were impossible. He lost the weight and became an advocate for the families of Trayvon Martin and Eric Garner. He advised President Obama on race issues. In 2020, presidential candidates came to Sylvia’s, a landmark Harlem eatery, seeking his blessing over a meal. Most crucially for Tulsa, Sharpton had been active supporting the family of Terence Crutcher after he was shot dead in 2016 by Tulsa Police Officer Betty Jo Shelby, minutes after police radio described Crutcher as a “bad dude.” Sharpton tended to the Crutchers before and after Shelby was acquitted of all charges and left Tulsa to become a sheriff in Rogers County, Oklahoma.

Sharpton arrived on Friday evening to speak at Greenwood’s Juneteenth celebration, a program that had been canceled because of the pandemic but hastily rescheduled after the announcement of Trump’s rally. He was dressed in a striped suit and wore black gloves. (I wasn’t sure if this was fashion or prevention.) And he spoke even though there were credible threats to his safety that might have caused another man to cancel his speech.

Sharpton gave a short history of Juneteenth and then a thorough dissection of Trump’s “Make America Great Again” sloganeering.

“I’m puzzled by people who go around saying ‘Make America Great Again,’” shouted Sharpton in a gravelly tone. “I want them to give me the date when America was great for everybody.” He then ran through women being forced to stay in the kitchen and not getting the vote until 1920. And he referenced the cold shoulder immigrants received despite passing by the Statue of Liberty proclaiming “Bring me your tired, bring me your huddled masses.”

He was hitting his stride and referenced the murder of Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia. “You can’t be great when you shoot a man jogging down the road.”

He paused and looked at the multiracial gathering in front of him, not far from where whites killed blacks and buried them in unmarked graves. “We are the ones who are going to make America great for everybody. For the first time.”

The crowd, black and white, stood and thrust fists in the air.

Some men can be redeemed.

AND SOME CAN’T. The first thing that struck me walking around Tulsa on Saturday Tulsa was, uh, there was plenty of good parking still available. The Trump campaign said they had received over 1 million requests for tickets and had constructed an outdoor stage with a giant screen to serve those not lucky enough to get inside the BOK Center. A White House schedule released on Friday night announced Trump would speak both inside and outside of the arena.

There was talk of 100,000 pouring into the city. Much of downtown was boarded up in fear of mobs of Trumpites and BLM supporters fighting a series of skirmishes on the streets.

I still wasn’t even convinced that I was going to go into the arena. All the doctors and scientists were warning about the infection rate inside an indoor structure with 19,000 men and women screaming invective. So many droplets! Reporters put themselves in risks all the time — war zones, riding in a Lindsay Lohan-driven Porsche, smoking weed at 5 a.m. with Johnny Depp, etc. But this felt like being an accomplice to unnecessary narcissism and nihilism.

I walked over to the press check-in to pick up my credentials with the idea of putting off my decision, but the line was so long I headed back toward the outdoor festivities adjacent to the arena. I was just going to hang for an hour. Before I knew it, my temperature had been taken; I was given a bracelet and pushed toward a stage, where a band was murdering “Hallelujah.” (Poor Lenny Cohen!).

An hour later, the doors to the arena opened, and I joined the mild crush of humanity. I still wasn’t planning on going in, and when I reached the entrance I told security that I didn’t have a ticket.

“Oh, you don’t need a ticket. C’mon in.”

I sprinted to the upper deck for some social distancing, promising myself I’d skedaddle once it started to fill up.

I had an hour or two to kill. I FaceTimed with my wife. I ate two hot dogs. I charged my phone. And just before Mike Pence spoke, I tweeted a 12-second video of the empty blue seats in the upper deck, and it got 7 million views.

Nobody else came. The Trump campaign blamed it on BLM protesters. But that wasn’t right. There simply were no more people in Tulsa who wanted to come hear Donald Trump give a speech.

Those were the lucky ones. I’ve heard Trump speak before, and except for a slew of Sleepy Joe Biden and AOC jokes, what the eight or so thousand in attendance heard was a clip show of 2016 and 2018. There was talk of bad hombres. Leftists who wanted to take your guns. There was a mention of Hillary and a creaky “Lock Her Up” chant that I’m convinced will be chanted at Trump-supporter-reunion conventions in 2070. A new off-the-books slogan for Trump’s re-election campaign has been “Trump 2020: No More Bullshit,” but here we were, listening to the same old bullshit.

The president went on as he has many times before about how he negotiated the price of Air Force One down a billion from a “dumb son of a bitch” at Boeing. The original material was just kind of sad. He called COVID-19 the kung fu flu, a racist term that Kellyanne Conway had strenuously denied had ever been uttered at the White House. Trump did a long bit about why he looked fragile heading down the ramp at West Point — something about too-smooth shoes, but I may have passed out by then. He rebutted criticism that it took him two hands to drink water by saying he was just trying to keep his silk tie dry — once they get wet, they’re never the same. He then drank some water with one hand and theatrically threw the water aside, which entertained the meager crowd to no end.

About 97 minutes in, Trump shouted, “When you see those lunatics all over the streets, it’s damn nice to have arms. It’s interesting how all of a sudden people understand that, right? You couldn’t sell it. Now people understand the right to keep and bear arms.”

What was left of the crowd gave a cheer, but by now even the bottom bowl of the BOK Center was emptying out like Madison Square Garden during a Knicks blowout loss. Trump ended with a laundry list of things America would become: stronger, safer, and wealthier. There was no mention of fairer. There was no mention of George Floyd.

The crowd gave a final gasp of support and headed for the exits. It turns out it was all a con. The outdoor stage had already been dismantled. More people go to pro soccer (soccer!) games than actually entered the arena. Somewhere, Peggy Lee was singing “Is That All There Is?”

A young man from Chicago in an all-white suit and brown shoes grumbled, “God, I can’t hear that story about Boeing and Air Force One again. He’s gotta stop that one.”

I’d been out and about for 15 hours, and I was ready for some food and booze. The only place open was a Domino’s at Fourth and Main. I placed an order, and outside the scene went from crowded to dangerous. Black Lives Matters protesters started to peacefully argue with Trump supporters, but in the heat and intensity of the moment, the dialogue quickly turned to shouting and fingers in chests.

After President Trump’s Rally in Tulsa a large group of protesters assembled just steps away from the BOK Center. The peaceful demonstration was met with hoards of police and a swarm of pepper bullets. As the police retreated, the protesters moved back to the Greenwood District, and Black Wall Street, the site of the 1921 race massacre in Tulsa. Upon arriving back in Greenwood the protesters were met by a DJ.

© Tyler Tomasello/ZUMA

Sirens wailed and BLM protesters blocked a bus full of National Guard soldiers leaving the area. Meanwhile, Trumpers were trying to make their way back to their cars. Even a gang of Trump bikers kept their heads down and tried to unobtrusively move through the crowd, the bravado of their loud pipes announcing their arrival that morning now long gone.

I saw a young couple in Trump caps looking scared, the tiny teenage girl squeezing her boyfriend’s hand. A young black woman saw the two and approached them slowly. “You guys will be OK.” She pointed up toward a less congested street. “Go that way and you can avoid all the mess.”

On the streets, things seemed close to boiling over for the first time all weekend. The Tulsa police shouted through bullhorns to clear the street. Instead, the BLM protesters moved toward them. A white BLM supporter broke into tears.

“Trump’s rally was a disaster. We already won. If we fight here that becomes the story.”

Then there was a bang. The Tulsa Police fired pepper balls into the ground. A few hundred protesters ran up South Boulder Avenue including one white reporter with a Hawaiian pizza under his arm.

There was chaos for a moment. And then activists began shouting, “Let’s go to Greenwood. Meet in Greenwood!”

And that’s when the night turned from fear to joy. The BLM protesters arrived to a heroes’ welcome in the midst of a Juneteenth block party on Black Wall Street. Music blared and people hugged and shouted among the television cameras, marijuana smoke, and a procession of classic cars moving slowly down Greenwood Avenue.

Someone shouted, “He’s gone, and we’re still here!” And then everyone danced.

Greenwood would not be defeated. Not by racist vigilantes in 1921 nor by Donald Trump in 2020.

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