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John Thompson is a retired teacher and historian in Oklahoma. He writes here about the resumption of Trump’s big political rallies, beginning in Tulsa. The attendees will have to sign a waiver releasing the campaign of any liability if they fall sick with COVID.
Will Trump promote the disease amongst his enthusiastic base? He won’t wear a mask. To show their macho, his followers will copy him, in defiance of CDC guidelines. Why would Trump want to sicken and/or kill his own base? Will he tell them that the coronavirus is a hoax? Or will he spend his hour ridiculing Biden, Romney, Democrats, and his other enemies?
The headline which should have drawn Oklahomans’ attention was “OMRF: Virus Likely to Remain in Circulation for Decades.” The Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation President Stephen Prescott expressed skepticism that a COVID-19 vaccine will “wipe out the virus,” because many Americans “don’t vaccinate because they don’t believe in it or don’t trust a new vaccine.” The news article cited a recent survey of Oklahomans which found that only 55% of those polled would get a coronavirus vaccine. It then cited Washington Post which “found that only 7 in 10 Americans were interested in getting vaccinated.”
The top headlines, however, were about President Donald Trump’s Tulsa rally, originally scheduled on Juneteenth, and how he wants large crowds of people not wearing masks. Not only was he denigrating the historic celebration of the day when slaves in the Southwest learned of their emancipation, but he was doing so on the 99th anniversary of the Tulsa Massacre, where about 300 African-Americans were murdered. And it’s only been four years since Terence Crutcher, an unarmed black man, was fatally shot by a white Tulsa police officer, who escaped a criminal conviction, and was later hired as a deputy sheriff in a neighboring county.
These and the other awful headlines of the week are due to decades-old mindsets, featuring anti-intellectualism, paranoia, and racism. They are also legacies of years of rightwing lobbying. For instance, the Oklahoma Conservative Political Action Committee (OCPAC) compared Republican Senator Ervin Yen, a physician who sought to limit vaccination exemptions, to Hitler, Mao and Mussolini.
And their destructive propaganda crossed the tipping point during the Trump administration.
We’ve long heard anti-vaccination spin. But Oklahoma now has an anti-vaxxer, a Trump acolyte, as governor. When the Daily Beast quoted Gov. Kevin Stitt’s own words, he tried to back off from his message to the OCPAC. However, Oklahoma Watch reporting served as a reminder of the anti-vaccination, “pro-choice” mindset’s enduring power. His kids attended a private school where 24% received exemptions.
The Trumpers’ destructive ideologies are especially frightening due to the way they pressured local leaders, forcing an abandonment of the science-based policies that were working against the virus. Stitt first posted a photo with his kids eating at a crowded restaurant, and tried to maintain “business as usual,” which meant that Oklahoma was one of the last two states in the nation to do so.
The OCPAC and the Stitt administration pushed policies that could require workers to choose between their health and their income. They also used the pandemic as an opportunity to try to restrict abortion rights, stop Medicaid expansion, and expand vouchers, as well as ridicule medical “experts” who supported Black Lives Matter while urging social distancing.
Even after an Oklahoma City McDonald’s customer shot two employees after being asked to leave because she wouldn’t wear a mask, Stitt signed an anti-Red Flag law to prevent municipalities from passing ordinances that “could restrict gun access to an individual deemed to be an imminent danger.”
In other words, it is no surprise that Trump’s rally is scheduled for a place where the groundwork has long been laid for his hate speech and cruelty. But, in March and April, it looked like enlightened, bipartisan leadership was flattening the COVID-19 curve, especially in Oklahoma City, Tulsa, and Norman; in fact, Oklahoma City’s infection rate remained flat until the forced reopening was implemented, and Norman’s progress is continuing.
Moreover, during the Oklahoma City marches for George Floyd, even after Stitt inappropriately sent in the National Guard, Black Lives Matter and municipal leaders continued to communicate, preventing serious violence.
My sense is that Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum is like Oklahoma City Mayor David Holt (and our former Police Chief Bill Citty) in trying to reform our reactionary law enforcement cultures. But they are facing intractable problems and a determined rightwing assault. Bynum recently blamed the murder of Terence Crutcher on the “insidious nature of drug utilization” rather than racism. I suspect we saw his true beliefs when Bynum subsequently apologized.
Also, its my understanding that there would be legal complexities, as well as political threats, that make an Oklahoma mayor’s authority complicated. But, how could any mayor not publicly resist the dangerous Trump rally? Couldn’t he at least join the Tulsa Health Department’s Dr. Bruce Dart in calling for a postponement until after the city’s current surge in infections is under control?
The systemic problem was exemplified by Tulsa Police Maj. Travis Yates who “denied systemic racism exists in the Tulsa Police Department, adding, ‘By the way, all the research on this says … we’re shooting African Americans about 24% less than we probably ought to base on the crimes being committed.’”
Worse, the OCPAC’s “Government Unions Kill George Floyd” illustrates the way that Trump supporters are doubling down on their agenda. It explained:
A government union isn’t the only thing that attacked Floyd. News reports note that due to government shutdowns associated with COVID-19, Floyd was hurled into unemployment with millions of Americans who became unemployed because of government’s overreach and government’s shutdowns of nonessential businesses.
Who knows how big of a symbolic victory it was when Trump’s rally date was moved to June 20? Just a few months ago, I was repeatedly, thrilled that municipal leaders quickly ordered shelter-at-home. I was even more pleasantly surprised when the public supported those policies. Similarly, when attending a major Black Lives Rally, I was stunned by the size of the crowds walking such large distances after finally finding parking spots. Even though concerns about social distancing have reduced the size of subsequent crowds, these multi-racial, cross-generational protests persist.
Yes, the ideologues’ agenda have exposed us to even more danger, driving a new COVID-19 surge. But we’re finally tackling structural injustices, as well as Trump’s antics.