Livin’ On Tulsa Time: Infiltrating ‘Trump Country’ To Fly A Different Flag
Above photo: Black Wall Street mural, Tulsa, OK by Danny Sjursen.
These antiwar veterans agree this was the mission they most believed in.
“Does anyone else feel like we’re living out an episode of ‘The Americans?’”
So asked my buddy and teammate — a Marine Corps combat veteran — as we sat in the nearly empty upper deck at the Trump rally in Tulsa’s Bok Center. It was almost direct action go-time.
Nervous, excited, and more than a tad frightened, I irrationally wondered if the crowd could see through our MAGA-“camouflage” or pick up the scent of our clearly out of place capacity for empathy. There were two Native American women on our small team — would anyone believe they came to see The Donald show of their own volition? The whole situation did feel a bit like the deep undercover work depicted over several seasons in the FX smash hit. (Naturally, our sundry detractors will gleefully point out that the protagonists in The Americans were in fact Soviet spies — but the sentiment holds).
Another friend — an army vet of the early Iraq War — later put it more bluntly: “Remember that scene in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade when Indy and his dad infiltrate a Nuremberg rally? Yea…I can’t stop thinking about that.” A film geek myself, I recalled the fitting line from Sean Connery (the father): “Well boy, we are pilgrims in an unholy hand.”
After all, here we were, surrounded by exceedingly angry folks — some 10 percent of whom, by my tally-marked estimate, had firearms or skulls plastered on their t-shirts — and about to surround the flagpoles outside and try to replace their cult-level-beloved stars and stripes (which fully half the crowd plastered on their attire) with Black Lives Matter-themed banners. To say nothing of the small army of police and National Guardsmen — plus Secret Service members — patrolling that immediate area.
What happened next — like the countless firefights our contingent has experienced — not only unfolded with blurring speed but is more than a little hazy and halting in each of our memories. A far better writer than I, the Vietnam veteran Tim O’Brien once wrote that:
“In any war story, but especially a true one, it’s difficult to separate what happened from what seemed to happen. What seems to happen becomes its own happening and has to be told that way. The angles of vision are skewed…The pictures get jumbled, you tend to miss a lot. And then afterward, when you go to tell about it, there is always that surreal seemingness…”
Ask anyone there with me, and you’ll no doubt get a slightly different story. Suffice it to say, time seemed, at first, to slow down, and as we seized the flagpoles I was genuinely mesmerized that the police didn’t react for what felt like hours, but was probably no more than a minute. Then our three strapped-up climbers must’ve become visible, and I’m still not sure where all the instantly furious swarming police converged from. They came in hot; there was an immediate and visceral physicality to their response. Some colleagues were manhandled. Soon enough — how long was the actual march? — we were escorted out the exit and somewhat astonished that our destination wasn’t a paddy wagon and pairs of flex cuffs.
The three climbers — two female Oklahomans, one native, one a Norman city council member — weren’t so lucky, however. And lest one underestimates the petty prejudice of local law enforcement in one of just two states where Trump won every county, when folks finally got their gear back, someone on the Tulsa PD had slipped a Washington Redskins hat into a bag — clearly directed at one of the Native American women.
It was that kind of show…
The Journey to Tulsa
It is three hours and 57 minutes via maroon Hyundai Sonata from the progressive oasis of Lawrence, Kansas, straight south to Tulsa, Oklahoma. My own trip was mercifully easy, at least compared to fellow antiwar veterans converging from California, New York, Montana, and Colorado to support local Juneteenth celebrations in the historically black Greenwood district and protest President’s Trump’s “coming out” rally in the nearby Bok Center. None of us knew what to expect, but word was a melange of white supremacist paramilitaries would likely add some fun flavor to the usual Trumpster crowd.
The drive down was instructive in its own right. Though eastern Kansas — home of the project’s architect President Dwight Eisenhower — boasts the very first stretch of federal interstate highway, the route to Tulsa spans one of the neglected sections of America where one can drive many hours without traversing Ike’s brainchild roadways. For the region, Lawrence, home to the University of Kansas and the Haskell Indian Nations University truly is a special little town — replete with historic abolitionist and progressive protest credentials. Unlike the big coastal metropolises, however, or parallel college towns like Berkeley or Madison, to drive 15 minutes in any direction is to leave the oasis and reenter the deep red desert.
I took my first roadside bathroom break at Highway 59’s intersection with Pottawatomie Creek, not too far from the site of Lawrence-affiliated abolitionist John Brown’s infamous 1856 “massacre” of pro-slavery sympathizers. Crossing the Pottawatomie felt like a point of no return. Southeast Kansas is Trump country, and more locally — according to the plethora of roadside signs — Kobach Kountry: reference to the polarizing former Kansas Secretary of State, early Donald-supporter, and current U.S. Senate candidate.
The mostly two-lane highway — unlike high-speed interstates — slows to a crawl every 20 miles or so as it runs through forgotten towns that big-city elites haven’t heard of: Garnett, Colony, Iola, and Chanute. The roadsides of these dying locales — the sorts my once beloved soldiers hailed from — are predictably peppered with an almost preposterous volume of American flags; these far more crisp and clean than any of the local Main Street buildings.
Between the faded red-brick towns, one finds ample warehouse-style churches and occasional “Abortion is Murder” signs. If this description seems too on-the-nose of Barack Obama’s much-maligned “cling to guns or religion” diagnosis of similar residents, that doesn’t render it any less accurate. Nor should it be read as a dismissal of the inhabitants; the temptation, I’ve long (if naively) thought, important to avoid.
Though I remain — somewhat embarrassingly I’d add — the most clean-cut looking vet in our group, I managed to “out” myself as a geographic and political exile on my second rest stop. Waiting in line at a crowded gas station convenience store, an older man snakily “complimented” my Woody Guthrie-inspired “This machine kills fascists” cut-off T-shirt. Clearly I hadn’t made much effort to blend, but the instant swivel-headed customer gazes were still uncomfortable.
Like any good “guilty-liberal,” I soon crossed the Oklahoma state line with Stevie Wonder’s “My Cherie Amour” blaring as the soundtrack. In a seemingly immediate trans-state regression, the first half-mile of Oklahoma-side roadway sported a fireworks bazaar — advertising “artillery rounds” — and the Cherokee Casino (a reminder of the state’s both proud and tragic Native American pedigree). Continuing south, one runs into another illustration of the southern and rural-heavy demographics of the modern all-“volunteer” military — with half a dozen odd stretches of Tulsa-outskirts highway named for local soldiers killed in combat.
Around midday, I pulled into our cheap hotel rally-point on downtown’s outskirts. So began my first experience in Tulsa, a city I’d previously only associated as the setting for a favorite middle school novel, S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders. At the time, my rather inspired English teacher excited her students by linking the novel’s socially-divided “greasers” and “socs” (socials) with our own class- and race-segregated Staten Island neighborhoods. The book, and the teaching moment, stuck with me forever. After all, I’d always sensed a bit of Ponyboy — the aspiring streetwise but dreamy protagonist — in myself.
In the contemporary moment, and given our impending Tulsa mission, I couldn’t help but wonder who we anti-Trump, antiwar, and pro-Black-lives sorts modeled in the tempting analogy: certainly not the wealthy south side “socs,” but then again, lots of the working-class north side “greasers” not only support their dear leader, but some fill the militias and paramilitary groups we braced for. The divisions in Tulsa — and the nation writ large — aren’t so neat.
Much as I loved the book, — and even the later “brat pack” film released the year of my birth (1983) — with the exception of Ralph Macchio’s vaguely mixed native-blood “Johnny Cade,” its characters are all white. Blacks don’t figure at all in the novel. There’s certainly no mention that The Outsider’s Tulsa-setting was also the site of perhaps the bloodiest race massacre (labeled a “riot” at the time and for decades hence) in American history — the 1921 white vigilante burning of the city’s “Black Wall Street” Greenwood District, and simultaneous murder of up to 300 black citizens. A fellow antiwar veteran and friend on site — a Ukrainian immigrant herself — once lived and attended school in Oklahoma. As she recalls, all students then received about nine weeks of Oklahoma state history, yet this subject was never even broached. Her education was hardly ancient history — she’s only 34 years old.
Exactly 99 years and eighteen days later, an almost criminally ignorant and myopic President Trump chose to hold his inherently racially-charged “post”-COVID rally at a Tulsa convention center just eight blocks from the site of the 1921 race massacre. More obtuse still, he’d originally scheduled it for June 19 — better known in the African-American community as “Juneteenth” — the jubilee celebration of emancipation after the end of the gruesome American Civil War. Then again, who’s to say the whole decision wasn’t a purposeful Stephen Miller-style troll job on an entire black populace – this crew is hardly above it.
Robert E. Lee, the suddenly (and finally) controversial namesake of U.S. military bases, statues, roads, and barracks, had surrendered on April 9, 1865, and his chief executive, Jefferson Davis (also a West Point graduate) was captured on May 10 of the same year, but Juneteenth commemorates the moment when slaves in Galveston, Texas finally heard official word of their freedom. A seminal event and annual celebration in the black community, few white Americans know a thing about this date’s significance. Naturally Trump claims he “made Juneteenth very famous,” and that previously “nobody had ever heard of it.” Given the context, this assertion was offensive in the extreme, but — at least for many whites — he’s not strictly wrong.
So perhaps it was fitting that our diverse antiwar veteran group’s first solidarity action involved sharing in the Greenwood community’s jubilation. In fact, for all the talk of “outside agitators” — which in a technical sense most of us were — it was local activists who invited the veterans groups and other organizers to town. We provided some training in security, but also had the privilege to tour and experience the Black Wall Street area. The district was beautiful, the locals welcoming, but walking those streets had the distinct feel of returning to the scene of an historic crime. Trump’s impending neo-fascist rally just down the road only heightened that sense.
Overall, the situation was tense. There were reports of trepidation among some black Tulsans — who have to live there — about backlash from local white supremacists after other activists left town. This feeling seemed palpable. It’s also completely understandable, and illustrative of the lingering tensions in a deep red state and city that has yet to elect a black mayor. Yet overall, the mostly young and black or Native American activists we encountered repeatedly expressed their gratitude for our presence. But the truth is, the courage of the local community was genuinely awe-inspiring.
Trump 2020: ‘Fuck Your Feelings’
Before our culminating non-violent direct action, we made it inside the perimeter, rally, and convention center for a firsthand peek at the crowd in all their, well, not diversity … but variety, and “glory.” Judging by the slogans plastered on shirts and banners around the rally, “Trump 2020: Fuck Your Feelings” seemed to be the unofficial motto of the campaign.
Forgive, if you will, the lack of detail or specificity in my description of our protest. Operational security is always a must and tradecraft best not shared. For, make no mistake, this war — not unlike the hopeless ones we experienced — is hardly over. So, to put it simply, we got inside. Trump’s team had, after all, ditched the whole admission ticket idea.
Perhaps they foresaw the embarrassingly paltry turnout, which the president blamed on “radical protesters.” Presumably he meant us, and all the other “lowlifes” and “very bad people outside,” but it’s hard to know how our clandestine and only briefly overt presence — along with the few peaceful sign holders near the entrance — were responsible.
As you know no doubt have seen, the ultimate attendance was significantly below the 19,000 BOK Center capacity, with an entire upper deck of non-Republican blue seats totally empty (and with no attempt to use the extra space for social distancing). Tulsa officials estimated the crowd at an oddly specific 6,200. Undeniable was that turnout was a miniscule fraction of the one million ticket requesters Trump bragged about. Since Tulsa’s entire, and broadly defined, metropolitan area counts only some one million total residents, surely most no-shows lived far enough away to cancel well before our last-minute “attempts” — according to a campaign spokesman — “to frighten off the president’s supporters.”
Our group certainly wasn’t trying to frighten anybody, Suffice it to say, that according to a brief write-up in the Washington Post, “Protesters [were] arrested for tying themselves to flag poles,” and “one of the women had a yellow flag with her that stated ‘Invest in Black Communities.’” With we antiwar veterans positioned below, in a decidedly non-threatening but firm posture, the climbers mounted the poles. The courageous woman in question was on my team and I was honored to help steady her initial mount. Once spotted — read: ironically snitched on by onlooking National Guardsmen — our group was rapidly swarmed by a boatload of aggressive, somewhat violent, police officers.
My Marine Corps infantry veteran buddy was shoved to the ground and hit his head (thankfully without serious injury) with the rest quickly shepherded to the exits. Arrest seemed imminent, but in the end only the three climbers — plus a distinctly soft-spoken and older Vietnam veteran “packing” only a camera — were actually booked. There was some crowd jeering directed our way during the exit march, with one memorable Trump enthusiast yelling “Antifa!” at another marine vet friend, before loudly yelling “in tongues” in his face. It’s hard to imagine a more apt symbol of much that’s bizarre and distasteful in Trump World.
Matters could have ended worse. In a sense, the real fear stemmed from the crowd, the MAGA mob, and — without complete hyperbole given the amphitheater scene — a vigilante attack. Perhaps mercifully, few Donald denizens were close to the flagpoles. Yet, this brings me back to the “Fuck Your Feelings” logo, and a stark contrast that strikes me still as the action continually churns in my head. Various Trump shirts and flags in the area exposed a veritable obsession with we supposed “snowflakes,” with our “safe spaces,” and pesky feelings.
Well, I think I can speak for the small group in saying we reject the fetishization of violence, militarism, and masculine chauvinism. Still, it’s worth noting that by my estimate the ex-soldiers, marines, and airmen beside me have racked up dozens of combined combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. And from my own admittedly participatory aperture, there seemed nothing “snow-flakey” about my teammates’ consciously-risky infiltration into a decidedly unsafe space deep in the belly of a collective beast that hates everything we stand for.
Nonetheless, on another level the Trumpeteers are correct. We do have feelings, share them before, during, and after such actions, and offer no apologies for this. Our decisions are collective, participation voluntary right up to go-time, and coercion or imposed hierarchy roundly rejected. We share emotions, fears, and tears. Everyone volunteers according to ability and principle. Mine weren’t the only wet eyes when, just before execution, local Tulsa activists read the names of nationwide victims of police murder — a humble but powerful reminder of why we do what small bit we were about to do.
Nonetheless, on another level the Trumpeteers are correct. We do have feelings, share them before, during, and after such actions, and offer no apologies for this.
When it was all over — the action hardly a clear “W,” but far from an “L” either — we rested outside the perimeter without a drop of water between us, and waited for exfiltration with some unease as slow-rolling pickup trucks adorned with Trump flags and menacing eyes drove by. Littered with manifold nerves, emotions and plagued by the coming-down effects of adrenaline, I chatted with my two buddies about what had just unfolded, and how some aspects paralleled combat missions. We reckoned we’d had several hundred Iraq and Afghan War patrols and raids under our three combined belts — then all agreed this had been the one mission we most believed in.
It won’t be our last…
Danny Sjursen is a retired U.S. Army officer and contributing editor at Antiwar.com. His work has appeared in the NY Times, LA Times, The Nation, Huff Post, The Hill, Salon, Popular Resistance, and Tom Dispatch, among other publications. He served combat tours with reconnaissance units in Iraq and Afghanistan and later taught history at his alma mater, West Point. He is the author of a memoir and critical analysis of the Iraq War, Ghostriders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge. His forthcoming book, Patriotic Dissent: America in the Age of Endless War is now available for pre-order. Sjursen was recently selected as a 2019-20 Lannan Foundation Cultural Freedom Fellow. Follow him on Twitter @SkepticalVet. Visit his professional website for contact info, to schedule speeches or media appearances, and access to his past work.</p