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The bluest room in the reddest state

Bernie Sanders visits Tulsa

Bernie Sanders rally in Tulsa

Sam Wargin

As we waited inside the Cox Business Center’s exhibit hall to see Bernie Sanders speak, my friend Sam kept checking the event’s Facebook page. People had started uploading photos of Bernie at the Woody Guthrie center—Bernie in front of the “This Machine Kills Fascists” mural, Bernie inside the center looking at Woody’s guitar. The links between Sanders and Woody—who wrote, “I could hire out to the other side, the big money side, and get several dollars every week just to quit singing my own songs,” and “I’m a-lookin’ for a job at honest pay…an’ I ain’t a-gonna be treated this way”—are plainly obvious. 

Woody wrote songs of the working class, regular-living, average Americans. Sanders sings those songs, too. Inside the business center, the music was spot-on. Neil Young’s “Rockin in the Free World” played as we walked in. Songs that followed included “America” by Simon and Garfunkel, “Revolution” by Tracy Chapman,  “Power to the People” by John Lennon, and “Disco Inferno” (with the famous lyrics, “burn, baby, burn”) by The Trammps. Muse’s “Victorious,” Bob Marley’s “Revolution,” and even The Supreme’s “Stop In the Name of Love,” kept the energy high. I danced a little.

A hackie sack circle formed in a not-yet-full area of the exhibit hall. Five or six college guys in orange “Stillwater for Sanders” shirts came in and moved toward the general standing area. A teacher sat down on the linoleum floor and graded a stack of essays. Moms walked their young kids to the water stand or over to buy nachos from the concessions. Leaning on the metal barricades at the front of the press pit, an older man with a U.S. Navy Vietnam Veterans hat chatted with a friend. Next to him, a young Latina girl sat on the barricade, a cloth “Feel the Bern” banner pinned onto her shirt with campaign buttons. The demographic skewed younger, but there were plenty of Baby Boomers and Silent Generation folks in attendance—People who’d heard about Sanders in the 1980s, when he was saying many of the same things he still preaches today.

My brother John missed out on a lot of this. He and his friends, who drove up from OSU, didn’t arrive to get in line until 5:30 p.m. and only got inside about 7:45 p.m., fifteen minutes before Sanders finished his speech. But John told me he felt that same level of energy that I felt, that Sam felt, that everyone seemed to feel inside, sustained for the hours he waited in line. He and his friends, all college students, said they were just happy to be there, whatever the wait. 

“When I first heard Bernie was coming, I thought, ‘what’s he doing here?’” John said. “And then when I saw the line, I thought, ‘wait, what are all of these people doing here?’”

What I suspect they were doing there, and what I was doing there, was insisting on relevance in a largely conservative state.

As Sanders spoke, someone in the crowd suddenly needed medical attention. Sanders paused the speech for nearly two minutes while medics made their way to the person in need. He stood away from the microphone. He waited, patiently and in silence, hands folded in front of him, until the situation was taken care of. 

I kept thinking would Trump have done that? Critics of this election cycle’s populist insurgency equate the two candidates so often; I couldn’t help but do it myself. Trump’s rally (held in January at the Mabee Center) was, at its core, a reality TV show. The Sanders rally had a different vibe. 

Even if I was a Trump supporter, I think I’d concede that Sanders’s rally was nicer. 

No one yelled “bomb the shit out of ISIS” over and over while hawking campaign buttons, and there were no protestors, or people getting bent out of shape about the t-shirts other attendees were wearing.

During his speech, Sanders spoke of revolution, of taking on the establishment, of how real change starts from the bottom and moves up. He told the crowd that it takes millions of people fighting to bring about that change. He referenced the formation of unions and the abolishment of slavery as brought about by large groups of common people. A “Bern Down 4 What” sign was thrust into the air. 

Afterwards, Sam told me the rally was unlike anything he’d ever experienced. A friend who attended the Oklahoma City rally the following Sunday agreed, saying, “we felt relevant.” 

A man standing near me spoke on the phone. “This may be the reddest state in the country,” he said. “But I’m standing in the bluest building.”

For more from Liz, read her interview with Oklahoma Department of Education's Steffie Corcoran.

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