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John Thompson, historian and retired teacher in Oklahoma, reviews Alec MacGillis’ “School’s Out,” a book about the response of schools and teachers to the pandemic. My takeaway: It’s tough to write a book about a pandemic when it’s not over.

When I first read Alec MacGillis’ School’s Out, I worried that he reached conclusions that were too optimistic, but it made me hopeful. After all, it was a co-production by ProPublica and New Yorker, and MacGillis had listened to numerous top public health experts. Upon rereading, and following his links, I’ve reached a more discouraging appraisal. The published research he cites actually makes the case for more caution, and against MacGillis’ implicit call to reopen schools more quickly for in-person instruction.   

School’s Out touched all bases in reviewing recent research, but I’m afraid MacGillis didn’t focus enough on the experience of educators. In fact, after discussing recent research with a Baltimore teacher who he respected, he was surprised that she still opposed the reopening for in-person classes. To his credit, MacGillis presented her side of the story but he didn’t seem to understand why school environments would “snowball” the transmission effects. 

At first, MacGillis did an excellent job of personalizing the complexity of the threats that Covid brings to already-weakened high-poverty schools. He described a 12-year-old Baltimore student, Shemar, who he had tutored. MacGillis surveyed the technological problems which made it so much more difficult for online instruction to serve Shemar’s needs. Then he explained why technology shortcomings were only a part of the overall situation. Real solutions would require the education system to rebuild personal contacts with students like Shemar.

Also to his credit, rather than embrace the blame-game of the last generation, MacGillis wrote that Shemar’s teachers “worried about him but had a hard time reaching him, given his mother’s frequent changes of phone number. One time, his English teacher drove to his house and visited with him on the small front porch.” Moreover, MacGillis expressed regret that he had not been more helpful, “I checked on Shemar a couple of times during the spring, but, in hindsight, I was too willing to let the lockdown serve as an excuse to hunker down with my own kids, who were doing online learning at other Baltimore public schools.” 

This could have foreshadowed a recommendation for caution in the complicated task of restarting in-person instruction. Yes, he could have concluded, the most vulnerable children suffer the most under a virtual education system. If a rushed reopening occurs, however, and it fails, the poorest children of color would be damaged even more.

MacGillis mentioned areas where urban schools have less capacity than affluent American schools or high-performing systems across the world. For instance, a student who was more worried about his mother losing her job than logging in to remote learning made the common, correct prediction, “‘I don’t care if I fail. I’m 14, in seventh grade — I don’t think they’re going to fail me again.’ He was right.” MacGillis then made the more important observation about poor children of color:

Society’s attention to them has always been spotty, but they had at least been visible — one saw them on the way to school, in their blue or burgundy uniforms, or in the park and the playground afterward. Now they were behind closed doors, and so were we, with full license to turn inward. While we dutifully stayed home to flatten the curve, children like Shemar were invisible.

MacGillis then cited Christopher Morphew, the dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Education, when warning: 

“The failure to plan now, to spend the money now, is going to cost us in human resources, in violence, in other ways, for a long time,” he said. He estimated that the closure could result in 18 months of “summer melt,” the term for the educational regression caused by long breaks in schooling. “Eighteen months of summer melt when you’re already three grades behind is virtually impossible to come back from.”

However, I’m afraid that MacGillis failed to thoroughly consider why urban students like Shemar are so far behind. He recalled a great deal of 19thand 20th century education history, while ignoring the 21st century where trust was further undermined by corporate school reformers who imposed quick fixes that educators knew were doomed to fail.

Then, I worry that School’s Out was sidetracked by a simplistic account of the way that President Donald Trump and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos undermined the efforts to safely reopen schools in the fall. In July, Trump proclaimed, “We’re very much going to put pressure on governors and everybody else to open the schools.” And the “instantaneous” result was, “Teachers who had been responsive to the idea of returning to the classroom suddenly regarded the prospect much more warily.”

The big problem, however, wasn’t teachers’ new fearfulness. The problem was the realities created by Trump, “governors and everybody else” who made it impossible to safely reopen many schools. For instance, a Brookings Institution study  “found that districts’ school opening decisions correlated much more strongly with levels of support for Trump in the 2016 election than with local coronavirus case levels.” That reality was bad enough. But, School’s Out didn’t to seem fully consider how much schools in urban areas which voted against Trump are poorer and, often, politically powerless.

MacGillis cited a list of affluent and private schools, and schools in nations that better handled the coronavirus and did what is takes to return to in-person learning. Even after repeatedly using the words community and “community spread,” MacGillis (and sometimes the public health experts he cited) ignored the ways that the reopening of bars, and the rest of the economy; the rush to return to in-person college classes, and football; and the often widespread refusal to even wear masks and respect social distancing made it unlikely that many schools could reopen safely. 

MacGillis even cites Texas, Florida and Georgia as hopeful examples, noting that case numbers have declined from their summer highs as schools reopen, but the New York Times lists Texas and Georgia as only having “some” reporting for school districts with reporting “planned” in Florida. Regardless, who would see those state’s tragedies as best public health practices and celebrate the way that infections haven’t gone all the way up to their most tragic levels?

In doing so, MacGillis seems to forget the timing of the political mandates and the publication dates of public health research.  Had the comprehensive efforts of March and April, that broke the infection curve in many American cities and European nations, and had federal resources not been cut back so quickly, educators could have prioritized in-person and/or hybrid  instruction in the fall, while also working on virtual systems that might be necessary if a “second wave” hit.   

By June, however, there was a major pushback by the Trump administration and pro-Trump governors against public health expertise. This was best illustrated three weeks into June when Trump spoke to an indoor crowd in Tulsa. But citing an op-ed in The New York Times on July 1, by Jennifer Nuzzo and Joshua Sharfstein, MacGillis explained, “Nuzzo had supported lockdowns to slow the spread of the coronavirus in the spring, but by the summer she was arguing that schools should plan to reopen in much of the country.”

Moreover, he added, “A number of experts were beginning to agree with Nuzzo and Sharfstein.” He also drew on Harvard’s Meira Levinson’s article in The New England Journal of Medicine laying out how to reopen primary schools, and Harvard’s Joseph Allen, who co-wrote a 62-page plan listing steps that schools could take to reduce transmission risk.

Being a retired teacher, with too many years of being a consumer of rushed Big Data hypotheses, I read the actual wording of these scholarly papers and connected the dots very differently than MacGillis. Nuzzo and Sharfstein may have disagreed with my synthesis of the evidence but, as they wrote, education decision-makers had to deal with the real world consequences of “the way states lifted social distancing restrictions imposed to fight the coronavirus sadly demonstrates our priorities. Officials let bars, restaurants and gyms open, despite warnings from public health experts that these environments pose the greatest risk for spreading the disease.”

I suspect the Times editor who drafted the Op-Ed’s title would have agreed with me about the key takeaway: “We Have to Focus on Opening Schools, Not Bars.” Yes, “Resuming classroom instruction is crucial. Infection control inside and outside classrooms can let it happen.” But, “political leaders seem to have paid scant attention to safely reopening schools,” and “the consequences of those backward priorities …  Covid-19 rampaging through states that reopened quickly — make it even more vital that we extensively prepare to reopen classrooms as safely as possible this fall.” 

But what would it take to do so?

In this political climate where increased funding, masks, and even social distancing were being repudiated in so many states, Nuzzo and Sharfstein argued, “Reopening businesses that pose a major risk of community spread should be a lower priority than reopening schools.” They called for building the capacity for “robust tracing, isolation and quarantining;” funding for “finding other buildings and space where they could expand;” in-school “bubbles” or “small groups of students who will learn, eat lunch and have recess together;” a system to protect “staff members who are older or have chronic medical conditions;” a “creative” transportation system; and improved online instruction systems.

Similarly, Meira Levinson’s article said, “Even under conditions of moderate transmission (<10 cases per 100,000 people), … we believe that primary schools should be recognized as essential services — and school personnel as essential workers — and that school reopening plans should be developed and financed accordingly.” But, it also said:

Any region experiencing moderate, high, or increasing levels of community transmission should do everything possible to lower transmission. The path to low transmission in other countries has included adherence to stringent community control measures — including closure of nonessential indoor work and recreational spaces. Such measures along with universal mask wearing must be implemented now in the United States if we are to bring case numbers down to safe levels for elementary schools to reopen this fall nationwide.

It thus offered little practical advice to those schools in states that rejected the wisdom of public health experts.  

And Joseph Allen’s position sounded like it was even more opposed to the caution of educators, but the disclaimer at the beginning of “Risk Reduction Strategies for Reopening Schools” said the guidelines were “intended to offer guidance regarding best practices regarding the general operations of buildings in an effort to reduce the risk of disease transmission.” The report:

Is in no way intended to override or supersede guidance from government and health organizations, including, without limitation, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the World Health Organization, the United States Government, and or any States. The information contained herein reflects the available information at the time the report was created. User recognizes that details and information are changing daily.

In other words, in July, it would have been difficult, or impossible, for educators in many states and most urban districts to see the evidence that was “changing daily” as enough to justify in-person instruction by September. Then, on July 18, the New York Times reported that a massive study by South Korean experts found that “children younger than 10 transmit to others much less often than adults do, but the risk is not zero. And those between the ages of 10 and 19 can spread the virus at least as well as adults do.”

MacGillis cited researchers who “immediately found problems with the study’s conclusions, pointing out that the sample of children who had become sick was exceedingly small,” and “it was not clear whether older children had passed the virus to adults or had got it at the same time and shown symptoms earlier.” I also was reassured by their pushback. But then I followed MacGillis’ link to Alasdair Munro, a clinical research fellow in pediatric infectious diseases at University Hospital Southampton, and found it was a Twitter debate. I became more concerned that he was engaging in an academic debate, as opposed to evaluating what decision-makers need to know about the dangers of reopening and when did they need to know it in order to make plans and implement them.  

On Twitter, Munro criticized the Korean study saying that he had seen unpublished data to the contrary and that “it was a mistake to rush to use this study as high quality evidence that children are highly infectious (even more so than adults!) once they reach 10 years old.”  It wasn’t until August 10, however, that such evidence was reported. 

My reading of the debate was that Munro didn’t make the case for schools in high-transmission areas not taking the Korean study seriously when deciding whether to reopen. But, even if Munro made the case, he was doing so on the eve of the reopening dates proposed in many high-risk areas. How could educators implement plans, based on that continuing debate, in a few weeks?

Rather than get into the weeds of the Twitter exchange which School’s Out drew upon, I’ll just cite Munro’s latest positions. First, he argues “Careful reopening of schools in areas of low community prevalence with good, basic infection prevention measures can work.” And his summary of the evidence is: “If prevalence [is] high in the community, it will be high in schools and some will transmit; Isolated cases result in low transmission; and Infection prevention works.” But he never seems to touch the question of how prevention can work in schools in communities that won’t invest in it.

And that brings me back about what was excellent and what was misguided by School’s Out. MacGillis was eloquent about the disaster which is likely unfolding and which is most damaging our poorest children of color. He correctly concludes that huge numbers of disadvantaged students like Shemar need to get “out of the home and into school, every day.” But the battle against the isolation these children face is “on hold.” This is the tragic reality:

For the foreseeable future, Shemar would be spending his days as he had spent the spring and the summer: in a dark room, in front of a screen, with virtually no direct interaction with kids anywhere close to his own age. Sometimes the screen would hold Minecraft and Fortnite; sometimes, if he got the hang of the log-ins, it would hold Zoom.

And we must welcome the guidance of public health experts who are calling for holistic instruction, recognition of the effects of poverty, segregation, and trauma, and acknowledging that schools alone can’t overcome these interconnected challenges. We should be thankful that public health experts have done such a great job of laying out realistic advice and plans for reopening our schools. It’s not their fault that Trumpism undermined their contributions.

Moreover, our failure to reopen in a safe and timely manner will almost certainly prompt the flight of middle-class and affluent families from traditional public schools, resulting in the loss of per-student funding. MacGillis concludes with the prediction by Jon Hale, of the University of Illinois that “the consequences could be tragic. It will decimate the system for those who rely on it.”  In other words, the hard facts are even starker than acknowledged in School’s Out. We are heading for a disaster for many, many students. But, it would have been worse if our most vulnerable urban districts had given into pressure and rushed the return to in-person instruction.

John Thompson, historian and retired teacher in Oklahoma, read the New York Times Magazine’s report on the possibility of a “Lost Year” and wrote these reflections:

Three times, I had to take a break from reading the New York Times Magazine’s special education issue, “The Lost Year.” The Magazine’s powerful reporting delivered gut punch after gut punch, forcing me to put the magazine down, calm myself, and contemplate the suffering our children are enduring.

Three times, as these compelling and emotionally overwhelming student stories hit home, I would get sick at my stomach. I’d sense anxiety growing to the point where it hit as hard as when ideology-driven, Trumpian policies are announced. As these tragedies unfolded over recent months, I got into the habit of taking a break, breathing heavily, and relaxing, resulting in naps to calm my nerves.

The anecdotes in “The Lost Year” illustrating the damage being done to our most vulnerable children hit me especially hard because of decades working in the inner city and our most disadvantaged schools. But I must warn readers who may not have been covered by so many students’ blood or worried over as many traumatized kids that The Lost Year will not be an easy read for them either.

Samantha Shapiro’s “The Children in the Shadows” describes the “nomadism” perpetuated by the New York City homeless shelter system 3-1/2 decades after the Reagan Administration sparked the housing crisis by decimating social services (as his Supply Side Economics destroyed blue collar jobs.) The cruelty was continued in the 1990s as neoliberals tried to show that they could be just as tough as the rightwingers.

Shapiro starts with the obstacles faced by the parents of several elementary students with histories of rising to excellence but who are suffering through The Lost Year. A 2nd grade child of an immigrant, Prince, has been homeless for years (prompted by his mother enduring severe domestic abuse) but who seemed to be headed for magnet or gifted programs before the pandemic. After wasting hours after hours, days after days, accompanying his mother through the bureaucracy, he gets an 84 on a test, and tells her, “I’m sorry, Mama. I’ll do better next time.”

The father of another outstanding 2nd grader worries that her ability to read is being lost, “I’ve seen her watch YouTube 24 hours a day.” Shapiro then describes another second grader, who was very competitive and earned good grades but, before the shutdown, she had a disagreement with a classmate. After being asked to come into the hall to discuss it, the girl screamed piercingly, ripped down bulletin boards, threw things. As she deescalated, the girl asked her social worker to hold her, saying “Are you still proud of me? Do you still love me?

Shapiro also describes J, her son’s best friend, and his wonderful people skills. Despite having dyslexia, J had been doing well in school. His mother, Mae, repeatedly cried through entire nights during an intense effort to avoid eviction. J cried at the loss of his dog due to their eviction. Mae kept him away from her encounter with the marshals, but his sister was too anxious to be separated from her. So, her daughter whistled at birds, and zipped her favorite stuffed animal into her hoodie, as they were evicted.

Nicole Chung’s “A Broken Link” explores the new challenges facing special education students. Chung draws upon her experience as the mother of a 9-year old child with autism to illustrate the obstacles facing kids in good schools, even when they have the advantages of families who can go the extra mile in helping to implement Individual Education Plans. During last spring’s school closures, a “multitude” of children, “many of them disabled,” “‘just fell off the grid.’” This year, with so many schools starting the year online, meaning that they likely begin without personal connections between students and educators, the challenges are likely to be much worse.

By sharing her family’s frustrations, Chung helps make the case presented by Julia Bascom, executive director of the Autistic Self Advocacy Network, that “The pandemic has magnified these huge structural issues. Ultimately, it’s going to be disabled and marginalized students bearing the burden, being delayed, losing time and progress.”

Then, Paul Tough addresses the costs to upwardly striving, low-income students from a high school that had been making progress helping its students succeed in higher education. Disadvantaged students tend to be hurt by the “summer slide,” or the loss of learning gains over summer vacation. Tough focuses on Richmond Hill H.S.’s efforts to prevent “summer melt,” or the loss of students who had intended to go straight to college but don’t enroll in the fall.

Richmond Hill uses “bridge coaches,” who are “near peers” or recent graduates that serve as mentors, and other personalized efforts to help students transition to higher education. This requires “a lot of hand-holding,” and other guidance, and not enough of those personalized contacts are possible during the pandemic. Richmond Hill’s students lost more than 30 parents to the coronavirus, as hundreds of their providers lost their jobs. This means the losses of The Lost Year will be reverberating for years to come.

And that leads to the ways that each story in The Lost Year returns to social and emotional connections, as well as the need to tackle structural issues outside the four walls of classrooms. And that is why the failure of urban schools to reopen has been so tragic.

At times, a discussion moderated by Emily Bazelon, featuring Denver Superintendent Susana Cordova, the Times’ Nikole Hannah-Jones, former Education Secretary John King, the University of Southern California Dean Pedro Noguera, and middle school teacher Shana White, seemed likely to veer off into the blame game. My sense, however, was that they intentionally avoided opportunities to refight the battles of the last two decades. They wisely limited most criticism for the inability of schools to serve at-risk kids to the malpractice of the Trump administration and a lack of resources and time.

For instance, Hannah-Jones pushed the question of why Denver’s low-wage childcare workers were back in class, but not the higher-paid teachers. But Bazelon shifted gears and asked her about other inequities she had seen. This brought the discussion back to big-picture inequities. Hannah-Jones then focused on affluent families who can afford private schools, adding, “I have this deep pit in my stomach about the disparities and really the devastating impact that this period is going to have.”

This also foreshadowed Bazelon’s worries that an increase in private schools and vouchers will worsen segregation.

Hannah-Jones rightly warned that last spring her daughter’s online class of 33 only had about 10 students logged in. Since the discussants also had justifiable complaints about the flawed preparations for this fall’s virtual learning, it could have led to another round of attacking the education “status quo.” But Hannah-Jones explained how she mistakenly believed her daughter had turned in all of her assignments. This candor also encouraged a discussion of the structural problems that make the transition to online learning so daunting.

When asked about the big picture issues and solutions, the discussion remained constructive. Hannah-Jones brought up the opportunity for rejecting high-stakes testing. Bazelon asked if the crisis could promote outdoors learning and flipped classrooms (for older students) where tapes of “star lecturers” free teachers for the people-side of classroom learning. She also asked whether schools should be focusing on emotional health, hoping students will catch up on academic content over time. Noguera largely agreed, and replied with a call for “a national push to get kids reading. Low-tech. Actual books. And writing.”

John King then praised online curriculum provided by organizations like Edutopia. More importantly, he then declined that opportunity to repeat the corporate reform attacks on teachers, who supposedly could have singlehandedly overcome the legacies of segregation, poverty, and trauma if they had “High Expectations!” Contradicting the company line he had long espoused, King called for more counselors, mental health professionals, “high-dosage” tutoring, the expansion of AmeriCorp programs, and full-year instruction.

Superintendent Cordova then called for a new type of summer program where kids “engaged in learning for learning’s sake – not ‘third grade is about multiplication tables…” Instead of mere remediation, she would motivate kids by exposing them to the larger world. This is consistent with Corova’s hope that schools will be able to “try to go deeper as opposed to broader” in teaching and learning.

Shana White, the Georgia teacher, wished that districts had planned for “worst-case scenarios.” That should seem obvious given the state “leadership” coming from Trump loyalists. It sounds like White teaches in a worst possible scenario where teachers must do both – conduct in-person and virtual instruction using Zoom at the same time.

I’m an optimist who believed that data-driven, competition-driven reformers would have recognized what our poorest students would lose if their test-driven reforms were mandated. I wrongly believed that if accountability-driven reformers had known more about real-world schools, and shared experiences with flesh-and-blood students, that they would seek better levers for changing schools. But, it is possible that the pandemic has revealed both the complexity of our intertwined problems, and how there are no shortcuts for bringing true equity to high-poverty schools. It’s a shame that students had to lose so much this year in order to bring an opportunity for adults to come together for real, structural solutions.

It’s also a shame that Trumpian campaigns to deny the reality of “community-spread” of viruses and ideology-driven mandates to hurriedly reopen schools have guaranteed The Lost Year for our most vulnerable children. But maybe we can all unite in a fact-based campaign against Trump and then learn the lessons of The Lost Year, and engage in holistic, meaningful education reforms.

John Thompson, historian and retired teacher in Oklahoma, contributes frequently here.

He writes:

If you want to get really depressed about today’s politics, look at the New York Times’ Upshot, which asked: Should Children Go Back to School? Sadly, the answer has been, “It depends in part on your politics.”

One source the Times cited was a Brookings Institute analysis of data which found that “politics, more than public health, was driving school districts’ reopening plans.” Brookings discovered:

No relationship between school districts’ plans and their counties’ infection rates. Instead, there was a strong correlation between a district’s plans and a county’s support for Mr. Trump in 2016.

We should all be horrified that President Trump and his supporters have put ideology and short term politics over the health of students. When we get through this nightmare, deep soul searching will be necessary as we ask how our politics have devolved to this point.

Below is a step towards such a reckoning. It uses Oklahoma, a “red state” in terms of Republican power, which has become a “red zone” in terms of infection spread, as a case study. White House reports that were not revealed to the public until recently, now show that Oklahoma has the nation’s 8th highest positivity rate.

Eight White House Corona Virus Task Force reports on Oklahoma’s COVID infections were finally released on August 25. As many parents send their kids back to in-person school, they now can read the full truth that could have been revealed almost two months ago about what safe reopenings would require.

This is how Oklahomans finally got access to crucial public health information. The Tulsa World reported that on August 13, before Coronavirus Response Coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx visited Tulsa, Gov. Kevin Stitt said he directed the state Health Department “to post everything and be as transparent as possible.” But, a week later, The Center for Public Integrity published a second, secret report; Tulsa Mayor Bynum thus learned that “eight White House reports had been issued. Bynum said he was only aware of one that had been previously leaked to the media.”

Dr. Birx met briefly with numerous members of the Stitt team and a few others, but without key public health leaders, such as Tulsa Health Department director Bruce Dart, Democratic officeholders, or the press, and she also met privately with Stitt. The governor said, “Overall it went really good, and she’s pleased with Oklahoma and what we’ve done so far.”

State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister posted on Facebook that Birx warned, “Oklahoma is about 4 weeks behind the South” and needs to “avoid asymptomatic spread which is happening in Southern states.” That cryptic comment didn’t make the headlines, or prompt a discussion of how would it be possible to reopen schools in counties where the virus was spreading.

Stitt characterized Birx’s advice as, “A lot of other states have shut down bars. That was a recommendation — it wasn’t a recommendation, but that was something she said, you’ve got to be ready if you see your positivities kick up that you can maybe limit bar capacity.”

Tulsa Public Radio challenged spin on the crucial question of how schools and colleges can open this month, adding, “Birx’s task force has, in fact, told Oklahoma it should shut down bars statewide, calling it ‘critical to disrupt transmission.’”

As school was starting, about 50 school sites were dealing with COVID infections; the first week of partial reopening, the number rose to over 100. If – as public health experts predict – asymptomatic children spread the virus to their classmates, teachers and school staff, and their families, parents should ask why they were not warned when Oklahoma entered the “red zone” around July 14.

Similarly, administrators can ask how they could have prepared differently for reopenings if they had been told about the effect of “community spread” on schools. The week before classes were scheduled to open, two school systems had to delay in-person instruction. Who knows how many of those wrenching adjustments will occur in the first weeks of school?

If they had known the full story presented in eight studies, many districts could have prioritized preparation for virtual over in-person instruction. Had administrators been told of the August 2 task force recommendation for a statewide mask mandate, and recommendations as early as July 5 on bars and indoor dining, would they have given different advice to their school boards on reopening? Had they known when the task force recommended that red zone counties limit social gatherings to ten people, would they have thought differently about school sports?

Administrators were already behind in preparing for school because as late as June many researchers still doubted that young people would spread the virus as much as older persons. It wasn’t until late July that experts were fully aware of the super-spreading by young people. And I would add that decision-makers should have considered the New York Times database. It estimated that on July 31 an average Oklahoma County school with 1,000 students would begin the year with 11 students with the virus.

Also, on July 23, the State Board of Education voted 4 to 3 to adopt the protocols presented by State Superintendent Hofmeister as recommendations – not mandates. Had they known what would be revealed in the recent recommendations for Oklahoma, would they have voted differently in terms of making masks mandatory in schools? Had the SDE guidelines on providing only virtual learning been discussed in communities that were fully aware of the task force’s recommendations on limiting the size of social groups, would they have thought differently about closing schools in the counties with the highest infections?

State Impact and the Oklahoman now report that only six of the 136 districts in counties at Orange Level 2 or the higher are starting the year with distance learning. The SDE can only “beg” districts to take unpopular public health actions and only 1/3rd of them mandate masks for students and teachers.

So shouldn’t the Board take another vote? And while they’re at it, they could order districts to report COVID infections to the Health Department.

Moreover, education and urban leaders, as well as state policy-makers should study the new reports within the context of perhaps a bigger threat – the reopening of colleges. Cities have no control over universities’ policies, but especially in areas that attract large numbers of college students who have failed to follow social distancing rules, cities could follow federal guidelines on closing bars and in-person dining. And if state leaders took these public health regulations seriously, they could have taken action with the hugely dangerous Weedstock concert near Oklahoma State University.

This summer’s misstatements of fact by the Stitt administration were serious because they undermined preparations for a safe reopening of schools. During a time of “alt facts,” however, it isn’t surprising that many Oklahomans didn’t demand fact checking of the governor. The release of the full facts occurs at a time when students are placed at risk, and schools will likely struggle with infections. Now that the full task force findings are released, parents, educators, and policy makers may bring a more informed mindset to their guidelines.
More importantly, though, will we take a more morally responsible look at the politics of school reopenings? Will we come to grips with the way that America placed politics over the health and safety of our kids, and pledge to never do that again?

John Thompson is a historian and retired teacher in Oklahoma.

He writes:

The McAlester Public Schools are in the Oklahoma county where COVID is now #1 in the state in per capita COVID infections. A week before the scheduled opening, McAlester reports five positives linked to football. But its schools will still provide in-person instruction.

This is just one of 50 schools with infections on the eve of their reopening in a state which had had a low infection rate, but that is now in the “Red Zone,” with more than 100 COVID-19 cases per 100,000 people. We must finally ask why responsible leaders, such as the mayors of Oklahoma City and Tulsa, are so unwilling to challenge Trumpian true-believers who undermined science-based public health actions, even as a crisis is clearly unfolding.

A week ago, I hoped to communicate with some of the adults in the room – who I know understand that a second burst of COVID is virtually inevitable. So, I started with a joke, borrowing from the late political Oklahoma humorist, James Boren, who used to say, “When in doubt mumble.”

Trying to persuade, I noted that medical experts and responsible political leaders must always wrestle with doubts. And when their audiences are President Donald Trump and Gov. Kevin Stitt, the ability to mumble something in order to not sound disagreeable becomes an essential skill.

For example, the Coronavirus Response Coordinator, Dr. Deborah Birx, made a “highly touted stop” in Tulsa on August 16th, but it was a private meeting. Public health experts were almost as unrepresented as the press and Democratic officeholders; Dr. Bruce Dart, the director of the Tulsa Health Department, wasn’t invited. Dr. Birx only took five or six questions but at least she warned that Oklahoma may be “a month behind seeing asymptomatic spread happening in other southern states.”

“Asymptomatic spread,” thy name could be classrooms of children returning to public schools and dorms and bars full of returning college students. And what is happening in other southern states (like Texas, Georgia, and Florida) is frightening – perhaps too tragic to say out loud.

Birx didn’t answer press questions as she left. Since she met privately for 45 minutes with Gov. Stitt, there was little opportunity to cross examine his claim, “Overall it went really good, and she’s pleased with Oklahoma and what we’ve done so far.” Oklahomans were told little about her warning about asymptomatic spread beyond Stitt’s characterization of her words, “A lot of other states have shut down bars. That was a recommendation — it wasn’t a recommendation, but that was something she said, you’ve got to be ready if you see your positivities kick up that you can maybe limit bar capacity.”

One of the few media outlets, Tulsa Public Radio, which challenged spin on the crucial question of how schools and colleges can open this month, drew upon a previous study and added, “Birx’s task force has, in fact, told Oklahoma it should shut down bars statewide, calling it ‘critical to disrupt transmission.’”

But now that The Center for Public Integrity has published the latest White House Coronavirus Task Force secret report, we know the truth. We are learning what our leaders know and when did they know it. Now that these facts are no longer need to be mumbled, we must look in the mirror and ask tough questions about ourselves and the leaders, including those we have trusted. Before summarizing the report’s key points, more context could be helpful.

Oklahoma’s press has always had reasons to be reluctant to challenge the power structure, so it was no surprise that it was an editorial columnist, as opposed to an investigative reporter, who explicitly revealed a part of the story that intimidates reporters and politicians. The Tulsa World’s Ginnie Graham reminded us, “Dr. George Monks stepped into the role of president of the Oklahoma State Medical Association, requiring him speak truth to the powerful and dubious.”

Gov. Stitt had said that “Oklahoma had ‘plenty of runway’ to respond to virus surges.” But Dr. Monk said “a COVID-19 patient waited a day for the “one and only” hospital bed in Tulsa: “We are at the end of the runway.”

Graham reminded us, “some doctors once promoted smoking as healthy and the anti-vaccine movement finds physicians to back their position.” But Monks says, “We should always tell the truth, even if it hurts.”

As time runs out for reducing the size of the imminent crisis, The Frontier, a nonprofit media corporation, reported that former interim state epidemiologist, Dr. Aaron Wendelboe, said that local mask mandates are likely contributing to the current downward trend of new infections. But a reopening of in-person schools and extracurricular activities such as sports will likely increase transmissions. Similarly, Dr. Dale Bratzler, who leads the University of Oklahoma’s coronavirus response, said that they will make outbreaks “almost inevitable.” Bratzler advised, “I think we need to watch very, very carefully what happens in the state because we may need to rethink some of these policies on reopening if we see some of these outbreaks occur.”

Mask mandates appear to be helping Oklahoma control its coronavirus outbreak

Those careful words can’t be dismissed as mumbling, but neither were they headline grabbers. To understand their relative lack of influence, the public must read the Oklahoma Watch account of how Dr. Wendelboe was the second of three state epidemiologists since this March. It cited his predecessor, Dr. Kristy Bradley, who explained, “we had been practicing and developing and fine-tuning that public health playbook in Oklahoma for years and years.” But the governor’s new team “just sort of kept it on the shelf and didn’t dust it off.”

Bradley and Wendelboe had extensive experience with epidemics ranging from Zika to Ebola. But Wendelboe said “his role was to give epidemiological advice, but with the knowledge that leaders have other considerations like the economy or disruptions to daily life to also take into account.” Oklahoma Watch (also a nonprofit) explains:

“There’s many decisions that are being made from different angles,” he said. “I think it’s hard for a state epidemiologist to sometimes know how to navigate some of the factors that are outside the straight epidemiological training. I’ve tried to be really respectful when people don’t take my advice. I understand that there’s other things that I’m not privy to.”

As Pandemic Widens, Oklahoma Diminishes State Epidemiologist Role – Oklahoma Watch

In contrast to fact-based analyses in The Frontier, State Impact (an NPR collaborative), and Oklahoma Watch, the Oklahoman published “Keeping Schools Closed Will Do More Harm Than Good,” an editorial by the Heartland Institute’s Chris Talgo. Since the Oklahoman has a paywall, the best way to understand his argument is to follow the link to Inside Sources, “Keeping Schools Closed Will Do More Harm Than Good.” Talgo says that there are multiple reasons to reopen schools, but:

“They might not because teachers unions and politicians oppose it for their own self-interest. Teachers unions throughout the nation are making outrageous demands before they return to their jobs. This includes defunding the police, “Medicare for All,” huge salary increases and several other requirements that have little to do with improving the educational environment.”

Shockingly, several teachers unions have announced they will not return to work unless and until “a moratorium on private school” is implemented.

In fairness, the Oklahoman also published an editorial opposing Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s attempt to grant schools, businesses and healthcare providers immunity from coronavirus-related lawsuits. And within a week, the Oklahoman quoted Dr. David Kendrick of the OU School of Medicine about the “new phase” we are entering, “We had four months now without the impact of primary, secondary and university education on the possibility of transmission. … As schools are opening, we are going to have to give that a big, hard look.”

Counterpoint: Ditching Accountability for Schools Should Get Failing Grade

So, I will still mumble support for experts who try to be as candid as allowed when advising politicians. But we now know what the Coronavirus Task Force was actually recommending when Dr. Birx was visiting on August 16. The high points, which are the opposite of what the governor claims, include:

Mask mandate needs to be implemented statewide to decrease community transmission.
Bars must be closed, and indoor dining must be restricted in yellow and red zone counties and metro areas.
In red zones, limit the size of social gatherings to 10 or fewer people; in yellow zones, limit social gatherings to 25 or fewer people.

And that brings us back to the issue of government leaders who would like to do the right thing, but they don’t dare articulate what they know is likely true. Ideology-driven officials demanded that we place the short-term benefit of bars and other businesses over our students, making it impossible to safely reopen schools. Many compliant public schools and colleges are leading us to a tragedy.

The premature reopening imposed on communities quickly drove our state’s seven-day average of daily infections from 69 on June 1 to 1,089 on August 1. Since then, our previously effective leaders have gone along with sound bites about a downward curve, ignoring the experts’ warnings about what would happen as schools reopened.

As I wrote this, yesterday’s infections were announced – 1,077.

Then, it was also revealed that Mayor Bynum just learned from Birx that “eight White House reports had been issued. He said he was only aware of one that had been previously leaked to the media.” Stitt then agreed that “he will ask that the White House reports be made publicly available to everyone.”

If the full truth about reopening schools – which should have been revealed more than two months earlier – is released as students are going back to in-person classes, and infections are spread, parents should demand more than mumbling from the governor.

Stitt bows to pressure to release White House reports on coronavirus

John Thompson asks how it is possible to open schools in Oklahoma with coronavirus on the rise.

Thompson writes:

The New York Times reports that on June 1, the Oklahoma City metropolitan area had a seven-day average of 17 new COVID-19 cases a day. I believe Mayor David Holt deserves great credit for the science-based policies that kept infection numbers down.

By Aug. 1, however, the seven-day average was 409! The reopening of schools is essential for the education and mental health of students, as well as the economy, but how is that possible when infections have increased by nearly 2,400%?

Thompson takes issue with the American Academy of Pediatrics and economist Emily Oster, whose assurances about a return to school, he believes, were premature.

The current “positive” results are a warning sign that Oklahoma should be cautious and follow the science.

John Thompson, historian and retired teacher in Oklahoma, makes an urgent appeal to save the life of his former student Julius Jones.

He writes:

I just watched the rebroadcast of ABC’s “20 20” documentary, “The Last Defense,” about my former student, Julius Jones, who is on Death Row even though he’s probably innocent. It was an abridged version that left time to update the case’s developments over the last two years. It refuted the claims at a recent press conference by Oklahoma Attorney General Robert Hunter that the evidence still says that Jones murdered Paul Howell in front of his children, while carjacking his Suburban. (I also appeared in the documentary.)

As I will explain, there is no hard evidence that Jones committed the crime, and there is plenty of evidence that my other former student, Chris “Westside” Jordan shot Mr. Howell. Closing a documentary which revealed glaring miscarriages of justice, the producer, Scott Budrick says, “I don’t think there is anyone … who can say Julius Jones received a fair trial.”

The criminal justice system has always been torn between the ideal that the defendant is “innocent until proven guilty,” and the prosecutors’ real world commitment to winning. Individual district attorneys operate in a system where 90% or more of cases must be settled with a plea bargain. If fairness was the overriding principle, too many defendants would go to trial and the system would be overwhelmed.

The juxtaposition of A.G. Hunter’s attack on the “Justice for Julius” movement and “The Last Defense,” with the outrages revealed in the documentary, leads me back to the belief that district attorneys like the late “Cowboy Bob” Macy are a huge problem. The even bigger problem isn’t the individual prosecutors, but how the system creates a law enforcement culture where winning is the priority.

For instance, A.G. Hunter has been very effective in presenting the case, as it existed in 2002, against Jones. There is nothing wrong with Hunter visiting with the Howell family and, like the defendants repeatedly have, saying that the family’s suffering must be acknowledged. And trial attorneys routinely cross that line with emotional arguments personalizing the case, as opposed to presenting evidence in a balanced manner.

However, Hunter went too far when he told the press conference, “I’m here today as an advocate for the late Paul Howell and his family … They are the victims in this case, make no mistake about it, and the pain of their loss is revisited with each misguided public appeal on Mr. Jones’ behalf.”

Then Hunter skillfully repeated the evidence that was presented to the jury and subsequent appeals judges. As the defense acknowledged, if that was all that was known about the horrific murder, a guilty verdict would be understandable. The problem is that the attorney general, being a loyal team member, ignores the large body of evidence that has been discovered and compiled over the last decade.

Moreover, Hunter released the trial transcript, but he didn’t seek to release the evidence which mattered the most – the prosecution’s trial record file.

And that leads to the reason why Jones is on Death Row. The high-profile investigation was guided by two police informants, who were both facing long sentences for other crimes.

The experienced prosecutors skillfully appealed to the jurors’ emotions. I doubt the district attorney’s office was surprised to hear the jury foreman tell “20 20” that, in a case like that one, you “go with your heart more than anything else.” The juror trusted “what you felt in your gut.” When delivering the verdict, the juror “felt right.”

Jones and his attorneys had always admitted that he had not been perfect, and he had committed nonviolent offences. But Hunter said that Jones’ “criminal history was replete with the use and threat of violence: armed robbery, carjackings, assault.”

Jones had not been charged with such crimes, and the D.A. never proved these cases against Jones in court. Instead, they were brought up in the sentencing phase where the state can simply say that Jones did this, he did that, without proof. This is because such claims do not need to have been proven. It is a typical tactic that prosecutors use to frighten juries into imposing the death penalty. If the State had the evidence of violent offenses, the defense asks, why didn’t it file charges back in 1999? Twenty-one years later the A.G. is throwing this out there, trying to make it stick.

The State eventually agreed to a DNA test of a bandanna that was found wrapped around the apparent murder weapon in the Jones’ family home. A.G. Hunter argues that “the major component of the DNA profile matched Jones.” But, Dr. Eli Shapiro did a more complete and nuanced analysis. Seven of the 21 genetic markers were found to be consistent with Jones’ DNA. The Jones defense notes that the finding doesn’t “constitute a match under law enforcement standards.” Moreover, no saliva DNA was found on the bandanna, as would be expected after the gunman shouted into it as the eyewitness testified to at trial.

The biggest problem with the State’s claim is that Jordan came by the Jones’ house the day after the murder, said he was locked out of his grandmother’s house, and spent the night sleeping upstairs where he could have easily planted the bandanna and the gun. And when the police searched the Jones’ house, Jordan was in a police car outside, so he could direct them toward the evidence.

In other words, had all of this DNA evidence been presented at trial, it would not have incriminated Jones in a trial where he was considered “innocent until proven guilty.”

“The Last Defense” includes statements by his public defender, who was inexperienced in murder trials and who acknowledged that he did a “terrible job” of cross examining Chris Jordan, who repeatedly contradicted himself when fingering Julius as the murderer.

The jury did not hear statements by two inmates who said that co-defendant Jordan bragged about the killing and the deal he made to get out of prison in 15 years. Jordon, in fact, was released 15 years into his 30 year sentence.

Neither did the defense attorney call Jones’ family to the stand even though they would have testified that he was visiting their home until about 9:30, the time when the murder was committed in Edmond. His current attorneys explain:

Julius’s trial lawyers claim in sworn affidavits in 2004 that they delegated the investigation of the alibi to an investigator who was untrained and unqualified. This investigator never provided written or taped notes of his supposed alibi investigation

Neither did the Jones defense do an adequate job of distinguishing between Jones, who was photographed just before and just after the murder with close-cropped hair. The witness, Megan Tobey, testified that the shooter had “a half an inch to an inch” of hair sticking out of the bandanna. This is crucial because Jones had close-cropped hair that didn’t fit such a description. Hunter indicates that the defense claimed that the witness said the shooter had “cornrows.” But the Jones defense position is:

She did not testify, as the AG’s Statement misrepresents, that the shooter did not have braids or corn rows. Ms. Tobey also specifically affirmed that the shooter had hair sticking out from both sides and about a half an inch.

Moreover, the defense attorney did not stress the point of how important that testimony was in terms of incriminating Jordan, not Jones.

Finally, at least one juror heard a fellow juror say, “Well, they should just take that n—– out back, shoot him and bury him under the jail.” The juror told the judge about the comments the following day, but the juror was not removed, supposedly because the judge was not told that the N-word was used.

As I rethink the Julius Jones case, and the district attorney’s response, I recall the 1980s when I was a legal historian and when violence in Oklahoma City was so much worse than we could imagine today. Back then, I was one of many who was cautiously optimistic when Bob Macy took office.

My research had focused on Oklahoma County from the 1960s to the 1990s. Clearly, the War on Drugs undermined the progress which I had witnessed. Despite my intense involvement with the inner city, and seeing many abuses of power, it never occurred to me that law enforcement in 1999 could resemble the brutality of 1969. I’m now shocked that today’s prosecutors, who in my experience want to distance themselves from the corrupt violence of Jim Crow Oklahoma, are still refusing to break with the system of the past which deprived Julius Jones of a fair trial.

During either era, however, the publicity that accompanies capital crimes means that death penalty cases bring out the worst in the system. But, this is not 1999 or 2002 when Jones faced trial. We now know far more about the facts regarding that horrible murder and biased prosecution. Because of longstanding practices and the 1980s and 1990s “reforms,” designed to get tougher on crime by undermining defendants’ rights, no jurors, and few or no judges, have looked at the whole story. Julius Jones’ life now depends on the Pardon and Parole Board and the Governor, and whether a majority will commit to justice for Julius, taking a step toward a criminal justice system worthy of our democracy.

John Thompson is a retired teacher and historian in Oklahoma.

He writes:

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.

John Thompson, retired teacher and historian in Oklahoma, is keeping a close watch on the Trump rally and its risks to public health. He reports from the front lines of a city that’s about to dare COVID-19 to show its stuff at tonight’s indoor rally for 19,000 people. You can be sure that Trump will not wear a mask. Not wearing a mask in the midst of a global pandemic is the mark of….a brave macho guy? A COVidiot? Time will tell. In about two weeks.

He writes:

The single best insight into President Donald Trump’s June 20 rally in Tulsa was posted by Mark Alan on Facebook:

“Come for the Racism, Stay for the Plague.”

If there was any thought that Alan was exaggerating, it would be overridden by Trump’s own words. After his campaign bragged about the 800,000 supporters who’ve shown interest in the Tulsa rally, he warned in a tweet:

Any protesters, anarchists, agitators, looters or lowlifes who are going to Oklahoma please understand, you will not be treated like you have been in New York, Seattle, or Minneapolis. It will be a much different scene!

As the first of the estimated 100,000 people drawn to the rally arrive, more questions arise about the racism as a curfew is imposed and then rescinded, as the National Guard is put on standby, and as more threats are posted on social media and the Tulsa Police Department reports “that individuals from organized groups who have been involved in destructive or violent behavior in other states are planning to travel to the City of Tulsa for purposes of causing unrest in and around the rally.”

Similarly, as the number of Tulsa County virus infections “skyrocket,” Oklahoma has become the state with the “second-fastest-growing per capita rate of new coronavirus infections in the country, based on a seven-day average.” So, with the plague side of the event, another question arises: Will we see “Profiles in Courage?”

I guess a possible nominee could be a Trump supporter, who’s been camping out in advance of the rally, and told the Oklahoman, “We feel like President Trump and his family have dedicated their lives to helping our country. Sacrificing a week of our lives is nothing for what Trump has done for us.”

I wonder how many of the “more than 50 campaign surrogates plan to attend the Oklahoma rally, including at least a dozen Republican House members and Sens. Jim Inhofe, James Lankford and Tom Cotton” are just as sincere in their commitment? Or, as Axios reports, are they parts of “scenes to be quickly converted into TV ads.”

Who knows what’s in the mind of Gov. Kevin Stitt, who still tells Trump that Oklahoma is “one of the first states that has safely and measurably reopened”?

Stitt did not consult community leaders before inviting Trump to visit Greenwood where, this month, 99 years ago, white mobs burned down the area known as “Black Wall Street,” killing as many as 300 people. (He later changed his mind about a visit.) We know, however, that like other African-Americans, Rep. Regina Goodwin doesn’t welcome the Confederate flags that early arrivals display. And we know she’s right in saying, “This isn’t a campaign stop. He’s already won Oklahoma. This is a dividing tactic to gin up his base and throw red meat out to his folks.”

Stitt’s newly appointed State Department of Health Commissioner, Lance Frye, doesn’t seem to be a likely Profile in Courage candidate. Frye had said it was “not my place to say whether I think a rally is a good idea or not.” Now he feels the rally is “a train rolling down the hill that we’re not going to be able to stop.”

But Tulsa Health Department Director Bruce Dart has earned his Profile in Courage by telling the truth about the recent surge in infections. From the beginning of the controversy, Dart said, “Our job” is “to stand up and try to do the right thing based on what the data and the science is telling us.” He used the term “super-spreader” to describe a possible “outbreak linked to indoor gatherings, with large groups of people congregated in close contact for prolonged periods of time.”

By contrast, Mayor G.T. Bynum takes the prize for the one who knew what the responsible path was, but ducked. He took a first stand, of sorts, on Facebook posting:

Earlier this year, Tulsans collectively undertook great sacrifice to “flatten the curve”. We did this to slow the spread of COVID-19 and allow our local health care system the time it needed to become properly equipped for handling a longer term pandemic.

We acted early and we were successful. …

But, since May 1, he followed Stitt’s reopening plan. That is why he writes: “Do I share anxiety about having a full house at the BOK Center? Of course.” The mayor then said he was unaware of Trump’s plan until the venue management contacted the city about police support.

David Blatt, the founder of the highly respected Oklahoma Policy Institute replied:

This is inexcusable. As a previously strong and vocal supporter of yours throughout your time in office, I am tremendously disappointed in your catastrophic failure of leadership on this. You are neglecting your responsibility as Mayor for the health and safety of Tulsans, and sad to say, the blood of those who get sick and die because of this rally will be on your hands.

Bynum’s credibility was further undermined by the executive vice president of ASM Global, the company that manages the BOK Center. He said that he would have said no to the campaign rally had Bynum told them to say no.

The previous day Bynum said that he had told ASM Global, “you need to operate this safely and whatever decision you make, we’ll have your back, but that it’s their decision under their contract with the city. They have sole authority for making the decisions on bookings in that facility.” He acknowledged “anxiety” about “having a full house at the BOK Center.” But at the same time, he said he was “not a public health professional.” So, “I’m not here to testify to the safety of anything.”

During these discussions, it was learned that half of the BOK’s staff would not work at Saturday’s rally, and will be replaced by part-time workers. Doesn’t that mean the arena staff will barely know who is supposed to do what, when implementing social distancing and other CDC-approved procedures?

Neither do I believe the Courts will be eligible for a Profile in Courage recognition. After 700 medical professionals and other experts were unable to persuade city leaders to protect the public, a suit was filed, arguing the issue wasn’t about politics, but about requiring safety procedures. It argued that state and city executive orders require the arena to follow Center for Disease Control guidance, and make plans for following recommended protocols. It was supposed to follow the state’s “Open Up and Recover Safely (OURS)” plans.

The plaintiff’s attorney, Clark Brewster, argued that the business operators had a duty to follow OURS procedures, and that included discussions with health authorities, which did not happen. (Curiously, the operator, ASM Global, said that it needed to have such discussions with the Trump campaign, but it didn’t respond to their outreach.)

The plaintiffs also “noted that the courts aren’t allowing full trials because of coronavirus safety restrictions. ‘If it’s not safe to have 12 citizens in a jury box, how is it safe to have 19,000 people together?’” one of the lawyers argued.

The Oklahoma Supreme Court was the “only institution that stands between Tulsa and a biological bomb.” But the Washington Post reports that the Court rejected the argument because “the state’s June 1 reopening plan allowed business owners to use discretion over social distancing measures, and they were not mandatory as the plaintiffs had asserted.”

I’ll need to hear the legal debate before making a judgment, but it seems the Court ducked the issue. Yes, businesses can use discretion when making plans for social distancing. But it seems clear that no meaningful discretion has been devoted to the safety plan. And clearly, the lack of discussion and planning is dangerous. I’ll be curious whether the Court discussed the level of safety that is possible when unprepared staff members are tasked with protecting public health within the arena.

Surely the Court also discussed the spread of the disease and the possible deaths of non-attendees who didn’t choose to put themselves at risk…

But, maybe I am taking an approach that is too liberal and/or science-based. As the Los Angeles Times explains, “Saturday’s rally in Tulsa is a powder keg.” It comes with both systemic dangers born of the pandemic and police brutality. But, maybe the public’s health and safety isn’t enough to slow the political process where the President and his people slap together a mega-event which invites their people to “Come for the Racism, Stay for the Plague.”

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.

John Thompson writes about his former student, who is scheduled to die:

As the nation wrestles with the latest police killings and Black Lives Matter protests, the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board must decide whether to allow the execution of my former student, Julius Jones. Julius’ request for commutation has gained the support of the Congressional Black Caucus; criminal justice expert, Bryan Stevenson; numerous elected officials, pastors, bishops and archbishops; the Executive Director of Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform; the President of the NAACP State Conference; and public figures ranging from Kim Kardashian to a former Attorney General of Canada; and the Executive Director of the George Kaiser Foundation.

Now, three NBA basketball players, Blake Griffin, Russell Westbrook, and Trae Young, have joined in support of Julius.

Griffin, Westbrook, Young: Commute the sentence of Julius Jones

I was struck by the personal part of letter written by Griffin, who often was in our gym when I played basketball with Julius, his brother and his sister, as well as the person who we believe committed the murder. He wrote:

My father, Tommy Griffin, coached Julius when he played basketball at John Marshall High School, and often I would tag along to practices and watch Julius and his team play. Our familial relationship goes back generations. My father grew up with Julius’ parents. Our grandmothers were best friends. The Jones family has always had strong values and deep commitments to the community.

I feel terrible for everyone involved in the tragic events of the summer of 1999; however, I do believe that the wrong person is being punished for this crime.

Coach Griffin offers similar support: “’In my heart and my mind, I think that they should open it up and look at it strongly,’ Tommy Griffin said. ‘If we’re wrong, we’re wrong. But there are so many things leading to them being wrong.’”

Twenty years ago, we often thought that Oklahoma City was moving on from the nightmare of the 1980s and early 1990s when the War on Drugs perverted our criminal justice system. We had no idea that even today, actual innocence, alone, would not be enough to get the Supreme Court to consider the now-huge body of evidence that Julius is innocent.

Click to access Aglialoro-final.pdf

As I recall, my visit to the Jones’ home was scheduled before Julius’ arrest, so I was in their living room just after their house was ransacked by the police. I clearly remember the thoughts shared between so many people who knew both defendants. We didn’t expect the police to just take our words for it, but neither did we expect to be completely ignored. It quickly looked like the investigators had made up their minds, and targeted the least likely suspect.

Being a former legal historian who had deeply researched the Oklahoma County District Attorney office’s recent past, I recalled one DA’s favorite meme: “Every inmate at Big Mac (state prison) is guilty of the crime he was duly convicted of – or something else.”

Twenty years later, there is abundant evidence that the institutional racism, which drove so much of law enforcement assumptions, explains why Julius is on Death Row, even though the totality of new evidence has not been reviewed in court. The co-defendant, Chris Jordan, changed his story at least six times when interviewed by the police, but Julius’s inexperienced attorneys didn’t cross-examine Jones regarding his inconsistencies. The jury did not hear that Jordan bragged to fellow inmates that he, not Julius, had committed the homicide. Nor did the defense attorney stress Julius’ photograph, taken a week before the crime, which showed he did not fit the only eye witness’ description of the shooter. Julius’ attorneys also failed to present evidence that Julius was home with his family the night of the murder.

In exchange for testifying against Julius, Jordan pleaded guilty to first-degree murder, was given a life sentence with possibility of parole after 30 years. However, there is evidence of a secret deal with Jordan where he would only serve 12 to 15 years in prison in exchange for his testimony. Jordan was released from prison after serving only 15 years.

Neither was it revealed that a juror reported that another juror used the N-word when referring to Julius, but was not removed from the jury.

If jurors or judges could view all of the evidence presented in the three-hour ABC documentary, The Last Defense, they could connect the dots accordingly. I suspect few would conclude that the evidence points to Julius’ guilt. It’s hard to see how any would say that he received a fair trial.

And I expect that most would agree that much of the problem was the continuing assumption that young, Black defendants must be guilty of something or they wouldn’t be a suspect. That mindset likely helps explain why the Oklahoma City police have killed 48 people since 2013, the second highest, per capita rate in the nation.

Chief calls report ‘extremely flawed’ but data appears accurate in labeling OKC with second highest police killing rate

Of course, the law enforcement mindset which targeted Julius is still alive, and it contributes to the police killings that are being protested by Black Lives Matter and a range of Americans of all races. That battle will continue for a long time. It is hoped, however, that the Parole Board will consider Julius’ case in early June. Almost 4 million have signed his petition, and I hope readers will help reach the goal of 4.5 million.

Sign the Petition