A Different Shade of Red: a look into Oklahoma’s Socialist past

photo credit: /u/okie_gunslinger

By: Derek Dyson

Recently the powers at be who are running the grounds at the Oklahoma State Capitol have seen fit to fly its original state flag outside of that beautiful crumbling dome. Personally I applaud the decision since I rather enjoy the flag visually and historically, but I find the timing a little ironic considering the current political climate on the national level. If you don’t know what I’m talking about just read on.

In the most paradoxical of ways it makes sense that they’d fly that flag now. It was decommissioned at the beginning of the “Red Scare” because of its socialist undertones and historical roots in the Communist Revolution under Lenin. At that time (adopted in 1911) many Oklahomans followed the political philosophy of Agrarian Socialism, largely in response to rich landowners who forced them into share cropping after they had snatched up all the deeds during the Land Run of 1889. Oklahoma voted heavily for the socialist candidate in the 1912 presidential election and stayed that course up until the beginning of the Great Depression. The current flag, the blue one, was designed as a response to the fear mongering that eventually lead to the Cold War. So in a way it makes sense that a bunch of extreme Right-Wing conservatives are suddenly OK with a flag that was once thought to be too Russian. I wonder how many in the legislature are even aware of its history? You just can’t make this stuff up. These are weird times we’re living in.

Despite our Capitol flying what was once seen as a Socialist flag, be it ignorantly, or ironically, or just a historical homage, Oklahoma remains to be one of the most hostile state governments towards basic socialist ideas such as public education, the right to healthcare, and comprehensive social welfare. To many life long Oklahomans, this is simply the way it’s always been. Oklahomans have given their electoral votes to the Republican Party in every post WWII Presidential election with the single exception of re-electing Johnson in the wake of the Kennedy assassination. In 2008 and 2012 we were the only state in the nation who failed to deliver even a single county to Barack Obama, despite the fact that he notoriously turned red counties blue all across the nation. In 2016 we overwhelmingly voted Republican yet again, but this time for Donald Trump. Although it’s worth saying that Democratic Socialist candidate Bernie Sanders faired very well in the Democratic primaries of the same year. On the state level our House and Senate are arguably the most radically conservative in the Republic, recently passing or attempting to pass laws suppressing minority voting, limiting womens reproductive rights, further relaxing gun control in public places and limiting access to subsidized food and housing to our poorest citizens. On the surface it looks as if conservative values run deep in Oklahoma’s past. Some say so deep that it has even turned our soil red, but I’d like to argue that if this is the case, our soil is red for a much different reason.

The realist in me knows that our red dirt is the product of its high iron content, but the romantic in me is looking for a more symbolic explanation. It could be that our soil is dyed red by the blood of this continent’s indigenous population, who were forced here in an attempt to ensure a more unified nation outside of it’s borders. And sure, you could say it’s red because of the current political map we’ve all been staring at on CNN, but that would be overlooking the rest of this lands rich history. It would be overlooking thousands of years of Native communal living that predates current political philosophies, but holds a strong resemblance to the primitive agrarian socio-economic movements in Europe that lead to the rise of Communism across the globe in the late 19th and early 20th century. More aptly, it would be overlooking this states very founding, a time when it was a much different shade of red; the Red of Marx, the Red of Lenin, the bright red canvas of Socialism had once swept across our plains in a furious rage, overshadowing even the most progressive of states in this country.  As astonishing as it may sound, at it’s founding, Oklahoma had the most influential Socialist Party in America.

In 1911, four years after statehood, Oklahomans adopted their first flag. Flying above our State Capitol was a bright red plane emblazoned with a single, centered, white star, emblematic of leftist flags flown first in 18th century France and contemporary to those of Russia and China during the Communist Revolution. Much like these flags, the new Oklahoman flag was flown for the disenfranchised, for the weak and for those who were forced onto it’s land by poverty or by broken treaty. Essentially, this flag was flown for the people. But, to fully understand this we need to look a little deeper into the past of the Oklahoma Territory and the events that turned it into a Populist stronghold.

This land was originally native territory, home to tribes like the Osage and the Plains Apache. In 1830 The Indian Removal Act brutally forced the Eastern Native American tribes such as the Cherokee, Creek and Seminole westward via the Trail of Tears ending in what would eventually become known as the Oklahoma Territory. Although these native tribes had been living a communal existence for more than a millennia, it would be naive to suggest that this played a large role in the eventuality of a largely Socialist Oklahoma. No, modern Socialism was a Western idea and it took the influx of the white man onto Oklahoman soil for it to take hold.

In 19th Century America, Manifest Destiny expanded the United States westward at a rapid pace. With this came the idea of an egalitarian frontier full of opportunity for those not fortunate enough to have struck it rich on the land of the original colonies. By the end of the 1800’s most of the land had been hastily settled (read exploited), which wreaked havoc on it’s fertile soil and the families that were sustained by it. In a last ditch effort to ease the pain of American settlers the Federal Government decided to open up the only remaining patch of arable, virgin farmland to settlement by it’s woeful citizens.

On April 22, 1889 some fifty thousand settlers lined up for the Oklahoma Land Run, where a two million acre plot of “unassigned land” had been set aside for non-Indian settlement in Central Oklahoma. The cities of Guthrie and Oklahoma City were both established almost instantaneously with populations that numbered in the tens of thousands. A rapid influx of merchants, farmers, speculators and the like, had been anticipated but not to a necessary degree, and what came to follow was nothing short of chaos. Gun fights and general lawlessness was of course a problem, but the bigger issue was the land. What little was available had been ravaged by drought and much of it wouldn’t be habitable for many years to come. This proved to be particularly problematic for the common farmer and their families who had raced to Oklahoma with little more than the shirt on their back.

The majority of the unassigned lands were quickly claimed by rich land speculators and railroad men who had faster means of transportation, the ability to hire men to stake their claims and the capital needed to speed up the complicated legal processes. These important luxuries were not afforded to the vast majority of settlers, leaving them with either the least desirable land or in most cases, no land at all. (1) Once the original plots were swallowed up, borders were ignored and settlers eventually encroached upon the sanctioned Indian Territory for development. By 1907 most of this land was already under non-Indian control when the Federal Government decided to seal the deal by dissolving the Five Civilized Tribes, forcing them to assimilate with the western white settlers of the region and effectively making the Oklahoma Territory the 46th state in the Union.

At the time of it’s founding, the land within the State of Oklahoma’s borders had been fully accounted for, largely by wealthy land syndicates and their cronies, leaving the hundreds of thousands of Natives and White settlers that had originally fled the busts of surrounding states like Kansas and Texas in much of the same devastating conditions they had seeked refuge from. With no available land for settlement poor farmers became mere tenants, forced into sharecropping land owned by wealthy elites or face the risk of homelessness, starvation or worse. (2)  This lead to great indebtedness and rampant inequality in regards to wealth distribution across the state and served as a catalyst for what was to come.

With a large Populist movement already sweeping across the nation and a long history of farmers collectives and labor unions already established in the state, it wasn’t much of a stretch to get poor farmers and indebted citizens to fall in line with a Marxian-Socialist ideology. In less than a decade, more than ⅓ of Oklahomans, many of whom had already held radical Agrarian ideals about land ownership and social equality (due largely to the vicious Social Darwinism of the Gilded Age), had aligned themselves with the Socialist Party. Instantly they began to rail against the bankers, railroad men and economic elites who they saw as willfully oppressing the fellow underprivileged of the state. To the average citizen, these were no more than well dressed thieves, taking land and resources for themselves and forcing everyone else into servitude. These unique characteristics of early Oklahoman settlers culminated in the first decade of the 20th Century and gave birth to the strongest Socialist movement in America.(2)

By this time the majority of already left-leaning newspapers in the region had already began creeping closer and closer to a Socialist viewpoint and rallying the people behind those ideals. The Oklahoma War Chief and The American Noncomformist were particularly vocal in this effort after editors gave free reign for their journalists to speak out against national banks, government bonds, railroads, tariffs and most importantly greedy land syndicates. In a passionate Independence Day address calling for all men to stand together against a monopoly of wealth, editor and former leader of the Southern Farmers Alliance Benjamin Clover famously cried out “Farmers and Laborers are all that stand between the monarchy of wealth on the one hand and the anarchy of poverty on the other.” This rally cry and many like them fueled the flames of reactionary politics and social upheaval in the region and gave a voice to the thousands of Oklahomans who were left behind in the aftermath of the land run.

By the 1912 Presidential election the foundations of the Socialist movement had been firmly planted in Oklahoma, giving 16% of its votes to the Socialist party candidate Eugene Debs, almost tripling the national average. By the 1916 election many rural counties in Oklahoma were voting more than 50% Socialist, with an impressive 22 counties voting above 20% and once again held the Socialist majority in the National Presidential election.

Before it’s decline the Oklahoma Socialist party and it’s Populist predecessors had successfully filled hundreds of seats in state and local legislatures and implemented some of the most progressive land reform measures in the country.  They had efficiently mobilized a vast array of fellow citizens in the region by combining the idea of Jefferson’s Yeoman farmer with the Christian doctrine of the meek inheriting the earth, effectively creating a new breed of Marxism, or more aptly, creating Oklahoman Agrarian Socialism. In it they would find a vehicle for social change that to this day is unparallelled in Oklahoma political history.

Eventually the “Red Scare” swept across the nation and Socialist ideals fell out of favor, or were often forced out of favor, almost instantly. In 1924 the State legislature voted to remove our red flag and it’s apparent “Communist symbolism” and replaced it with a flag similar to the blue one we see today. By the end of WWII Oklahoma had become a socially conservative state with little to no resemblance of it’s progressive past, as it remains to this day.

Researching this subject has given me a new found understanding of the state in which I was born and gladly call home. It has shed some light on a history that goes largely unnoticed and finally lends some credence to those select few, who like myself, hope for a more tolerant, a more socially responsible and most importantly a more progressive Oklahoma. Before this, I had no explanation as to why a state with the official motto “labor conquers all” could also be one of the first “right to work” states in the nation. Or why such a notoriously conservative “small government” state could overwhelmingly support tax subsidies for farmers and at the same time cry foul when their tax dollars are sent to poor families in urban areas. Suddenly, these apparent hypocrisies start to paint a vivid picture of today’s Oklahoma. Now I clearly see our roots, and having a newfound appreciation for the red dirt they were planted in, can concede that Oklahoma has been and will probably always be a Red state…even if it’s currently the wrong shade, and for all the wrong reasons.

 

 

1. Oklahoma Populism: a history of the People’s Party in the Oklahoma Territory. By Worth Robert Miller. (University of Oklahoma Press. 1943.)

2.Agrarian Socialism In America: Marx, Jefferson, and Jesus in the Oklahoma Countryside, 1904-1920. By Jim Bissett (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1999.)

Tulsa, what are we doing?

reddeadtulsa

At first I wanted to throw cans of food through some windows in the Pearl District, but vandalism doesn’t really hurt the wealthy. They have insurance and a police force and a support system to protect them.

Then I thought about offering rides from the Day Center to the corner of 6th and Peoria all day long. Set up a table in Central Park and give wine and cheese to anyone who hasn’t showered in a week. Post some “free campsite” signs all around the park and hope that some people come from beneath the overpasses to camp in that beautiful spot we all paid for. Sure, it would probably cause a stir, but the homeless aren’t props in some demonstration. They’re people. And we shouldn’t need to make a scene to point that out.

Honestly, I don’t know what to do besides sit back, shake my head and whisper to my friends about how fucked up Tulsa has become.

So why would I want to break windows out of rich peoples houses with cans of green beans and creamed corn?  Because apparently in the Pearl District serving the needy for decades doesn’t matter. Unless you have a certain opinion, showing up to clandestine city planning meetings and voicing that opinion also doesn’t matter. Even bringing millions of dollars of development into a neighborhood that is literally begging for it doesn’t matter, but that’s only if the development is going to feed poor people instead of vegetarians and those with a strong dislike for gluten. If you don’t know what I’m talking about just read up on the  Iron Gate Soup Kitchen vs the Proletariat District. It’s yet another example of leadership in Tulsa putting profit before people and then looking ahead for a chance to get to go it again.

You see, it wasn’t that long ago that a handful of business owners downtown trumped the concerns of every Tulsan I know living north of Admiral and basically said, “Yeah, our business, and street, and district is named after a rich white guy who liked to wear white robes and participate in race riots, but do you have any idea how many tens of hundreds of dollars it will cost me to change the name on my menu’s? My business cards? My storefront? I already spent all of this money on signs telling people not to feed the animals (read panhandlers), and now you want me to re-write the history books and my letterhead? Not gonna happen….and North Tulsa, go fuck yourself”.

It wasn’t that long ago that we shut down a vagrant tent city on riverside because white people started to realize that living next to an empty brown stream was enjoyable. Fast forward 15 years and that same rivers edge is getting a billion dollar face lift and it’s not for the displaced campers wherever they went.

It wasn’t that long ago that we shut down the mental health facility at the YMCA downtown and shipped a portion of those poor fools across town to what looks like a retirement village next to the highway. It’s 5 or 6 miles from literally every other support system these people had when they were downtown, but at least we get to let someone make a bunch of money redeveloping 5th and Denver! And don’t forget, we have an awesome public transit system for people who need it, so living so far away from everyone you know and everyone who cares about you isn’t really that inconvenient is it?

The thing that gets me the most about all of this is that we let it happen every single day like it doesn’t concern us. We aren’t homeless or completely broke but we could be tomorrow if we got sick… or hit by an uber driver going the wrong way on a one way street…or laid off from an oil company that just reported  five years of record profits and tax subsidies. We’re the lower-to-middle class in Oklahoma. We aren’t rich, but we vote and think like we are for some reason. We pay our teachers shit wages and cut funding for food stamps, while simultaneously subsidizing a professional basketball arena for a team owned by one of the richest men in Oklahoma. We’re looking out for the best interests of those who need absolutely nothing at the expense of our children and those who need absolutely everything.

People die on our streets from heat exhaustion and from hypothermia every year in this city. Humans, die, starving at night, on the same streets where we drink lattes and start art crawls. We build parks downtown and encourage kids to play in the fountains, and couples to lay on the benches. But we also build parks downtown and arrest homeless people who cool off in those fountains, and try to sleep on those benches. We watch as people just like us, struggling day to day, are treated like animals. The only thing separating most of us from these animals is a thousand dollars a month and a shitty job working for tips so the owner can live in a gated community out south. What is it going to take for everyone to realize that they’re closer to being poor or homeless than they are to ever accumulating enough money to have their views, their best interests, their lives even considered by the wealthy and those who tower above us in government?

I think we’re smarter than this. I know my generation is smarter than this and my city is better than this. It’s time to get it together Tulsa.

Is the Tulsa County Sheriff’s Office deliberately misleading citizens and the media?

clever little sign“An investigator retained by the Sheriff’s office found that Bates violated no departmental policies”  – Tulsa World

When a geriatric millionaire can’t tell the difference between the snub nosed .357 in his right hand, the “pepper ball” rifle in his left hand and the taser strapped to his chest, should he really be chasing down a suspect during a sting operation? What about when he buys de facto deputization complete with friendships all the way up the Tulsa County Sheriffs Office chain of command via fishing trips to Florida and the Bahamas? And what if he throws in some vehicles and weapons just to sweeten the deal? Is this really part of departmental policy? Seriously?

While we’re on the subject of policy, is it policy to release an extremely calculated press statement the day of the shooting that served little more purpose than to merely attack the character of the deceased by calling him a “convicted felon on PCP” who fled from law enforcement while “reaching for his waistband” causing deputies to “fear for the their safety”? Is it also policy to quietly redact those statements days later, just before you release an edited video clip that arguably contradicts those very statements? If these are indeed departmental policies, it seems Tulsans may have more to fear than an old man with a crackerjack sheriffs badge and his own arsenal of weapons.  The Sheriffs Department on the other hand may also have a little more to fear than just the current public relations debacle if it comes to light that they deliberately mislead each one of us from the start.

When 73 year old Robert Bates accidently shot Eric Harris in the back on April 2nd, the wheels of mitigation began to spin almost immediately. If you watch the video it seems that Bates was truly startled by the realization of what he had just done. He yelled repeatedly “I shot him, I’m sorry”. For that, accidently killing an unarmed man as a law enforcement official, he has been charged and will hopefully be held accountable for his negligence. But what about the Tulsa County Sheriff’s Office as a whole? Have their actions up until this point really been on par with a law enforcement agency headed by an elected official and tasked with serving the public good?

Police departments around the country have become very adept at attempting to control public opinion. In the Michael Brown case last August the Ferguson Police Department had access to key evidence long before the media had access to it. Utilizing this dynamic to their favor, they had the ability to conduct calculated PR campaigns that were nothing short of propaganda. For Michael Brown it was “traces of marijuana in his bloodstream” and a video of him in baggy clothes assaulting a convenience store clerk. The Ferguson Police Department leaked this info to the media weeks before the possibly incriminating autopsy report was released and they did so against the wishes of the Department of Justice. The release of this particular video coincided with the release of officer Darren Wilson’s name publicly, allowing the department to easily shift attention away from Wilson and onto Brown, a failing tactic that ultimately lead to another night of rioting after nearly 50 hours of peaceful protest (the longest such stint during that first violent week). They attempted to control the flow of information and thus the media and in turn public opinion. In Eric Harris’ case the propaganda released by the TCSO has been just as egregious.

On April 2nd, mere hours after the shooting, TCSO released their first official statement to the media. In it they deploy talking points that are notoriously used to justify an officer’s use of lethal force. In this case it was the phrases “reaching for his waistband” and “deputies feared for their safety”. But why? Both videos clearly show this was not the case and by their own admission, the shooting was an accident. Why embellish the facts in such a potentially contentious scenario?

Put simply, it is clear that this was nothing more than their PR machine attempting to mitigate any potential public outcry. Pressured by the family and media to release a statement the day of the incident they hastily threw together a series of events that would most likely protect the reputations of the deputies involved. Apparently this was an action they would come to regret. Shortly before the release of edited video footage depicting the sting operation gone awry the TCSO redacted their original press statement removing the character assassination attempts on Harris and the common justification of lethal force phrases. Not only did they remove these phrases from their official statement, they did so without acknowledging the fact that there had been a redaction in the first place, leaving the edited document dated April 2nd.

This is a disturbing trail of events that can be easily tracked first on this Tulsa World Article from April 4th where the original statement has been archived and now on the TCSO press release page where a much shorter, but similar statement is made. Two different narratives of the same event, and no explanation as to why. This in itself should be troublesome for the department in the long run, but you can’t get the full story of how this whole debacle unfolded until you read the official “Narrative of Incident” report penned by Bates himself.

In official documents obtained by Project Freethought, Robert Bates and presumably a team of attorneys and public relations representatives drew out yet another narrative account of that day. Citing emotional distress of the deputy as justification, this report was laid out 5 days after the shooting actually occurred. While this may be a valid delay, it also serves as a very convenient opportunity for officials to get all their “facts” straight and repair the mis-steps they took with their original press statement so that it coincides with the current video footage that has been released.

In the report Bates verifies that the weapon used to kill Harris was his personally owned, snub nosed, Smith and Wesson .357. This is important for two reasons. The first being that a snub nosed .357 looks and feels nothing like the taser he says he thought he was holding and the second being the fact that .357’s are notoriously one of the loudest handguns on the market. This calls into question the departments recent assertion that the other deputies involved hadn’t heard the gunshot. This is an apparent attempt to justify the appalling and inhumane actions of the deputies the Wall Street Journal have now identified as Joseph Byars and Michael Huckeby, one of whom is seen in the video driving a knee into Harris’ head while yelling “Fuck your breath” as the man lay on the pavement pleading for his life. This also calls into question why a man who was accidently shot was not given immediate medical attention by the deputies on scene.

Here, civil rights attorneys representing the Harris family display the revolver used (left) the taser (right) and the unrelated weapon TCSO had used earlier as a prop for the actual weapon.

Here, civil rights attorneys representing the Harris family display the type of revolver used (left) the taser (right) and an unrelated weapon similar to one TCSO had earlier attempted to pass as a prop for the actual revolver used in the killing of Eric Harris.

Also in the report Bates suspiciously uses phrases found in the original press statement (pre-redaction) and does so word for word as if he were reading from a script. By his account the day starts in a task force meeting where he is advised that Harris was a “convicted felon” that was a “bad son of a bitch” with “gang affiliations” and should be considered “armed and dangerous”. Although these phrases weren’t all in the initial press release, they serve the same purpose of giving the deputy some leeway as far as justification of lethal force goes. Again, why is this necessary if he’s already admitted that the shooting was an accident? At the time the shot was fired the deputy by definition did not fear for his or the other officers safety to a degree where lethal force was warranted.

From there Bates explains the events leading up to the shooting with some familiar phrases. “At the time I noticed that Harris was running in an unusual way because as he ran he repeatedly touched his right hand to his waistband area on his right side….I believed that Harris might be carrying a gun, which would be consistent with what deputy Ramsey said in the briefing”.

Here again we have a deliberate statement being used for justification of lethal force, by a deputy who has claimed that he accidently shot the suspect in the back. Presumably justification of force is irrelevant in an accidental shooting, but it seems he had to put it in his report anyway because he does so multiple times. It’s reasonable to assume that he had to put this in his report because the Sheriff’s office had already stated it as fact five days prior. Despite the contradictory video evidence and their apparent attempt to hide those discrepancies by redacting their original statement just before they released the videos, the language of justification of force is now something they are wed to.

By re-incorporating this statement and releasing an edited version of events on video, they are assuming this claim will hold water later down the road or at the very least prevent further public outrage until that point. When watching the video footage currently available it is clear that Harris is running in a normal fashion, i.e. not grasping for an imaginary gun in his waistband, which would make these statements dubious at best. As it sits they retain plausible deniability because we cannot know for sure what happened in the 3-5 seconds between when Harris lept from the undercover agents vehicle and when he comes into frame in the second video where we see the chase and shooting occur. What is clear is that Harris is not running like he has gun in his gym shorts and doesn’t “repeatedly touch his right hand to his waistband” as Bates states. If the Tulsa County Sheriff’s Office wants the public to believe Bates’ full account then they need to release all pertinent videos, fully and unedited, as requested by multiple media outlets.

As of today they have refused to release unedited and/or additional videos stipulating (as they have before) that the Oklahoma Open Records Act does not apply to an ongoing investigation. This falls directly in line with the lack of transparency we’ve already seen by the Tulsa County Sheriffs Office and only lends credence to the mounting evidence suggesting a targeted media and PR campaign that was ineptly put into place on day one. If they are allowed to continue in this fashion they will no doubt watch from a distance as protests lose momentum, public forums stop and the media moves on to the next news cycle as if nothing had ever happened.

 

*Shortly after publishing this article the Tulsa World broke a story alleging that some of deputy Robert Bates’ training certifications had been falsified after the shooting and higher ranking officers who refused to falsify these documents were re-assigned because of this insubordination. You can find more on this developing story here.