TULSA, Okla. – Nine-year-old Nila Faulk was leaving the Trump rally with her grandparents when chants of “black lives matter” rang out from the street where protesters were blocking traffic. The chants gave way to shrieks and shouts as a white man stepped out of a truck and pepper-sprayed one of the black demonstrators in the face.
As activists separated the two, Nila and her grandparents hurried down the block away from the fracas.
“It’s a shame,” Ken Bonvillian said, asked how he’d explain to his granddaughter what she saw.
“I’ll just tell her it’s wrong the way they’re doing things,” he said of the protesters, whose tactics he viewed as violent. “Violence is not the answer; it’s not the way we grew up learning about the history of our country.”
For those who protested peacefully, he had more empathy, though Bonvillian doesn’t understand why they’re at odds with the president.
“They want equality, justice, fairness,” he said. “They want to make sure that we have a legacy to pass down to generations to come. And I really do think Trump wants that.”
The protests that surrounded the BOK Center where President Donald Trump held his first campaign rally in months Saturday largely avoided violent confrontation. But the frequent verbal clashes with rallygoers were enough to attract the curiosity of juvenile eyes, as children walked hand-in-hand with adult relatives who gave them front row seats to a tumultuous chapter of American history.
Several pro-Trump families echoed Bonvillian’s sentiments as they made their way home from the rally or watched the activists protesting systemic racism and police brutality. The demonstrators are misinformed, they told their children; Trump wants the best for all people, including African Americans, several parents said. We don’t see color, and they shouldn’t either.
Nila clung to her grandparents, adjusting a red, white and blue bonnet once they felt far away enough from threats. Another child sat in his father’s lap on a sidewalk bench as they watched protesters armed with pistols in waistbands and holsters verbally spar and occasionally scuffle with Trump supporters, some of them also armed with pistols in waistbands and holsters. A 12-year-old boy helped his father sell versions of the Confederate flag.
Alex Standridge, 12, stood next to her two older siblings, Air Force veterans, as protesters traded insults with MAGA-hatted men.
“I wanna be brave like my brothers,” Alex told her father’s girlfriend.
They’d arrived at the rally too late to get inside the venue, so they stood in a crowd beyond the outer-gate perimeter and waited to see protesters pass. Richard Standridge, Alex’s dad, told her the protesters were yelling at them because he was wearing an American-flag-patterned shirt, the flag her brothers were willing to “die for if they have to.”
“She has to pick her side,” Standridge said. “I can’t pick her side for her. And to do that, she has to be able to see what’s going on. That’s the best thing we can teach our kids.”
What would he tell her about the protesters’ goals?
“I don’t think they even understand what they want,” Standridge said of the protesters, “because black lives do matter. Every life matters. I have lots of white friends and black friends. I’m out in the oil field. We don’t see color. You either work, pull your weight, or you go home. There’s no color.”
Of all his relatives at the rally, Standridge said, “she’s going to take the most from this, and it’s going to shape her life and how she handles different viewpoints.”
Logan Renfro, 13, of Fayetteville, Ark., joined his grandmother Anne Harrison, 57, near a couple of blocks from the BOK Center, where they watched police disperse protesters with pepper projectiles. “I saw one of them holding a shotgun,” he beamed, referring to a police officer.
Harrison said the protesting blurred the line between peaceful and violent: “They were parading around fairly peacefully. Their speech wasn’t necessarily peaceful.”
She and Logan weren’t able to get into the rally, she said, after a woman working security told the waiting crowd that volunteers checking temperatures had all gone home and that the gates were closed. So they stuck around the city and watched the crowds and protesters. She told him the best way to learn the truth was to see it for himself.
She added that she planned to tell Logan about how the Ku Klux Klan was founded by Democrats.
“I know that they want equality, and I’m all for that,” she said, Logan’s hand in hers. “Democrats throughout history have not voted for black lives. 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.”
Down the block, Chayson Cole, 11, leaned against a brick wall with his mother, April, an Oklahoma State University employee who lives in Sallisaw. She said Chayson had been “cussed out” by a woman in her 30s who accused April of raising Chayson to be a racist.
Chayson, she said, regularly reads print editions of two area newspapers – the Sequoyah County Times from Oklahoma and the Southwest Times Record from Fort Smith, Ark. – and “loves his president.”
If Chayson asked what the protesters were seeking, she said, she’d tell him they want to strip funding from the police. As she spoke, the sound of a car peeling out of the intersection sharpened the growing tension.
“And they don’t support Trump,” April said. “They think he’s a racist, they think everyone here is supporting hate and racism. I don’t really understand a lot of it. I haven’t seen that side of Trump and I don’t see that in a lot of people here.”
As police cars surged down Boulder with sirens blaring, Joshua Brown, 12, hawked an assortment of flags rising from a cart on the sidewalk with his father, Jeff Brown, 56. One flag depicted Trump as a sleeveless soldier carrying a blazing machine gun, similar to Rambo. Another read, “Trump 2020: Make Liberals Cry Again.”
The best seller of the night: an Oklahoma flag with the Osage Nation buffalo-skin shield mashed up with the Confederate flag.
“We’re capitalists,” Jeff said. “We offend everybody equally.”
The elder Brown said he once believed the Confederate flag represented slavery, but his thinking has changed.
“I have since learned a lot of other variations of the history,” he said. “I think that it’s allowed for people to have their own interpretations from their family and their experience.”
He said his son, who is home-schooled, demanded to come to the rally with his father from their home in Albuquerque, N.M., specifically to see the Black Lives Matter protests. Joshua wore a shirt reading “LGBT” with a drawing of the Statue of Liberty above the letter L, a assault-style rifle above the letter G, a glass full of beer above the letter B and a picture of Trump above the letter T.
“But Joshua’s going to have to form his own opinions,” Brown said. “In our family, we use our brains.”