Editor’s note: This story is a collaboration between The Frontier and the Tulsa Voice.
I made my way down Highway 51b, to the southeastern edge of Coweta. Through several twists of dirt road, above a beautiful 50 acres, I saw the first Confederate flag at the Oklahoma Resistance rally.
Similar to other nationwide resistance groups, the Oklahoma Resistance is a right-wing group whose members like guns, dislike cops and absolutely hate Muslims. Many also support marijuana legalization and nearly all fly the rebel flag. Their most recent rally was held less than 24 hours after the Nov. 13 attacks in Paris.
Oklahoma Resistance leader Allen Branch — on this day wearing a Confederate-patterned cowboy hat and playing Dixie through his truck speakers — also co-leads a group called Confederate Veterans’ Lives Matter Oklahoma. The group, formed last summer, recently made waves at the Tulsa Veteran’s Day parade.
When Dylann Roof stormed the Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C., killing nine black church members, the slayings reignited the national debate over the Confederate flag. That debate led to the flag being retired from South Carolina’s Capitol and removed elsewhere.
Confederate Veterans’ Lives Matter formed in response to what its members call an assault on freedom of speech.
The group hoped to raise its visibility in this year’s Veterans Day parade, but was denied a float. Officials say the group filed its application far too late and clearly pushes a political agenda — both grounds for denial.
Confederate Veterans’ Lives Matter Oklahoma filed a complaint with the city and began protesting the inclusion of another group, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, in the parade. Group members said that CAIR, a religious organization, was pushing the sort of agenda their own group was accused of.
The Confederate group’s members also alleged that CAIR was a terrorist group, although CAIR’s Oklahoma chapter hasn’t been specifically connected to any documented terrorist activity.
Footage of the Nov. 11 parade shows members of the confederate group, and some other Tulsans, booing CAIR as its float passed by.
The head of CAIR’s Oklahoma group, Adam Soltani, approached the confederate group’s co-leader, Arlene Barnum, and put his hand on her.
“I don’t agree with you,” he told her, “but I respect you.”
Barnum looked uncomfortable, but told Soltani that a peace talk of sorts may be in order. That was two days before ISIS’ assault on Paris.
In the days after the attack, cross table discussions went out the window for Barnum and her followers.
“Not only did I have to suffer an Islamist terrorist supporter at Tulsa vet parade taking unwelcomed liberty of putting his hands on me;” she posted on Facebook, “I feel HORRIFIED & horribly sickened over it!”
More than a co-leader of Confederate Veterans’ Lives Matter Oklahoma, Barnum is a black Oklahoma woman who flies the rebel flag at every opportunity. She uses the moniker “ArleneArmy Black Rebel” on Facebook.
Posts like “Stack those Isis bodies up! … the enemy is already inside the border” receive upwards of 100 likes. These sentiments aren’t just fringe thoughts. They’re common fears that politicians are playing on nationwide.
Several days after the Paris attacks, Mayor Dewey Bartlett wrote a letter to President Barack Obama urging him to suspend the Syrian refugee resettlement program, fearing that ISIS members could enter the country through the program.
Although over half the nation’s governors expressed wishes to refuse Syrian refugees or halt the program while procedures are reviewed, it’s a federal program and they are essentially powerless.
Most of the polarized debate has been online, but groups like the Oklahoma Resistance have held demonstrations against the refugees. At the heart of the back and forth is a large pool of misinformation.
The demographics of the refugees has been one target of obfuscation, with many saying the majority are “fighting-age males.”
This simply isn’t true. Women and children make up 76.6 percent of the registered refugee population. Of those who have made it through the vetting process already, only 2 percent are combat-age males.
Oklahoma state Rep. John Bennett has claimed there are more than a dozen Syrian refugees in Jenks, when records provided by Gov. Mary Fallin’s office show there are 3, who are living with family members.
Some people believe there are already terrorist training camps in the country, including one in Talihina. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, currently leading most national polls, recently told a man asking about the camps that he would look into it.
Theories of such camps stem from a 2005 report by the White Collar National Crime Center. The report showed that training camps indeed existed in the U.S., mainly in the 1980’s and ’90s though, and before the Patriot Act and creation of Homeland Security.
Other worries stem from the idea that there will be large camps of refugees clustered together in our neighborhoods. YWCA Tulsa CEO Vanessa Finley says that’s absolutely not the case.
Although the YWCA refuses to comment on political matters, a press release claiming “YWCA ready to serve Syrian refugees,” made their response to Bartlett clear. When I arrived at Finley’s office I could hear her sighing into her phone, “no, we don’t currently have any Syrian refugees.”
Finley told me that refugees undergo a rigorous vetting process that can take between 18 months to 2 years, before they even arrive in the U.S. Also, the YWCA helps them find jobs (which they must do within 90 days,) helps them find housing and provides them transportation.
Migrant workers in Europe have faked refugee status in hopes of entering more economically stable countries though, so the fear of impostors isn’t completely unfounded. Authorities believe one or two of the men who carried out the Paris attacks may have also posed as refugees.
Still, refugees are only matched with locations that have cultural or familial ties to them, and Finley, whose group deals largely with Burmese refugees, says there’s hardly any reason to send Syrians to Tulsa.
Apart from arguing that sheltering refugees is the moral thing to do, others have claimed it’s strategically intelligent.
U.S. Rep., Steve Russell, R-Okla., claimed recently that denying refugees is a win for ISIS.
ISIS said itself that these attacks “compel the Crusaders to actively destroy the grayzone themselves … Muslims in the West will quickly find themselves between one of two choices, they either apostatize … or they [emigrate] to the Islamic State and thereby escape persecution from the Crusader governments and citizens.”
In the face of all of the anti-Islamic rhetoric, CAIR has remained unflinching.
Oklahoma Muslims endure occasional vandalism (pork products being the weapon of choice for hate groups visiting mosques), but apart from boos at the parade, and online threats, the group has seen little of the anger manifest.
Soltani said the only thing that has hurt him is that some Tulsans asked “why are we allowing ‘the enemy’ to march in the veterans parade?”
In 2009, the FBI placed CAIR on a list of unindicted co-conspirators in the Holy Land Foundation trial, accusing them of aiding Hamas and Hezbollah. Other missteps, like a 2009 letter from CAIR’s executive director to Muammar Gadhafi, and the 2003 arrest of its communications director, Randall Royer, on terrorism charges, have created backlash nationally.
Soltani pointed out that his organization was just one of “300 unindicted co-conspirators” in the Holy Land Foundation trial, and that their group publicly denounces terrorism.
For groups like the Oklahoma Resistance and Confederate Veterans’ Lives Matter Oklahoma, not being indicted in that case doesn’t let CAIR off the hook.
When I met with the Oklahoma Resistance in Coweta, it was the day after the Paris assault.
Tensions were high, and Muslim sympathy non-existent, but talk was mainly light hearted.
“If you shaved your mustache, you’d look like a Muslim,” one man said to another, prompting him to feign suspicion and point to my bearded, un-mustachioed face.
Other conversations centered on family crests, the current climate of political correctness, and lots of misinformation.
The Oklahoma Resistance Rally was held less than 24 hours after the worst European terror attack in 10 years, and although Branch bought hot dogs for 100 people, only six showed up to the event.