I tell my East Coast and West Coast friends that I live on a blue island in a red sea. That is the political description of my home, Norman.
It is a college town with a diversity of people. Young and old. Rich and poor. Foreigners from Istanbul to Idabel.
A place where music binds people. And literature fuels the discussion at the bagel shop.
It is not a Norman Rockwell painting. No. It has its warts. And, as with a local election that saw bond issues fail Tuesday, those who live here don’t always agree.
But it is not a place expecting to see what happened Wednesday morning.
A vandal splashed racist, anti-semitic and homophobic graffiti on the entry to a neighborhood elementary school. This person defaced our quirky sculpture outside the fire station-turned art gallery. They attacked a political party’s local headquarters.
This happened at 4:03 a.m. when we were asleep in our beds. In my neighborhood.
This attack was on who we are. Or, at least, who we want to be.
By 6 p.m., Norman mayor-elect Breea Clark and other city leaders had organized a rally against hate at Lions Park, the place I played catch with my son 25 years ago. Where my grandchildren soared on the playground swings. Where my community comes together in the summer to listen to music. Where the neighborhood yoga class stretches, and where just the night before I saw children kicking a soccer ball and a woman reclined in the grass reading a book.
I had been riding my bike in the warmer and welcomed spring air.
A few hours later, the vandal stopped at the park and sprayed swastikas in the eyes of a prominent sculpture.
‘We define ourselves by what we love’
When I arrived at Wednesday’s rally, Normanite Rylee Murray was writing an entirely different message in pink sidewalk chalk: “Celebrate Diversity.”
By 7 p.m., about 300 people had arrived. They listened to an important message from speakers who were a portrait of the multiculturalism that perpetrators of hate find most offensive.
They said being angry about what happened in our college town is one thing, but more importantly we must not let stand what happened. We must not let racist dog whistles go unchallenged. We must not let the few people who seek to divide our community win.
“Every opportunity you have, you have to shut it down. We can’t allow it to continue,” said Joshua Harris-Till, the president of Young Democrats of Oklahoma. “Because if we allow it to continue in the small spaces, that is what creates the big showing of racism we have seen (today) around this city.
“When you see people making jokes about other people from different countries or different sexual orientations from yourself, what will you do?”
I took the challenge personally. It means when I see the disturbing memes some of my friends post on Facebook, I will have to call them out.
But, as Norman Pride President Andrew Coulter said, doing so can get uncomfortable. Still, it’s better to experience a little discomfort if it means preventing what happened in Norman on Wednesday and in Oklahoma City last week.
“The vandals define themselves by what they hate. We define ourselves by what we love,” said Ephraim Judah, pastor of Hebraic Family Fellowship in Norman.
That can be a tall order. It is rather difficult to love your neighbor when they are spray painting the elementary school with messages of minorities raping white girls. But Pastor Judah reminded the audience that people who pursue terror and preach hatred are trying to divide us. If their acts create hate, they win.
As the rally came to a close, Mayor-elect Clark said just what I was thinking.
“The cowardly acts in our community today reek of fear — the fear of change that strengthens our community, the fear of diversity that enriches our culture,” she said. “I have a message for those who come here and vandalize with hate and white supremacy: Hate has no home here.”
From pain to pride
What happened Wednesday morning in my hometown hurt. But also what happened tonight in my home town made me proud to call it my home.
When I left the park there was a snow cone truck giving away its goods to eager children who had spent much of the rally kicking a soccer ball.
There were 48 flavors.
(Correction: This article was updated at 7:10 p.m. Friday, April 5, 2019, to note that the snow cone truck was giving away its product.)