With a series of electoral recall efforts and controversy over masks and police funding, Norman’s city government saw one of its most turbulent years ever in 2020. Norman native Noah Alpers watched it all unfold.
For the 21-year-old Alpers, who chose Cornell University for his higher education, the municipal drama has been disturbing to observe, but also inspiring. In January ahead of the city’s February local elections, Alpers recently released a 13-minute Norman documentary Brick by Brick about his hometown’s politics at large and the controversial Unite Norman group specifically.
“I feel fortunate to have grown up here,” Alpers said. “It’s a nurturing place. I can’t imagine a better place to have grown up. But what I learned is there is a dark side and that I’ve been insulated from it. No community is safe from these fringe groups.”
Controversy came early
Unite Norman has courted controversy from the beginning. One of the group’s members found himself in hot water last summer after tossing a brick at a car full of teenagers he said were harassing him.
When its efforts to recall Mayor Breea Clark and several city councilmembers largely failed, the group sued Norman City Clerk Brenda Hall who had been responsible for validating the recall petition signatures.
The controversy inspired Alpers, a film major, to produce a short documentary about his hometown’s politics. The film also takes in views from other young Normanites who are similarly dismayed.
“I wanted to make sense of it for myself,” he said. “Part of it was about contextualizing it so I could better understand what was going on. I wrote down some ideas and initially started with more of an op-ed style of film. But as I got more into it I wanted to get views from others and try to tell the story.”
In many ways, Alpers sees Norman as facing a generational divide, which is why he thought it important to include views from those in his age group. Mayor Breea Clark, OU professor Stephen Ellis and former Norman Mayor Cindy Rosenthal are also interviewed.
“I do think there is some tension between younger people in Ward 5 in particular, and I think part of the point of doing [this documentary] was to make that clear,” Alpers said. “It’s sort of coming from the perspective of a younger person.”
Group not impressed with Norman documentary
The film has not been well received by Unite Norman, the founders of which were not interviewed directly by Alpers. Co-founder Sassan Moghadam took to the group’s Facebook page to criticize Alpers and his film.
Moghadam, who starred in the brick-throwing incident last year, is one of the two Unite Norman members featured in the film. Alpers attempts to tie Moghadam’s involvement in Unite Norman as a way to benefit his construction business rather than any real objections to police funding and other local issues. Had the student filmmaker asked Moghadam about that allegation, perhaps the developer would have viewed the documentary as slightly more fair.
But despite Unite Norman’s dislike of the film, Alpers said most responses he has received have been positive. The Norman documentary has been viewed more than 8,500 times on YouTube since its Jan. 30 release.
“It’s generally been positive,” Alpers said. “I was hoping it would lead to conversations about the content. And that’s something I’m happy to do. I expected some vitriol and I’m fine with that. But most people I’ve talked to have supported it as part of a long conversation we need to have as a city even though not all of them necessarily agree with me about everything that’s presented.”
Mixed bag for Unite Norman candidates Feb. 9
Days after the film was released, Unite Norman-backed candidates running for council seats found mixed results in the city’s Feb. 9 council elections.
Unite Norman candidate Chris Lewis lost his Ward 1 race by just 51 votes. In Ward 3, incumbent Allison Petrone and will head to an April runoff against Kelly Lynn, who is backed by Unite Norman. Petrone was one of the target’s of the group’s recall efforts last year.
Unite Norman candidate Rarchar Tortorello won east Norman’s large Ward 5 seat outright. Tortorello recently agreed to an interview with The Black Wall Street Times in which he discussed his decision to attend then-President Donald Trump’s rally in Washington on Jan. 6. In the interview, Tortorello said he believed Antifa was responsible for storming the U.S. Capitol that day, and he expressed skepticism about official reports to the contrary.
The Norman City Council typically meets on the second and fourth Tuesdays of each month at 6:30 p.m., although the council sometimes holds 5:30 p.m. pre-meeting conferences.