The air is hot and thick. Hundreds of people have crowded into Volare Pizzeria Bar + Lounge to hear Democratic presidential candidate and former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke speak.
One of those people is OU Law student Kaitlyn Huelskamp, who attended with a few of her friends. She listens closely to the presidential candidate until something she sees sends her mind racing.
“We're sitting here, he's talking about the El Paso shooting, and I kind of turned back around for a second and I look to my left, and there's a Trump supporter,” Huelskamp said. “I immediately think, 'Holy shit, if there's a gunman I'm jumping over (the bar).' I tell all my three friends and I'm like, 'Hey, somebody comes in. We're getting over the bar.' The fact that I had to think that and felt like I had to tell my best friends that is horrifying.”
“It's not necessarily Beto,” Huelskamp said. “It's just that we want change. And we're not getting change from Trump.”
Just 16 days after the racially motivated shooting in his hometown of El Paso, O’Rourke visited Norman to speak with OU students about his policies and goals if elected president.
O’Rourke’s OU visit was planned on the fly, said Oklahoma College Democrats president Tasneem Al-Michael, with the campaign calling him only days before he visited. His first stop in Norman was with a group of students who have spoken out against racism on campus: the Black Emergency Response Team.
Destinee Dickson, a recruiter for the team who helped organize the #BetterTogether rally and march in the spring semester, said Al-Michael contacted her saying O’Rourke wanted to meet with the organizers of the march. BERT met with him for 10-15 minutes just before his rally began at Volare.
“We were the first people that had the opportunity to interact with him,” Dickson said. “It was a very private setting. I think the biggest thing about the meeting that we all said across the board ... is that it was very genuine. He wanted to hear our voices — he didn't do a lot of talking. He did a lot of listening, which I thought was really, really cool.”
O’Rourke gave them the opportunity to not only to talk about concerns they have as college students, but also as people of color, international students and daily concerns they have at OU, Dickson said. Before his arrival in Norman, O’Rourke visited Greenwood and Black Wall Street in Tulsa, the site of the 1921 massacre, and Dickson said she believes he “understands and recognizes the issue of racism.”
“We have learned a lot this morning in Tulsa, in the neighborhood known as Greenwood, where Black Wall Street once stood,” O’Rourke said. “I got to hear about some Oklahoma history, I got to hear about this country's story, the foundation not only of our success and our greatness, but the hatred, the racism and the terror that still defines the lives of so many of our fellow Americans.”
Although Dickson said she did not get the chance to talk with him on how he plans to tackle the issue of racism, she thinks his willingness to learn and his recognition of modern racism is crucial in a presidential candidate.
“He knew and recognized that he wanted to know more (about the 1921 massacre), and educate himself on this tense racism that has occurred,” Dickson said. “That racism that was 100 years ago, the racism ... that's happening today, in ... El Paso and other places. He recognizes that racism is still a thing.”
Although Al-Michael cannot endorse a candidate as president of the Oklahoma College Democrats, he said being connected on the issues of racism and gun violence that affect the entire country is something O’Rourke does well.
“The best thing that Congressman O’Rourke does is he brings a genuineness to understanding of these issues. When something happens in (our) own backyard, he's able to speak upon those issues,” Al-Michael said. “I think with Congressman O'Rourke, he is going to be doing a lot of good work and a lot of things to specifically connect with young people. That’s something that he did in his Senate race back home in Texas, that’s something that he's doing all across the U.S. right now.”
Al-Michael is in talks with the campaigns of other presidential candidates to visit OU, like Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg and New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker.
“The biggest thing that these presidential candidates really understand is that student voices need to be brought to the table,” Al-Michael said. “So let's use that to our advantage, and where it comes to keeping our elected officials accountable, and by bringing them here in the first place, because nobody can pass over Oklahoma.”