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Trump rally attendees, council react one year later

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Jan. 6, 2021 was not lost on those who attended former President Donald Trump’s “Stop the Steal” rally and those who watched from home in Norman.

Some in Norman — including a sitting councilor and two current candidates — traveled to Washington, D.C. in support of claims that Trump lost due to rigged election machines and deliberate voter fraud.

The movement became known as “Stop the Steal,” as thousands gathered to hear Trump speak before rioting inside the U.S. Capitol building. No evidence of voter fraud has been proven, and hundreds of alleged insurrectionists are the subject of criminal investigation or charges, NPR reported Thursday.

Ward 5 Rarchar Tortorello traveled to D.C. that day with his girlfriend, local optometrist Dr. Nicole Kish.

Kish, now a candidate for Norman mayor, filed a defamation lawsuit after backlash on social media erupted after the two shared photos from their trip. Kish alleged she was stalked, harassed and threatened in her lawsuit. It remains on appeal at the state supreme court.

“At the time I went to Washington, you have to remember that the conversation in America was bustling around voter integrity — from Georgia, on both sides, from Stacey Abrams, to the Republican Party, to the presidential race,” Tortorello said. “I exercised my right to attend a peaceful protest, and we weren’t anywhere even near the U.S. Capitol.”

Kish said she “went through hell” when she returned from D.C. She said she experienced the rally at a distance, but the event was crowded, so she and her friends retreated to their hotel to warm up and watch from their TV. As news of the violence broke, she immediately booked a flight home, she said in a Wednesday statement.

It was clear there were people with intent to assemble peacefully and those who intended “to do harm,” she said in an email to The Transcript on Friday.

“I understand that others were in town that day to do harm, but that was very different than the rally I attended,” Kish said. “I won’t be bullied or intimidated for exercising my right to peacefully assemble and to exercise my first amendment right to free speech.”

Council candidate for Ward 6 Alex Torvi went to D.C. because of concerns regarding election integrity, he said.

“I was interested in attending the Trump rally because he was the sitting president, and there were at that point still concerns over voter integrity. He had pledged that he would cooperate with the ‘peaceful transfer of power,’ but he and millions of Americans certainly still had questions over whether there was voter fraud, particularly with mail-in ballots which had never been tried before en masse,” Torvi said.

When he realized violence had broken out, he was concerned for the safety of others who traveled with him.

“Violence is never the answer,” he said. “I’m proud to have exercised my right to peaceful protest, and agree with most in our society that violence is never the answer.”

Torvi compared protests against police brutality to the Trump rally. He claimed more than $2 billion in damages was done and thousands of police officers were injured following the summer 2020 protests across the nation.

His comment refers to a report by the Insurance Information Institute that obtained insurance claims from May 26-June 8, 2020 from claimants across the nation during that period. The report estimates up to $2 billion in damage claims could be paid.

Torvi’s claim about the number of police injured in summer 2020 appears to come from a report from the Major Cities Chiefs Association, which says just over 2,000 police officers were injured in protests. The same report says 7% of nearly 9,000 protests that summer involved violence.

Torvi’s talking point, brought up by GOP legislators in the wake of Jan. 6, 2021, has been decried as a false equivalency by experts and academics, ABC News reported.

“So, any leader that is critiquing the peaceful Trump rally that I attended, yet they didn’t critique the Antifa riots nor BLM [Black Lives Matter] leaders threatening to ‘burn down the city’ in places like New York, well, they don’t have a leg to stand on,” he said.

Council reaction

Some city councilors had strong words about that day, including Mayor Breea Clark. She said she watched the news coverage through tears as the shock of disbelief became reality.

“I said to myself over and over again, ‘this can’t be happening, this can’t be happening,’” she recalled. “It was one of the saddest, most unbelievable moments of my adult life.”

Ward 8 Matt Peacock condemned the day as an “assault on the democratic rule of law,” he said.

“In no way can it be rationalized as anything else,” he said.

Ward 4 Lee Hall noted how fragile democracy seemed that day and now.

“Going forward, Jan. 6 will always serve as a day to stop and reflect on how close we came as a country to losing what we should hold most dear — a thriving democracy,” she said. “Under our form of government, we have taken for granted the legitimacy of the election process and the peaceful transition of power from one party to another because all evidence continues to support our success in conducting fair and secure elections. We have now witnessed how fragile democracy can be and must do everything in our power as engaged citizens to strengthen voting rights and voting access for all as the threat persists today.”

Jan. 6 was not the only day on Ward 6 Elizabeth Foreman’s mind as she considered other events that shook the nation.

“April 19, 1995, September 11, 2001, and January 6, 2021 are three of the darkest days in American history in my lifetime,” she said, recalling the Oklahoma City Bombing and 9/11. “For people who consider themselves ‘patriots’, they did the least patriotic thing imaginable by ransacking our nation’s capitol building that represents our democratic values. These ‘patriots’ disobeyed the commands of our brave men and women in blue, were attacking them trying to bust past them, and so much so that a police officer died that day.”

Jan. 6 will not be forgotten, she said.

“I am thankful that there was not a worse outcome that day, but that day will stay with every American as a threat to the civilized values that we hold dear as a nation,” she said.

A path forward

Some said the divide in our nation and Norman continues, but hope that it can be healed moving forward.

“This anniversary was a reminder that our work is not finished yet,” Clark said. “I am grateful for everyone that showed incredible courage, stood strong and fulfilled their duties last year as the U.S. Capitol, and many of them personally were under attack.

“This year, I am grateful for those that continue to prosecute the terrorists that made the Capitol Riot nightmare a reality. There is no place for that kind of treason and hate in the future of our nation, and I truly believe that with great leadership and a reminder to all Americans that we have more in common than we don’t, we have the opportunity to be stronger and more United than ever before.”

Torvi also noted the value of finding common ground to better bring the city together, especially to solve problems.

“I think the country and the city are still pretty divided, and it’s unfortunate,” he said. “However, I’m doing my part to walk as many doors as I can in my ward in Norman, to bridge the divide, talk with as many people as I can about the issues that bring us all together. There is common ground we can all find on issues like public safety and bringing jobs and economic prosperity back to Norman.”

The Transcript requested comment from all members of the council. Ward 1 Brandi Studley, Ward 2 Lauren Schueler, Ward 3 Kelly Lynn and Ward 7 Stephen Holman did not respond.