ENID, Okla. — On a hot night in July, the first summer of the pandemic, Jonathan Waddell, a city commissioner in Enid, sat staring out at a rowdy audience dressed in red. They were in the third hour of public comments on a proposed mask mandate, and Waddell, a retired Air Force sergeant who supported it, was feeling increasingly uncomfortable.
He had noticed something was different when he drove up in his truck. The parking lot was full, and people wearing red were getting out of their cars greeting one another. As the meeting began, he realized that they opposed the mandate. It was almost everybody in the room.
The meeting was unlike any he had ever attended.
“The line is being drawn, folks,” said a man in jeans and a red T-shirt. He said the people in the audience “had been shouted down for the last 20 years, and they’re finally here to draw a line, and I think they’re saying, ‘We’ve had enough.’”
At the end of the night, the mask mandate failed, and the audience erupted in cheers. But for Waddell, who had spent seven years making Enid his home, it was only the beginning. He remembers driving home and watching his mirrors to make sure no one was following him. He called his father, a former police officer, and told him what had happened. He said that people were talking about masks but that it felt like something else. What, exactly, he did not know.
In the year and a half that followed, fierce arguments like this have played out in towns and cities across the country.
From lockdowns to masks to vaccines to school curricula, the conflicts in America keep growing and morphing, even without Donald Trump, the leader who thrived on encouraging them, in the White House. But the fights are not simply about masks or schools or vaccines. They are, in many ways, all connected as part of a deeper rupture — one that is now about the most fundamental questions a society can ask itself: What does it mean to be an American? Who is in charge? And whose version of the country will prevail?
Social scientists who study conflict say the only way to understand it — and to begin to get out of it — is to look at the powerful currents of human emotions that are the real drivers. They include the fear of not belonging, the sting of humiliation, a sense of threat — real or perceived — and the strong pull of group behavior.
Some of these feelings were already coursing through American society, triggered by rapid cultural, technological, demographic and economic change. Then came the pandemic, plunging Americans into uncertainty and loneliness, an emotion that scientists have found causes people to see danger where there is none.
Add to all of that leaders who stoke the conflict, and disagreements over the simplest things can become almost sectarian.
Eran Halperin, a social psychologist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in Israel who studies emotions in conflict, said that people in intractable fights often do not remember how they started but that they are perpetuated by a sense of group threat. One’s group — for example, American or Christian — is an extension of oneself, and people can become very defensive when it — or its status in a hierarchy — changes.
“If my American identity is an important part of who I am, and suddenly there’s a serious threat to that, in some ways that means I don’t know who I am anymore,” he said. “It’s an attack on the very core of how I see myself, of how I understand myself.”
In Enid, both sides in the mask debate believed they were standing up for what was right. Both cared deeply for their city — and their country — and believed that, in their own way, they were working to save it.
Birth of Freedom Fighters
One of the first to speak at the City Council meeting that night in July was Melissa Crabtree, a home-schooling mother who owns a business selling essential oils and cleaning products. Crabtree was new to politics, drawn in by the pandemic. When states enacted sweeping rules like lockdowns, mask mandates and school closures to combat the spread of illness, she was skeptical.
The more she researched online, the more it seemed that there was something bigger going on. She said she came to the conclusion that the government was misleading Americans — for whose benefit, she could not tell.
She felt contempt radiating from the other side, a sense that those who disagreed with her felt superior and wanted to humiliate her. She said she was taken aback at how people were ridiculing her on a pro-mask group on Facebook.
Crabtree grew up in a highly devout family. The whole family was active in their faith. She accepted Jesus at a backyard Bible club when she was 4 and has never questioned her faith.
But now, at 45, she said she believes that Americans broadly, and Christians in particular, have left too much of the running of the country to a governing class that has taken advantage of power. She blames her parents’ generation for “not talking about religion or politics,” a position that she said has led to a loss of influence.
This makes her feel unsettled, because America is changing. Gender is blurred in ways that she said she believes God did not intend. She home-schools her children, in part to steer clear of these shifts. But the bigger problem, as she sees it, is that the broader culture seems to applaud them. It is not just sexuality. There are other issues too — for example, what she sees as the left’s preoccupation with race and its telling of history.
Demographics are changing too. Growing numbers of Hispanic people and Asian people from the Marshall Islands call Enid home. The county of Garfield, in which Enid is the seat, was 94% white in 1980. Last year, that figure was about 68%. The county experienced one of the largest increases in racial diversity in the country over the past decade, 2020 census data show.
Crabtree, who is white, could feel that change was accelerating, and that was making her feel like she was losing her country, like it was becoming something she did not recognize.
So when she heard about the indoor mask mandate proposal last year in her city, she jumped to get involved.
Eventually she made a Facebook page called Enid Freedom Fighters. She told people to come to the meeting and to wear red shirts so they could spot one another.
And in July 2020, when she walked into the City Council meeting wearing a red dress and a red cardigan sweater and saw the others, she felt nervous but also excited.
The mandate failed. They could tell their voices mattered.
Waddell voted for the mask mandate, and the reaction was immediate. The following Sunday, people he had prayed with for years avoided him at church. Several people left the church altogether because of his association with it, he said.
Waddell listened to critics of the mandate, but their position baffled him. The idea of individual sacrifice for a greater good was ingrained from years in the military. He grew up in Washington state, the youngest child of Black civil servants. He went into public service, too, joining the Air Force after a year of college. When he retired seven years ago, he was at a base near Enid, and he and his wife decided to settle in town with their four children.
Waddell volunteered as an associate pastor at his church. He won a seat on the City Council and began looking for funding for youth programs.
But as the months went by, he felt as if he were living in a town that no longer recognized him.
The attention he did get was sometimes menacing. His daughter, 7 at the time, was picked on at school because of his stance. Military security on the base where Waddell now works as a civilian handling IT operations took him aside to tell him about threats against him. He began checking a security camera at his house through an app on his phone.
“There’s just this vitriol in this place that we chose,” said Waddell, who is 41. “We’re ostracized from the community that we chose.”
Winning Felt Good
The City Council finally passed a mask rule in December 2020. The city commissioner who introduced the mask mandate, Ben Ezzell, said it was toothless but better than nothing.
But the Freedom Fighters, now energized, had bigger plans.
In February, they swept the local elections, winning three seats on the City Council — including Waddell’s and Ezzell’s. Winning felt good, and they kept going. Over the course of this year, through a series of elections, appointments and City Council votes, they have helped get four candidates onto the school board and another four onto the library board, Crabtree said, the latter after a disagreement over a display of LGBTQ books for Pride Month.
“The red shirts have assumed effective control of most of the public bodies in Enid,” Ezzell said. He estimated that those who cared enough about the mask mandate to show up at a public meeting to speak against it were a small minority of the city’s 50,000 population. But they had an outsize effect on the Council’s moderate members, because in this moment of defensiveness and threat, going against members of your own tribe is extremely difficult.
In the end, both sides could agree on one thing: The fight was not really over masks.
Waddell thought it had to do with fear. He said America is in a moment when the people who ran things from the beginning — mostly white, mostly Christian, mostly male — are now having to share control. Their story about America is being challenged. New versions are becoming mainstream, and that, he believes, is threatening.
“You don’t just get to be the sole, solitary voice in terms of what we do here, what we teach here, what we show on television here,” he said. “You don’t get to do it anymore. That’s where the fight is.”
He sees it as the next chapter in the story of what it means to be an American, of who gets to write this country’s story. But he does not see the country getting through it without a fight.
“We’re going to have an explosion,” he said. “Whether it’s literal or figurative. It’s going to be bad.”
For Waddell, the past 18 months have been the most painful of his life. He said the experience changed him and left him feeling that Enid, as much as he tried to build a life there, no longer feels like home.
He said he is working on forgiveness. But he is also applying for jobs outside Oklahoma. Several applications in Arizona look promising.
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