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Emails and records raise questions about state's response to Woody Guthrie art protest

Image by Oklahoma City artist Jack Fowler

He is held up as an Oklahoma icon, but Woody Guthrie’s message of protesting the powerful in favor of the people is apparently not welcome at the state capitol.

The story made headlines around the country when the state shut down a projected image of Guthrie on the capitol, but records show the rules being used to shut down this protest are not being applied to every protest at the capitol.

One of Woody Guthrie’s most famous folk songs began with the words, “This land is your land, this land is my land.” While the song’s simple melody is taught to children the meaning of the words is not so simple.

“It's not a happy little folk song, that is a declaration of independence,” said Oklahoma City artist Jack Fowler. Fowler finds himself inspired by Guthrie’s use of art and music to hold the powerful accountable to the people.

Guthrie’s guitar was infamously emblazoned with the saying “This machine kills fascists.” Fowler said the message still has a meaning today.

“Non-violent protest works; that it is necessary in a healthy society,” Fowler told FOX 25, “That is what Woody's guitar was about to me; he was about returning a voice to the people.”

Fowler drew Guthrie holding his guitar, but replaced the anti-fascist message with a question, “How did it come to this?”

He projected that image on the side of the state capitol on the tarp that covers the ongoing capitol restoration work.

“Just reminding those people in that building that you guys work for us, we're still out here.”

The state responded saying the projection threatened the safety of workers. Two days later, Fowler went back to the capitol complex. However, because he was told safety of restoration workers was the concern, he aimed his projector at the Will Rogers Building. That building is not under construction and is typically unoccupied after dark.

The Oklahoma Highway Patrol threatened to arrest him for his non-violent, non-destructive protest projection.

“They are scared of us doing something because the more of us that start to do something,” Fowler said of the response to his protest, “The more light we can shine on the people in that building and the way they are behaving in our name.”

FOX 25 requested records after the protest the emails show the morning after his first protest a meeting happened. A senior administrator at the Office of Management and Enterprise Services, or OMES, asked other key leaders connected to the office and the restoration project to meet.

A press release was sent out saying the type of projected artwork was a safety hazard and thus not allowed without a permit to protest.

FOX 25 questioned the rules being applied to the protest and asked questions of the public officials responsible for making the decision. Denise Northrup, formerly the Governor’s Chief of Staff, wrote “gotta love phil cross [sic]” before saying the office should stick with the safety message as opposed to answering questions about the rules being used to stop a peaceful protest.

The state won't say how far the safety ruling will go to prevent outside illumination near the construction tarp.

FOX 25 tried multiple times to get officials with OMES to go on camera and answer questions directly after statements left out details or did not accurately answer our questions. We were told the Secretary of Finance, Preston Doerflinger who is in charge of OMES, was too busy working on the budget. However, on one of the days we visited his office he was not in budget meetings, rather he was on a public relations tour of Tulsa with the Governor.

In the meantime, the same officials that said permits were required and safety was a priority for Fowler’s protest did not step in during recent anit-Muslim protest at the capitol. Those protesters did not have a permit to use the capitol grounds for their protest which blocked access to part of the capitol plaza and used signs with inflammatory messages on them. Some of the protesters were set up near public streets, which posed a threat to their safety and potentially motorists.

The OMES did not address questions as to why permit and safety rules were not equally applied.

The state has also not answered the question posed on Woody’s guitar, “How did it come to this?”

Fowler said he knows the answer to his own question.

“It's our fault,” Fowler said. “We got here because people like me, and almost everyone I know, have sat back and said ‘I'm staying out of it; I've lost hope they're going to do what they're going to do.’”

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