Anti-Woke Oklahoma Schools Boss’ Event Labeled a ‘PR Stunt’

Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast / X
Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast / X

Oklahoma schools boss Ryan Walters kicked off his talk at a state university on Wednesday night by calling on people to “never back down to a woke mob.”

But less than 15 minutes later, Walters seemed to do just that as hecklers in the audience shouted over his remarks.

The Republican firebrand—who has likened the state teachers union to a “terrorist organization,” advocated for taxpayer-funded religious schools, and appointed the far-right “Libs of TikTok” creator to a state library media advisory committee—waved goodbye before organizers of the Oklahoma State University event escorted him away.

“Who do you work for?” one person yelled.

Another agitator fumed that Walters was a “power-hungry fascist” before crying, “Nex Benedict’s blood is on your hands!”

The protester was referring to the 16-year-old non-binary student who died after being beaten by classmates in Owasso. Advocates say Nex had been bullied and harassed for a year before this heartbreaking episode, and that Walters’ anti-equality rhetoric has created a hostile environment for LGBTQ kids like Nex.

As The Daily Beast reported, Walters posted transphobic sentiment on X the same afternoon that authorities said Nex died by suicide.

People attend a candlelight vigil for 16-year-old nonbinary student Nex Benedict in February in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma

People attend a candlelight vigil for 16-year-old nonbinary student Nex Benedict in February in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.

J Pat Carter

NBC affiliate Oklahoma News 4 captured Wednesday’s protests, as did a conservative activist who livestreamed the event, which was hosted by the university’s Turning Point USA (TPUSA) chapter.

The national conservative group didn’t return messages, but Walters used his X platform to rail against the rabble-rousers, claiming “radicalized LGBTQ-plus groups” were working to silence him and stop conservatives from attending his speech.

“You heard them yelling, screaming, yelling profanities, threatening me during the speech,” Walters said, adding that this was just one stop on a college campus tour.

“These leftists want to go on and tell you on these college campuses that America is an evil country,” Walters continued. “It’s not a country to be proud of. They want to tell you there is no god. They want to tell you there’s 27 genders.”

But Bella Farrow, a lead organizer of the protests outside the building and in the lecture hall, told The Daily Beast that her group was a student-run nonpartisan effort.

A junior at OSU, Farrow pointed out that Walters was previously scheduled to speak on campus with TPUSA a few weeks ago but canceled a day or two ahead of time. Back then, Farrow and others had heavily promoted a protest against him.

“It came right off the heels of a lot of news about Nex Benedict’s death,” Farrow said. “His rhetoric specifically, we believe, contributed to negative attitudes about LGBTQ people. … So it felt disrespectful, at the very least tone deaf to bring him right after that.”

The students also take issue with his failure to retain staff—more than 130 education department employees have resigned, including the legal staff and his Christian conservative supporters—and his use of public funds to pay for his out-of-state media appearances. They underscored one recent poll from Change Research that revealed 55 percent of Oklahomans disapprove of the job he’s doing.

“It’s not only his position on like LGBT issues, but also his failure as an elected official to do his duties,” Farrow said. “He’s the State Superintendent of Education, but he seems to prioritize his ideology over actually serving the people of Oklahoma.”

Indeed, Walters has raised his national profile as a culture warrior, traveling across the country to speak at conservative conventions and meeting with a Fox News booking agent.

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On Wednesday morning, a TUPSA college field rep sent an email to students who RSVP’d to what was advertised as a “town hall.” But the message noted that “Ryan will be giving a 20 to 30-minute speech with questions at the end if time permits.”

“So that’s not a town hall and pretty undemocratic for it to be presented that way,” Farrow told The Daily Beast, adding that TPUSA instead had certain people ask prepared questions.

“We extensively prepared to have a dialogue, but he was unwilling to hear us out,” she said.

That changed protesters' original plans, which included asking researched questions about Ryan’s policies. They weren’t planning on staging any disruption until they learned the “town hall” was actually just a right-wing lecture.

“We have questions about the way that he is operating as state superintendent, because that is taxpayer dollars from all of us,” she said.

According to News 4, more than 100 people showed up to the lecture hall to see Walters, who doesn’t often engage in Q&As with the general public.

Walking back and forth across the room, Walters told TPUSA supporters of the activists, “You conservatives scare them so bad, they are so scared to hear from you that they will shout you down. They will scream hysterically.”

“Conservatives, this is what winning looks like,” added Walters, 38, a former high school history teacher who’s aligned himself with far-right causes including the extremist group Moms for Liberty since taking office in 2023.

Despite the clamor, Walters took an opportunity to spew his us-versus-them discourse.

“The woke mob, they don’t care about the state, they don’t care about our kids, they don’t care about the future of the country. They only want power and anarchy.”

Soon, more audience members began chanting “Where is your budget? Where is your staff?”

“I fire bureaucrats and cut budgets!” Walters said with a thumbs up.

Things quieted down for a few softball questions. One person asked about Walters’ plans for the future of Oklahoma education. He answered that 117 public schools were removed from the “F” list, referring to state report cards, and in between jeers, he crowed that he was protecting “parents rights” and “school choice.”

A student in the front row asked for his advice on entering politics. “Be true to what you believe,” Walters said, adding that “Oklahomans are not radical leftists” and instead “some of the best people in the country.”

“Some Oklahomans want you gone!” someone interjected.

When another student asked how to ensure the future prosperity of the country, Walters said, “We need President Trump in the White House” and other conservative politicians in Congress.

Farrow said her group spoke to a non-student organizer with TPUSA afterward and asked why they changed the format of the event. She claims the representative shared that they didn’t want Walters to field any questions from demonstrators.

“He showed up 15 minutes late, talked for 15 minutes, answered about three to five questions from only Turning Point people and then left 20 minutes early,” Farrow said. “It just seems like it was more of a PR stunt than actually representing the people that he is supposed to represent.”

Walters’ claims of being shut down by “woke” crybabies who don’t want to hear conservative views “completely obscures the fact that the event was changed at the last moment because they didn’t want to hear from us,” Farrow told The Daily Beast, adding that her protest organizers included conservatives.

From Farrow’s perspective, Walters’ goal is more “to be a right-wing figurehead than an efficacious state superintendent.”

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Last week, one of Walters’ high-level executives spoke out about why she resigned from his administration in October, telling News 4 she’s worried about the future of the state’s education system.

Walters hired Pamela Smith-Gordon, a former teacher and school district superintendent, to be the state’s program manager of grant development and compliance.

Smith-Gordon said she could never get a meeting with Walters, so she tried visiting his office—only to find an armed guard blocking the way.

“His hall to his office is behind locked doors with an armed guard. You were not allowed to go down his hall, much less enter his office,” Smith-Gordon said. “Now, there were a select few that were graced with his presence. But department heads were not.”

She said being unable to ask Walters questions and access certain department software led to the state losing “a couple of million” dollars in federal grants for safety and mental health programs in schools.

“These students were not being served,” she told News 4, adding that someone who “had [Walters’] ear” told her to stop contacting him and that he was too busy.

“I do know that he was on TV often, many times when I needed to get in touch with him—he was traveling,” Smith-Gordon said. “It just wasn’t a good situation. I don’t know of any other person that can actually get paid for a job and never be there.”

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