TULSA, Okla. – Supporters and detractors of President Donald Trump continued to gather Friday in Tulsa, where Trump is scheduled to take the stage for the first of his signature rallies during the coronavirus pandemic.
Verbal clashes sparked at times as hundreds of people converged amid a nationwide push for racial justice and tensions over the continued health and economic threats of COVID-19. And the gatherings happened on Juneteenth — a day celebrating the end of slavery in the United States — in a city with a long history of racial tension. Trump’s event scheduled for Saturday night will be held just blocks from the site of one of the worst racial massacres in U.S. history, and Black leaders in Tulsa say they fear the president's visit could lead to violence.
Oklahoma's Supreme Court on Friday rejected a request to require everyone attending Trump’s rally in a 19,000-seat arena to wear a face mask and maintain social distancing inside the arena to guard against the spread of the coronavirus. The court ruled that the two local residents who asked that the thousands expected at the BOK Center be required to take the precautions couldn’t establish that they had a clear legal right to the relief they sought. In a concurring opinion, two justices noted that the state’s plan to reopen its economy is “permissive, suggestive and discretionary.”
The request was made by John Hope Franklin for Reconciliation, a nonprofit that promotes racial equality, and the Greenwood Centre Ltd., which owns commercial real estate, on behalf of the two locals described as having compromised immune systems and being particularly vulnerable to COVID-19.
While city workers erected a high metal fence Friday to completely barricade the Trump rally site, tempers heated as several Black Tulsans walked up to a corner where the Trump faithful shouted religious messages through bullhorns.
Abrienne Smith squared off with one after the other of the Trump backers, talking about killings of African Americans. Smith said she did it for her Black son.
“I am worried about him. He’s 4. I am scared for his life because of stuff like this," she said while pointing at the Trump supporters.
Pamela Drake, an older African American woman, wore a red “Make America Great Again” and carried a small American flag as she walked in sprinkling rain to claim a place in line for the Trump rally. She and her friend, Kathy Minartz, said they had no fear of catching the coronavirus or of violent protests.
“When you have the Lord in your life, you’re protected,” Minartz said.
Meanwhile, Tulsa's Republican mayor, G.T. Bynum, rescinded a day-old curfew he had imposed for the area around the BOK Center where some had camped out for days already ahead of the rally. The curfew took effect Thursday night and was supposed to remain until Sunday morning, however Trump tweeted Friday that he had spoken to Bynum and that the mayor told him he would rescind it.
Bynum said he got rid of the curfew at the request of the U.S. Secret Service. In his executive order establishing the curfew, Bynum said he was doing so at the request of law enforcement who had intelligence that “individuals from organized groups who have been involved in destructive and violent behavior in other States are planning to travel to the City of Tulsa for purposes of causing unrest in and around the rally."
The mayor didn't elaborate as to which groups he meant, and police Capt. Richard Meulenberg declined to identify any.
Although Trump has characterized those who have clashed with law enforcement after George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis as organized, radical-left “thugs” engaging in domestic terrorism, an Associated Press analysis found that the vast majority of people arrested during recent protests were locals.
Trump on Friday morning tweeted: “Any protesters, anarchists, agitators, looters or lowlifes who are going to Oklahoma please understand, you will not be treated like you have been in New York, Seattle, or Minneapolis. It will be a much different scene!"
White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany clarified later that Trump’s tweet did not refer to all protesters, rather only to those who are “violent.”
Bynum's order said crowds of 100,000 or more were expected in the area around the rally.
Trump's campaign manager, Brad Parscale, told Fox News on Friday that those unable to get into the arena are expected to attend what he described as a “festival” outside where the president might also appear. The Trump campaign said it takes “safety seriously,” noting that organizers are providing masks, hand sanitizers and doing temperature checks for all attendees.
McEnany declined to say whether Trump was taking any additional personal precautions ahead of the rally. The nation’s top public health professionals strongly recommend wearing a mask when social distancing can’t be maintained, as will be the case Saturday.
The city's health director, Dr. Bruce Dart, has said he would like to see the rally postponed, noting that large indoor gatherings are partially to blame for the recent spread of the virus in Tulsa and Tulsa County.
The rally was originally scheduled for Friday, but it was moved back a day following an uproar that it otherwise would have happened on Juneteenth, which marks the end of slavery in the U.S., and in a city where a 1921 white-on-black attack killed as many as 300 people.
The Rev. Al Sharpton, who eulogized Floyd, spoke in Tulsa as hundreds gathered to observe Juneteenth. He challenged Trump directly, using the president's own words.
“It’s lowlifes that shoot unarmed people, Mr. President,” Sharpton said. “You couldn’t be talking about us. Because we fought for the country when it wouldn’t fight for us.”
Oklahoma has seen a recent spike in coronavirus cases, setting a daily high on Thursday of 450. Health officials on Friday reported 125 new confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Tulsa County, which is the most of any county in Oklahoma. Statewide, there were 352 new cases and one new coronavirus death reported Friday, raising the state's total number of confirmed cases since the pandemic began to 9,706 and its death toll to 367.
The actual number of people who have contracted the virus is likely higher because many people have not been tested and studies suggest that people can be infected but not feel sick.
For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms that clear up within weeks. But for others, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, the highly contagious virus can cause severe symptoms and be fatal.
Murphy reported from Oklahoma City. Associated Press writers John Mone in Tulsa, Ken Miller in Oklahoma City and Zeke Miller in Washington contributed to this report.