The Trump campaign has repeatedly touted figures suggesting as many as 1 million people signed up for the event. But the number of Trump supporters who showed up fell far short of that. The crowd did not fill the 19,000-seat BOK Center venue, with swaths of upper-level seating empty. The outdoor overflow area remained largely empty, and both Trump and Vice President Pence canceled plans for speeches there.
“There’s not a million people like they said,” said Erin Taylor, 33, as she left the rally site with her parents.
Trump blamed the news media and protesters for the turnout. “I’ve been watching the fake news for weeks now, and everything is negative — don’t go, don’t come, don’t do anything,” he said during his speech.
Reporters on site saw little evidence of attendees being blocked from going to the rally. One group of protesters blocked one of three entrances into the arena for about 15 minutes, but it was after most people had already entered the arena’s outer perimeter.
In the hours before and after the rally, there was rage and bitterness on display in the streets of Tulsa, as polarized Americans shouted at each other about race and the coronavirus.
As the sun set, downtown Tulsa was largely closed for business, with blocks of shuttered restaurants, bars and storefronts, many boarded up. Large crowds of protesters marched around the arena as Trump spoke inside, monitored by police.
The tense scene was largely of Trump’s own making. The president insisted on forging ahead with his indoor rally despite health authorities’ stark warnings about the risks of crowding thousands of people into an arena as novel coronavirus cases spike in the city. Trump brushed aside criticism about inflaming racial wounds by choosing to hold his rally just blocks from the site of a century-old racial massacre and one day removed from an annual holiday commemorating the emancipation of enslaved people.
The result was a day of finger-pointing and bullhorn-taunting, face-to-face screaming matches and boiling tempers under the sweltering Tulsa sun. Hundreds of supporters and critics filled downtown in anticipation of the president’s first political rally since the pandemic brought much of public life to a standstill in March.
By the time Trump took the stage Saturday evening, there had been a series of tense verbal confrontations outside but no reports of violence. Civilians carrying military-style rifles and pistols wandered amid the crowds, claiming they wanted to keep people safe, while Tulsa police and National Guard troops restrained and separated opposing sides.
Fears that the rally could accelerate the spread of the virus were underscored when six members of Trump’s campaign advance team tested positive. The campaign made that announcement, saying quarantine procedures had gone into effect for the infected staff members and those in “immediate contact” with them.
Upon entering the rally grounds, attendees were handed blue face coverings and directed through a maze of metal fencing, which led to a touchless temperature screening conducted by volunteers in purple smocks.
The elaborate procedure stood in contrast to the chaotic scenes unfolding downtown. Arguments erupted between protesters and the president’s supporters at street corners near the arena, where they traded cries of “Black lives matter!” and “All lives matter!”
Tulsa police sought to separate the groups and directed people out of the streets. David Morledge, 36, of Fayetteville, Ark., held a sign reading “Dissent is the highest form of patriotism” and challenged an officer who ordered him to move to the sidewalk to arrest him. The officer stepped back and moved on.
At least two people were arrested Saturday. Trump’s campaign, which was leasing the BOK Center, directed Tulsa police officers to remove Sheila Buck, a Catholic school art teacher who said she had a ticket to the event and had sat down in protest within the barricaded zone. She was wearing a shirt that read “I can’t breathe,” among the final words uttered by George Floyd as a police officer in Minneapolis knelt on his neck. Buck spent about six hours in jail and said she was handcuffed the entire time.
Phillip Rufkahr of Missouri was arrested about 4:30 p.m. as police worked to clear Fourth Street of protesters in front of an entrance gate. An arrest report stated that Rufkahr was ordered to stop loitering, but he refused even under threat of arrest.
Adding to the fortified atmosphere, about 250 National Guard soldiers were on hand to assist local authorities. Some were armed in response to an elevation of the threat level, said Lt. Col. Geoff Legler, a spokesman for the Guard. Initially, the plan was to equip them only with batons, shields and pepper spray.
The president arrived in Tulsa at a precarious moment for his presidency. Recent polls show him trailing former vice president Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee, nationally and in some critical swing states, suggesting he has suffered politically from his handling of the virus — which has killed at least 117,000 Americans — and his response to roiling demonstrations over racial injustice and police brutality sparked by the Floyd killing last month.
The protests and the pandemic collided with Trump’s visit to Tulsa, where the number of new coronavirus cases continues to grow. The county reported 136 new cases Saturday — marking another high for both single-day and average cases — while the state as a whole reported 331 new infections.
Most police officers, National Guard soldiers, food vendors and the vast majority of people in line chose not to wear face coverings. , though Trump-branded masks dotted the crowd. The Confederate flag also appeared — all the more striking because Oklahoma was not a state at the time of the Civil War.
Margene Dunivant and her son Christian Lynch, both of Tulsa, sat on the edge of the crowd, taking in the scene.
“Everybody here is just full-on American and American Dream and hard-working, and just believes in everything America,” said Dunivant, 52. “Nowadays, it’s like you put on a Trump shirt and you’re considered racist, and it’s just wrong. We’re good people, and we love everybody.”
A contrasting view was also on display in Tulsa, where counteractions were planned with such names as “Dump the Trump Rally” and “Rally Against Hate.” Antipathy toward the president — and objections to his insistence on gathering thousands of people indoors for a campaign event — fused with the outpouring for Juneteenth, the holiday celebrating freedom for enslaved black people.
“It’s irresponsible, to say the least,” said Mareo Johnson, a pastor and the founder of Black Lives Matter Tulsa. His group was involved in organizing a Saturday demonstration at John Hope Franklin Reconciliation Park, less than a mile from the president’s rally.
His message to the city’s black residents, he said, was: “Stay focused on what Juneteenth represents.”
The commemoration had added significance in Tulsa, a city scarred by racist violence in 1921, when a white mob killed an estimated 300 black residents and devastated an area of the city known at the time as “Black Wall Street.” The Tulsa Race Massacre unfolded in the Greenwood neighborhood, where the words “Black Lives Matter” were painted in yellow on a road on Friday.
The events — freighted with political and historical meaning — turned the city into a magnet, leaving epidemiologists and public health officials fearful about the possible spread of the virus. Their concern was heightened by the announcement that members of the advance team, who typically work closely with security and contractors, had been infected.
“It’s another demonstration that super-spreaders can be alive and well if you don’t use prevention measures, which we know work, including masking, distancing and hand hygiene,” said Jay Bhatt, a physician in Chicago and former chief medical officer at the American Hospital Association. “One person can be a cause of significant transmission. Looking at six on an advance team, there could be significant spread.”
Some of the elected officials present, however, did not make use of those measures. Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) said he and his wife, Cindy, underwent rapid covid-19 tests to ensure they would not spread the virus as they moved without masks through the crowds. They walked the downtown streets surrounding the stadium and spoke with those in line after delivering doughnuts and juice to volunteers earlier in the day.
Lankford said the state encouraged attendees to get tested at any of the 80 sites around Oklahoma leading up to the event. Those with health issues could follow online, and those who had concerns about being in the enclosed arena could remain outside.
Robin Wilson, 64, said she was not concerned about contracting the virus inside the stadium despite a heart condition two years ago that led to her use of a wheelchair.
“I’m here because I love my president,” said Wilson, who used to work in insurance, “and I feel that he’s misrepresented by the mainstream media. And I believe that this is history in the making today, and I wanted to be a part of it.”
Brian Clothier, 61, found a more eye-catching way to illustrate his view of possible risks from the virus. He wore an adult diaper over his pants, where he placed a sign saying the underwear would “stop the spread,” in a reference to the disputed notion that flatulence can be linked to coronavirus transmission.
A half-mile away, protesters decried the president’s visit to their city.
Eli J. Guerrero, a queer indigenous activist, told a small group gathered at the Center of the Universe, a popular downtown landmark, “Trump being here is an affront to my whole entire family and really every facet of my life.”
The event was able to proceed after the Oklahoma Supreme Court on Friday rejected a bid to require the BOK Center to enforce social distancing guidelines spelled out by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and endorsed by members of the president’s own coronavirus task force. The campaign’s response was that it would hand out masks but not require them to be worn.
Originally scheduled for Friday, which was Juneteenth, the rally was postponed by a day following an outcry. The president, after admitting not to have known about the significance of June 19 for many African Americans, claimed in an interview with the Wall Street Journal to have made it “famous.”
Trump on Friday threatened protesters preparing to appear in Tulsa, warning on Twitter: “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!”
A curfew that had been in place on Thursday was rescinded for Friday night after discussions between Trump and Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum (R), who has called the president’s decision to hold the event in his city a “tremendous honor” while declining to attend it.
Before 3 p.m., a couple of blocks from the rally venue, Black Lives Matters activists and Trump supporters clashed in the middle of Fourth Street, outside the barricades overseen by the National Guard and Tulsa police. Police stepped in to clear the street and separate megaphone-shouting protesters from the Trump supporters who were yelling right back.
William Dunbar, a 33-year-old Tulsa resident, approached the faceoff between Trump supporters and protesters with firearms strapped across his chest and on his hip to express his “First and Second Amendment rights.”
The Tulsa native said he was there as a deterrent.
“The last thing I want is to hurt another individual,” he said. “I’m a de-escalator.”
While Trump supporters and protesters tangled near the BOK Center, Sharon Erby, a 59-year-old native of the historically black neighborhood of Greenwood, sat with friends under a tree across from the Vernon Chapel A.M.E. church, which was set ablaze during the 1921 massacre.
While Greenwood was quiet Saturday, the mood was no less defensive and unaffected by the division in the city. She and her friends spent the day in the church social hall making protest signs about defunding police and investing in public health.
“These are expressions of what people are feeling,” Erby said. “This is what was in their hearts.”
As Trump supporters gathered inside the arena, another crowd convened at Veterans Park, about a 30 minute walk away. It was a multicultural group of hundreds gathered for The Rally Against Hate to hear civil rights protest veterans, new activists, and musicians, organized by Tykebrean Cheshire, who said she started a nonprofit called Peaceful Rally Tulsa 10 days ago.
“That 8 minutes and 46 seconds changed the whole world. It made people think, why have I not been listening,” said Cheshire, 21, who is black and hispanic, referring to the amount of time George Floyd was pinned on the ground. “Some people thought, that could’ve been my son. And others thought, that couldn’t have been my son. And they were both right.”
She says she quit her job at Target and dedicated her adult life to peaceful organizing. The distance from the BOK center was intentional.
“Our biggest thing was to make sure people felt safe tonight,” Cheshire said. “Going to the BOK Center didn’t feel like a safe option. I wanted to do the old school MLK thing. We’re able to connect with each other, and that’s the most important thing today.
Some protesters tried to get into the arena, despite the heavy police presence. One of the leaders of the group was Sincere Terry, an 18-year-old prelaw student at the University of Central Oklahoma. Tulsa police told her and several supporters it was up to the private security group contracted by the Trump campaign whether they gained access. Security turned them away a second time after police cleared the area and reopened the gates.
“It’s disrespectful for [Trump] to be here right after Juneteenth,” said Terry, who had a ticket to the rally. “I’m not surprised by how we were treated. This is America. It’s sickening. We’re still getting lynched in Houston in 2020 and instead of protecting us, the National Guard is out here in Tulsa. This is being black in America. You get used to it or you don’t, but this generation is going to put an end to it.”
Stanley-Becker reported from Washington. Ziva Branstetter, Kelsy Schlotthauer, Josh Dawsey and Bret J. Schulte in Tulsa contributed to this report.