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Judge denies Oklahoma residents’ bid to block Trump’s rally because of coronavirus fears

The Fix’s Amber Phillips on what to watch for as President Trump prepares to hold his first campaign rally in more than three months on June 20. (Video: The Washington Post)
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A Tulsa judge on Tuesday denied an effort by city residents and business owners to block President Trump from holding an indoor campaign rally this weekend that some fear could further the spread of the coronavirus.

The lawsuit in the district court of Tulsa County sought a temporary injunction against the company that manages the 19,000-seat venue, the BOK Center, “to protect against a substantial, imminent, and deadly risk to the community,” according to a copy of the complaint. Judge Rebecca Nightingale denied the request.

There have been mounting concerns among Democrats, civil rights activists, and even some Republicans that Trump’s rally could inflame racial tensions in Tulsa and contribute to spreading of the coronavirus. Some opponents plan to protest Trump’s presence. At the same time, Trump’s supporters eagerly awaited Saturday night’s gathering, already lining up four days ahead of time.

Tulsa’s Republican mayor, G.T. Bynum, sought to navigate a middle path. He said in a statement on Tuesday that he does not plan to use his emergency powers to block Trump’s visit, despite his apprehensions about the indoor event. His spokesperson added that as a “non-partisan mayor,” Bynum would not be attending Trump’s rally.

“Do I share anxiety about having a full house at the BOK Center? Of course. As someone who is cautious by nature, I don’t like to be the first to try anything. I would have loved some other city to have proven the safety of such an event already,” Bynum wrote in his statement.

The mayor added that he was unaware of Trump’s plan until the venue management contacted the city about police support.

“Was the nation’s first large campaign rally after the arrival of COVID-19 my idea?” Bynum asked. “No.”

But Bynum said Tulsa’s hospital capacity remained robust. He added that the Trump campaign had agreed to Oklahoma’s guidelines for businesses reopening after May 1, including providing masks and hand sanitizer to everyone who attends, as well as checking everyone’s temperature.

“We are not going to suddenly abandon the state’s plan, to be either more lenient or more severe,” Bynum said.

Tuesday’s lawsuit was filed on behalf of Tulsa businesses and nonprofits that operate in Greenwood, the historic area in Tulsa known as Black Wall Street, where white mobs burned down buildings and killed as many as 300 people in 1921. The suit was brought against managers of the BOK Center, including ASM Global. The arena is owned by the city of Tulsa.

Meghan Blood, the BOK Center’s director of marketing, said in a statement that “government officials have advised that the campaign rally as planned is consistent with the guidance” issued by state authorities “for entertainment venues. However, in the event that the governing authorities impose new restrictions, we will notify the event organizers immediately.”

The lawsuit complaint said that plaintiffs do not seek a court order barring Trump “from conducting a political rally in Tulsa on June 20th or any other day.”

“This case is not about the President,” it added.

Clark Brewster, a well-known attorney in Tulsa who filed the suit, said the rally could lead to spreading the virus “potentially across the northeastern part of Oklahoma, and other places where attendees travel.”

“Over the last several days, we were hoping this lawsuit would not be necessary, that the people putting the rally on would listen to reason and understand that such a collection of people in such tight quarters would result in a ‘super spreader event,’ ” he said.

Brewster, a trial attorney, has previously represented Stormy Daniels, the adult film actress who allegedly had an affair with Trump and was paid hush money to stay silent before the 2016 election. Trump has denied the affair.

More than 700 Oklahoma medical professionals signed a letter to Bynum this week asking him to place a moratorium on large outdoor gatherings, noting, “As our city and state COVID-19 numbers climb to a rate previously unseen, it is unthinkable that this is seen as a logical choice.”

Tulsa County’s case numbers have been rising in recent days, with more than 1,700 cases to date and 64 deaths.

Monica Saenz, an emergency room doctor at St. John Medical Center in Tulsa, wrote in the letter that she was on the front lines in the intensive care unit and has “personally seen now close to 50 patients die a horrible death” from the disease.

“We simply don’t have the capacity to handle the number of people who will be infected because of this weekend’s activities,” Saenz wrote.

Trump’s campaign rally initially was scheduled on June 19, a day of annual commemoration of the liberation of African Americans from slavery, known as Juneteenth. That timing outraged many people, particularly in Tulsa, the site of a 1921 race massacre that was one of the worst episodes of racial violence in U.S. history. Trump moved the rally one day, to Saturday, but many still consider the event an unnecessary provocation at a time when cities across the country are still protesting racist policing after the death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man killed in police custody in Minneapolis.

“Right now you have people sleeping out on the street with their Confederate flags in advance of Trump’s coming to visit,” said Rep. Regina Goodwin, a Democrat of Tulsa, who is the chairwoman of the Oklahoma Legislative Black Caucus. “This isn’t a campaign stop. He’s already won Oklahoma. This is a dividing tactic to gin up his base and throw red meat out to his folks.”

Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt (R) said this week that he invited Trump and Vice President Pence to stop by Greenwood — the Tulsa neighborhood where white mobs burned down buildings and killed as many as 300 people in 1921 — during their Saturday visit.

Nehemiah D. Frank, the editor in chief of the Black Wall Street Times news site in Greenwood, said that “the majority of this community does not want to see the president and vice president come into this area until they show they can respect what was once the wealthiest black community in the African diaspora.”

He said that Stitt did not consult key community leaders in the area before he invited Trump and Pence for a tour.

“It’s extremely offensive,” Frank said. “It’s not his place to invite people to Greenwood. It’s a sacred place not only for African Americans who go back generations in this city but to black Americans in general.”

“It’s the height of white privilege,” he said.

Sherry Gamble Smith, the president and founder of the Black Wall Street Chamber of Commerce in Greenwood, said community leaders revived plans last week for the city’s Juneteenth celebration in the historic neighborhood, which routinely draws nearly 20,000 people. She said masks will be required and sanitation stations set up.

“Tulsa and Oklahoma hid the 1921 race massacre from the world and this year we’re remembering the 99th anniversary,” Smith said. “We definitely want people to know we’re here and we definitely have something to say. It did not help that the president of the United States has been very disrespectful, along with our governor, who had invited him to Tulsa on this day.”