“The president chose this city, and so it falls on us,” Bynum said. “And it is an honor.”
Some residents, business owners and civil rights activists have called on Bynum to cancel Trump’s rally at the 19,000-seat BOK Center, warning it could bring a confluence of dangers. They say his visit — the first large-scale gathering in the state since its shutdown — will spread the novel coronavirus at a time when cases are spiking. And they worry it will inflame racial tensions, particularly because of recent protests against racism in policing and the rally’s timing on the weekend of Juneteenth, which commemorates the day enslaved black people in Texas received news of their freedom. It is now observed across the country to celebrate emancipation.
Tulsa Health Department Director Bruce Dart said at Wednesday’s news conference that he had recommended Trump’s rally “be postponed until it’s safer.” Tulsa County has recorded 1,825 confirmed coronavirus cases, Dart said, including a record-high 96 cases on Wednesday. There have been 64 deaths.
Tulsa plans to close down several blocks around the BOK Center, where Trump’s rally starts at 7 p.m. Saturday, police chief Wendell Franklin said at the news conference. He said the National Guard plans to bolster security over the weekend along with federal agencies such as the FBI and the U.S. Secret Service, as well as police departments from outside the city.
“The eyes of the world are upon us now,” Franklin said. He said he was expecting the “potential for a mass amount of people that probably Tulsa has never seen before.”
Top officials including the mayor said they had no advance warning from the White House or the campaign before it was announced last week that Trump planned to visit Tulsa. Bynum said he learned of the massive event when representatives of the rally venue contacted the city asking for police support. City Councilor Vanessa Hall-Harper was in the middle of hearing public comments about the city’s budget last Wednesday when a news alert popped up on her cellphone about the rally.
“I was like, ‘What?’ ” said Hall-Harper, a Democrat and the council’s vice chair. “I was totally shocked.”
Tulsa is still actively investigating the 1921 white mob violence against African Americans that killed as many as 300 people. Many are calling on Trump to cancel an event they consider an unnecessary provocation at a time of nationwide protests about racism and police brutality.
“I think that it’s a horrible idea, and I wish that I had the authority to stop it,” Hall-Harper said of Trump’s rally. “This is ground zero. This is the location for the worst race massacre that has ever taken place on American soil. So you know — or should know — what could potentially erupt here.”
Trump arrives one day after Juneteenth. Representatives of the Greenwood District — the affluent black neighborhood that was burned down in 1921 — filed a lawsuit this week seeking to block the rally unless it could be held in accordance with social distancing guidelines, fearful that Trump’s indoor crowd could be a “super-spreader event” that leaves infection in its wake.
A Tulsa County judge on Tuesday denied the request for a temporary injunction against the venue manager. A lawyer representing the plaintiffs said Wednesday that they planned to appeal to the Oklahoma Supreme Court.
“What is going on in Tulsa right now is madness,” said Paul DeMuro, one of the lawyers who filed the suit. “Our local officials have abandoned the community.”
Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) said Wednesday that “the president’s always welcome” in Oklahoma, but he recommended that people attending the rally wear masks.
“If you are older or have other health issues, don’t come. Watch it on TV,” Lankford told MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.”
Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt (R) said he would be going to Washington to meet with Trump on Thursday and introducing the president at the rally on Saturday.
After saying earlier this week that he had invited the president and Vice President Pence to tour the historic Greenwood area — raising the ire of community leaders there — Stitt said he was now discouraging the president from going to the district, given the disruption his security detail might make to Juneteenth celebrations.
“It’s in flux,” he said. “I believe the vice president is going to have a great sit-down with the African American community to listen and learn and talk.”
Community leaders in Greenwood have planned Juneteenth celebrations for Friday and Saturday. The main event — a rally called “I, too, am America Juneteenth Rally for Justice” — will be 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday along Greenwood Avenue. The Rev. Al Sharpton will be the keynote speaker.
Nehemiah D. Frank, editor of the Black Wall Street Times news site in Greenwood, said rally organizers are encouraging Black Lives Matter protesters to stay away from Trump supporters, who are already gathering around the BOK Center, and to come to the historic neighborhood instead.
“Our community is very tightknit. We did our rally as a way to protect our people from going over to Trump’s,” he said. “We’re working to extend our rally into Saturday as well to keep them occupied. We don’t want them clashing with those people. Trump has a lot of racist followers, and they are dangerous. They know the history of our city.”
“Our rally is going to be a peaceful one,” he said.
He said Stitt did not consult key community leaders before he invited Trump and Pence for a tour of the historic area.
“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.
Trump has said that nearly 1 million people have requested tickets to his rally, suggesting it has the potential to convene Trump critics and supporters from outside of Tulsa. Some activists are worried that conservative armed groups might appear and provoke confrontations, as has happened in other cities during the protests over police brutality and racial violence.
“Tulsa is the wrong place. It’s definitely the wrong time,” said Adam Soltani, executive director of the Oklahoma chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR). “And if Trump truly cares about America and about the American people, he should cancel this rally altogether and find a different place to hold it.”
Trump’s event appears to put Tulsa’s mayor in a bind. Bynum is considered a moderate Republican. He has pushed to investigate lingering questions about the 1921 massacre, including a plan to search for a possible mass grave in a Tulsa cemetery. Earlier this year, Bynum appointed Franklin, the city’s first black police chief. So far, he has expressed worry about the coronavirus but has stopped short of trying to block Trump from coming.
“I’m sure he’d rather all this just go away,” said Bill Shapard, chief executive of the Oklahoma political polling firm SoonerPoll.com.
Oklahoma is a solidly red state, and Tulsa voted for Trump in 2016. But Shapard noted that the city, like many urban areas, has trended Democratic in recent decades and joins residents from far ends of the political spectrum.
“It has the most conservative people in the state, but it also has the most liberal,” he said. “That’s the reason why Tulsa is going to be a hotbed of dissent and support for the president.”
He also warned that it was a combustible moment for Trump to come into town.
“We’re in such a volatile situation now, post-George Floyd protests, that you kind of have to let the people settle down emotionally,” he said. “I wonder whether the public is ready for that right now.”