Trump supporters verbally clash with protesters ahead of Tulsa rally
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Trump supporters verbally clash with protesters ahead of Tulsa rally

Tensions high prior to campaign event in city with history of racial conflict, as area’s virus cases spike and state court rejects request to require face masks in arena

Demonstrators argue over loud speakers as people gather near an entrance point for a rally with US President Donald Trump in Tulsa, Oklahoma, June 19, 2020. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP)
Demonstrators argue over loud speakers as people gather near an entrance point for a rally with US President Donald Trump in Tulsa, Oklahoma, June 19, 2020. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP)

TULSA, Oklahoma (AP) — A gathering of supporters of US President Donald Trump grew larger Friday and verbally clashed with opponents of the president outside a 19,000-seat arena in Tulsa’s downtown where he plans to speak this weekend.

Trump’s scheduled rally Saturday night in a city with a long history of racial tension will be held just blocks from the site of one of the worst racial massacres in US history and comes as the number of coronavirus cases in the state and the city have spiked in recent days.

The Oklahoma Supreme Court on Friday rejected a request to require everyone attending Trump’s rally 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 rally 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.”

“Therefore, for lack of any mandatory language in the (plan), we are compelled to deny the relief requested,” they wrote.

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.

A supporter of US President Donald Trump takes a selfie near the BOK Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma, June 19, 2020. (Seth Herald/AFP)

On Friday, while city workers erected a high metal fence to completely barricade the Trump rally site, tempers heated as several Black Tulsans walked up to a corner where Trump supporters were bellowing religious messages through bullhorns.

Abrienne Smith squared off with Trump supporters, talking about killings of African Americans. When a reporter asked why she decided to come to the Trump rally site, Smith said: “Because I have a Black son. I am worried about him. He’s 4. I am scared for his life because of stuff like this,” while pointing at the Trump supporters.

In the blocks between the BOK Center and a nearby Juneteenth celebration in the city’s historic Greenwood District, people gathered at two spots on separate corners to paint murals on brick walls of buildings.

Meanwhile, Tulsa’s Republican mayor, G.T. Bynum, rescinded a day-old curfew he had imposed for the area around the BOK Center 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 US 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.”

Bynum 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 in Minneapolis and Washington, DC, were locals.

People listen to the Rev. Al Sharpton address at a Juneteenth rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, June 19, 2020. (AP/Charlie Riedel)

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.

Outside the rally site on Friday, Pamela Drake, an older African American woman, wore a red “Make America Great Again” cap 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.

The Trump campaign said it takes “safety seriously,” noting that organizers are providing masks, hand sanitizers and doing temperature checks for all attendees.

McEnany said she wouldn’t wear a mask at the rally, calling it a personal decision and noting that she is regularly tested for COVID-19 because she works in close proximity to Trump. She 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 US, and in a city where a 1921 white-on-black attack killed as many as 300 people.

Burnt out ruins in the Greenwood section of Tulsa, Oklahoma, following an attack by white residents of the area against Black residents, June 1921. (Public domain)

Marc Lotter, the Trump campaign’s strategic communications director, told MSNBC on Friday that the rally “is really a celebration of an America that’s reopening.”

He said the campaign asks that supporters to stay away from the rally if they or a family member are in a high risk category for serious complications from the coronavirus.

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.

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