ULSA, Okla. - Tulsa was a city on edge Friday night, as Donald Trump fans and counter protesters gathered in anticipation of the president's first campaign rally in months set for Saturday, raising fears of a violent confrontation and a worsening spread of the coronavirus as local cases spike.
Authorities set up perimeter around the 19,000-seat BOK Center in downtown Tulsa, where those eager to see Trump started lining up at midweek. Businesses around the area boarded up their windows, the mayor issued a state of emergency and set up a curfew out of concern that outside groups were headed to town to raise trouble.
But the city announced it was rescinding the safety measures after Trump tweeted:
"I just spoke to the highly respected Mayor of Tulsa, G.T. Bynum, who informed me there will be no curfew tonight or tomorrow for our many supporters attending the #MAGA Rally," Trump said. "Enjoy yourselves - thank you to Mayor Bynum!"
The surprise decision threw another dose of chaos into the mix, as Trump moved forward to stage a rally that was controversial on two fronts. Not only did it come in a racially torn city at a fraught moment, but it flouted health guidelines that recommend against mass gatherings amid the coronavirus epidemic, with opponents of the rally on health grounds unsuccessfully pressing their objections at the state Supreme Court.
Outside the perimeter of the center Friday, Trump fans were already chanting "All lives matter" at one counter protester chanting and waving a "Black lives matter" sign.
About a mile from the arena, thousands more people gathered Friday for the emancipation celebration of Juneteeth in the historic black community of Greenwood, once known as Black Wall Street, where an estimated 300 black residents were killed by a white mob in 1921. Celebrants painted "Black Lives Matter" on the street in yellow paint, an echo of the District of Columbia's street mural in front of the White House. The Rev. Al Sharpton and other black leaders were scheduled to speak at the rally, set to stretch into the evening.
The looming sense of anticipation permeating the streets here transformed Tulsa, a still-divided oil town of 400,000 in the heart of Trump-friendly Oklahoma, into ground zero for a combustible mix of crises that have further polarized the nation along racial and partisan lines in the lead-up to the presidential election.
The president's decision to hold his first campaign-style rally since the pandemic began in Tulsa on the weekend of Juneteenth angered many across the county and comes as the country is in the midst of a historic reckoning on race after the death of George Floyd while in police custody in Minneapolis on May 25.
Trump, who has used divisive language about race, originally planned the rally to be held on Juneteenth itself, but moved it a day after widespread outcry.
He told the Wall Street Journal earlier this week he had never heard of the celebration until one of his black Secret Service officers explained it to him. "I did something good: I made Juneteenth very famous," Trump claimed, though observances happen annually across the country on June 19. "It's actually an important event, an important time. But nobody had ever heard of it."
Friday, the Rev. Robert R.A. Turner stood in front of the Historic Vernon A.M.E. Church - where the basement was one of the few structures that survived the devastation in 1921 - and watched as crowds streamed past one group selling Black Lives Matter clothing and another registering people to vote.
"We know that people came here nearly 100 years ago and sought to destroy black Wall Street," Turner said. "We don't want other individuals to come finish the job. I just hope and pray that the president keeps his people calm, but I have no faith in this president. He has shown a propensity to incite violence."
Earlier in the day, Trump on Twitter had warned that "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!"
Although Oklahoma is a solidly Republican state, Trump campaign officials said they chose the city for Trump's first campaign rally in months because Oklahoma is already well into reopening after the coronavirus shut down and view it as a celebration of sorts that the worst of the crisis is over. Trump and others have said about 1 million people have requested tickets to the event.
The campaign intends to supply rallygoers with masks and hand sanitizer, but will not be keeping attendees six feet apart.
Oklahoma's new cases have spiked since the state moved into an aggressive reopening plan on June 1.
Eric Feigl-Ding, an epidemiologist at Harvard University's Chan School of Public Health, said Oklahoma has the second-fastest-growing per capita rate of new coronavirus infections in the country, based on a seven-day average.
As of Thursday, infections were up 140% in the state, according to estimates by the Federation of American Scientists, a nonpartisan policy institute where Feigl-Ding is a senior fellow. As Friday, Tulsa County had 2,070 cases and 65 deaths, and Oklahoma had 9,706 cases and 367 deaths.
The Oklahoma Supreme Court on Friday rejected an appeal of a lawsuit filed on behalf of local residents, business owners and a community center in Greenwood earlier this week that had demanded that the arena's manager adhere to social distancing guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or cancel the rally.
The city's top health official, Bruce Dart, has said he was worried the rally could become a "super spreader" event and said Wednesday that he had recommended the rally be postponed until it was safe.
"I know so many people are over COVID," Dart said. "But COVID is not over."
Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt, a Republican, has said he will be welcoming the president with open arms Saturday.
"My question back to all the folks that say you shouldn't have a rally, when is the right time?" he said on Fox Friday. "Do we really think that in July or August or in November coronavirus is not going to be here? We've got to learn to deal with this. We've got to learn to be safe, take precautions, but we've got to learn to also live our lives."
Trump's supporters said that they were unconcerned about the perils of coronavirus or of protesters.
"I'm not going to let those people run me off," Terri Whisenhunt, 49, of Wagoner, Okla., vowed. "And covid-19 is not going to keep me locked in my house. I think it's all a bunch of B.S."
She said she would not be wearing a mask inside the rally, echoing the sentiments of many of Trump's top staffers, including press secretary Kayleigh McEnany, who said Friday no one in the administration has any reservations about going forward with the rally during the pandemic. Asked why Trump is taking the risk of spreading infection, she said, "Look, I think we're confident we can operate safely in Tulsa."
McEnany said she will be at the rally and will not wear a mask, which she said is a personal choice.
Around the BOK center Friday, vendors hawked T-shirts and face masks, and small clusters of people wearing MAGA hats and Trump T-shirts roamed the streets, taking photos.
Dozens of people clustered in soggy lawn chairs and huddled under umbrellas and tents in the rain after being moved from their spots in front of the arena Thursday night.
At one point in the afternoon, a young African American man clashed with a white Trump supporter who had parked his pink bicycle with a Confederate flag flying from a pole at the intersection of West 4th Street and Boulder Avenue.
After a scuffle over the flag, the owner of the Confederate flag pulled a knife, which he kept to his side, while the other man yelled, "Make my day."
The busy traffic was punctuated with frequent blasts from horns of Trump supporters and also pounding bass from vehicles rolling by playing a rap song at full blast with the lyrics, "Hey, hey f--- Donald Trump." A woman in a Trump 2020 hat approached one, a Chevrolet Tahoe with the passenger-side window partially rolled down, and handed the occupant a white carnation, which was received.
Standing on the corner nearby, Trump supporter Roberta Marracino shook her head and called the music "obnoxious."
Marracino, 54, traveled from Bloomingdale, Ohio, near the Pennsylvania border. She arrived late last night with her 15-year-old daughter for her fourth time seeing the president speak. "He needs our support now more than ever," Marracino said. "It's appalling the vile, nasty things they say about him and they get away with it. The more they throw at him, the more I support him."
Marracino said she thinks the president deserves more support from minorities because the economy had lowered the unemployment rate. "He loves the American people, of all races, all colors, all backgrounds." Another vehicle rolled by blasting rap music. She couldn't be sure if it was the same song. "Rap pretty much sounds the same to me," she said.
Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale disputed the idea that the president's supporters would cause unrest, telling "Fox and Friends" Friday morning, "You know, I've been here since day one, and I've found all Trump supporters to be really, you know, caring, loving people that care about this country."
"I think you see people coming in. They're trying to disrupt. They're trying to create scenes," he added.
The city released a statement Friday explaining why they had rescinded the earlier stricter curfew that had been put in place Friday morning. The city said officials were first contacted on Thursday by the Secret Service, which asked the City of Tulsa and Tulsa Police Department to put in place a curfew around the BOK Center.
Bynum, a Republican, said in the statement: "Last night, I enacted a curfew at the request of Tulsa Police Chief Wendell Franklin, following consultation with the United States Secret Service based on intelligence they had received. Today, we were told the curfew is no longer necessary so I am rescinding it."
City Councilor Vanessa Hall-Harper, a Democrat, who represents the Greenwood District, said she was left confused by the mayor's decision to rescind the curfew.
"I'm totally at a loss to be honest with you," Hall-Harper said. "I don't have words. The statement I saw didn't set out an explanation. They were doing it for security reasons, then the president calls, according to his tweet, and now they are not. I guess security isn't important anymore?"
This article was written by Bret J. Schulte, DeNeen L. Brown, Robert Klemko and Annie Gowen, reporters for The Washington Post.