TULSA, Okla. — Supporters of President Donald Trump filled the streets Saturday around the Tulsa stadium where the president will hold his first rally in months, ready to welcome him back to the campaign trail despite warnings from health officials about the coronavirus and the possibility of conflicts with protesters.
The crowd filtered into the 19,000-seat BOK Center for what is expected to be the biggest indoor event the country has seen since restrictions to prevent the COVID-19 virus began in March. Trump had been expected to speak at an outdoor event within a perimeter of tall metal barriers around the BOK Center, but that appearance was abruptly canceled.
Many of the president’s supporters weren’t wearing masks, despite the recommendation of public health officials to keep the coronavirus from spreading. Some had been camped near the venue since early in the week.
Thousands of people filled the downtown streets Saturday, including a large group of Black Lives Matter protesters who chanted and marched, occasionally getting into shouting matches with Trump supporters who chanted, “all lives matter.”
The protesters blocked traffic in at least one intersection. Some Black leaders in Tulsa have said they’re worried the visit could lead to violence. It’s happening amid protests over racial injustice and policing across the U.S. and in a city that has a long history of racial tension. Officials said they expected some 100,000 people in Tulsa’s downtown.
Kieran Mullen, 60, a college professor from Norman, Oklahoma, held a sign that read, “Black Lives Matter” and “Dump Trump.”
“I just thought it was important for people to see there are Oklahomans that have a different point of view,” Mullen said of his state, which overwhelmingly supported Trump in 2016.
Brian Bernard, 54, a retired information technology worker from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, sported a Trump 2020 hat as he took a break from riding his bicycle around downtown Tulsa. Next to him was a woman selling Trump T-shirts and hats, flying a “Keep America Great Again” flag. Her shirt said, “Impeach this,” with an image of Trump extending his middle fingers.
“Since the media won’t do it, it’s up to us to show our support,” said Bernard, who drove nine hours to Tulsa for his second Trump rally. “Before I went to a Trump rally in 2015, I was pretty much on the fence. That really hooked me. I really felt he was genuine.”
Bernard said he wasn’t concerned about catching the coronavirus at the event and doesn’t believe it’s “anything worse than the flu.”
Across the street, armed, uniformed highway patrol troopers milled about a staging area in a bank parking lot with dozens of uniformed National Guard troops.
Tulsa has seen cases of COVID-19 spike in the past week, and the local health department director asked that the rally be postponed. But Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt said it would be safe. The Oklahoma Supreme Court on Friday denied a request that everyone attending the indoor rally wear a mask, and few in the crowd outside Saturday were wearing them.
The Trump campaign said six staff members helping prepare for the event tested positive for COVID-19. They were following “quarantine procedures” and wouldn’t attend the rally, said Tim Murtaugh, the campaign’s communications director.
Inside the barriers, the campaign was handing out masks and said hand sanitizer also would be distributed and that participants would undergo a temperature check. But there was no requirement that participants use the masks.
Teams of people wearing goggles, masks, gloves and blue gowns were checking the temperatures of those entering the rally area. Those who entered the secured area were given disposable masks, which most people wore as they went through the temperature check. Some took them off after the check.
The rally originally was planned for Friday, but was moved after complaints that it coincided with Juneteenth, which marks the end of slavery in the U.S., and in a city that was the site of a 1921 race-related massacre, when a white mob attacked Blacks, leaving as many as 300 people dead.
Stitt said he would join Vice President Mike Pence for a meeting Saturday with Black leaders from Tulsa’s Greenwood District, the area where the 1921 attack occurred. Stitt initially invited Trump to tour the area, but said, “We talked to the African American community and they said it would not be a good idea, so we asked the president not to do that.”
Associated Press reporters Sara Burnett in Chicago, Ellen Knickmeyer in Tulsa and Ken Miller in Oklahoma City contributed to this report.
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