President Donald Trump’s announcement that he is relaunching his reelection campaign in Tulsa next week came as something of a surprise to state and city leaders and as a cause for concern for some Tulsans worried that his appearance could stoke racial and political tensions locally.
A spokesman for Gov. Kevin Stitt told the Tulsa World on Thursday that the president’s rally is the result of state leaders’ lobbying to get the Republican National Convention held in Oklahoma later this summer after it was announced that the original convention site, Charlotte, North Carolina, would not allow a crowded convention to take place there because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“As far as the ‘invitation,’ the state has reached out to the RNC about holding the convention in Oklahoma, and any president is always welcome to visit Oklahoma. It is my understanding the invitation was a general one and not tied to this specific event,” said Charlie Hannema, chief of communications for Stitt. “Governor Stitt welcomes President Trump to Oklahoma as we are a national leader in safely and responsibly reopening our economy.”
Trump himself announced the Tulsa campaign stop on Wednesday, praising Oklahoma for doing “a great job with COVID.” He also said the rally would be held in a “beautiful new venue, brand new,” which turned out to be the 12-year-old BOK Center downtown.
The RNC announced Thursday evening that some of the convention events, including the president’s nomination acceptance speech, will be moved to Jacksonville, Florida.
The Trump campaign released details on Thursday for the Tulsa rally, set for 8 p.m. June 19. The doors will open at 4 p.m. for the ticketed, general admission event, according to a release from the campaign.
Online registration for the event requires would-be attendees to acknowledge “that an inherent risk of exposure to COVID-19 exists in any public place where people are present. By attending the Rally, you and any guests voluntarily assume all risks related to exposure to COVID-19 and agree not to hold Donald J. Trump for President, Inc.; BOK Center; ASM Global; or any of their affiliates, directors, officers, employees, agents, contractors, or volunteers liable for any illness or injury.”
The timing of Trump’s first rally since the nation became gripped by the pandemic in March and amid nationwide protests against racism and police brutality has also sparked shock and anger among some Tulsans because it coincides with Juneteenth, the nationally celebrated commemoration of the ending of slavery in the United States.
Asked about the timing, Hannema said Gov. Stitt’s office “was not involved in the selection of the date of the event,” and he referred further questions to the Trump campaign.
Alicia Andrews, Oklahoma Democratic Party chair, said she believes there was “intentionality” in the timing of the Trump event.
“It’s intentional and smacks of insensitivity on the part of the president and the governor,” Andrews said. “Why come to Tulsa weeks after the 99th anniversary (of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre)?”
Judy Eason McIntyre, a retired social worker who served eight years in the Oklahoma Senate, said she called the Governor’s Office on Thursday morning to express her concern that the timing of the event could stoke racial and political tensions in Tulsa.
“It’s more than a visit, and with all of this stuff going on — I can’t get out in the streets anymore, so I do my part from home,” McIntyre said.
The organization that puts on Tulsa’s Juneteenth celebration, which is usually one of the biggest in the country, canceled this year’s event several weeks ago because of COVID-19 risks.
Chairman Sherry Gamble-Smith said rumors that the city asked for the cancellation are not true.
“There was no way to do the proper social distancing,” said Gamble-Smith. “We did not want anyone to get sick.”
She said the timing of Trump’s appearance “felt like a slap in the face” to African Americans.
“My messages are flooded with people who have said, ‘We’re coming down to help you protest.’ We never said we’d be protesting,” said Gamble-Smith.
But now she expects protests, and she’s worried that Tulsa’s police force has already been spread too thin.
“We’re trying to figure what we can do to keep people organized,” she said. “We want to make sure people’s voices are heard but in a safe way.”
News of Trump’s reelection campaign rally made it to city leaders only one day before the president made it public.
In fact, spokeswoman Michelle Brooks said city officials learned about the event on Tuesday when “the potential event venue reached out to the city.”
She confirmed that Mayor G.T. Bynum has been inundated by criticism that he did nothing to put a stop to the Trump campaign’s plans, but Brooks said the city has no control over where the president can visit.
“Mayor Bynum did not sign a contract or an agreement, as this was coordinated through the event organizer and venue management firm,” she said. “Every entity has the same access and constitutional right to hold events in public spaces.”
Bynum, a Republican elected to a nonpartisan city office, told the World he does not plan to attend the rally.
“I’ve not been asked, and as a nonpartisan mayor I do not engage in partisan campaign rallies,” he said.
“I do plan to greet the president and welcome him to Tulsa, as a mayor should any time a sitting president visits their city.”
Kevin Canfield contributed to this story.
Video: Highlights of President Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign stop in Tulsa
Gallery: In 2016, Donald Trump and Sarah Palin visit Tulsa for campaign event
With lawn chairs, plenty of signs and a truckload of bottled water, protesters converged on Guthrie Green on Thursday evening for the Rally for Black Lives.
The crowd, which peaked with more than 1,000 people on the green, along Reconciliation Way and at the pavilion, was one of the latest in a string of ongoing protests in the wake of George Floyd’s death under the knee of a police officer in Minneapolis.
But Thursday night’s gathering was the first such large-scale protest since President Donald Trump announced that he will host his first campaign rally since the COVID-19 shutdown at the BOK Center on June 19.
The Rev. Robert Turner of Tulsa’s Vernon African Methodist Episcopal Church spoke to reporters at the rally and said he wants to see the president speak to issues such as police brutality and reparations. He said he’s through with hearing any more rhetoric.
“We’re tired of political speeches. We’re tired of campaign speeches,” Turner said. “We need action. He’s in office right now, and we want to see some action.”
Beyond the looming news of a presidential visit, Turner said the people of Tulsa were “truly remarkable” in their turnout for Thursday’s rally, and he added that he wishes “the leadership of Tulsa reflected the people of Tulsa.”
Turner also spoke on other issues, including the cancellation of the A&E television show “Live PD,” fallout from Mayor G.T. Bynum’s interview with “CBS Sunday Morning” and comments Tulsa Police Department Maj. Travis Yates made on a local radio program.
Although Turner said he welcomed the apology the mayor posted on Facebook on Wednesday and commended Bynum’s earlier decision to no longer have Tulsa police participate in “Live PD,” more has to be done concerning Yates’ comments, he said.
“I think it says a lot about the culture in our Police Department and what they’re willing to uphold,” Turner said. “I’m supposed to feel safe when I’m stopped by a Tulsa Police Department officer? No way when I know that the highest level of the department thinks like that.”
The rally itself saw speakers and performers, as well as a large voter registration effort among the crowd.
Ranesha Smith, a poet who spoke early in the lineup, said she wants to see the inspiration in Thursday night’s crowd carry past Guthrie Green and translate to real change.
“I hope that this really starts a conversation not just in Tulsa but in Broken Arrow, in Jenks, in Owasso,” Smith said. “Let this black lives matter rally stretch all the way to the sticks of Oklahoma, because we need it to count, especially for those who feel like they don’t have a voice.
“Just don’t talk to us. What leaders are saying to us now is just talking to us. We want the change. We want your words to line up with your actions. …
“I’m very hopeful seeing this reach globally that we can stop talking about it and actually start putting our foot in the sand of walking toward that change.”
Gallery: Rally for Black Lives at Guthrie Green on June 11
The “Defund the Police” movement has arrived in Tulsa, and the city’s elected officials are getting an earful.
City councilors this week have been bombarded with emails on the subject, and at their Wednesday night meeting, they heard from more than 40 people who had sent emails or left voice messages on the subject.
It’s a topic that has been complicated and oversimplified by the slogan itself. Some interpret it to mean exactly what it says — defund police departments; others — including many of the advocates councilors heard from this week — want cities to take money from police budgets and reallocate it for social services.
Tulsa’s elected leaders are not embracing the first interpretation. In interviews with the Tulsa World, neither Mayor G.T. Bynum nor any of the city’s nine councilors supported defunding the Police Department.
“We have to have law enforcement,” said City Councilor Vanessa Hall-Harper, a vocal advocate for reforms in the department. “What law enforcement looks like, how it is organized and funded, that is what I am in agreement with looking at.”
Bynum said more spending is required if the Police Department is to reach the manning levels that are needed to implement an effective community policing program
“I would not support taking money away from the Police Department,” he said. “I am of the exact opposite opinion — I think we need to be putting more in to get the right number of officers.”
Bynum pointed to a 2015 study conducted by the Institute of Crime Science at the University of Cincinnati that found the city needed to hire more than 200 officers to bring the force to at least 958.
The Police Department has about 850 officers today, Bynum said, and this is no time to stop hiring.
The goal is to get officers out of their cars — Bynum said 90% of their time is spent responding to calls — and into neighborhoods where they can spend 35% to 45% of their shift building relationships on the beats they patrol.
“This isn’t getting kittens out of trees,” he said. “This is establishing relationships so that they (the public) feel comfortable bringing forward information on crimes in their neighborhoods, and they know on a first-name basis the officer in their neighborhood.”
The city is already seeing the benefits of increased manning levels in the decline in murders and other violent crimes the past three years, Bynum said.
“So it is not just a theoretical, ‘Oh, it feels good to have more officers out on the street,’ it is reducing violence in our community and saving lives.”
Another benefit of having more police officers is that the Police Department would be able to fully staff its specialty units, such as cyber crimes or burglary, that have historically gone understaffed, Bynum said.
The city in recent years has spent approximately 60% of its general fund budget on public safety. That includes funding for police, firefighters, Municipal Court, 911 and emergency management.
In the mayor’s proposed fiscal year 2021 general fund budget, the Police Department would account for 32.5% of general fund spending, or $102.6 million. Nearly 85% of the department’s budget goes to personnel. Police will receive an additional $20 million from other funding sources, including an estimated $12.9 million from the public safety tax.
The push to defund police departments has accelerated since the death of George Floyd. The unarmed black man died May 25 in Minneapolis, when a white police officer knelt on his neck for more than 8 minutes.
Most of the emails received by Tulsa city councilors came from Tulsa-area residents who had filled out a form letter from a national organization called Defund12.org. The letter calls for the city to divest in the Police Department and reallocate funds to services and programs that work for “the dismantling of racial and class inequality.”
“This includes, but is not limited to improving access to health services and treatment, educational opportunity, and stable housing, which have proven far more successful at promoting community safety and social equity than policing,” the form email states. “As such, I demand more aggressive financial support be directed to those areas.”
Bynum and many of his City Council colleagues believe in a different approach.
“It is not an either/or, it’s an and,” Bynum said.
Councilor Lori Decter Wright said the public might not be aware that the city is already investing in social service programs ranging from A Better Way to the Sobering Center, and is also implementing affordable housing strategies and partnering in eviction mediation programs.
The Police Department, meanwhile, has partnered with the Fire Department and mental health workers to establish Community Response Teams that handle calls from people dealing with mental health crises. One hundred sixty officers have received crisis intervention training.
“So we are doing that work,” Wright said. “Is it, we went into the police budget, cut off $3 million and sprinkled it over these other things? No.”
The City Council has spent the past year holding public meetings to discuss and gather information on the justice-related findings in the city’s Equality Indicators report. The goal, said Councilor Phil Lakin, is to identify practical solutions and improve outcomes.
“I do believe that future budgets will match the action plan that the council, mayor, Tulsa Police Department, municipal courts and our community agree to collectively support,” Lakin said.
Councilor Cass Fahler created a social media firestorm this week when he emailed some out-of-town supporters of the “Defund the Police” movement to tell them he was going to block them.
Fahler acknowledged Thursday that he does not have the authority to block someone on his City Council email address, nor is it allowed by the city.
“Unfortunately, I let my passion get in front of my purpose,” he said.
Fahler said he cannot support dismantling the Police Department because of all the progress it has made over the past few years. He is open to working with the department to find additional funding for social services.
“In the event that there are police resources that we could reallocate and the Police Department … they were willing to show us an area or avenues that they felt like, ‘Hey, I think this could be better spent with mental health,’ I am all about it,” Fahler said.
Gallery: Black Lives Matter rally at Guthrie Green
Tulsa County is experiencing its highest rate of transmission of COVID-19 since the pandemic began, according to data released Thursday.
The last three days, June 7-9, have seen the highest new case numbers — 65, 47 and 64 new cases, respectively.
Daily new case counts before June 7 had never been higher than 45.
Tulsa County’s four-day average number of new cases has risen to 46, far above previous averages. Before this week, the highest four-day average was 31, on April 3-4. Hospitalizations and death statistics tend to lag behind new case counts.
“There does not appear to be any singular incident or isolated outbreak to point to for the increase in cases that have been reported out this week,” Tulsa Health Department spokeswoman Leanne Stephens said.
The daily data reporting for COVID-19 tends to represent a snapshot of the past several days to two weeks. Stephens said the case investigations and contact tracing are still ongoing and could not point to a single incident or incidents to explain increased transmission.
In previous months, individuals had much fewer contacts with people outside of their homes, easing contact tracing efforts, Stephens said.
“Right now, an individual who tests positive may have come into contact with a far greater number of people,” Stephens said.
Americans and Oklahomans have passed significant milestones in recent weeks of the pandemic, including the loosening of government restrictions and large crowds gathering for protests.
Since late May, there have been mass protests nationally and locally in response to the killings of unarmed black individuals by law enforcement. Oklahoma State football player Amen Ogbongbemiga shared on social media in early June that he tested positive for COVID-19 and noted that he attended a Tulsa demonstration protesting against police brutality toward black citizens.
Additionally, Phase 3 of Gov. Kevin Stitt’s plan for opening up the state began June 1. The plan was designed to roll back COVID-19 restrictions aimed at preventing the spread of the disease.
Under Phase 3, businesses are free to resume unrestricted staffing at worksites by observing proper CDC-recommended social distancing protocols. Increased cleaning and disinfecting practices are urged.
As of Thursday, two more Oklahomans died from COVID-19 and dozens more have been confirmed to be infected, according to Oklahoma State Department of Health data.
State health officials report that a Tulsa County woman, who was older than 65, and a McCurtain County woman, who was in the 50-64 age group, died from the disease in early June.
So far, 357 people have died from the disease.
State health officials also report 146 new, confirmed cases of the disease. There have been a total of 7,626 confirmed cases in the state since early March. There are 153 people hospitalized because of the disease statewide.
Stephens, and health officials at-large, continue to stress personal preventive measures. They are the “few tools we have” to fight this pandemic while vaccines and treatments continue to be researched and developed, she said.
Prevention of COVID-19’s spread remains the overall goal to reduce strain on hospitals and save lives. Prevention methods include social distancing, home isolation, face coverings and enhanced hygiene.
Public health officials started recommending in early April that people wear cloth face coverings to help prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus. The recommendation is not to prevent the wearer from contracting the virus but to help prevent the wearer from unknowingly spreading it.
COVID-19 has an incubation period of two days to two weeks, during which time a person may be contagious but not have symptoms.
Social distancing means staying out of group or congregate settings, avoiding mass gatherings and maintaining a distance of at least 6 feet from others.
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