Thousands of adoring fans and some number of not-so-adoring opponents are expected to greet President Donald Trump on Saturday night when he becomes the first U.S. chief executive in more than 25 years to visit Tulsa.
Trump followers began gathering in the city almost as soon as the 7 p.m. rally at the BOK Center was announced last week. In a larger sense, many have been waiting for months, ever since the COVID-19 epidemic put a stop to most live campaign activities.
The rally is expected to fill the 19,000-seat BOK Center, with room for thousands more in an overflow area, called the “Great American Outdoor Experience,” in the street outside.
Gov. Kevin Stitt and Oklahoma’s six Republican members of Congress are among those expected to appear at the event.
Trump fans have been camping out downtown for days to assure themselves a spot inside the arena, where seating is all general admission but tickets had to be reserved in advance.
Sporting colorful garb and signs, and in some cases selling Trump gear, they originally set up shop in front of the BOK Center. Late Thursday, however, they were shooed away to outside a roughly six-square-block perimeter set up around the arena.
The city put a curfew in place in the vicinity of the arena Thursday night, but the curfew was waived Friday afternoon, apparently after Trump’s intervention.
Trump tweeted that Mayor G.T. Bynum had agreed not to impose the curfew on “our many supporters … Enjoy yourselves.”
Not long after, the city issued a press release saying the curfew had been dropped at the request of the Secret Service.
Some think 100,000 or more people may cram into downtown Tulsa on Saturday. The expectation is that not all of them will be Trump fans.
Gov. Kevin Stitt said that’s fine.
“If you’re a peaceful protester, we welcome your voice to be heard in Tulsa,” he said at a Friday afternoon press conference.
About a mile northeast of the arena, a Juneteenth celebration will be in full swing in the Greenwood District. A similar distance to the southeast, at Veterans Park, an organized protest is planned.
Those two groups have vowed to stay away from the BOK Center, but officials remain on edge. The announcement that Trump was coming to Tulsa sparked an outcry from people worried about COVID-19 and others angry about the originally scheduled date of June 19 — or Juneteenth, an important day in the history of emancipation of enslaved people in the West and one celebrated in Tulsa for decades.
Some suspected that Trump’s campaign purposely chose the date to provoke African Americans in the wake of unrest and numerous protests over the deaths of Black people at the hands of police.
Trump, though, told the Wall Street Journal this week that neither he nor anyone in his inner circle had ever heard of Juneteenth until the recent fuss arose. He said a Secret Service agent explained it to him.
Tentative plans for Trump to meet with Black Tulsa leaders in Greenwood were scuttled by the community, but Vice President Mike Pence might meet with some Saturday.
How close anti-Trump protesters or anyone else will get to the BOK Center without a ticket is not clear, but it appears that they will be held at some length. Downtown is cordoned off west of Boulder Avenue between Archer and Sixth streets, and access is expected to be limited.
Recent unrest throughout the country has left law enforcement officials on edge. While most protests have been peaceful, including in Tulsa, some have erupted into rioting. In a few places, protesters have taken over parts of a city.
The Tulsa Police Department and Tulsa County Sheriff’s Office have called on other local, state and federal law enforcement agencies for reinforcements, as well as the Oklahoma National Guard.
Trump created a stir Friday afternoon by tweeting: “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!”
Some interpreted that as a suggestion that Trump might call on regular military forces, as he threatened to do in Washington, D.C., several weeks ago. U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe’s office said Friday that no regular military troops have been dispatched to Tulsa.
Inhofe, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, has in the past said such use of the military should be only a last resort.
Stitt took a more moderate tone.
“I don’t know exactly what the President was talking about,” he said, “but I assume peaceful protesters absolutely.
“We’ve got Tulsa Police Department. We’ve got Highway Patrol. We’ll have some National Guard folks behind the scenes. We will protect your right to peacefully protest.
“There’s a difference, though, when you start destroying someone else’s property. Then we’re gonna be there, and we’re gonna be tough on that. We’re gonna make sure that we hold those folks accountable.”
Samantha Vicent contributed to this story.
Gallery: Photos from the scene as more Trump supporters gather in Tulsa before rally
Tulsa’s annual Juneteenth celebration provided an outlet for festivalgoers to have fun and address current events. It also provided Bixby’s Jacki Jackson with an educational opportunity she could share with her kids.
In the early hours of the festival, Jackson wore a “Black Wall Street 1921” face mask and had her picture taken in front of the 1921 Black Wall Street Memorial outside the Greenwood Cultural Center.
Jackson should be used to having her photo taken. She said she was Miss Black Tulsa in 2000.
Asked why she took photos Friday in front of the memorial, she said, “I remember when I was Miss Black Tulsa, I didn’t know anything about Black Wall Street. So when I came here today I decided to bring my kids (ages 15 and 11). I am teaching them the history that I had to learn about. It’s very important to take a picture and this is very historical for what happened to our ancestors in 1921, almost 100 years ago.”
The Tulsa Race Massacre occurred in 1921. Black Wall Street, a thriving African American business district in Tulsa, was destroyed.
Black Wall Street was crowded with visitors during the 2020 Juneteenth celebration in Tulsa’s Greenwood District. Overnight, before the start of the celebration, the words “Black Lives Matter” were painted on Greenwood Avenue by a group of more than 50 people. Kids were dancing on that same street Friday evening as the festival shifted into high gear.
With food trucks, an entertainment stage (the Rev. Al Sharpton was the keynote speaker), kids playing on inflatables at historic Vernon AME Church and social activities all around, the atmosphere was festive. Also, it was a day for activism. Many attendees chose to make statements by way of wardrobe, wearing shirts with words like “I Can’t Breathe,” “Black Lives Matter” and “Demanding a Just Tulsa.”
There were also visible reminders that Juneteenth was staged during a pandemic. Signs were posted to let people know that, by attending, they voluntarily assumed risks related to exposure of COVID-19. Signs that said “thank you for practicing social distancing” were placed along the festival route.
A “Stay Healthy Zone” provided free face masks, shirts and hand sanitizer. Complimentary face masks (26,000, according to a staffer) were made available through a partnership with a nonprofit organization, Until We Do It. Representatives from the Stay Healthy Zone table roamed the premises to distribute masks to attendees.
“I see most of you all with masks on. I love that,” City Councilor Vanessa Hall-Harper said before reading a Juneteenth proclamation.
What percentage of festivalgoers wore masks? In a random sampling of passersby, 84 of 100 wore masks. In a later sampling, 75 of 100 passersby wore masks.
People sat on blankets or lawn chairs as they staked out positions in front of the stage to hear speakers and performers. They heard Rep. Regina Goodwin thank organizers for arranging “an expression of love, because that’s what it is.”
Many speakers urged attendees to exercise their right to vote. Rep. Monroe Nichols said, “If you don’t go vote, you wasted everybody’s time here.”
A voter registration table was on site at the festival.
At one of the many festival tables, a man who identified himself as Awesome Jeremy taught art to children.
“You guys did a good job,” he said.
Asked to summarize what Juneteenth is about, he said, “Empowerment to the Black people, man — empowerment and bringing us together at the same time, all of us, and trying to show us the platform of equality. Some people don’t understand it. You have to show them the platform.”
He said the festival is about what you want to bring to the table individually. “(For) me, it’s all about empowering the youth and teaching them to have a better future here.”
Juneteenth, celebrated in Tulsa for more than two decades, commemorates the end of slavery in the United States. The organization that oversees the city’s Juneteenth celebrations had previously announced it was canceling the 2020 event due to COVID-19. A plan to still commemorate Juneteenth in some way was ratcheted up after it was announced that a presidential rally would occur this weekend in downtown Tulsa.
Heavy rains interrupted Juneteenth activities for about 30 minutes. Many attendees sought cover. Those who waited out the rainstorm under the overhang of the Greenwood Cultural Center seemed anxious to meet Jordyn Gilton’s 6-week-old pup, King. It was an early birthday present for Gilton, an 11-year-old who said she was there to support Black Lives Matter.
Greenwood Avenue was closed to street traffic for Juneteenth, but a book bus, courtesy of gaininggroundliteracy.org, was parked in the street so little readers could snare free books. Caiden Plump, 3, picked out books about a fire truck and a race car driver. Emily Mercado, 11, selected a book about drama. Lorenzo Plump, 6, chose books about a shark and bugs.
Entertainment included a 3 p.m. performance by the father-son rap act J Friday and JJ. Born with cerebral palsy, JJ proved himself an adept rapper. He earned appreciative shouts and applause from a growing crowd as he rapped the line, “What you think of me now?”
The Black Lives Matter street painting began at 11 p.m. Thursday with five people, but others flocked to help and the paint job was finished around 7 a.m. Friday.
“We had this crazy idea and somehow, thanks to our amazing community, we were able to pull it off,” Briana Shea said in a Facebook post. “Thank you all and damn, it feels good. Stay safe everyone.”
James Watts contributed to this story.
Gallery: Scenes from Tulsa's Juneteenth celebration Friday
Juneteenth has been celebrated among African Americans for 155 years as the day when slavery was finally abolished in the United States.
But June 19 should be a national holiday, the Rev. Al Sharpton said, because “it was the first day that made this country step up to the model it announced, that all men are created equal.”
Sharpton, a nationally known civil rights activist and founder of the National Action Network, was the keynote speaker at Tulsa’s Juneteenth celebration, held Friday in the Greenwood District.
“I don’t care about threats,” Sharpton said at one point in his speech.
Earlier in the day, it was revealed that Sharpton had begun receiving death threats soon after his arrival in Tulsa.
At a hastily called press event about 90 minutes before Sharpton was to take the stage for his keynote address, organizers said Sharpton was “very concerned” about his safety and that there had been some suggestions that Sharpton’s appearance, and perhaps the rest of the festival itself, be canceled.
However, Sharpton — who was introduced by Tiffany Crutcher, whose friendship with Sharpton began in the wake of the killing of her brother Terence Crutcher, as “a true friend and a true freedom fighter” — strode out onto the Juneteenth stage and immediately led the crowd in the chant “No justice, no peace.”
Through the rest of his 30-minute address, Sharpton exhorted and encouraged the crowd with examples of strength and resilience from African American history and several pointed jabs at President Donald Trump.
“That’s why I’m puzzled by people who go around saying ‘Make America Great Again,’” Sharpton said. “I want them to give me the date when America was great for everybody.”
He listed a number of historic situations, from the discrimination under Jim Crow laws to women being denied the right to vote and immigrants being barred in spite of the Statue of Liberty’s offer to “bring me … your huddled masses,” that did not portray a “great” America.
Sharpton then remarked on the diversity of the crowd and said, “We are the ones who are going to make America great for everybody for the first time.”
In reference to Trump’s tweet that seemed to promise “all protesters” coming to Trump’s campaign rally Saturday at the BOK Center would be met with violence, Sharpton said, “If I had said what Trump said, I would have been charged with inciting violence.”
He also mocked Trump’s professed ignorance of Juneteenth and its importance to African Americans. Trump’s rally was originally scheduled for Friday but was moved to Saturday in the face of local and national outrage.
Juneteenth commemorates the date slaves in Texas finally received the news about the Emancipation Proclamation.
Sharpton said Trump, a native New Yorker, grew up in a city where two-thirds of the population was African American or Latino.
His lack of knowledge about this pivotal event was either the result of an “insensitive and isolated” life or “he’s lying.” In either case, Sharpton said, Trump was “too culturally deficient to address this country as its head of state.”
Sharpton also challenged Trump’s claims of doing a great deal for the African American community, saying that many of the things Trump claimed to have accomplished, such as lowered unemployment, were the result of President Barack Obama’s policies.
“You just rode the wave,” Sharpton said. He challenged Trump to use his rally Saturday to set out definite policies dealing with racism and police brutality.
“If you come to Tulsa and you can’t say something concrete (about these issues), then don’t say anything at all,” he said.
Sharpton said Juneteenth should be a national holiday because “it was the first day this country stepped up to living up to the model it announced, that all men are created equal. That is why all humane and decent people should celebrate this day.”
Sharpton was preceded by several notable members of Tulsa’s African American community, including the Rev. Robert Turner of Vernon AME Church and attorney Damario Solomon-Simmons, both of whom spoke about the need for reparations resulting from the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921, in which the area where this year’s Juneteenth Festival was held was destroyed.
At a media briefing earlier in the day, Sharpton stressed that he came to Tulsa for a specific reason.
“I came here to address an issue,” Sharpton said, referring to the recent protests against racism and police brutality in the wake of the high-profile killings of African Americans in recent weeks, such as the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer.
“I would say to Trump, you should deal with the issue — the issue of how to deal with racial inequality,” he said. “He needs to tell his policy of how he is going to close the racial gap in America.”
On the positive side, Sharpton said, “I have seen more unity among Black and white people in the last three weeks than I have ever seen,” referring to the largely peaceful protests that have swept the nation in the aftermath of Floyd’s death.
Gallery: Scenes from Tulsa’s Juneteenth celebration Friday