President Donald Trump came to Tulsa Saturday to restart his reelection campaign.
It was not entirely a roaring success.
Trump himself was full-throated enough. He spoke for an hour and 42 minutes, interspersing attacks on China, Democratic nominee Joe Biden and an assortment of people he said “want to destroy our heritage.” He also provided some lengthy anecdotes about why he might have looked a little unsteady on stage recently at West Point and how he negotiated the price of the two planes that serve Air Force One.
The 10,000 or so who actually used one of the 800,000 or more tickets issued for the event, according to the Trump campaign, were loud in their approval.
But this was clearly not what the campaign anticipated early in the week, when it boasted that close to 1 million tickets had been requested and overflow space was being sought.
Trump and his campaign were already backpedaling Saturday night. Trump lashed out at “very bad people” he said prevented more supporters from attending, and blamed the press for scaring them away with overwrought tales of the danger of COVID-19.
Or, as he insisted, it should be called, the “Chinese virus.”
Taken together, one upshot of Trump’s speech was that the media, the Chinese and anarchist “thugs” kept his campaign from roaring out of the COVID-caused pit stop with all pistons firing.
It may be that some Trump supporters stayed away because of fears that violence like that seen in Washington, Minneapolis, Atlanta and a few cities would flare on the streets of Tulsa. Maybe they had second thoughts about risking COVID-19 infection.
Perhaps trumpeting the number of tickets reserved caused some people to stay home, figuring they had no chance to get in.
Maybe the Trump opponents who reserved tickets with no intention of using them were more numerous and successful than anyone thought they could be.
In any event, protests resulted in only a few minor skirmishes between pro- and anti-Trump forces before, during or immediately after the rally. And the COVID-19 threat many feared may have been mitigated by the smaller crowd.
The action, in fact, seemed to be on Greenwood Avenue, where a Juneteenth celebration was going full bore. Perhaps it turned out to be the weekend’s biggest winner.
Trump may have gotten a sense of that before he even touched ground at Tulsa International Airport. As Air Force One circled over downtown before landing, the most noticeable greeting would likely have been “Black Lives Matter” painted on Greenwood just north of Archer Street.
Trump exited Air Force One all smiles, mugging for the cameras and speaking at length with Cindy Lankford, wife of Sen. James Lankford, and giving a upraised clinched fist salute to Mayor G.T. Bynum.
His motorcade took a somewhat unusual route along city streets, U.S. 75 and the Gilcrease and Tisdale expressways before reaching the service entrance of the BOK Center.
Trump’s hyperbole — Biden “doesn’t know where the hell he is” and often “mistakes his wife for his sister” — and complaining about the press and the attention given his difficulty at West Point revved up the crowd but drowned out some salient points. Those included Biden’s relationships with some old-line segregationist during his long Senate career, his absence for active campaigning, his record in Congress and as vice president.
Near the end, Trump made it clear why lifting COVID-19 restrictions are so important to him, and to his campaign.
“We had the greatest economy in the world, not only the world but actually the best in the history of the world,” Trump said. “We were the envy of the world. People coming to see me. President, prime minister, kings, queens and dictators. ... And then the plague came.
“Here’s what’s going to happen. We’re gonna go up, we’re gonna go up, we’re gonna go up, we’re gonna hit October,” he continued. “We’re gonna be way up. We’re not going to be where we were. But in many ways — other than the horrible, horrible deaths that were so needlessly caused by a virus that should have been stopped where it originated, which was China — we’re gonna go up, up, up. August, September, October. People are gonna say this guy’s doing a good job, he knows what he’s doing. I don’t believe the fake news anymore.
“Next year will be the single greatest year economically that we’ve ever had. When you see that happen, Nov. 3 you won’t have the guts to vote against me.”
Gallery: The scenes before and during President Trump's rally in Tulsa
Editor's note: This story has been updated from its print publication to include a statement from the Tulsa Police Department about its deployment of pepper balls.
People marched in the streets. They chanted. And at times Saturday in downtown Tulsa, emotions ran high when protesters and Donald Trump supporters came together.
But there was sporadic physical conflict, and by 11:45 p.m., downtown had grown calm after a day of angry exchanges.
At the height of the tension, police deployed pepper balls near Fourth Street and Boulder Avenue, hours after the agency received condemnation from protesters and national media when it confirmed that officers had arrested a nonviolent protester at the behest of Trump campaign staff.
On its Facebook page, the Tulsa Police Department said a "couple of rounds" of pepper balls were fired into the ground when police were surrounded by protesters.
“I’m definitely seeing progress (of police reform) in other states, but in Oklahoma, no,” said protester Sincere Terry of events in Oklahoma in recent weeks following the May 25 death of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer.
Turning her focus to Gov. Kevin Stitt, who welcomed news of Trump’s visit to the state, Terry said, “Stitt does not care about us. Stitt needs to resign. Stitt needs to be out of office. They don’t understand that we’re that younger generation and we will not give up.”
Though the Trump campaign reported it received in excess of 1 million requests for tickets for his “Make America Great Again” rally — the first he’s held since the onset of the novel coronavirus pandemic — there were thousands of empty seats in the arena.
While the rally went on, Trump fans who did not enter the arena faced off with a mix of protesters from the Tulsa area and those aligned with a national group called Refuse Fascism, whose members carried a banner calling for Trump and Vice President Mike Pence to leave office.
Trump supporters arrived downtown even before Saturday, setting up tents to sell Trump-branded merchandise like T-shirts and bumper stickers with the phrase: “I carry a gun because a cop is too heavy.”
Adam, a Trump supporter from Fort Worth, Texas, who declined to give his last name, asked protesters during one tense exchange: “How do you prove that I’m a racist?” He said Trump supporters are “patriotic nationalists who say race, creed, color, gender does not matter to us.”
Police were seen making at least two arrests Saturday evening in the Sixth Street and Denver Avenue area, though officers used their vehicles to attempt to block public view of them putting one of the arrestees in a transport van. The man had been kneeling in the street in a form of civil disobedience, though authorities claimed he kicked one officer in the face during a struggle to place him in the van.
Another man who was arrested called the protesters’ presence in the intersection of Sixth and Denver “bulls---” and said, “Get them out of the road, soldier,” before joining in a chant of “All Lives Matter,” a phrase Black activists have said disregards the importance of promoting equal treatment for Black people, particularly by police.
“I have the right to move about freely, and you’re supposed to defend the Constitution, not Black Lives Matter,” the man said. “You’re violating my Constitutional rights.”
The demonstrations resulted in partial traffic closures while protesters marched between Fourth and Sixth streets and between Boulder Avenue and Main Street.
Peaceful protests were held in other places, including Greenwood and Veterans Park.
In Greenwood, after leading chants of “No justice, no peace” and “Trump leave town,” the Rev. Mareo Johnson urged protesters to stay away from the BOK Center, where the president was about to hold his rally.
Marching toward the arena would do nothing to disrupt Trump’s speech, said Johnson, the founder of the Tulsa chapter of Black Lives Matter.
“I see no purpose in that,” he said during a protest rally at John Hope Franklin Reconciliation Park. “I see purpose in what we are doing here.”
After Johnson’s brief speech, in which he condemned Trump’s choice to make Tulsa the first stop on the summer campaign trail, the crowd listened to music and poetry while sitting under shade trees.
Johnson said he wasn’t worried about violent protests.
“Not right here I’m not,” he said. “We’re here to have fellowship together.”
Later, the crowd took a 40-minute march through the Arts District and Greenwood while chanting “Black lives matter” and “no justice, no peace.”
The protesters, stretching about two city blocks long, came within sight of the BOK Center but didn’t approach it.
In Veterans Park, a few hundred gathered, and a recurring theme was the state of the country under Trump’s leadership.
“I love my country. I love it so much. But she’s hurting,” said Dani Byrd, an LGBTQ advocate, the first of several people to speak at the event.
“She’s struggling. And if we let this decision point pass without standing up and saying what’s right, we failed her. She didn’t fail us. We failed her.”
They cheered on several speakers, who touched on topics ranging from Black, Hispanic, Native American and LGBTQ rights to police brutality to air pollution and climate change.
“We are here for a peaceful gathering,” event organizer Tykebrean Cheshier said to kick things off. “This is about all of us coming together. This is our city, and if you’re not from here, this is our nation. We deserve a safe place to go today while another area is spewing hate.” Tables were set up at the park for people to register to vote, and volunteers also walked through the crowd to help register people.
If the attendees needed a reminder of why they were there, it was provided just minutes before the protest started.
The sound of an aircraft overhead caused everyone to glance upward. It sank in quickly: They were looking at Air Force One, bringing President Trump to Tulsa for his rally.
A chorus of boos erupted.
Michael Overall and Tim Stanley contributed to this story.
Gallery: The scenes before and during President Trump's rally in Tulsa
President Donald Trump took the stage while “God Bless the USA” filled the BOK Center, even if the anticipated capacity crowd did not.
In front of swaths of empty seats on the upper level, Trump started his campaign rally Saturday night by thanking the enthusiastic crowd that showed up.
“You are warriors,” Trump said in the opening minute of the hour and 42-minute speech. “I’ve been watching the fake news for weeks now, and everything is negative: ‘Don’t go. Don’t come. Don’t do anything today.’
“I’ve never seen anything like it. I’ve never seen anything like it. You are warriors. Thank you.”
The president’s speech included references to COVID-19 testing, protesters and Joe Biden. Vice President Mike Pence also addressed the crowd, focusing on the economy in a brief speech.
Here are notable moments from the day, which was mostly calm until after dark:
A large crowd initially gathered outside the BOK Center at a designated area referred to as the Outdoor Experience, where Trump was expected to make an appearance. However, the crowd eventually dissipated in the hours leading to Trump’s speech, and he never appeared outside.
Although an official reason for closing the Outdoor Experience wasn’t given, Trump’s campaign manager, Brad Parscale, later tweeted that “radical protesters” interfered with supporters at the rally and may have impacted crowd size.
“We had some very bad people outside,” Trump said. “They were doing bad things. … Law enforcement said, ‘Sir, they can’t be outside. It’s too dangerous.’ ”
Inside the arena, there were no incidents. The only disruption to the speech was an apparent medical emergency in which a man collapsed and had to be helped off the arena floor but appeared to be fine upon inspection.
An estimated 10% of those in attendance were wearing masks despite those being provided and encouraged.
Regarding the COVID-19 outbreak, Trump said testing is “a double-edged sword.”
“We’ve tested now 25 million people,” he said. “When you’re testing to that extent, you’re going to find more people. … You’re going to find more cases.
“So I said to my people, slow the testing down, please. They test and they test, and we’re testing people who don’t know what’s going on.”
Late in his speech, Trump announced he has directed U.S. Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt to place the John Hope Franklin Reconciliation Park on the African American Civil Rights Trail, a string of 100 sites across the southeastern quadrant of the United States.
A group of Tulsans has been working for sometime to get the Greenwood District included on the trail.
Among dignitaries recognized by Trump were Oklahoma’s Republican Sens. Jim Inhofe and James Lankford, who were seated with other state politicians during the speech.
“They do a great job,” Trump said. “Two very respected people in Washington. They’re respected by everybody.”
In March, the 85-year-old Inhofe announced he is running for re-election. Those running against him include Oklahoma City Democrat Abby Broyles, who is more than five decades his junior.
“Does he have any competition?” Trump said. “There’s no competition that he’s got. ... I give him 100% endorsement. I’d give it to James, too, but he’s not running.”
Vice President Mike Pence spent nearly 20 minutes endorsing four more years of Trump in the White House while also tearing down his Democratic opponent, alleging Biden will bury the national economy under red tape and cost America jobs.
Pence also called the death of George Floyd in Minnesota a tragedy, adding that justice will be served. The vice president stressed, however, that there’s no excuse for rioting, looting and violence.
“We have quelled the violence,” he said. “Since then, we’ve been working with law enforcement and leaders in our African American community to improve public safety and improve the lives of our African American neighbors. We’re listening. We’re learning. We’re leading. And we’ll find ways to move forward together. But one thing we’re not going to do, we’re not going to defund the police.”
Tulsa County Sheriff Vic Regalado was one of the first speakers to address the crowd before Trump’s speech, lauding the president for being a vocal supporter of law enforcement as well as the “rule of law.” He talked about how authorities will never blame all citizens for crime, saying their goal is to hold those who are responsible accountable for their actions.
Likewise, Regalado acknowledged there are “some officers” who do not uphold the standard of professionalism bestowed upon law enforcement.
“Yes, they should and will be held accountable as well,” the sheriff told Trump supporters. “But due process, due process must be applied in accordance with the rule of law. And justice should always be the end result.
“As Americans we must fight, we must fight for the application of justice without the regard of power, wealth or the color of skin.”