The largest newspaper in Tulsa, Oklahoma, is urging Trump to abandon plans to renew his re-election campaign there on June 20 amid an alarming rise in COVID-19 cases.
“We don't know why he chose Tulsa, but we can't see any way that his visit will be good for the city," wrote the editorial board of Tulsa World.
The campaign rally is slated for BOK Center, an indoor sports arena and concert venue that holds up to 19,000 people. A large turnout is expected in the blood-red state. Trump has claimed that a million tickets have been requested.
Health officials, including Dr. Bruce Dart, director of the Tulsa Health Department, fear that a large crowd packed in an enclosed environment could create a super-spreader event. A local outbreak is already in high gear, setting new records for cases and hospitalizations.
Most Trump fans are older, putting them at graver risk than the population as a whole.
The shouting that’s common at political rallies, particularly at Trump’s, raises the risk level: Shouting, like coughing, sprays droplets of saliva that can contain virus particles.
Just singing and talking loudly increase the transmission risk. In February, a singer infected 53 people at a choir practice in Washington.
Trump claims, and his followers believe, that case numbers are climbing only due to increased testing efforts. Health officials insist that’s not the case, because hospitalizations and deaths also are on the rise.
Trump recognizes the risk, even though he refuses to change his plans for a second time (see below, ‘Wrong time, wrong place’). He tweeted: “The Far Left Fake News Media, which had no Covid problem with the Rioters & Looters destroying Democrat run cities, is trying to Covid Shame us on our big Rallies. Won’t work!”
But Trump’s campaign will require attendees to sign waivers saying they “voluntarily assume all risks related to exposure to COVID-19.”
There also will be safety measures implemented at the site. Attendees will have their temperatures checked and given hand sanitizers at they enter BOK center. They’ll also be given masks, although it’s unlikely his fans will wear them.
Trump has made mask-wearing a contentious political issue. To show his self-claimed physical strength and his contempt for science — as well as his refusal, ironically, to bend to authoritarian rules — he won’t wear protective masks in public.
Showing their unity, Trump supporters eschew them as well. His fervent supporters harass people wearing masks, and at least two people have been shot for asking people to don them. One of the shooting victims died.
Wrong time, wrong place
In addition to drawing large crowds of fans, Trump’s campaign events also bring out protesters. Even though they are staged outdoors, large demonstrations, with people crowded together and shouting, present added transmission risk. Given the social upheaval underway and the racist history of Tulsa, Trump’s appearance there could be a magnet for detractors.
"Tulsa and the nation remain on edge after the May 25 police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis,” wrote the Tulsa World’s editorial board. “Trump, a divisive figure, will attract protests …”
But in Tulsa’s case, there’s more to the story than the current worldwide anti-racist protests decrying police brutality. Tulsa is the site of the worst massacre of African Americans in U.S. history, and Trump’s appearance comes one day after the annual Juneteenth holiday, which celebrates the day when slavery ended in the U.S., at least officially.
Two and a half years after President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, Union soldiers arrived in Texas with news that the war was over and the slaves were free. Prior to Major General Gordon Granger’s landing in Galveston on June 19, 1865, blacks in the state were unaware of those developments. June 19 has become a commemorative holiday.
Trump originally scheduled his Tulsa campaign rally on that day, setting off public outcry. Trump initially shrugged off the criticism, including that of black historian CeLillianne Green, who called it “almost blasphemous.”
“Think about it as a celebration. My rallies are celebrations,” Trump told Fox News. “In the history of politics, I think I can say, there’s never been any group or any person that’s had rallies like I do … The fact I’m having a rally on that day you can really think about that very positively.”
During the interview, Trump also asserted that, “I think I’ve done more for the black community than any other president.”
“And let’s take a pass on Abraham Lincoln, ’cause he did good, though it’s always questionable, you know,” he added.
Eventually, Trump reluctantly agreed to move his rally to the next day.
“Many of my African American friends and supporters have reached out to suggest that we consider changing the date out of respect for this Holiday, and in observance of this important occasion and all that it represents," Trump tweeted in announcing the change.
In addition to the event’s proximity to Juneteenth, the Greenwood Massacre, also known as the Tulsa Race Massacre, makes the city an historically controversial choice for a Trump rally. His nearly all-white supporters include die-hard racists. Some carry Confederate flags and other white supremacist insignia.
The massacre occurred between May 31 and June 1, 1921, after a black man was accused of assaulting a white woman. A white mob, including people deputized and armed by city officials, descended on Greenwood, terrorized black families, and burned their community to the ground. Bombs rained from airplanes flying above the city.
About 35 square blocks — more than 1,200 black-owned houses, scores of businesses, a school, a hospital, a public library, and a dozen black churches — were destroyed and thousands were left homeless.
Prior to its destruction, the area had been a prosperous, middle-class African-American refuge dubbed the Black Wall Street.
With so many factors against Tulsa, why did Trump choose it? To provoke violent images that would stoke his base? Or was the choice an unintentional blunder by someone who’s incapable of admitting he’s wrong.
No matter how the event benefits or harms Trump, Tulsa officials say it will present hardships for them.
“Again, Tulsa will be largely alone in dealing with what happens at a time when the city's budget resources have already been stretched thin," wrote Tulsa World’s editorial staff, referring not only to health care costs but also to the costs of security protection and cleanup.
Meanwhile, Trump’s staff and Tulsa officials are searching for either a larger indoor venue or one outdoors. But getting Trump to change his plans again could prove a more challenging problem.