In tension-filled Tulsa, empty seats mark Trump’s return to campaign trail

‘Great American Comeback’

TULSA, Okla. — In the city that bore witness to the Black Wall Street massacre of 1921, the twin epicentres of America’s seismic shift on justice, race and social disparity found themselves in close proximity Saturday as President Donald Trump slammed his stalled bid for a second term back into gear.

They collided, briefly and without incident. Well, except for the earthquake.

Supporters, undaunted by either the prospect of contracting COVID-19 or the possibility of clashes with Black Lives Matter protesters, poured into Tulsa’s fortified downtown core to see the man himself back in his element: blasting back with both barrels at his legions of political enemies and detractors.

But by the time Trump took the stage at the BOK Center, there were still vast tracts of empty seats in the upper deck, despite the president’s insistence that demand for tickets to see him kick off the “Great American Comeback” exceeded more than a million requests.

It didn’t slow him down much, though. Over the course of his nearly two-hour speech, Trump repeatedly pressed down — hard — on the open wound that has Americans taking to the streets in search of social justice.

“The unhinged left-wing mob is trying to vandalize our history, desecrate our monuments … tear down our statues and punish, cancel and persecute anyone who does not conform to their demands,” he declared.

”This cruel campaign of censorship and exclusion violates everything we hold dear. They want to demolish our heritage so they can impose their new oppressive regime in its place.”

Following the president’s speech, tensions were high on the streets of Tulsa.

As supporters filed out of the building, a large group of several hundred protesters who were gathered not far from the BOK Center clashed briefly with police, who briefly fired pepper balls into the crowd before organizers eventually managed to lead the group out out of the area.

They migrated to the Greenwood district, where tensions dissipated into a peaceful celebration to mark Juneteenth, Friday’s anniversary of June 19, 1865, when slaves in Texas learned — two and a half years late — that Abraham Lincoln had abolished slavery.

Before an eventful night was over, however, Mother Nature decided on a nightcap: the U.S. Geological Survey reported a 4.2-magnitude earthquake that could be felt throughout the downtown core.

Trump also lingered, to great effect, on the media speculation about his health following his West Point commencement speech, which featured a tentative-looking, two-handed sip of water and his careful walk down what he described as a slippery ramp from the stage.

He was wearing leather-soled shoes and the ramp was treacherous, he insisted, pantomiming his crouched old-man walk for an appreciative crowd. And his arm had been tired from saluting graduates “600 times,” he said before quenching his thirst again — one-handed this time — and lobbing the glass to the ground.

The crowd erupted with delight.

“I just want him to know that we all still support him, even with all this craziness going around,” said Jonathan Johnson, 30, who made the 90-minute drive from Oklahoma City for the chance to see Trump in person.

“People need to open their eyes. He’s not as bad as people make him out to be, and they’ve just got to give him a chance. He’s gonna get four more years and we’re excited about it — Trump 2020, baby.”

Like many other rallygoers milling about the BOK Center, Johnson was unmasked and unconcerned about the prospect of catching COVID-19. So too was Gary Stanislawski, an Oklahoma state senator and devout Republican supporter of the president.

“We accomplished what I think the goal was, and that was to flatten the curve,” Stanislawski said.

“I still want to be smart, protect myself, watch for others — if there’s people who suddenly start coughing around me or something, we brought our masks, we’re ready to go. But no, I’m not concerned.”

It was clear, however, that the prospect for infection was real: the campaign confirmed Saturday that six members of its advance team in Tulsa had tested positive for the novel coronavirus. None of them, nor anyone who had contact with them, would attend the rally, a spokesman said in a statement.

Trump appeared to make light of the crisis when he claimed the U.S. had tested 25 million people, progress that he described as a “double-edged sword” that results in more positive tests.

“So I said to my people, ‘Slow the testing down, please’” — a remark that officials with Democratic rival Joe Biden’s campaign quickly seized upon as “outrageous” evidence of Trump putting politics ahead of public health.

The prospect of infection didn’t seem to bother Johnson.

“I don’t think it’s as dangerous as what they make it out to be,” he said. “Not going to get one of those swabs, that’s for sure, I’ll tell you that much — heck, no.”

Inside, amid the familiar throb of a classic-rock soundtrack, fans waved signs, danced and erupted into cheers whenever they saw a familiar face: Eric Trump, the tag team known as Diamond and Silk or Mike Lindell, an entrepreneurial devotee of the president known to most Americans as “the MyPillow guy.”

Before the rally, one small group took up positions right inside the lion’s den: a street party where Trump supporters were gathered, clad in — and shelling out for — the usual assortment of pro-Trump memorabilia, including flags, T-shirts, “Make America Great Again” hats and even face masks and shields.

The interlopers silently brandished placards and Black Lives Matter messages as the Trump crowd milled about, largely uninterested. Nearby, a crowd gathered around two men at an Infowars kiosk as they took turns on the mic, insulting Democrats and mocking mask-wearing liberals.

“This is important,” said one of the protesters — a man wearing a Black Lives Matter flag as a cape who identified himself only as Ryan — when asked why the group chose such a provocative spot to set up camp.

“It’s no coincidence that Donald Trump chose the city of the Tulsa massacre to come and do this, on the weekend of Juneteenth, and we wanted to send a message.”

At one of the entrances, a woman wearing a shirt with the slogan “I Can’t Breathe” — George Floyd’s dying words when he was killed while being arrested on a Minneapolis street last month — was arrested by Tulsa police after sitting down in an area inside the security perimeter deemed to be private property.

Soldiers and police officers stood guard at every corner, and a two-metre steel barrier, the same used to ring the White House at the height of the protests earlier this month, circled a wide area around the arena. Many downtown streets were closed to vehicles — all the more room for Trump-friendly visitors and merchants to mingle.

“Shame on you,” one woman bellowed from her car window at the scene on the sidewalk.

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