U.S. President Donald Trump began a holiday dedicated to the end of slavery by issuing a thinly veiled threat against protesters who have been marching against systemic racism and may show up at his campaign rally Saturday evening in Tulsa, Okla., bunching them together with “looters” and warning that disruptions would not be tolerated.
His tweet Friday morning, coming on the Juneteenth holiday and as many Americans grapple with the country’s racist history, was a reminder that even days of commemoration and national reflection are not free of Mr. Trump’s divisive approach to the presidency.
“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,” Mr. Trump wrote on Twitter. “It will be a much different scene!”
In his tweet, Mr. Trump drew no distinction between peaceful protesters, whose right to assemble and speak out is protected by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, and violent looters, some of whom were responsible for vandalism and fires that broke out during largely peaceful demonstrations across the country expressing outrage over the killing of George Floyd.
The Juneteenth holiday celebrates the end of slavery in the United States and has taken on added significance for many Americans this year. The White House on Friday issued a Juneteenth message that itself was discordant with Trump’s online remarks, committing to “live true to our highest ideals and to build always toward a freer, stronger country that values the dignity and boundless potential of all Americans.”
It was not clear if the President was simply using Twitter to excite his base and stir up an outcry ahead of a politically charged Saturday night or whether he planned to mobilize the National Guard or other levers of government to take to the streets of Tulsa.
Kayleigh McEnany, the White House press secretary, told reporters Friday that the President did not mean to threaten peaceful protesters. “What he was meaning are violent protesters,” Ms. McEnany said.
The Tulsa Police Department said it would not comment on the President’s tweet. “We are allowing citizens to exercise their First Amendment rights in a peaceful manner,” a spokeswoman said.
Mr. Trump’s threats, both on Twitter and off, often amount to little more than bluster. He has complained that governors and mayors have been too soft in dealing with protesters in places like New York and Seattle, but he did not follow through on a threat to send in the military if state officials did not quell the demonstrations themselves.
The rally will mark Mr. Trump’s return to the campaign trail after the coronavirus pandemic deprived him for three months of the arenas packed with die-hard fans that serve as the cornerstone of his political brand.
His return to campaign mode comes as the country grapples with its history of racial violence — a legacy that is painfully significant in Tulsa, the site of a 1921 race massacre, when up to 300 people were killed and hundreds of homes and businesses were destroyed in a historic black neighborhood.
In the neighborhood, known as “Black Wall Street” before the massacre, Tulsans gathered Friday to celebrate Juneteenth. The words “Black Lives Matter” had been painted across Greenwood Avenue in block letters and bright yellow paint.
Mr. Trump originally planned to hold his rally in Tulsa on Friday. But after days of criticism over the idea of holding a political rally on Juneteenth during a national uproar over racial injustice, the President agreed to postpone the event by one day. This week he tried to turn the criticism on its head, saying he was responsible for elevating the holiday’s status.
“I made Juneteenth very famous,” Mr. Trump said in an interview with The Wall Street Journal, discussing the controversy surrounding his rally. “It’s actually an important event, an important time. But nobody had ever heard of it.” In reality, it was his own top campaign aides who were not aware of the significance of June 19, which has been celebrated as Juneteenth by African Americans since the late 1800s.
The Republican National Committee, meanwhile, has tried to spin Mr. Trump’s visit to Tulsa as an opportunity to shed light on African American history. “When the Trump campaign announced the rally in Tulsa it gave the world an opportunity to learn more about and from Black Wall Street, not just the massacre but why it was so significant,” Paris Dennard, an RNC adviser for black media affairs, wrote in The Tulsa World on Thursday.
Trump is expected to land in Tulsa for his rally as coronavirus cases are rising in the city and the state overall, and as public health officials have issued warnings about the dangers of bringing together a large crowd indoors. On Wednesday, the city announced 96 new cases of COVID-19, the largest single-day increase in Tulsa since March. Local health officials have warned that Mr. Trump’s rally has the potential to become a “super spreader” event.
Tulsa Police Chief Wendell Franklin said this week that his department was planning for “a mass amount of people that probably Tulsa has never seen before.”
On Thursday, Mayor G.T. Bynum signed an order imposing a three-night 10 p.m. curfew in the area around the BOK Center, where the rally is to be held, stating that the city was expecting crowds “in excess of 100,000 people in the vicinity of the rally.”
The operators of the arena, which seats 19,000, on Thursday demanded a last-minute written health and safety plan from the Trump campaign, including any plans related to social distancing. Mr. Trump and his aides have made it clear that they want to hold a packed rally with the look and feel of a pre-coronavirus event.
Mr. Bynum, a moderate Republican who is friendly with the Trump campaign, has said he is “grateful” Tulsa was chosen as the host city for Mr. Trump’s comeback rally. He said the curfew was put in place because he had received information that showed that “individuals from organized groups who have been involved in destructive and violent behaviour” elsewhere were planning to travel to Tulsa “for purposes of causing unrest around the rally.”
Mr. Trump and his administration have repeatedly suggested that the sporadic violence and looting that has marred some of the protests over Mr. Floyd’s killing is an organized effort by “radical leftists,” but federal prosecutors have attributed a majority of the violent acts to individuals with no affiliation to any particular group.
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