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Two Tulsa Residents Reflect On President Trump's Upcoming Rally

Trump arrives for a campaign rally in Chattanooga, Tennessee on November 4, 2018. (Nicholas Kamm /AFP/Getty Images)
Trump arrives for a campaign rally in Chattanooga, Tennessee on November 4, 2018. (Nicholas Kamm /AFP/Getty Images)

On Saturday, President Trump will take the stage at the BOK Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma, for his first campaign rally since the coronavirus pandemic began. The event has drawn criticism for being racially insensitive and for drawing huge crowds at a time when Tulsa’s COVID-19 cases are spiking.

The rally was originally scheduled for Juneteenth, the date that marks when formerly enslaved Black Americans in Galveston, Texas, first learned they were free — more than two years after the Civil War had ended and the Emancipation Proclamation was declared.

Many Black Americans were offended by the choice of date. Democratic Sen. Kamala Harris of California, who is widely considered to be a contender for vice president, tweeted: “This isn’t just a wink to white supremacists — he’s throwing them a welcome home party.”

Citing respect for the holiday of Juneteenth, Trump moved the date of the rally to Saturday, June 20, but some say his choice of location is just as problematic as his choice of date. In 1921, a white mob murdered as many as 300 Black Tulsans, and used airplanes to torch the prosperous Greenwood district, referred to as “Black Wall Street.”

The event, which became known as the Tulsa Massacre, and was highlighted by the TV series “Watchmen” last year, is still fresh in many people’s minds — including Rev. Robert Turner.

Each Wednesday, he takes a bullhorn to City Hall where he preaches about the Tulsa Massacre and the need for reparations. Turner’s church, the Vernon AME, was the only building to survive the 1921 firebombing — a crime, he points out, that has never resulted in a single arrest or insurance claim paid to property owners.

He says he is “disgusted” by the president’s decision to come to Tulsa, regardless of the date change, in part because his church has Juneteenth events planned the entire weekend.

Now, he says, instead of celebrating “the Black liberation from chattel slavery, we’re talking about the president’s visit.”

Turner also says he finds Trump’s rally “disrespectful” in light of the mass global protests that have broken out over police brutality and anti-Black racism following the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police.

“We don’t need more campaign speeches,” Turner says. “We definitely don’t need a candidate Trump. We need a President Trump.”

Turner says he would like to see more leadership from the president at such a decisive moment for the country. For starters, Turner says, Trump could begin by recognizing that Tulsa is still a “crime scene.”

“Unless he is bringing the Department of Justice with him to investigate high crimes and misdemeanors, murders, felons … unless he is willing to come here and say he supports reparations, he really needs to rethink his reason for coming,” he says.

Turner says he’s concerned about possible clashes between Trump supporters and Tulsa residents celebrating Juneteenth.

“We know that white supremacists, neo-confederates, neo-Nazis — they love him, so I wouldn’t be surprised if they came to the rally,” he says. “We know this is the same population that went to Charlottesville and ran cars through peaceful protesters.”

“But as a man of faith,” he says, “I don’t move in fear.”

Not all Tulsa residents think Turner has something to fear.

Don Burdick, a local energy businessman and former chairman of the Tulsa County Republican Party, says the fact that the president is coming to the “middle of the country” should be “celebrated,” and that anyone who is “disgusted” by the visit “is probably someone who doesn’t like President Trump in the base case.”

Burdick says Saturday’s rally has exposed liberals’ hypocrisy, noting that concerns over COVID-19 transmission have not been a central part of the conversation when mass crowds have gathered to protest the death of Floyd and other Black Americans killed by police.

But now that mass crowds are gathering for Trump, Burdick notes, COVID-19 transmission has reemerged as a concern.

“It’s unfortunate,” he says, “But I guess to get that exposed is a good thing.”

Health experts have noted that there may be a difference between crowds gathered indoors, as some 19,000 will be Saturday at the rally, and crowds gathered outdoors, as the protesters have.

Tulsa’s top health official, Bruce Dart, has implored the president to cancel the rally or move it outdoors, warning that the event could be the “perfect storm” of “over-the-top disease transmission” that Tulsa “can’t afford.”

While Oklahoma has had 364 coronavirus deaths compared to New York state’s more than 30,000, Tulsa County, in particular, is experiencing a spike, with the number of cases doubling last week and hitting several single-day highs this week.

One thing is for sure though, according to Burdick: President Trump is no racist.

“I’ve seen every Republican since the 1960s be accused of being a racist,” he says.

The label hasn’t stuck to Trump, he says, “for a really simple reason — his television show.” Burdick says that on “The Apprentice,” Trump was able to convey his philosophy to Americans that race, sex and sexual orientation don’t matter — what he cares about is people doing their best.

Burdick is dismissive of the idea that he might feel differently about Trump coming to Tulsa if he had certain different life experiences.

“If we go down the path of unless you’ve walked in another person’s shoes, you can’t understand them, then we’ll never be able to understand each other on anything,” he says. “I think that’s destructive.”

Cassady Rosenblum produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Kathleen McKenna. Rosenblum also adapted it for the web. 

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jeremy Hobson is the former co-host of Here & Now.
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