WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump’s decision to hold his first rally in three months in Tulsa, the location of one of the worst massacres of African Americans in U.S. history, has triggered controversy as he wrestles with criticism over his handling of nationwide protests against police brutality and racism.
Trump plans to visit Oklahoma on June 19 for the first of several big campaign events. It will be his first rally since an event in Charlotte, North Carolina, on March 2. The trip comes after weeks of protests over the death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man who was pinned to the ground for nearly nine minutes under the knee of a white Minneapolis police officer.
Trump put his large campaign rallies on hiatus for a few months while much of the country was locked down amid the coronavirus pandemic.
June 19, or Juneteenth, is also known as Emancipation Day and commemorates the date in 1865 when Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger traveled to Galveston, Texas, to inform residents that President Abraham Lincoln had freed the slaves and that slave owners had to comply with the Emancipation Proclamation.
This month, Tulsa marked a grim date – the 99th anniversary of the Tulsa race massacre in which a white mob ravaged a thriving African-American business community in the Greenwood District known as the “Black Wall Street.” Estimates suggest as many as 300 people were killed, and scores of homes and businesses were destroyed.
Alicia Andrews, chair of the Oklahoma Democratic Party, said Trump was “thumbing his nose at the real issue of racial inequity.”
“There’s a man’s words, and then there are his actions,” she said. “Him coming here on that date, without making any outreach to the community, and saying it’s for unity, it is a slap in the face.”
Rep. Al Green, D-Texas, a member of the Congressional Black Caucus, tweeted Thursday that holding the rally in Tulsa was “overt racism from the highest office in the land.”
Trump’s campaign said the timing and location of the rally were deliberate, and his team views it as a chance to tout his “record of success for black Americans.”
Trump faces rising criticism, including from Republicans, for his response to the growing Black Lives Matter movement – three words etched in yellow paint on a street outside the White House.
In the wake of Floyd’s death and the outrage that followed, Trump has said little about racial inequality, focusing instead on restoring “law and order” in American streets and lambasting protesters as “thugs” and looters.
Members of Trump’s own administration, including Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley, distanced themselves from a decision to forcefully clear a park outside the White House of peaceful protesters so Trump could walk to nearby St. John’s Church and hold up a Bible before television cameras. Milley said Thursday he had made a “mistake” in accompanying Trump on the walk.
Mechelle Brown, program coordinator and tour guide for the Greenwood Cultural Center in Tulsa, said the organization had not heard from the president or the Trump campaign about his planned visit and does not expect to.
“The community doesn’t feel that Trump is genuinely interested in the history of the Greenwood district,” Brown said, “and that his visit to Tulsa during Juneteenth, as we are commemorating the 99-year anniversary of the massacre, is insulting.”
Brown said the black community in Tulsa was “incredibly anxious” about the rally.
“You have people who are proudly waving their Confederate flag against the backdrop of African Americans and others – white allies – who are continuing to protest George Floyd’s death and police brutality,” she said. “We just see the potential of there being a clash.”
Senior Trump campaign adviser Katrina Pierson said in a statement that Trump’s visit was entirely appropriate.
“As the party of Lincoln, Republicans are proud of the history of Juneteenth, which is the anniversary of the last reading of the Emancipation Proclamation,” she said. “President Trump has built a record of success for Black Americans, including unprecedented low unemployment prior to the global pandemic, all-time high funding for Historically Black Colleges and Universities, and criminal justice reform.”
A USA TODAY/Ipsos Poll released this week suggested the walk across Lafayette Square was a defining moment for the president. Nearly nine of 10 Americans heard about the incident in which police used smoke canisters, pepper spray and other irritants to clear peaceful protesters. Two-thirds of Americans, 63%, oppose the show of force, , and almost half, 44%, say they “strongly” oppose it.
The USA TODAY/Ipsos poll also found that 60% of Americans say they trust the Black Lives Matter movement to promote justice and equal treatment for people of all races – compared with 38% who say they trust Trump. Fifty-one percent say they trust presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden.
The president expressed vehement opposition to renaming military bases that bear the names of Confederate generals after top military officials suggested they were open to discussing changes. Trump argued that the bases are part of “a Great American heritage.”
The Trump administration frequently touts its record for helping African Americans when confronted with questions about racial injustice but has offered little detail on plans to address systemic racism and police brutality. The White House said Trump is looking at several unspecified proposals on criminal justice while congressional Democrats are working to pass sweeping legislation to combat police brutality and racial bias. Sen. Tim Scott, the only African American Republican in the Senate, leads the GOP effort.
What is Juneteenth?We explain the holiday that commemorates the end of slavery
Trump’s decision to revive his rallies comes nearly 100 days before some begin casting their ballots and is aimed at boosting his momentum as polls show him lagging against Biden, nationally and in battleground states such as Michigan and Pennsylvania.
“The Trump campaign wants to hit reset on the last few weeks,” said Alex Conant, a GOP consultant who served as Marco Rubio’s communication director in 2016.
“Trump’s actions during this tense time have endeared him with his base but turned off a lot of independent voters,” Conant said.
Biden leads Trump in national polls by 8 percentage points, according to a RealClearPolitics polling average.
The controversies over Trump’s response to the Floyd protests echo the backlash he faced over his comments in 2017 about a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. The rally was organized to protest the proposed removal of a statue of Gen. Robert E. Lee. Trump refused to disavow white nationalists after a protester was killed, claiming there were fine people on “both sides.”
The challenge for Trump in Tulsa will be his message and the audience before him at the downtown BOK Center, Conant said. His rallies tend to attract overwhelmingly white audiences, and Conant said even if the president offers a message of unity, the optics of the event could overshadow that.
“He can have a very broad and uniting message that’s completely undone by optics surrounding the event,” he said.
Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., welcomed Trump’s visit.
“I think if anyone’s going to celebrate Juneteenth, they’d be Republicans because it happens to be a Republican president that declared emancipation,” he said. “I do think the president should spend some time talking on racial issues. It’s an appropriate day. I think it’s an appropriate place to be able to talk about it.”
Andrews, the chair of Oklahoma’s Democratic Party, doesn’t expect a unifying message.
“He refuses to have a meaningful conversation on racial inequality, and his visit on June 19th is worse than insensitive, it’s mean-spirited,” she said. “Whenever our nation has been at a crossroads, he has not spoken up for unity. He actually stokes the fire of disunity.”
Contributing: Joel Shannon, Susan Page and Sarah Elbeshbishi