In Tulsa, fears that Trump rally may worsen racial unrest, spread of coronavirus
By Jarrett Renshaw and Ernest Scheyder
TULSA, Okla. (Reuters) - When President Donald Trump takes the stage at his first rally in three months on Saturday evening, the scene in Tulsa, Oklahoma is well known: a large venue filled with enthusiastic fans who wear "Keep America Great". Hats and t-shirts.
But outside the 19,199-seat arena is a country that has been transformed by the coronavirus pandemic, an economic collapse, and a wave of protests against police brutality and racial injustice. A trio of crises that affected support a few months before the November 3 election.
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Trump's campaign advisors believe the rally is a way to rejuvenate his base and show the enthusiasm behind his re-election offer at a time when a number of national and state polls have shown Trump falls behind his democratic rival Joe Biden.
But even some Republican allies fear that his divisive rhetoric and apologetic appeal to his conservative base after the murder of Black George Floyd last month in Minneapolis police custody seem increasingly to be inconsistent with the change in public opinion.
"His style and message won't change, but the world has it. I don't know if he can get to places that are important to people now," said Amy Koch, a Republican strategist from Minnesota, a battlefield state Trump just lost in 2016 and wants to turn around this year.
In Tulsa, officials said they were concerned that the rally would create the conditions for possible clashes between Trump supporters and protesters who might try to crash the event to argue that the Republican president failed to address racial injustice or police brutality against African Americans.
Trump has positioned himself as a "law-and-order" president, advocating a militarized response to the protests, and calling on states to take action against the unrest.
The prospect of a large indoor gathering has also shaken residents - the largest such event in the United States since the coronavirus pandemic started in March, at a time when Oklahoma and other states saw a new surge in COVID-19 cases.
"Ultimately, the president does not ask for permission before going to a location," said Republican Kevin Stitt, governor of Oklahoma, during a briefing on Wednesday. "So we found out that the President is coming, so we'll make sure it's the best and safest thing that can be done."
Stitt, who is expected to introduce the president at the rally, said he would visit the White House on Thursday after being tested for the virus.
Trump initially decided to hold the Tulsa rally on Friday, June 19, the holiday known as Juneteenth that marked the end of US slavery in 1865. In an unusual move, Trump postponed it to Saturday, June 20, after the public had thought about the plan, to hold a rally in a city known for one of the nation's bloodiest massacre in 1921 on June 19 .
Alicia Andrews, leader of the Oklahoma Democratic Party, said her phone was ringing from supporters who were asking about possible anti-Trump events. The change in date didn't dampen the enthusiasm of followers who want to protest Trump, she said.
Andrews said there would be many such events, but that they were in the planning phase. Any event would take place outside and not in the arena, she added.
The prospect of clashes worries officials like Tulsa City Councilor Vanessa Hall-Harper.
"I fear for my community," said Hall-Harper, whose husband is a police officer.
A group of city residents and business owners applied for an injunction against the company that manages the arena, arguing that the rally posed a "lethal risk" to the community, according to a lawsuit filed in Tulsa County. A judge denied the request on Tuesday, court records showed.
ONE MILLION TICKETS
According to the campaign, more than 1 million people had registered for tickets for the rally in the BOK Center in Tulsa. It is the first event in months in the arena.
"It is clear that the campaign wants this event to be huge and that people work hard to avoid problems," said a Trump advisor, asking for anonymity to speak freely.
"For all practical purposes, this is the restart of the Trump 2020 campaign."
Health officials fear, however, that such a large crowd in a closed location - especially if masks are not widely available - could become a "superspreader" for the virus, which infects more than 2.1 million people in the US and more than 116,000 people killed most of every country.
Over a dozen black community leaders, activists, and ministers speaking to Reuters this week said they feared, in particular, the arena workers, most of whom are older African Americans, a group of people who are warned by public health experts who are extremely vulnerable is for the virus.
"The president's rally here seems to make the corona virus threat even more real and scary," said Rev. Ray Owens of Tulsa's Metropolitan Baptist Church.
Trump's advisors have argued that recent major protests in US cities make it more difficult for liberals to criticize him for holding a rally. The campaign envisages handing out masks and disinfectants to participants before entering the arena, although they are not required to maintain social distance or wear masks.
Participants must sign a waiver not to sue Trump or the campaign if they become infected with the virus.
"We haven't seen a lot of people gather in one place for a long time, so it's hard to predict. Some people I know are afraid to see old shows of people gathering," said Koch, the republican strategist. "We all learn spontaneously here."
(Reporting by Jarrett Renshaw and Ernest Scheyder; editing by Soyoung Kim, Peter Cooney and Jonathan Oatis)
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