WASHINGTON — Members of a black nonprofit in Tulsa, Oklahoma, who had canceled its Juneteenth festival because of the coronavirus, are doubling down with a larger event after President Donald Trump announced he’d hold a MAGA rally there on the same day.
After Trump announced plans to hold a rally in Tulsa, the site of the 1921 Black Wall Street massacre, on Juneteenth, which commemorates the day the last enslaved person was freed in the US, organizers are now expecting a crowd of 30,000 at the city’s Juneteenth festival, which will again be held outdoors.
Sherry Gamble Smith and Vanessa Hall Harper of Tulsa Juneteenth Inc. expanded the outdoor event in 2015 after a lull in the 2010s. Each year more and more people have flooded the event to celebrate.
This year, the coronavirus upended plans for large gatherings, and the unpredictable global pandemic left Lindsey Corbitt, an event coordinator for Tulsa Juneteenth Inc., doubtful the state would reopen in time. So the Tulsa Juneteenth Board of Directors postponed the festival until 2021, breaking a tradition they had started four years earlier.
A month later, the president announced his rally for the same day and asked attendees to sign a waiver agreeing not to sue if they contract the coronavirus.
“We felt very disrespected and a little hurt in that moment,” Corbitt, 28, told BuzzFeed News during a phone interview. “We thought so heavily about the process and knowing what circumstances COVID brings to our citizens.”
Following backlash, Trump tweeted he would change the date to the 20th “out of respect of this Holiday.” (“I did something good: I made Juneteenth very famous,” Trump told the Wall Street Journal Wednesday.)
“For someone who does not respect our ideas, our concepts, our history, our culture — to bring other individuals that support him in not respecting us to our city was 100% a slap in the face,” Corbitt said. “So in order to combat that in the most positive way that we can, we decided that it's a good idea to go ahead and celebrate who we are and what we do and rally for justice.”
More than a dozen Black Tulsa organizations collaborated to peacefully celebrate Juneteenth in the Greenwood District — the site of the 1921 massacre where white residents killed as many as 300 Black people and burned a thriving commercial Black-owned district. As usual, Cajun and soul food vendors will share space with artists and entertainers outdoors on Greenwood Avenue for the Juneteenth celebration. But the current environment commands a more serious tone; this year’s theme is “I, Too, Am America” and Rev. Al Sharpton will be a keynote speaker. Tiffany Crutcher, the twin sister of Terence Crutcher, who was fatally shot by Tulsa police in 2016, will also speak at the event.
A day later, just over a mile away, Trump will host a MAGA rally at the 19,100-seat BOK Center. A spokesperson for the president tweeted that there’ve been 1 million tickets requests and attendees looking to get a seat inside the arena have started lining up as early as Wednesday for the Saturday event.
In Tulsa, where only 10% of the population is Black, Trump continues to draw criticism for holding a rally in the city. During a moment when protesters are rallying nationwide against police brutality and systemic racism, some residents of Oklahoma think it’s just not the best time.
“We’re no strangers to that kind of stuff,” Democratic State Rep. Monroe Nichols told BuzzFeed News. “There’s a lot of activism and energy around the issue of law enforcement in Tulsa. Not just because of what happened in Minneapolis, but because of what’s happening in our own community. We’ve dealt with that in my community for a very, very long time, not to mention the race massacre 99 years ago.”
Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt told reporters on Wednesday that he has advised the president not to visit the Greenwood area during his trip to Tulsa because the needed security would disrupt Juneteenth events. But for Democrats in the Oklahoma state legislature, the warning to stay away was more of a rebuke of Trump’s presidency.
“We’ve pushed back a lot on Trump visiting the Greenwood District because of his rhetoric and those types of things,” Nichols said. “I don’t think it’s appropriate for him to be there. … I did have some concern about security. Because Donald Trump brings with him, you know, some folks who are kind of looking to mix it up a bit.”
Last week local health officials advised against Trump’s indoor rally. “I’m concerned about our ability to protect anyone who attends a large, indoor event, and I’m also concerned about our ability to ensure the president stays safe as well,” said Bruce Dart, Tulsa’s health department director, adding, “I wish we could postpone this to a time when the virus isn’t as large a concern as it is today.”
The warning came amid Oklahoma’s recent spike in coronavirus cases — one of nine states that has seen an uptick of 75% or more COVID-19 cases in the past 14 days. Whirlpool temporarily closed its Tulsa plant because of confirmed coronavirus cases among its employees a week ahead of the president’s visit.
Both the Trump campaign and Black event organizers say they’ll be distributing masks and hand sanitizer. The Trump campaign said they’ll be taking attendees’ temperatures and have added an outdoor stage to the event and Trump will speak at both the indoor and outdoor events, according to Axios. Dr. Anthony Fauci, a member of the White House coronavirus task force, told the Daily Beast Tuesday “outside is better than inside, no crowd is better than crowd,” and “crowd is better than big crowd” when asked about Trump’s Tulsa rally and other large events and social distancing. (Fauci said he personally would not attend.)