Oklahoma Supreme Court rejects legal bid to stop Trump’s Tulsa rally over coronavirus concerns

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Zach Moushon and his son, Holden Moushon, 8, camp with fellow Donald Trump supporters outside the BOK Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma, on June 17, 2020, days before the start of the official rally. MUST CREDIT: Photo for The Washington Post by Amanda Voisard

TULSA, Okla. – The Oklahoma Supreme Court Friday rejected an appeal of a lawsuit attempting to block President Donald Trump from holding an indoor campaign rally here Saturday that many feared could worsen the spread of coronavirus, paving the way for the event to go off as planned.

A lawsuit filed on behalf of local residents, business owners and a community center in the historically black neighborhood of Greenwood earlier this week had demanded that the arena adhere to social distancing guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or that the event be canceled. The Trump campaign has said it will take temperatures of supporters entering the 19,000-seat BOK Center and hand out masks, but face coverings are not required.

The plaintiffs had sought a temporary injunction against the ASM Global, the parent company of the entity that manages the BOK Center, “to protect against a substantial, imminent, and deadly risk to the community,” according to a copy of the complaint. Paul DeMuro, an attorney for the plaintiffs, had argued that it was “madness” to let the event proceed as new coronavirus cases in Tulsa are spiking.

The court said that the state’s June 1 reopening plan allowed business owners to use discretion over social distancing measures, and they were not mandatory as the plaintiffs had asserted.

The ruling came as thousands of Trump fans and protesters poured into this city in advance of Trump’s first campaign rally in months, authorities imposed a curfew as fears of potential violence mingled with anxiety about a spike in new cases of coronavirus.

Metal barricades went up around downtown and police cars began blocking off streets after Tulsa announced a last-minute curfew for the downtown area Thursday night that will continue through Friday and part of Saturday.

Officials cleared the area around the BOK Center, where Trump fans had been camping for days in the hopes of being among the first inside the Saturday night rally that is expected to draw far more than the 19,000-seat arena can hold.

The move came after Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum, R, declared a “civil emergency,” saying law enforcement informed him that “individuals from organized groups who have been involved in destructive and violent behavior in other states are planning to travel to the City of Tulsa for purposes of causing unrest in and around the rally,” according to his executive order.

Trump joined the fray, tweeting Friday that “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. It will be a much different scene!”

The Oklahoma Supreme Court is expected to rule Friday on a lawsuit filed by local citizens against the venue demanding that the arena adhere to social distancing guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or be canceled.

The president’s decision to hold his first campaign-style rally since the pandemic began in Tulsa on Juneteenth weekend has angered many across the country and in Tulsa, the site of one of the country’s worst race massacres, and it comes as the country is in the midst of a historic reckoning on race after the May 25 death of George Floyd while in Minneapolis police custody.

Trump, who has used divisive language about race, originally planned the rally to be held on Juneteenth itself, but moved it a day after widespread outcry.

He told the Wall Street Journal earlier in the week he had never heard of the celebration until one of his black Secret Service officers explained it to him. “I did something good: I made Juneteenth very famous,” Trump claimed, though observances of the end of slavery happen annually across the country on June 19. “It’s actually an important event, an important time. But nobody had ever heard of it.”

About a mile from the arena, thousands of people gathered Friday for the Juneteeth celebration in the historic black community of Greenwood, once known as Black Wall Street, where an estimated 300 black residents were killed by a white mob in 1921. Celebrants painted “Black Lives Matter” on the street in yellow paint, an echo of Washington D.C.’s street mural in front of the White House. The Rev. Al Sharpton and other black leaders are scheduled to speak at the rally, set to stretch into the evening hours.

Leaders in Greenwood said they were worried about the potential for violence and asked Juneteenth celebrants to stay away from the Trump rally for fear of clashes.

“We did our rally as a way to protect our people from going over to Trump’s,” said Nehemiah Frank, a community leader and the editor and chief of the Black Wall Street Times news site in Greenwood. “We’re working to extend our rally into Saturday as well to keep them occupied. We don’t want them clashing with those people. Trump has a lot of racist followers, and they are dangerous. They know the history of our city.

“Our rally is going to be a peaceful one,” he said.

Rev. Robert R.A. Turner, 37, stood in front of the Historic Vernon A.M.E. Church – where the basement was one of the few structures that survived the devastation in 1921 – and watched as crowds streamed past one group selling Black Lives Matter clothing and another registering people to vote. He said he would not allow himself to fear the violent potential of the upcoming weekend, but he was “very concerned that citizens may come here for nefarious reasons.”

“We know that people came here nearly 100 years ago and sought to destroy black Wall Street,” Turner said. “We don’t want other individuals to come finish the job. I just hope and pray that the president keeps his people calm, but I have no faith in this president. He has shown a propensity to incite violence.”

Around the BOK center early Friday, the mood was on edge, even as vendors continued to hawk T-shirts and faces masks, and small clusters of people wearing MAGA hats and Trump T-shirts roamed the streets freely, taking photos.

“The city is under siege,” said Kavin Ross, a photojournalist in Tulsa who has researched the 1921 Tulsa race massacre. He said Quik Trip convenience stores were boarded up and there was a National Guard presence on the streets.

About four blocks from the BOK arena, dozens of people clustered in soggy lawn chairs and huddled under umbrellas and tents in the morning rain after being moved from their spots in front of the arena Thursday night.

Rick Frazier, 64, said he arrived in Tulsa from Ohio Tuesday around noon with a friend who had been to 36 Trump rallies. Frazier said he was fifth in line for what he said will be his 21st Trump rally.

The two camped in front of the arena and slept in their car for three days until police asked them and about 100 others camping out in front of the arena to leave the property.

Frazier said he got to know people from Massachusetts, Indiana and Michigan who were in line with him. When police told the group they would have to move, just before 9 p.m. Thursday, he said, many were unhappy because they feared losing their place in line.

Those who moved from the arena lined up in the same order to preserve their place in line, he said.

Frazier said he understands the need for police to move people camped in front of the arena. He said police arrested a man who punched a Trump supporter waiting in front of the arena.

“We had one attack the second night we were here, or the day, when a person just came in unprovoked and hit a guy,” he said. “The police got him.”

Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale disputed the idea that the president’s supporters would cause unrest, telling Fox and Friends Friday morning, “You know, I’ve been here since day one, and I’ve found all Trump supporters to be really, you know, caring, loving people that care about this country.”

“I think you see people coming in. They’re trying to disrupt. They’re trying to create scenes,” he added.

Although Oklahoma is a solidly Republican state, Trump campaign officials said they chose the city for Trump’s first campaign rally in months because Oklahoma is already well into reopening after the coronavirus shut down and view it as a celebration of sorts that the worst of the crisis is over. Trump and others have said about 1 million people have requested tickets to the event.

But cases are rising in the state. Eric Feigl-Ding, an epidemiologist at Harvard University’s Chan School of Public Health, said Oklahoma has the second-fastest-growing per capita rate of new coronavirus infections in the country, based on a seven-day average.

As of Thursday, infections were up 140% in the state, according to estimates by the Federation of American Scientists, a nonpartisan policy institute where Feigl-Ding is a senior fellow. Cases in Tulsa have spiked in recent days. As Friday, Tulsa County had 2,070 cases and 65 deaths, and Oklahoma had 9,706 cases and 367 deaths.

White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said Friday no one in the administration has any reservations about going forward with the rally during the pandemic. Asked why Trump is taking the risk of spreading infection, she said, “Look, I think we’re confident we can operate safely in Tulsa.”

McEnany said she will be at the rally and will not wear a mask, which she said is a personal choice.

Bynum noted Friday in a Facebook post that Tulsa is the first city in the country to host a major event during the pandemic, which “some think is great, some think is reckless.”

“We do this as our positive covid-19 cases are rising, but while our hospital capacity remains strong,” he wrote. “Some think it is great, some think it is reckless. Regardless of where each of us falls on that spectrum, we will go through it as a community.

“We will learn from this weekend. Others will learn from how we handle this weekend,” the mayor wrote.

The BOK Center venue managers have asked the Trump campaign for a detailed plan of the safety measures it will take to prevent the spread of the highly-contagious virus. The campaign intends to supply rallygoers with masks and hand sanitizer, but will not be keeping attendees six feet apart.

Trump campaign spokesman Tim Murtaugh said in an emailed statement: “We’ve received a letter from arena management and we’re reviewing it. We take safety seriously, which is why we’re doing temperature checks for everyone attending, and providing masks and hand sanitizer. This will be a Trump rally, which means a big, boisterous, excited crowd. We don’t recall the media shaming demonstrators about social distancing – in fact the media were cheering them on.”

Oklahoma Sen. James Lankford, R, who will attend the rally, told “CBS This Morning” that he intends to wear a mask “most of the time.”

“I assume that I’m going to have it on a lot of the time,” he said, but added that when out in public he does not see many Oklahomans wearing masks.

Parscale was noncommittal, however, telling Fox News he “probably will be wearing a mask” at the event.

Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt, R, has said he will be welcoming the president with open arms Saturday.

“My question back to all the folks that say you shouldn’t have a rally, when is the right time?” he said on Fox Friday. “Do we really think that in July or August or in November coronavirus is not going to be here? We’ve got to learn to deal with this. We’ve got to learn to be safe, take precautions, but we’ve got to learn to also live our lives.”

But medical professions and local health officials in Tulsa continue to raise alarms about the safety of the event.

The city’s top health official, Bruce Dart, has said he was worried the rally could become a “super spreader” event and said Wednesday that he had recommended the rally be postponed until it was safe.

“I know so many people are over covid,” Dart said. “But covid is not over.”

Stitt initially said this week that he invited Trump and Vice President Mike Pence to stop by Greenwood – where white mobs burned down buildings and killed as many as 300 people in 1921 – during their Saturday visit, and later backed off that invitation, saying the president’s security detail would complicate the celebration. Stitt said Pence would likely have a meeting with black leaders Saturday.

Frank said black leaders in Greenwood were not consulted before Stitt invited the president, calling his act the “height of white privilege.”

Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden was set to celebrate the Juneteenth holiday virtually. He plans to address a virtual social justice conference called JusticeCon on Friday, according to his campaign. Biden’s team is also holding organizing events to commemorate Juneteenth in states across the country, his campaign said. The states include Colorado, Florida, Michigan, North Carolina, New Hampshire, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Wisconsin.

Earlier this week, the campaign said that starting on Juneteenth, it would make a six-figure advertising investment in African American print, radio and digital programming in six battleground states.

The moves are happening as Biden has ramped up his criticism of Trump’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic, which he cast as reckless and negligent in a speech this week. Biden has also been sharply critical of Trump’s response to the recent protests over racism and police violence. Seeking a contrast with Trump, Biden has said he would not “traffic in fear and division” and “fan the flames of hate.”

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