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Tulsa becomes battleground in latest Trump controversy

President’s Trump’s first campaign rally since the start of the coronavirus pandemic has put the city of Tulsa, Okla., at the center of the nation’s political lens, leading to controversy for local officials.

Trump initially scheduled the rally for Juneteenth, a holiday marking the end of slavery in the United States, and a decision that was heavily criticized in the context of national protests against police violence toward African Americans and presidential tweets widely seen as stoking tensions.

The president shifted the date for his rally by a day after the criticism. On a normal Juneteenth, about 8,000 to 10,000 people arrive in Tulsa for a weekend-long celebration.

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The planning committee for Tulsa’s Juneteenth celebration made the decision to cancel their major gatherings to comply with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and local guidelines before the campaign rally was announced. 

“It’s a slap in the face for [Trump] to come here at this time,” said Vanessa Hall-Harper, Tulsa’s only black city councilmember.

The rally also comes on the heels of the 99th anniversary of the Tulsa race massacre, where at least 300 black Tulsa residents were killed by a white mob on June 1, 1921.

More recently, Tulsa faced unrest this month after the death of George Floyd, a black man who died in Minneapolis police custody on May 25. One police officer faces second-degree murder charges after video showed him kneeling on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes to pin him to the street.

Tulsa has mourned similar situations, such as the death of Terence Crutcher, a 40-year-old black motorist who was shot and killed by a Tulsa police officer in September 2016. 

Hall-Harper said she is worried about “what could potentially happen in this community when citizens collide, which is certainly possible when you have these extremist followers of Trump and their behavior.”

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“It's just the perfect storm for nothing positive,” she said. “I really don't see anything positive coming out of this, this weekend and his visit here.”

Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum declared a civil emergency Thursday night after learning 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.”

Bynum, a Republican, has said that he is not attending the rally but has also indicated he will not stop it from happening. 

The mayor’s response has drawn bipartisan criticism. The filing deadline for the August mayoral election was last week, after the rally was announced, and several black community leaders are running against him. 

“That was a group that was very supportive of him in this last election,” said Pat McFerron, an Oklahoma-based political strategist.

Trump, for his part, has continued to make statements that have been criticized as insensitive.

In an interview with The Wall Street Journal, Trump said he brought attention to what he described as a little-known holiday in Juneteenth. 

“I did something good: I made Juneteenth very famous,” Trump told the Journal. “It’s actually an important event, an important time. But nobody had ever heard of it.” 

On Thursday, Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala HarrisSix notable moments from Trump and Biden's '60 Minutes' interviews Harris lists out 'racist' actions by Trump in '60 minutes' interview: 'It all speaks for itself' Pence travel questioned after aides test positive MORE (D-Calif.) tweeted “Retweet if you’ve heard of Juneteenth,” and several other Democratic lawmakers did so. The same day, Democrats and Republicans in the Senate announced plans to make Juneteenth a federal holiday.

On Friday, Trump grouped protesters with anarchists in another tweet, warning that “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!” tweeted Trump, who has advocated for aggressive measures against protesters in the past. 

The rally also comes after Oklahoma has experienced a significant spike in coronavirus cases. 

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On June 12 the Tulsa Health Department issued a warning advising against large gatherings after the state reported its highest daily number of new coronavirus cases at 223. On Thursday, the state announced 450 new cases and two additional deaths.

State and city officials have said they are expecting roughly 200,000 people to be in Tulsa for the rally. The campaign has said attendees will be given temperature checks, masks and hand sanitizer before entering the arena. 

Oklahoma is not a battleground state like Michigan or Florida, where both candidates are pouring resources. 

In 2016, Trump defeated former Secretary of State Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonHarris lists out 'racist' actions by Trump in '60 minutes' interview: 'It all speaks for itself' Trump has list of top intelligence officials he'll fire if he wins reelection: report Clinton says most Republicans want to see Trump gone but can't say it publicly: report MORE in Oklahoma 65.3 percent to 28.9 percent. Polling indicates that Trump will win by similar margins in November.  

“I think one of the big immediate questions that we all had when the rally was announced … is what exactly the campaign hopes to accomplish by having a rally in it and a stronghold that is almost surely going to go to him as president,” Erica Townsend-Bell, associate professor of political science at Oklahoma State University.

McFerron said that though the stakes aren’t high in Oklahoma, it’s a stronghold where he can test the waters for future campaign events. 

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And unlike other states, on June 1 Oklahoma entered phase three of its reopening, allowing gatherings without size limits. 

“It’s a place where he’s going to have some welcoming, it’s a state that’s open from a COVID perspective,” McFerron said. “It could serve as a testing ground for what he does next.” 

Trump said Wednesday night that there’s great demand to restart the rallies. 

“We’ll be in Tulsa — you have a great mayor, and you have a great governor,” Trump said in an interview with Fox News’s Sean HannitySean Patrick HannityGraham dismisses criticism from Fox Business's Lou Dobbs Biden: Johnson should be 'ashamed' for suggesting family profited from their name Trafalgar chief pollster predicts Trump victory: Polls 'predominantly missing the hidden vote' MORE

“They’re so excited about it, you have no idea.”