Following a three-month hiatus, earlier this month President Trump announced his return to the campaign trail with a rally scheduled for June 19, 2020 in Tulsa, Oklahoma – an announcement that was met with instant public backlash, due to both the ongoing coronavirus crisis and the chosen date and location.
June 19 marks the observance of Juneteenth, a holiday that celebrates slavery emancipation in the United States. On June 19, 1865, following President Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 Emancipation Proclamation, Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger led Union soldiers to Galveston, Texas with news that the Civil War was over and that the enslaved were now free. While this holiday is cause for celebration in the African-American community, Tulsa is a location that brings up grief for Black Americans.
In 1921, the Tulsa race massacre occurred. From May 31 to June 1, white rioters looted and burned the Greenwood District, an affluent African-American community affectionately referred to as Black Wall Street. When the violence ceased, 35 city blocks had been reduced to ruins, and historians estimate 300 people may have died.
Due to the timing and apparent disregard for the African-American community, especially in the wake of nationwide Black Lives Matter protests over the unjust death of George Floyd and the White House’s gassing of peaceful protesters, the public felt this rally was yet another targeted act of disrespect, and expressed their dissent on Trump’s platform of choice: Twitter.
Trump reversing trans health protections on the Pulse massacre anniversary, and holding a rally in Tulsa on Juneteenth, shows that just because our enemies suppress our history, doesn’t mean they themselves are ignorant of it. Their bigotry is informed, intentional, and precise.
— abolicious (@telushk) June 12, 2020
Politicians also voiced their disapproval of Trump’s actions. Alicia Andrews, chair of the Oklahoma Democratic Party, chastised Trump for "thumbing his nose at the real issue of racial inequity."
"There's a man's words, and then there are his actions," Andrews 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."
Sen. Kamala Harris, former Democratic Party presidential candidate, condemned Trump’s actions on Twitter, writing: “This isn't just a wink to white supremacists—he's throwing them a welcome home party.”
President Trump and his campaign initially defended their decision to hold the rally on a day meant for Black celebration, but in a location meant for Black mourning. In an interview, Trump asked the public to “think about it as a celebration.”
“My rally is a celebration. In the history of politics, I think I can say there's never been any group or any person that's had rallies like I do," Trump said. "I go and I just say, give me the biggest stadium and we fill it up every time. We've never had a vacancy."
His campaign also dug in their heels regarding the decision. Senior Trump campaign adviser Katrina Pierson defended the visit in a statement. “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.”
While President Trump rarely succumbs to public pressure, within the current political climate and its focus on race, something changed this time around. His campaign decided to push the rally back one day, hosting it on June 20th but remaining in Tulsa. He explained his reasoning in a Tweet, writing that he would honor the requests of “many of [his] African-American friends and supporters” and move the rally in “observance of this important occasion and all it represents”. He did not address the significance of the rally being held in Tulsa.
We had previously scheduled our #MAGA Rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, for June 19th – a big deal. Unfortunately, however, this would fall on the Juneteenth Holiday. Many of my African American friends and supporters have reached out to suggest that we consider changing the date out...
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 13, 2020
Some of his supporters lauded him for this decision, calling it a respectful move, while others acknowledged the initial disrespect of having it on the Juneteenth date to begin with.
Thank you, President Trump, for listening
& thank you for recognizing the importance of Juneteenth.
— #ThePersistence (@ScottPresler) June 13, 2020
He should resign “out of respect” for the country https://t.co/4F43F6YcrY
— Anthony Scaramucci (@Scaramucci) June 14, 2020
Beyond the Juneteenth concern, the United States is still embroiled within the coronavirus pandemic, and large gatherings in enclosed spaces are still highly advised against. Trump’s last rally was on March 2 in Charlotte, N.C., prior to the rapid acceleration of the COVID-19 pandemic in the U.S. and suspension of most public gatherings. However, Trump’s decision to resume rallies has been met with concern from the public health community, who view it as a risk.
Dr. Ashish Jha, director of Harvard’s Global Health Institute, told the Associated Press that the upcoming rally was an “extraordinarily dangerous move for the people participating and the people who may know them and love them and see them afterward." He also speculated that Trump supporters coming from neighboring cities and states could carry the virus back home. Dr. Jha did not consider this assessment politically motivated, commenting: "I’d feel the same way if Joe Biden were holding a rally.”
To address these concerns, Trump 2020 campaign manager Brad Parscale announced the rally would have temperature checks, hand sanitizer and masks upon entry. However, these masks will be optional, and the campaign has not announced whether the crowd will be socially distanced.
With Trump’s return to the campaign trail amid a global pandemic and his lack of adequate response to the nationwide Black Lives Matter calls for justice, the decision to irreverently host a rally on Juneteenth at a site of Black grief, though retracted, and to refuse to enforce health-protecting measures cannot be ignored as the public continues to evaluate the President’s actions.