WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump on Friday morning issued a thinly veiled threat to individuals who want to protest his campaign rally scheduled for Saturday evening in Tulsa, Oklahoma, adding divisive rhetoric to a Juneteenth holiday that was serving as a moment of national reflection over the country’s racist history.
“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,” Trump wrote on Twitter. “It will be a much different scene!”
In his tweet, Trump drew no distinction between peaceful protesters, whose right to assemble and speak out is protected by the First Amendment, and violent looters, some of whom were responsible for vandalism and fires that broke out during largely peaceful demonstrations across the country expressing outrage over the killing of George Floyd.
Trump issued his threat on Juneteenth, a holiday that celebrates the end of slavery in the United States and that has taken on added significance for many Americans this year. The White House on Friday issued a Juneteenth message that itself was discordant with Trump’s online remarks, committing to “live true to our highest ideals and to build always toward a freer, stronger country that values the dignity and boundless potential of all Americans.”
It was not clear if the president was simply using Twitter to excite his base and stir up an outcry ahead of a politically charged Saturday night, or whether he planned to mobilize the National Guard or other levers of government to take to the streets of Tulsa. The White House, which rarely offers explanations of presidential tweets and is often taken surprise by Trump’s online declarations, did not respond to a request for comment.
A spokeswoman for the Tulsa Police Department said it would not comment on the president’s tweet. “We are allowing citizens to exercise their First Amendment rights in a peaceful manner,” she said.
Trump’s threats, both on Twitter and off, often amount to little more than bluster. He did not follow through, for an example, on a threat to send in the military if state officials did not quell protests themselves.
The rally will mark Trump’s return to the campaign trail after the coronavirus pandemic deprived him for three months of the arenas packed with die-hard fans that serve as the cornerstone of his political brand.
His return to campaign mode comes as the country grapples with its history of racial violence — a legacy that is painfully significant in Tulsa, the site of a 1921 race massacre, when up to 300 people were killed and hundreds of homes and businesses were destroyed in a historic black neighborhood.
Trump originally planned to hold his rally there Friday. But after days of criticism over the idea of holding a political rally on Juneteenth during a national uproar over racial injustice, the president agreed to change the date.
“I made Juneteenth very famous,” Trump said in an interview with The Wall Street Journal this week, discussing the controversy surrounding his rally. “It’s actually an important event, an important time. But nobody had ever heard of it.”
In reality, it was his own top campaign aides who were not aware of the significance of the date.
The Republican National Committee, meanwhile, has tried to spin Trump’s visit to Tulsa as an opportunity to shed light on African American history. “When the Trump campaign announced the rally in Tulsa it gave the world an opportunity to learn more about and from Black Wall Street, not just the massacre but why it was so significant,” Paris Dennard, an RNC adviser for black media affairs, wrote in The Tulsa World on Thursday, referring to the black neighborhood that was burned down in 1921 by a white mob.
The Trump rally also comes as coronavirus cases are rising in Tulsa and Oklahoma, and as public health officials have issued warnings about the dangers of bringing together a large crowd indoors.
Tulsa’s police chief, Wendell Franklin, said earlier this week that his department was planning for “a mass amount of people that probably Tulsa has never seen before.”
On Thursday, Mayor G.T. Bynum signed an order imposing a three-night 10 p.m. curfew in the area around the BOK Center, where the rally is to be held, stating that the city was expecting crowds “in excess of 100,000 people in the vicinity of the rally.”
Bynum, a moderate Republican mayor who is friendly with the Trump campaign, has said he is “grateful” Tulsa was chosen as the host city for Trump’s comeback rally. He said the order was put in place because he had received information that showed that “individuals from organized groups who have been involved in destructive and violent behavior” elsewhere were planning to travel to Tulsa “for purposes of causing unrest around the rally.”
Trump and his administration have repeatedly suggested that the sporadic violence and looting that has marred some of the protests over Floyd’s killing is an organized effort by “radical leftists,” but federal prosecutors have attributed a majority of the violent acts to individuals with no affiliation to any particular group.
This article was written by Annie Karni, a reporter for The New York Times.