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Officials Prepare For Trump's Rally In Tulsa Amid Coronavirus Pandemic

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

And now we go to Tulsa, where the city is preparing for that Trump campaign rally. Chris Polansky of member station KWGS reports.

CHRIS POLANSKY, BYLINE: A passing Oklahoma rainstorm could not dampen the spirits of President Trump's supporters in downtown Tulsa yesterday.

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POLANSKY: People have come from across the country, with some camping out near the arena since Monday. Brian Evans, a public school teacher from Joplin, Mo., was sitting under a tent with his 11-year-old daughter Lakyn.

BRIAN EVANS: She woke me up at 3 o'clock this morning, and she says, time to go (laughter). I'm like, oh, my gosh. I just want to sleep a little longer.

POLANSKY: The rally is perhaps the largest indoor gathering since the country locked down for the COVID-19 pandemic. The president has praised Oklahoma for its response to the coronavirus. But in recent weeks, the state and Tulsa have seen a surge in new infections. Even Mayor G.T. Bynum, a Republican, admits the rally could make things even worse.

G T BYNUM: Well, I want to be clear. I'm not positive that everything is safe. I'm not a public health professional. I'm not here to testify to the safety of anything.

POLANSKY: Mayor Bynum says he's still excited and honored to host the 19,000-person event. Some of the rally-goers lined up on Friday said it's time to get back to normal. Evans, the teacher from Missouri, believes the pandemic is serious.

EVANS: However, I also think that locking down an entire nation is not the answer. Things need to be open. Things need to go forward, and I think this is one of the things.

POLANSKY: Another thing that's been hotly debated this week is Trump's choice of Tulsa. Ninety-nine years ago this month, a white mob burned an entire black neighborhood to the ground, killing as many as 300 in what's now known as the Tulsa Race Massacre. Trump's rally was also originally scheduled to fall yesterday on Juneteenth, the day commemorating the end of slavery. After criticism, Trump said he delayed the rally one day later out of respect. But many black leaders here, including state representative Regina Goodwin, say they feel anything but respected by the president.

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REGINA GOODWIN: My reaction is I'm going to use the good sense God gave me. I would not ask an arsonist to put out a fire.

POLANSKY: Goodwin chairs Oklahoma's Legislative Black Caucus. After protests over the killing of George Floyd erupted across the country, Tulsa police made their own headlines. First, a high-ranking officer said he believes cops shoot black Americans, quote, "less than we probably ought to be." Then video emerged showing officers handcuffing two black children for allegedly jaywalking. Demonstrators have already started assembling in Tulsa. One organizer of the city's largest protest so far, Tykebrean Cheshier, says she wants to keep her group peaceful, far away from the downtown arena where the president will speak.

TYKEBREAN CHESHIER: We know exactly what he's trying to say. He's going to be trying to make a message. But we want to flip that message on its head and make sure it's a positive outlook on what's going on.

POLANSKY: The Oklahoma National Guard has been activated for the weekend, and the police chief has stressed his officers will maintain order. For NPR News, I'm Chris Polansky in Tulsa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.