U.S. President Donald Trump sought to light a fire under his reelection campaign Saturday night in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in his first large-scale rally since the coronavirus shutdown and nationwide protests of police brutality.
"Oklahoma and America need four more years of President Donald Trump in the White House!" Vice President Mike Pence told cheering supporters ahead of Trump's address at the 19,000-seat BOK Center arena, Reuters reported, where many empty seats were visible.
The rally is taking place amid concerns over the coronavirus, with Oklahoma reporting a surge of new cases and state health officials warning that without face masks and social distancing, anyone in the 19,000-seat BOK Center faces an increased risk of catching the virus.
Kevin and Joan Hansston drove from Illinois for their eighth Trump rally. They told Reuters it was hypocritical to be concerned about coronavirus at the event after weeks of mass protests over the death of George Floyd.
"Trump has a rally and all of a sudden we're concerned about it again," said Kevin Hansston, 65, who was not wearing a mask.
Before the rally Saturday, the Trump campaign announced that six staff members helping prepare for the event had tested positive for the coronavirus. Tim Murtaugh, the campaign's communications director, said they wouldn't attend the rally and would follow quarantine procedures.
The arena has seats for 19,000 people, and the Trump campaign says more than a million people have sought tickets.
But many seats remained empty before the start of the president’s 7 p.m. address, according to pool reports. Trump and Pence were to speak to an overflow crowd from an outdoor stage before entering the arena. Murtaugh, the campaign spokesman, said the addresses were canceled after “protesters interfered with supporters,” according to a pool report.
Near the entrance to the secured area surrounding the arena, Trump supporters and opponents squared off with highway patrol troopers and dozens of National Guard troops across the street.
As the crowd filtered into the arena Saturday, people wearing goggles, masks, gloves and blue gowns used hand-held thermometers to check the temperatures of those entering. Some rally-goers were wearing masks, and some took off their masks after clearing the checkpoint.
Kieran Mullen, 60, a college professor from Norman, Oklahoma, held “Black Lives Matter” and “Dump Trump” signs.
“I just thought it was important for people to see there are Oklahomans that have a different point of view,” Mullen told the Associated Press of his state, which overwhelmingly supported Trump in 2016.
Brian Bernard, 54, a retired information technology worker from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, sported a Trump 2020 hat nearby.
“Since the media won’t do it, it’s up to us to show our support,” he told the AP. He drove nine hours to Tulsa for his second Trump rally. “Before I went to a Trump rally in 2015, I was pretty much on the fence. That really hooked me. I really felt he was genuine.”
One protester was arrested Saturday. A woman who was sitting in peaceful protest inside a secure area outside the arena was pulled away by her arms and handcuffed by police.
She identified herself as Sheila Buck from Tulsa and said she had a ticket to the rally. She said officers told her she was being arrested for trespassing. She said she was not part of any organized group.
Trump tweeted on Friday, “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!"
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!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 19, 2020
A White House spokesperson, Kayleigh McEnany, said Trump was referring to violent protesters, not peaceful ones.
Nationwide protests erupted last month after the killing of George Floyd, an African American who died after a white Minneapolis police officer held his knee to Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes.