The President’s Shock at the Rows of Empty Seats in Tulsa

This weekend in Tulsa, the president held his first campaign rally since March, after the coronavirus pandemic suspended the campaign trail. “So we begin, Oklahoma we begin. Thank you, Oklahoma!” It was also the weekend of Juneteenth. For many black Americans, Juneteenth is a celebration of the end of slavery in this country. This was a moment that resulted in scenes like this. “You are a sellout!” ”Black people die [inaudible]” [shouting] The timing of the president’s rally, on the weekend of Juneteenth, also comes at a time where there have been weeks of nationwide protests against racism and police brutality. “Hands up! Don’t shoot!” It is particularly poignant in the South, and in Tulsa, because of the history of racial oppression here. Rather than a president that showed deference to the racial history of this city or to try to further the efforts of racial reconciliation, we saw him upend them. “About the first grade, we came to Tulsa. We moved to Tulsa. So, I kind of grew up on Greenwood. When I entered college and took black history, and my professor, he said, ‘Do you all know about the race massacre?’ And we were all like, ‘No. We had a riot here?’ You know. And he was just like, ‘OK, so everybody sit down and listen to this story.’” In the early 1900s, the Greenwood area of Tulsa was a thriving black neighborhood. “African-Americans, two generations out of slavery, pursued and exhibited black excellence.” “We had our own banks and hospitals and theaters and restaurants.” But that success didn’t sit well with the white community. And in 1921, after a black man was accused of disrespecting a white woman, things escalated. A white mob burned and looted Black Wall Street. “The violence lasted roughly 16 hours.” “They shot. They looted. They bombed.” “They threw bodies in the river. They threw them in mass graves.” “When the dust settled, some 100 to 300 people were killed. At least 1,250 homes were destroyed in the black community. Schools, churches and business were destroyed as well.” “Total devastation, like a war zone. What happened here was a momentous tragic event.” “That was the worst horrific story that I ever heard in my life.” “This church, we were building in 1921, our sanctuary — they destroyed that. And our basement miraculously survived. The damage on this pillar comes from when concrete burned. In this room, also we have soil collections from the different sites where people were killed.” After years of ignoring the massacre, many in Tulsa want to make it front and center of the community’s conversation. They set up this bipartisan commission to do a number of initiatives to bring forward the issue of racial reconciliation and commemorate the centennial anniversary of the massacre. And some institutions have apologized. “I’m sorry that the police department did not protect its citizens during the tragic days of 1921.” The hard part has been what to do next. “We demand reparations in honor of all those Americans that were killed! We demand reparations now!” “Saying ‘I’m sorry’ is not repentance. You know, saying ‘I’m sorry’ just recognizes what you did is wrong. Repentance is turning away from what you did that makes you sorry. Before you can even get to atonement, we have to have a society that admits that white supremacy is wrong. We’ve got to have a society that admits that black lives matter.” The president has tried to present himself as a unifying figure, as someone who can bring the country together, particularly in times of these dual crises: the coronavirus pandemic and the national unrest around race and racial inequality. But this weekend shows his challenges on that front and the inability of this administration to, frankly, get out of its own way. Juneteenth is, for many black Americans, a celebration of the emancipation of slavery. The president initially announced a rally on Juneteenth. When you talk to people, they say there was a moment of disbelief that the president was coming to Tulsa. “My first reaction was, ‘How disrespectful.’ I felt like it was a slap in the face.” And after pleas, even from Republican senators in the state, he moved the rally to the next day.” “Beep beep. Beep beep. It’s important to me because it’s history, it’s freedom. Girl, you’re looking good. It’s good to see you, long time. It’s education.” “You want to make America great again? You have to make Black Wall Street great again.” “And it’s important this year because people get to see that, hey, they’re still fighting for a cause, but they’re celebrating our freedom.” “To come on the weekend of Juneteenth shows that he has still not that much respect for our sacred day.” Ultimately, the president’s rally wasn’t as big as his campaign had hoped. But the significance of this weekend is seen in scenes like this. “I see you back there shaking your head. Yes, sir, black lives matter.” And one of the takeaways around this moment, around race in this country, has been the shifting public opinion about questions of systemic racism and persistent inequality. “No justice!” “No peace!” “No justice!” “No peace!” That lack of acknowledgement puts him at odds with even some members of his own party. The president’s strategy on race and on other issues has just narrowed his path to re-election. He has not shown a willingness to try to expand his base, leaving him fairly reliant on a similar group of voters that got him elected in 2016 to do so again in 2020.

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