By Associated Press
TULSA, Okla. (AP) — President Donald Trump’s supporters faced off with protesters shouting “Black Lives Matter” Saturday in Tulsa as the president took the stage for his first campaign rally in months amid public health concerns about the coronavirus and fears that the event could lead to violence in the wake of killings of Black people by police.
Hundreds of demonstrators flooded the city’s downtown streets and blocked traffic at times, but police reported just a handful of arrests. Many of the marchers chanted, and some occasionally got into shouting matches with Trump supporters, who outnumbered them and yelled, “All lives matter.”
Later in the evening, a group of armed men began following the protesters. When the protesters blocked an intersection, a man wearing a Trump shirt got out of a truck and spattered them with pepper spray.
When demonstrators approached a National Guard bus that got separated from its caravan, Tulsa police officers fired pepper balls to push back the crowd, said Tulsa police spokesperson Capt. Richard Meulenberg. Officers soon left the area as it cleared.
The Trump faithful gathered inside the 19,000-seat BOK Center for what was believed to be the largest indoor event in the country since restrictions to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 virus began in March. Many of the president’s supporters weren’t wearing masks, despite the recommendation of public health officials. Some had been camped near the venue since early in the week.
Turnout at the rally was lower than the campaign predicted, with a large swath of standing room on the stadium floor and empty patches in the seating decks. Trump had been scheduled to appear at a rally outside of the stadium within a perimeter of tall metal barriers, but that event was abruptly canceled.
Trump campaign officials said protesters prevented the president’s supporters from entering the stadium. Three Associated Press journalists reporting in Tulsa for several hours leading up to the president’s speaking did not see protesters block entry to the area where the rally was held.
While Trump spoke onstage, protesters carried a papier-mâché representation of him with a pig snout. Some in the multiracial group wore Black Lives Matter shirts, others sported rainbow-colored armbands, and many covered their mouths and noses with masks. At one point, several people stopped to dance to gospel singer Kirk Franklin’s song “Revolution.”
The protesters blocked traffic in at least one intersection. Some Black leaders in Tulsa had said they were worried the visit could lead to violence. It came amid protests over racial injustice and policing across the U.S. and in a city that has a long history of racial tension. Officials had said they expected some 100,000 people downtown.
A woman who was arrested on live television was seen sitting cross-legged on the ground in peaceful protest when officers pulled her away by the arms and later put her in handcuffs. She said her name was Sheila Buck and that she was from Tulsa.
Police said in a news release the officers tried for several minutes to talk Buck into leaving and that she was taken into custody for obstruction after the Trump campaign asked police to remove her from the area.
Buck was wearing a T-shirt that said “I Can’t Breathe” — the dying words of George Floyd, whose death has inspired a global push for racial justice. She said she had a ticket to the Trump rally and was told she was being arrested for trespassing. She said she was not part of any organized group.
Several blocks away from the BOK Center was a festival-like atmosphere, with food vendors serving hot dogs and cold drinks and sidewalks lined with people selling various Trump regalia.
There was also an undercurrent of tension near the entrance to the secured area, where Trump supporters and opponents squared off. Several downtown businesses boarded up their windows as well to avoid any potential damage.