For most mayors in deep red states like Oklahoma, the prospect of hosting the first rally for President Trump in months would be a delight. It would showcase the city on an international stage and generate revenue for local businesses that have been closed for months due to the coronavirus outbreak.
But GT Bynum, the first-time mayor of Tulsa, is not celebrating Trump’s planned rally on Saturday in the BOK Center arena in the city center with 19,000 seats. With other Oklahoma GOP officials hailing the event, Bynum finds itself in a precarious position, balancing partisan policies, the city’s deep racial wounds, and a sudden surge in COVID-19 infection rates.
Bynum has said he will not be attending the rally Trump announced as the start of a tour to revitalize his political base and showcase the reopening of the nation’s economy after its long shutdown. Trump said in a tweet that nearly 1 million people requested tickets, despite party officials not announcing the amount.
Oklahoma has followed a Trump-friendly, aggressive economic reopening schedule, going through a series of stages that will allow almost all businesses to resume operations.
The announcement comes, however, as Tulsa’s infection rate continues to rise after staying moderate for months. By Tuesday, the four-day average number of new cases in the city had doubled from its previous high in April. The Director of the City Ministry of Health, Dr. Bruce Dart, hopes the rally will be postponed, noting that large indoor gatherings are partly responsible for the recent spread.
Meanwhile, after the death of George Floyd and mass protests around the world, many leaders of the city’s black community have spoken out as provocative against Trump. Tulsa was the site of the nation’s deadliest massacre in 1921, when up to 300 black residents were killed by a white mob and the city’s thriving Black Wall Street district burned down.
The massacre was covered up in the following years. “And I’m not sure we ever really got over the mountain,” said MP Monroe Nichols, an African-American Democrat who represents the largely black north side of the city. “I think the fact that the president is coming upsets people in the African American community as well as other people in the community who don’t go along with his brand of politics.”
Bynum has maintained an uncomfortable balancing act: he did not join Dart’s request to postpone the rally to avert a health emergency, despite both being strict about avoiding large groups but not partying with other Republican officials along with popular Trump.
“I think he’s trying to bring people together to find that middle ground and that common purpose. And that will never be satisfying for the people at the ideological extremes, and they tend to be loud, “said David Holt, Oklahoma City mayor and friend of Bynum.
Instead of responding to a request for an interview, Bynum posted a statement on his Facebook page on Tuesday that he had no plans to stop the rally by appealing to civil emergency forces. He also said he was unaware of any plans for a rally until BOK center management contacted the city regarding police assistance.
“Do I share the fear of having a full house in the BOK Center? Of course, ”he wrote. “As someone who is naturally cautious, I don’t want to be the first to try something. I would have loved it if another city had already proven the safety of such an event. “
Bynum, 43, is part of a political dynasty in Tulsa. His uncle, grandfather, and great-great-grandfather all served as mayors. The city of 400,000 people was a republican country for a long time. He was an employee of GOP US Sens. Don Nickles and Tom Coburn before defeating a Republican in the bipartisan mayor’s race in 2016.
He campaigned for public education, but also for investments in the black community, which is traditionally a democratic cause. After the shooting of Terence Crutcher, an unarmed black man, by a Tulsa police officer in 2016, Bynum pressed for independent police surveillance but was thwarted by fierce opposition from the police union.
Bynum also campaigned publicly to address the 1921 massacre, earning him recognition in the black community for possibly helping the city avert violence in Minneapolis after Floyd’s death by a white policeman.
Bynum drew the ire of many at comments in a national interview where he blamed drug use, not race, for Crutcher’s death. Bynum later went back on comments, writing on a post on social media, “If your friends call you and keep using the phrase,“ I know your heart, ”it’s a good indicator you’ve screwed up.
“I would hope that for 8 years on the city council and 4 years in the mayor’s office my work speaks louder than a stupid and oversimplified answer to a complex question, but I understand if it doesn’t.”
Other Oklahoma Republican officials insisted the Trump rally could be good for the black community – Republican Governor Kevin Stitt said he invited Trump to take him on a tour of the Greenwood district where the massacre took place, to build understanding. And Oklahoma Republican Party leader David McLain insisted the rally could be safe. He said all rally goers would be given masks, although there would be no mandate to wear them. He said party officials would like to see that every seat is taken.
Holt said he was confident that Bynum would handle the situation because he was “very cooperative”.
“I think mayors across the country are very busy and we are all challenged right now to strike the right balance between many competing interests amid generational crises that are happening one after the other, but I obviously think in Tulsa you have an even more complicated one History with races, ”said Holt.