TULSA, Okla. — As supporters poured into the BOK Center for President Donald Trump’s campaign rally late Saturday afternoon in Tulsa, a crowd of about 100 people in support of the Black Lives Matter movement gathered a mile away at Franklin Hope Reconciliation Park to peacefully protest the timing of the rally, while voicing messages of unity and racial equality.
Trump’s first “Make America Great Again” rally since March 2 was originally slated for June 19, but was pushed to Saturday to avoid conflicting with Juneteenth, a celebration of the emancipation of Black slaves after the Civil War. But even with the rally being postponed by a day, many BLM protesters labeled the scheduling an insensitive choice.
Mareo Johnson, president of the Black Lives Matter Tulsa Chapter and pastor at Seeking the Kingdom Ministries, said he organized and promoted Saturday’s BLM event to “spread a message and an empowering spirit of love, unity and solidarity that coincided with Mr. Trump’s ill-timed campaign rally.
“We’re here to speak against hate and racism,” Johnson said. “It’s about different people of different races, genders, ages and backgrounds coming together to say that Black lives matter. For all lives to matter, Black lives have to be included… There are a lot of things going on with historic significance right now. This is a very, very critical moment. By Mr. Trump choosing to have his campaign rally today, it doesn’t set right with me because it still interferes with the celebration of Juneteenth. We don’t see that as a representation of love.”
The demonstration, Johnson added, was held at Reconciliation Park in an effort to avoid counter-protesters and a potentially violent confrontation.
“We could have gathered right outside the doorstep of the BOK Center, but we saw no point in putting peaceful (demonstrators) in that situation,” he said. “We’re not worried about violence right here.”
Several members of the Tulsa community spoke to the crowd at Reconciliation Park about systemic racism and police brutality toward people of color. Several attendees donned yellow umbrellas with the names of Black individuals who had died in altercations with police officers. The umbrellas were eventually grouped together for display near the entrance to the park.
The crowd was also treated to a free meal and live music. Many of the attendees displayed signs and took part in chants such as “Black Lives Matter,” “I can’t breathe,” “No justice, no peace,” and “Trump leave town.”
ATX Flowdown, a jazz and hip-hop band based out of Austin, Texas, drove to Tulsa to perform at the event for free after seeing its promotion on social media. Band member Sloan Fussell, 24, said the group of artists had performed at multiple BLM demonstrations in Texas before it reached out to BLM’s Tulsa Chapter to collaborate on Saturday.
“When the protests started happening over George Floyd’s death, we started protesting in the streets through music,” Fussell said. “We’ve basically been performing at different Black Lives Matter events for five hours each day. It’s demonstration through music. It’s a peaceful way to protest, and we’ve found that our music can help maintain a peaceful and positive environment.”
Fussell said the band paid out-of-pocket to drive and perform at Saturday’s demonstration. Band members also pitched in to help pay for the meal catering.
“We realized that bringing entertainment, cold water and some food makes a world of difference for the people who attend these important events,” he said. “So it’s been important to us to help in any way we can.”
Gretchen Emig, a Tulsa native who now resides in Lawrence, Kansas, said she had a desire to support and attend the BLM demonstration due to her knowledge of the 1921 Race Massacre, when a white mob in Tulsa destroyed a Black neighborhood and slaughtered residents.
“Growing up with two Tulsa parents, this is a conversation we had a lot,” she said. “I learned a lot about the massacre at home. There’s a pretty deep history in Tulsa in terms of race. So I went to the marches in Lawrence when I was home, and after hearing about Trump coming here, I pretty much just got in the car and made the trip. It was my responsibility to be here.”
The events in Tulsa sparked much nationwide concern about a potential mass exposure of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. Organizers of the rally said approximately 20,000 people were expected to fill up the BOK Center during Trump’s rally, and thousands more were expected to congregate in the streets outside of the building, but those numbers did not materialize.
Social distancing was hardly practiced or enforced among the crowd gathered at Reconciliation Park, but about half of the attendees either wore their own masks or picked up complimentary ones at the park’s entrance.
About four miles south of the BLM protest, 21-year-old college student Tykebrean Cheshier organized the Rally Against Hate, with about 1,000 supporters dotting the landscape at Veterans Park.
Tulsa resident Joe Duffy urged allies to continue their support of the Black community "even when it's not trendy."
"It's our responsibility to let people know they are safe in Tulsa," Duffy said. "The time has not come to stop fighting. It's the time to stand with your brothers and stand for this city because we are not going to let hate win here ever again."
Duffy urged white residents to "put your money where your mouth is" by supporting Black businesses and Black communities.
"Black lives matter, and we will say it until our voices are numb, and we will be heard," Duffy said.
After a string of musical performances and speakers, Cheshier closed the evening with a message of love.
"That's what we came to do," Cheshier said. "And you all did it. Thank you so much, Tulsa. I am so proud of you."
Cheshier said she thought it was important for her generation to stand together and fight for where they live.
"Take ownership; this is our city, and we are tired of people telling us our votes don't count when we know they do," she said.
The rally included a voter registration drive, free drinks and snacks and music.
Globe photographer Laurie Sisk contributed to this report.