President Trump on Friday will travel to Mount Rushmore to mark the start of Independence Day weekend with a firework display — coming at a time of vigorous national debate over America’s history, and when the South Dakota landmark is under renewed scrutiny by activists.
Trump is expected to speak at the event, and more than 7,000 tickets have been distributed for people to watch it. It is likely to be filled with supporters of the president, but will also attract protesters.
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The ceremony faces a double controversy of being the latest Trump event that critics say puts people at risk, unnecessarily, of spreading the coronavirus. Trump held a rally last month in Tulsa, Okla., and local officials and residents raised fears it could act as a super-spreader for the virus.
Gov. Kristi Noem has said social distancing and masks will both be optional — although masks will be provided and there will be body temperature screening of attendees.
“Masks will be available, first off. They are not required but people will be able to have them if they don’t have one with them when they come,” he said. “And, I think that we have done a number of things to mitigate the spread of the COVID,” South Dakota Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg said on “Fox & Friends” Friday. “As you probably know, our state has not mandated these various policies that other states have. And, I think we are very proud of that and our numbers have remained low.”
But Rapid City Mayor Steve Allender expressed skepticism about the precautions, and argued that attendees “are probably not likely to disqualify themself because they developed a cough the day of or the day before.”
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Meanwhile, leaders of Native American tribes have expressed concern both about the coronavirus risk and renewed their grievances that the memorial itself is on land taken from the Lakota people. A number are expected to be part of protests near the landmark.
“Mount Rushmore is a symbol of white supremacy, of structural racism that’s still alive and well in society today,” Nick Tilsen, a member of the Oglala Lakota tribe and the president of a local activist organization called NDN Collective, told The Associated Press. “It’s an injustice to actively steal Indigenous people’s land, then carve the white faces of the colonizers who committed genocide.”
It is not a new cause. Over a century after it was built, the site was occupied by a group of Native Americans protesting against treaty violations. In 1980, the Supreme Court upheld a ruling that that more than $100 million should be given in compensation to eight tribes.
But those protests have been given renewed energy this year amid a backlash against national monuments by left-wing activists in the wake of the death of George Floyd in police custody.
Initially, the protests were aimed at Confederate generals and figures who had supported slavery, but they quickly morphed into a movement that has sought to remove or tear down monuments to past presidents, even Lincoln and Jefferson — both of whom are carved into Mount Rushmore.
It’s a move that has started to shift into the mainstream as well. The Democratic National Committee this week deleted a tweet that accused Trump of “glorifying white supremacy” by going to Mount Rushmore.
“Trump has disrespected Native communities time and again,” The Democrats wrote. “He’s attempted to limit their voting rights and blocked critical pandemic relief. Now he’s holding a rally glorifying white supremacy at Mount Rushmore- a region once sacred to tribal communities.”
A wave of anti-monument fervor is expected this weekend, and the Trump administration has taken a number of dramatic steps in order to protect monuments from violence and vandalism — including dispatching Rapid Deployment Teams (RDTs) of a special federal unit across the country.
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Trump, meanwhile, has expressed his excitement about both the event and the holiday weekend.
“They used to do it many years ago, and for some reason they were unable or unallowed to do it,” he said. “They just weren’t allowed to do it, and I opened it up and we’re going to have a tremendous July 3 and then we’re coming back here, celebrating the Fourth of July in Washington, D.C.”
Fox News’ Julia Musto and The Associated Press contributed to this report.