Trump plans fiery Mount Rushmore rally amid deepening COVID-19 crisis, protests

Trump plans fiery Mount Rushmore rally amid deepening COVID-19 crisis, protests

U.S. President Donald Trump planned a fiery speech at Mount Rushmore Friday night, including denunciations of protesters he says are trying to "tear down" the nation's history.

He's adding the condemnation of those who pull down statues to a big fireworks show and his more traditional July Fourth praise of America's past and values.

Hours before the event, protesters blocked a road leading to the national monument. Authorities worked to move the demonstrators, mostly Indigenous Americans protesting that the South Dakota's Black Hills, of which Mt. Rushmore is a part, were taken from the Lakota people against treaty agreements.

One group parked three vans across the road and took the tires from two of them to make it more difficult to remove them. Several demonstrators climbed on top of the vans chanting "Land back!"

Police and National Guard soldiers moved in, and a standoff ensued, with police using pepper spray on several protesters. Tow trucks then began removing the vans from the road. The sheriff's office said attendees had been told to arrive early so should have been past the roadblock.

Military and police confront protesters blocking the road leading to Mount Rushmore in Keystone, S.D., on Friday. (Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP via Getty Images)

The U.S. president has spoken forcefully against other protesters in Washington, D.C., and other cities who have tried to topple Confederate monuments and statues honouring those who have benefited from slavery. He planned to target "the left wing mob and those practicing cancel culture," said a person familiar with his remarks and describing them only on condition of anonymity.

The president was to preside over a fireworks display at an event expected to draw thousands, even as coronavirus cases spike across the country.

Trump was expecting a South Dakota show of support, with the state Republican Party selling T-shirts that feature Trump on the memorial alongside George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln.

COVID-19 concerns

Concerns about the coronavirus risk and wildfire danger from the fireworks were raised along with those voiced by Indigenous American protesters.

Republican Gov. Kristi Noem, a Trump ally, has said social distancing won't be required during the event, and masks will be optional. Event organizers were to provide masks to anyone who wanted them and planned to screen attendees for symptoms of COVID-19.

The Republican mayor of the largest city near the monument, Rapid City, said he would be watching for an increase in cases after the event, the Rapid City Journal reported.

Trump supporters on horseback ride through Keystone on Friday. (Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP via Getty Images)

Enthusiastic attendees were unlikely to disqualify themselves "because they developed a cough the day of or the day before," Mayor Steve Allender said.

The small town of Keystone, which lies a couple of miles from the monument, was buzzing with people Friday hoping to catch a glimpse of the fireworks and the president. Many wore pro-Trump T-shirts and hats. Few wore masks.

"This is going to rank up in the top Fourth of Julys that I talk about," said Mike Stewhr, who brought his family from Nebraska.

Marine One helicopters fly past Mount Rushmore on Friday. (Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images)

Mike Harris of Rapid City said he was a Republican but wore a mask and waved an anti-Trump flag. He also was sporting a handgun on each hip. He said he was worried the event would spark a COVID-19 outbreak.

"I think it's a bad example being set by our president and our governor," Harris said.

Robin Pladsen, director of the Keystone Chamber of Commerce, handed out face masks and hand sanitizer from a tent. She said the tourist influx would help businesses pay back loans they had taken out to survive the economic downtown but acknowledged the health risk for the town.

Leaders of several Indigenous American tribes in the region also raised concerns that the event could lead to virus outbreaks among their members, who they say are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19 because of an underfunded health care system and chronic health conditions.

Activists and members of different Indigenous tribes from the region block the road to Mount Rushmore on Friday. (Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP via Getty Images)

"The president is putting our tribal members at risk to stage a photo-op at one of our most sacred sites," said Harold Frazier, chairman of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe.

Some Native American groups used Trump's visit to protest the Mount Rushmore memorial itself, pointing out that the Black Hills were taken from the Lakota people.

More than 100 protesters, many Lakota, lined the road leading from Keystone to the monument holding signs and playing Lakota music in 95-degree heat. Some held their fists in the air as cars loaded with event attendees passed by.

Others held signs that read "Protect SoDak's First People," "You Are On Stolen Land" and "Dismantle White Supremacy."

"The president needs to open his eyes. We're people, too, and it was our land first," said Hehakaho Waste, a spiritual elder with the Oglala Sioux tribe.

Wildfire risks from fireworks

Security for the event itself was tight. The governor's spokesperson, Maggie Seidel, would not say whether the South Dakota National Guard was being deployed, but said organizers are making sure it is a safe event.

Several people who once oversaw fire danger at the national memorial have said setting off fireworks over the forest was a bad idea that could lead to a large wildfire. Fireworks were called off after 2009 because a mountain pine beetle infestation increased the fire risks.

Noem pushed to get the fireworks resumed soon after she was elected, and enlisted Trump's help. The president brushed aside fire concerns earlier this year, saying, "What can burn? It's stone."

A sign outside of a ranger station describes the fire danger as high in the Black Hills near Mount Rushmore National Monument on in Custer, S.D., on Friday. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Trump made no mention of the fire danger in fresh comments Thursday.

"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."

Trump has presided over a several large-crowd events — in Tulsa, Okla, and at an Arizona megachurch — even as health officials warn against large gatherings and recommend face masks and social distancing.

He plans a July Fourth celebration on the National Mall in Washington despite health concerns from D.C.'s mayor. Trump and first lady Melania Trump plan to host events from the White House South Lawn and from the Ellipse.