US President Donald Trump planned a fiery speech at Mount Rushmore on Friday night, including complaints from protesters he says he is trying to "overturn" the country's history.
He is adding the condemnation of those who knock down statues to a great fireworks show and his more traditional July 4th praise for America's past and values.
Hours before the event, protesters blocked a road leading to the national monument. Authorities worked to move protesters, mostly Native Americans who were protesting the South Dakota Black Hills, including Mt. Rushmore is part of it, he was withdrawn from the Lakota people against treaty agreements.
A group parked three vans across the road and took the tires off two of them to make removal difficult. Several protesters climbed on top of the vans singing "Land back!"
Police and National Guard soldiers entered, and there was an impasse, with the police using pepper spray on several protesters. Tow trucks began to remove the vans from the road. The sheriff's office said participants were told to arrive earlier, so they should have been through the obstacle.
The US president spoke out vigorously against other protesters in Washington, DC and other cities who tried to topple Confederate monuments and statues in honor of those who benefited from slavery. He planned to target "the left-wing crowd and those who practice culture cancellation," said a person familiar with his comments and describing them only on condition of anonymity.
The president would preside over a fireworks display at an event that is expected to attract thousands, even when coronavirus cases occur across the country.
Trump expected a show of support from South Dakota, with the state Republican Party selling T-shirts that display Trump at the memorial alongside George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln.
Concerns about the risk of coronavirus and the danger of fires caused by fireworks have been raised along with those expressed by Native American protesters.
Republican governor Kristi Noem, a Trump ally, said that social detachment will not be necessary during the event, and the masks will be optional. Event organizers were to provide masks to anyone they wanted and planned to track participants for symptoms of COVID-19.
The Republican mayor of the largest city near the monument, Rapid City, said he would expect an increase in cases after the event, the Rapid City Journal reported.
Enthusiastic participants are hardly disqualified "because they developed a cough the day before or the day before," said Mayor Steve Allender.
The small town of Keystone, located a few miles from the monument, was full of people on Friday hoping to catch a glimpse of the fireworks and the president. Many wore pro-Trump t-shirts and hats. Few wore masks.
"This will feature in Julys' fourth bedroom that I speak of," said Mike Stewhr, who brought his family from Nebraska.
Rapid City's Mike Harris said he was a Republican but wore a mask and waved an anti-Trump flag. He also used a gun on each hip. He said he was concerned that the event would trigger an outbreak of COVID-19.
"I think this is a very bad example of the president and governor," said Harris.
Robin Pladsen, director of the Keystone Chamber of Commerce, distributed face masks and hand sanitizer to a tent. She said the influx of tourists would help companies repay loans they had taken out to survive the city's economic center, but acknowledged the risk to the city's health.
Leaders of several American Indian tribes in the region have also raised concerns that the event could lead to virus outbreaks among its members, who they say are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19 because of an insufficient health care system and chronic conditions. Cheers.
"The president is putting our tribe members at risk for a photo shoot at one of our most sacred sites," said Harold Frazier, president 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 kept their fists in the air while the cars carried the event participants.
Others had signs that read "Protect SoDak's First People", "You're on Stolen Land" and "Dismantle White Supremacy".
"The president needs to open his eyes. We are also people, and it was our land first," said Hehakaho Waste, spiritual elder of the Oglala Sioux tribe.
Fire hazards due to fireworks
The security of the event itself was strict. The governor's spokeswoman, Maggie Seidel, declined to say whether the South Dakota National Guard was being deployed, but said organizers are making sure it is a safe event.
Several people who oversaw the fire danger at the national memorial said that firing fireworks over the forest was a bad idea that could lead to a big fire. Fireworks were canceled after 2009 because an infestation of pine beetles in the mountains increased the risk of fire.
Noem pushed for the fireworks to resume shortly after she was elected and asked Trump for help. The president dismissed concerns about the fire earlier this year, saying, "What can it burn? It's stone."
Trump did not mention the danger of fire in new comments on Thursday.
"They used to do this for many years and, for some reason, were unable or prohibited from doing so," he said. "They just weren't allowed to do it, and I opened it and we're going to have a tremendous July 3rd and then we'll be back here, celebrating the fourth of July in Washington, DC"
Trump chaired several large crowd events – in Tulsa, Okla and a mega-church in Arizona – even when health officials warned against large meetings and recommended face masks and social detachment.
He plans a fourth of July celebration at the National Mall in Washington, despite concerns over the health of D.C. Trump's mayor and First Lady Melania Trump plan to host events on the southern lawn of the White House and Ellipse.