Organizers said they canceled Saturday’s planned right-wing rally in San Francisco because of safety concerns.
Joey Gibson, founder of the Patriot Prayer group, in a Facebook Live post said that his group had been working with police and “decided that tomorrow really seems like a setup.”
“It doesn’t seem safe, a lot of people’s lives are going to be in danger tomorrow,” he said during an interview with Unite America First. “The rhetoric from Nancy Pelosi, Mayor [Ed] Lee, the media – all these people are saying we are white supremacists and it’s bringing in tons of extremists. It just seems like a huge setup, so we just decided that we are going to take the opportunity and not fall into that trap and we are not going to go down there. We are not going to have a rally at Crissy Field.”
Instead, Gibson said, the group would hold a news conference at 2 p.m. Saturday at Alamo Square Park in San Francisco to talk about “some of the rhetoric” in the city.
“We have a lot of respect for the citizens in San Francisco and at the end of the day, we want people to be safe,” he said.
The park was supposed to be closed off, Gibson said, so organizers could control the event, search people who were entering and turn others away.
But he said that it appeared that wasn’t going to happen.
“Anyone could have come in and it would have been mingling [anti-fascist groups]. Also white supremacists could have shown up,” Gibson said.
“Honest, in our opinion, it seem like it would have been a huge riot,” he said.
Law enforcement has spent weeks planning for the events in San Francisco and Berkeley. At the center of the campaign will be a huge police presence, perhaps more than a thousand officers who intend to crack down at the first sign of trouble.
The San Francisco Police Department planned to have its entire roster on duty for Saturday afternoon’s rally. Officials said they could not immediately comment Friday on if they’re plans would change for the following day in light of Gibson’s announcement.
In Berkeley, the site of Sunday’s rally, city officials have expressly banned weapons, sticks, projectiles and even soda cans from gatherings of more than 100 people within the city limits. The National Park Service, which operates the land where Saturday’s protest was to take place, has established similar rules.
Organizers for both rallies this weekend have said that the white supremacists and neo-Nazis who surfaced in Charlottesville are not welcome at their events. Gibson had demanded that white nationalist figures such as Richard Spencer and Nathan Damigo stay away.
Last week, Gibson told The Times he was concerned that some extreme or racist figures might try to co-opt his rally, a fear shared by experts who track hate groups. He has repeatedly denied the assertion that his event is a “white supremacist” demonstration and criticized politicians who branded it as such.
“You’ve got two different people in this world right now. You have people that are trying to change hearts and minds of people, and you have people who are trying to divide the country,” he said.
The need for stronger crowd control became clear in the wake of the violent clashes this month between white supremacists and counter-protesters in Charlottesville, Va., where demonstrators on each side complained of lax law enforcement.
But hands-off policing can also allow events to spiral out of control. Anaheim police drew criticism last year after a violent Ku Klux Klan rally. Uniformed officers were nowhere to be found when Klansmen arrived in Pearson Park, and several people were stabbed during a series of brawls between Klan members and anti-racist protesters.
“One of the most difficult things we do in our profession is policing 1st Amendment activity,” said LAPD Deputy Chief Bob Green, who has served as a commander at dozens of protest scenes during his 30-year career.
Sunday’s rally in Berkeley, branded by organizers as an anti-Marxism demonstration, has drawn additional concern. Berkeley has been home to a number of violent clashes between political opponents this year. Violent protests on the UC Berkeley campus shut down an appearance by Milo Yiannopoulos in February, and subsequent demonstrations in support of Trump collapsed into roving street fights.
Those opposed to the rallies, including San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee, have called on counter-demonstrators to stage their events several blocks from the proposed far-right events. Some activists have also said they are hoping to avoid the violent exchanges that have marred Berkeley in recent months. One woman affiliated with Pastel Bloc in Berkeley, who would only speak on condition of anonymity, said she hopes the number of counter-protesters will swell because of the planned nonviolence.
“By not directly confronting the white supremacists, who have brought weapons and started fights before, maybe people who have been hesitant to come show solidarity will feel more empowered to do so,” she said, adding that Pastel Bloc itself will not take part in Sunday’s events.
Even with vows of nonviolence on both sides, law enforcement leaders said they are well aware that it would only take a few agitators to cause a fracas. The issue with policing protests, they say, is that it becomes hard to isolate violent individuals in crowds that often number in the thousands.
Green said preparation is critical to minimizing violence at any large-scale demonstration, adding that the move to disarm protesters in the Bay Area is a good idea.