SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — A planned right-wing rally in the shadow of the Golden Gate Bridge that was downgraded to a news conference at a small park fizzled further on Saturday, after San Francisco police swarmed the park and city workers erected a fence around it.
An organizer for the group Patriot Prayer later spoke in suburban Pacifica with a handful of supporters, after civic leaders and police in San Francisco repeatedly voiced concerns that they would draw angry counter-protesters and spark violence in the area known as the cradle of the free speech movement.
Organizer Joey Gibson denied his group was looking for trouble. He said members had received anonymous threats on social media and feared civic leaders and law enforcement would fail to protect them.
“My hope is to be able to talk to normal citizens without all the extremists,” Gibson, who identifies as Japanese American, said at the news conference.
Other speakers included African Americans, a Latino and a Samoan American. Several said they support Donald Trump and want to join with moderates to promote understanding and free speech.
The pivots by the group didn’t deter more than 1,000 left-wing counter-protesters from descending on Alamo Square park, where they suspected right-wing supporters still might show up.
“San Francisco as a whole, we are a liberal city and this is not a place for hate or any sort of bigotry of any kind,” Bianca Harris said. “I think it’s a really powerful message that we’re sending to people who come here to try to spew messages of hate that it’s just not welcome in this city.”
Police closed the park early in the day and looked on in riot gear as the demonstrators gathered around its perimeter waving signs condemning white supremacists and chanting, “Whose streets? Our streets!” Hundreds of others took to the streets in the Castro neighborhood.
Earlier in the week, San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee raised concerns that Patriot Prayer would attract hate speech and potential violence. U.S. Rep. Nancy Pelosi, a fellow Democrat who represents San Francisco, called the planned rally a “white supremacist” event.
Gibson said his group disavows racism and hatred and insisted his gathering would be peaceful. He said Saturday in a phone interview that he felt like San Francisco’s Democratic leaders had shut him down.
“They’re definitely doing a great job of trying to make sure my message doesn’t come out,” he said.
Members of the group ended the news conference abruptly when they heard members of an anti-fascist movement were headed to Pacifica.
The San Francisco Bay Area is considered a cradle for freedom of speech, and police in San Francisco have traditionally given demonstrators a wide berth.
Student activism was born during the 1960s free-speech movement at Berkeley, when thousands of students at the university mobilized to demand that the school drop its ban on political activism.
However, the deadly confrontation in Charlottesville, Virginia, on Aug. 12 during a rally of white supremacists led San Francisco police and civil leaders to rethink their response to protests.
When Gibson canceled the Golden Gate rally on Friday, he said his followers would instead attend an anti-Marxist rally on Sunday in nearby Berkeley. But a short time later, the organizer of that rally called it off.
Organizer Amber Cummings said in a lengthy statement issued via Facebook that she had “grave concerns for the safety of the people attending my event.”
Cummings said the event was planned “to speak out against the political violence happening to people who do not agree” with left-wing ideology, and that the meaning was being lost as rhetoric around the rally escalated.
The left-wing group By Any Means Necessary, which has been involved in violent confrontations, had vowed to shut down the Berkeley rally at Civic Center Park.
Asked Saturday whether he had any plans to go to Berkeley, Gibson said he would “analyze the situation.”
Berkeley police were planning for a number of contingencies, police spokeswoman Jenn Coats said in an email.
The city has banned a long list of items from the park, including baseball bats, dogs and skate boards. People at the park are also not allowed to cover their faces with scarves or bandanas.
(© Copyright 2017 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)