Protesters opposing a right-wing gathering in liberal San Francisco claimed victory Saturday when the event was cancelled after city officials walled off a city park – a move that the event’s organizer said was more about silencing his group’s message than preventing a violent clash.
Civic leaders in San Francisco – a cradle of the free speech movement that prides itself on its tolerance – repeatedly voiced concerns that the event organized by Patriot Prayer would lead to a clash with counter-demonstrators. Joey Gibson, who is Japanese American and leads Patriot Prayer, said his group disavows racism and hatred and wanted to promote dialogue with people who may not share its views.
But hours before the event was set to occur, the organizer said it would be moved indoors.
Joey Gibson of the group Patriot Prayer did not provide a location or further details. He also said in a Facebook post that he would pop up at random sites throughout the city to speak with residents.
It marked the latest pivot by the group that initially intended to stage a rally in the shadow of the Golden Gate Bridge but scrapped that idea, citing threats from left-wing agitators and worries that civic leaders and law enforcement would fail to protect them.
The change involving the news conference came as officials erected fencing and a large contingent of police monitored Alamo Square park.
Protesters holding signs that read “End White Supremacy” and “Ban Racists” gathered around the perimeter of the park but were not allowed inside.
The news conference was a late substitute for the “freedom rally” planned near the Golden Gate by Patriot Prayer.
Both sides were suspicious.
“We don’t trust this group. I never have from the beginning,” Mayor Ed Lee said of Patriot Prayer.
Lee said the group had not canceled the rally in writing, so police would remain vigilant at the Golden Gate site.
“I do believe there are provocateurs in those groups that are intentionally wanting to incite some level of violence,” he said.
When he canceled the rally on Friday, he said his followers would instead attend an anti-Marxist rally in nearby Berkeley on Sunday. 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.
Tension over the gatherings had built in the two weeks since violence erupted at a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. James Alex Fields Jr., 20, was charged with murder after driving a car into a crowd of counter-protesters, killing a 32-year-old woman.
Gibson and Cummings insisted their gatherings would be peaceful, but critics alleged they would be magnets for racists and others seeking violent confrontations.
Gibson said his group disavows racism and hatred.
A number of counter protests were planned. The left-wing group By Any Means Necessary, which has been involved in violent confrontations, had vowed to shut down the Berkeley rally.
Some groups in the city synonymous with the “Summer of Love” had planned to welcome their political opponents with unusual weekend protests, though it wasn’t clear which of those would continue.
Plans included littering Crissy Field, the site of the now-canceled Saturday rally, with dog poop, dispatching red-nosed clowns and a giant inflatable chicken that bears the hairstyle of President Donald Trump.
On Friday, hundreds of people rallied raucously and danced at City Hall. They held signs that read “Unite Against Hate” and cheered religious and elected officials who took the microphone to speak of love and champion diversity in a city that famously prides itself as a sanctuary for gays, minorities and people who are in the country illegally.