Protesters Gather in Berkeley Following Coulter Cancellation
A right-wing activist speaks during a rally at Martin Luther King Jr. Civic Center Park on April 27, 2017 in Berkeley.. Protestors are gathering in Berkeley to protest the cancellation of a speech by conservative political commentator Ann Coulter at UC Berkeley. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
Updated 5:05 p.m.
Several hundred protesters from across the political spectrum gathered at UC Berkeley and at a downtown park following the cancellation of a speech scheduled for Thursday by conservative commentator Ann Coulter. As of 5:05 p.m., the rallies had been largely peaceful.
Police began preparing for potential violence between far-right and leftist groups Thursday after the talk was called off. Opposing groups held separate protests in the city.
UC Berkeley tweeted that campus police made two arrests as of 1 p.m. SFGate reported one young man was arrested for carrying a sign that was too large and violated a campus ordinance, while the other man was arrested for refusing to remove a surgical mask.
Two additional arrests were made near Berkeley High School at approximately 4:30 p.m.
UC Berkeley police announced they are limiting access to Sproul Plaza, and individuals could be searched for potential weapons.
University police established a strong presence on campus Thursday morning, erecting orange barriers. Officers from the California Highway Patrol, the Oakland Police Department and the Alameda County Sheriff's Department, along with UC Berkeley police, were spotted on campus.
Some critics have said that police haven’t done enough in the past to shut down agitators bent on mayhem.
"You will see a high number of highly visible law enforcement. We’re going to have a very, very low tolerance for any sort of violence on campus," UCPD Capt. Alex Yao said at a press conference Wednesday.
The Oath Keepers, the Proud Boys and a group called the Orange County Alt Right Group, all opposed to the cancellation, announced they would hold rallies at 2 p.m. at Martin Luther King Jr. Civic Center Park in downtown Berkeley, the same park in which white nationalist groups clashed with anti-fascist groups on April 15, resulting in 13 arrests and numerous injuries, as well as on March 4.
Shortly after 2 p.m., individuals at the Oath Keepers rally began giving speeches praising President Trump and slamming UC Berkeley, claiming it was stifling free speech. Speakers also voiced support for gun rights, a ban on immigration and limited government, among other issues.
Chants of “USA, USA, USA” and “Donald Trump” were heard several times.
The Associated Press reported Thursday that Coulter might still "swing by to say" hello to her supporters. As of 4:45 p.m. she had not been seen at any rallies.
The International Socialist Organization planned its own rally, called "Alt Right Delete," at 12 p.m. just outside the campus.
The university said last week it was canceling the event, citing safety concerns, before it backtracked and announced the talk could go ahead.
On Wednesday, Yao said they’d received specific credible threats related to the talk and were concerned about safety after a series of violent clashes this year on campus and in downtown Berkeley between far-right and far-left protesters -- including a riot at Cal before a scheduled Feb. 1 talk by right-wing provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos, which ended up being canceled.
UC Berkeley spokesman Dan Mogulof said the campus has been pushed into a new reality in the last few months.
"A reality where groups and individuals across the political spectrum see this university, this place of learning, as a suitable venue for political conflict and violence," Mogulof said.
Berkeley city officials issued a statement to the public late Wednesday in the event of large gatherings on Thursday.
"Mass gatherings of any kind attract a broad variety of people and, inevitably, that means an array of different motives and intentions," the statement said. "If you are at a demonstration and you see violence, separate yourself. Keep a distance from violence. If you can do so safely, report it to police."
A Timeline of Events
The cancellation of Coulter’s speech came after much back-and-forth between campus officials, the groups sponsoring the event, and the commentator herself.
The university had offered an alternate date of May 2 to Coulter and the groups collaborating on the event -- the Berkeley College Republicans, Young America’s Foundation (which describes itself as the principal outreach organization of the Conservative Movement) and BridgeUSA (a nonprofit group that says it wants to provide “open and welcoming forum for frank and rational political discourse” on college campuses).
Coulter and the College Republicans rejected the date change, noting, among other things, that it would be during the week before final exams when students would not be in class.
Berkeley College Republicans president Troy Worden said Wednesday during a press conference that his group had decided to back out of sponsoring the speech. He blamed the university, saying it refused to provide adequate security.
“If we can’t have Ms. Coulter speak here without being able to guarantee the safety of the attendees, then that is a move we cannot take,” Worden said. “In effect, our free speech has been stifled because the university has decided not to assist us in making sure the event can occur successfully.”
Late Tuesday, Young America’s Foundation also said the university hadn’t met its demands to ensure the safety of students and those involved.
“Berkeley made it impossible to hold a lecture due to the lack of assurances for protections from foreseeable violence from unrestrained leftist agitators,” YAF said in a statement posted to its Facebook page. “Ms. Coulter may still choose to speak in some form on campus, but Young America’s Foundation will not jeopardize the safety of its staff or students.”
University officials, however, said they’d done their best to accommodate the talk, noting that they’d found out only in late March about it. Venues are normally booked months in advance for guest speakers, said Mogulof.
“We wanted Ms. Coulter to come to this campus. We believe it is important that our students are exposed to a broad diversity of opinion,” he said at a press conference. “Everything we have done to date has been about supporting and facilitating” the event.
He rejected assertions that administration officials weren’t being helpful because of Coulter’s politics: “This is the home of the Free Speech Movement. That legacy would be destroyed if we were to pick and choose.”
KQED's John Sepulvado, Sukey Lewis and the Associated Press contributed reporting to this post.