S.F. Right-Wing Rally Canceled as Bay Area Officials Push Back Against Fringe-Right Rallies

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Thousands gather at Civic Center PLaza on Aug. 26, 2017 to protest against the far-right rally Patriot Prayer. The group canceled a planned rally. (Sheraz Sadiq/KQED)

Updated Saturday, Aug. 26 at 3:40 p.m.

Authorities in San Francisco and Alameda counties prepared for the influx of fringe-right supporters over the weekend, hoping to squelch the assemblies from turning violent -- like they have in the past -- through a series of legal maneuvers and bureaucratic red tape.

And it seems to be working.

The San Francisco Police Department limited access to Alamo Square Park Saturday, where the far-right Patriot Prayer group had planned a press conference. That came after Patriot Prayer organizer Joey Gibson scrapped a rally scheduled for Saturday at Crissy Field.

Fencing around Alamo Square in San Francisco on Aug. 26, 2017. (Polly Stryker/KQED)

"We are working with Park and Rec at this time to make sure that public safety is our No. 1 priority, whoever may show up, who may not show up. That’s really what’s happening at this time," SFPD spokeswoman Giselle Linnnane said.

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"We’ve spoken with the residents in the neighborhood yesterday to let them know to assure that cops will be in the area and that we will be keeping this neighborhood safe whatever happens."

The city placed fencing around the park, and Linnane said to expect delays in the area. She mentioned the park is still open but is only accessible through one entrance.

Gibson responded to the restrictions on Facebook.

"So they closed down Alamo Center Park. I apologize for everyone that spent money and plane tickets to come down here. Stay tuned," Gibson wrote.

He added that he would be "doing an indoor news conference at 2 p.m., then will pop up at random spots in the city to talk with any citizens of S.F."

Gibson held a 2 p.m. press conference in Pacifica with other members of Patriot Prayer, but quickly packed up and left after hearing word that anti-fascist counter-protesters were heading toward his press event.

Joey Gibson, founder of the fringe right group Patriot Prayer, speaks at a hastily-arranged press conference in Pacifica after he cancelled a rally in Crissy Field. He cited safety concerns for his followers after several counter-demonstrations were announced and authorities banned helmets at his event. (Bert Johnson/KQED)

Counter-protesters have been intent on dwarfing any kind of far-right rally in San Francisco, trying to copy the success of the demonstrations that occurred in Boston last weekend.

In San Francisco, a large police presence deployed near Alamo Square, where approximately 1,000 demonstrators gathered. Rally-goers chanted "Whose streets? Our streets" and "When immigrants are under attack, what do we do? Stand up, fight back." At least one counter-protester was detained by police. The protest swelled to about 3,000 as it marched to the Mission District. Demonstrators began dispersing at approximately 3 p.m.

At Civic Center Plaza, people did yoga as a form of resistance against far-right rallies. "We are not here to fight Nazis," said musician and activist Michael Franti. "We want to make a safe place for everybody."

"We want this to be a day of music and families and a show of strength through solidarity. Not through weapons," Franti said. "And that’s what makes the Bay Area great and our country great ... is the solidarity that we have in the belief that all people are created equal."

Hina Shah and her 6-year-old son Amir and 9-year-old daughter Simran had a picnic at Civic Center Plaza. "This is about us as people of color," said Shah, who is an immigration lawyer and lives in San Francisco. "We can't stand by and do nothing."

Shah said it was important to bring her kids to events like this to immerse them in justice issues.

"We wanted to do something, and this feels like a safer space," Shah said.

Steve Garber and Rena Pasick of San Francisco also attended the demonstration at Civic Center. "You can't be quiet when people are preaching hate," Garber said.

James Morrison, 70, went to Civic Center carrying a sign reading "Not on my watch." He says he moved from Baton Rouge, Louisiana to the Bay Area in the '60s for economic opportunities and was the first black man to load bags on planes for Delta Airlines at San Francisco International Airport.

"The Klan never left. The Nazis never left. They just became unfashionable. Now with [President] Trump in office, it's becoming fashionable again. They have credence," Morrison said.

"The most important thing is to show up," Morrison said. "If you don't fight and show up, then it looks like everything is alright."

In the Castro District, more than 1,000 protesters also gathered.

Demonstrators gather in the Castro District in San Francisco on Aug. 26, 2017 to protest against a previously planned far-right rally at Crissy Field. (Kevin Jones/KQED)

Patriot Prayer's Joey Gibson announced Friday that he was canceling the rally at Crissy Park on Saturday, and would instead hold a press conference at Alamo Square Park.

"After several conversations with the police, we've decided that tomorrow really seems like a setup," Gibson said during a Facebook Live. "The rhetoric from Nancy Pelosi -- Mayor Lee -- the media -- is bringing in tons of extremists. We're not going to fall into that trap."

Late Friday, the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, in which Crissy Field is located, said Gibson confirmed that he had relinquished the permit for the event.

Earlier in the day before the announcement, Gibson told KQED that he was considering canceling the rally because the National Park Service banned helmets, along with other items, including firearms.

“Anyone who has any experience with these rallies knows helmets are really essential,” Gibson said. “The head is a really important body part.”

Meanwhile, the organizer of the Berkeley rally has called off her event as well, and told KQED that she is telling supporters not to go to Berkeley on Sunday.

This comes after notable fringe-right people and groups pulled out of the events. White nationalists Augustus Invictus, Nathan Damigo, Cole White and members of paramilitary groups Oath Keepers and Three Percenters all indicated they would not attend one or both of the rallies.

San Francisco and Berkeley Officials Moved Early to Halt Rally Momentum

After the violent rally at Charlottesville, white supremacists and other members of the fringe right said they believed they had some momentum -- despite the deaths of two state police officers and the killing of counterprotester Heather Heyer, 32.

“I think that there will be some people ... who come over to us,” Nathan Damigo told KQED from Charlottesville.

Then, after a poor showing in last weekend's Boston rally, in which counterprotesters vastly outnumbered them, the fringe right seemed subdued and disorganized.

But white supremacists got another shot of social adrenaline from President Trump, who gave a speech where he blamed “both sides” for the violence in Charlottesville. That position energized the right, which had been making similar arguments in their social media sphere.

Yet, while the fringe right looked to find -- and document -- new conflicts, officials in Alameda and San Francisco counties took steps to lessen the enthusiasm for these rallies, and reduce the chance for violence, before the gatherings even began.

San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee took an immediate hard stand against the rally at Crissy Field, urging the National Park Service to cancel the permit. Meanwhile, congressional members, including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, also spoke out forcefully against the rally.

According to two San Francisco officials with knowledge of the negotiations, the political pressure and public outcry yielded major rewards for public safety, including a list of banned items such as firearms, weapons and helmets. The officials spoke to KQED on the condition they would not be identified, since they were not authorized to speak about the negotiations.

Kyle “Based Stickman” Chapman, at a fringe-right rally in Berkeley on April 15, 2017. The Alameda County district attorney ordered Chapman, who often leads others into violent clashes, to stay away from the Berkeley protest. (Bert Johnson/KQED)

Mayor Lee told reporters that San Francisco police would be out in full force to stop violence from spilling over from Crissy Field. He encouraged counterprotesters to stay away from the park, too.

“Do not engage with the members of this group, whose only priority is to incite violence through divisive rhetoric,” Lee said.

Meanwhile, across the bay in Alameda County, three moves by officials also have helped take the wind out of the fringe right’s sails.

First, the Alameda County district attorney charged Kyle “Based Stickman” Chapman with a felony count of having a leaded stick. At his bond hearing, an Alameda County judge ordered Chapman -- who often leads others into violent clashes -- to stay away from the Berkeley protest should he post a $135,000 bail.

Second, Berkeley city officials passed an ordinance granting the city manager broad powers to ban weapons during rallies that don't have permits. The move -- criticized by both the far left and right -- is expected to allow police to act more aggressively when protests turn to riots.

“I think our goal is to contain the event around the block so it doesn’t spill out to a broader area,” Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguin told KQED. “The rules we will be putting in place around objects will make a big difference, and we will have a very visible police presence.”

Third, Berkeley Assistant City Manager Jovan Grogan denied a permit to organizer Amber Cummings. The denial was issued in part because Cummings wanted to use amplified sound powered by a generator.

“Applicants wishing to use sound outdoors for an event must obtain a permit no less than thirty days from the date of the event,” Grogan wrote in the denial letter. “Failure to do so is grounds for an automatic denial.”

Cummings applied for the permit 10 days before the rally was scheduled.

The haphazard organizing has been a hallmark of many of these events, which are often thrown together at sensitive times as a tool to incite anger and violence.

And if this weekend passes without major acts of violence, it should be examined if officials like Grogan helped keep the peace by cutting the power.

In Limiting Weapons, Officials Cut Fringe-Right Media Production Options

The threat of violence at these rallies – and in the days afterward -- is real, and city officials have urged counterprotesters to stay away.

And under the guise of public safety, officials have quietly taken away the tools that make creating on-the-scene media easy for the fringe right. Media production is an essential component for their recruitment drives since it gives white supremacists and others the ability to portray themselves as a besieged, righteous movement fighting against liberals and the mainstream media. These videos are a key motivator in attending these chaotic rallies, and often fuel conspiracy theories used to deflect from criticism of violence.

Indeed, organizers of both Bay Area rallies said they chose the locations because of the powerful backdrops they provide.

“It’s beautiful, obviously,” said Patriot Prayer organizer Gibson.

While officials couldn’t stop these political actors from using their sets of choice, they have seriously curtailed their ability to record and livestream the action. In San Francisco, for example, selfie sticks, camera helmets, drones, tripods and large bags that often hold over-the-shoulder cameras would not be allowed in the demonstration area.

San Francisco officials negotiated with the National Park Service to ban these items. Mayor Lee said it was solely related to public safety.

“We insisted on the highest levels of public safety,” Lee said. “And these things were used as weapons [at other rallies].”

Yet, a real-world side consequence is that the fringe right won’t be able to livestream their event and have both hands free to fight. San Francisco Board of Supervisors President London Breed said if the banned items mean it’s harder for the fringe right to broadcast themselves, then so be it.

“These images continue to tear our country apart,” Breed said. “They want all eyes on them, which is why they’re doing what they’re doing.”

People take photos and video of a "Make America Great Again" hat on that was burned during a demonstration against the scheduled appearance of Milo Yiannopoulos at UC Berkeley on Feb. 1, 2017. Images of violent protests have become an important recruiting tool for fringe-right groups. (Bert Johnson/KQED)

Before canceling the event, Gibson told KQED he was concerned that the turnout at Crissy Field would be much lower than he first anticipated because of the conditions negotiated between San Francisco officials and the National Park Service.

“Even if we can find ways to record or livestream, they’ll probably jam our livestream like they did in Boston,” Gibson said, referring to a conspiracy theory circulating on the fringe right. “But it’s going to be harder to show what’s going to happen to us. We can’t protect ourselves and livestream it.”

Many creative counterdemonstrations across the Bay Area have sprung up in response to the rallies, with hundreds of people already showing up on the streets of San Francisco to denounce the fringe right.

Though city leaders have asked the public to stay away, many people said they felt they needed to hit the streets and take a stand.

“We’re going to go to church and be filled with the Holy Ghost,” said the Rev. Mike McBride, pastor of The Way church in Berkeley that’s close to where the Sunday rally is planned. “Then we’re going to take that power, walk down the street and cast the devil out of our city.”

KQED News' Brian Watt, Sukey Lewis, Alex Emslie, Erika Aguilar, Sheraz Sadiq, Farida Jhabvala Romero, Miranda Leitsinger, Lina Blanco and Bert Johnson contributed to this story.

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