Far-Right Patriot Prayer Protests Scrapped 'Free Speech Week' at UC Berkeley

Joey Gibson of Patriot Prayer marches with supporters through the streets of Berkeley on Sept. 26, 2017, to protest cancellation of "Free Speech Week." (Arielle Swedback/KQED)

Far-right protesters marched from UC Berkeley through the city's streets on Tuesday to protest the cancellation of “Free Speech Week," which was called off by its student organizers even before it began.

"Until the politicians in the city respect free speech, we will continue to come down here," said Joey Gibson, head of Patriot Prayer, an anti-government group based in Oregon.

On Friday, student group Berkeley Patriot told KQED it was scrapping the four-day event, which had been billed as featuring controversial conservative commentators, including Milo Yiannopoulos, who briefly appeared on campus Sunday. The student group didn't elaborate on the cancellation, but KQED earlier reported that Berkeley Patriot was concerned as early as a month ago that it would be unable to pull off the high-profile event, which was supposed to start Sunday.

It wasn't clear if Gibson had planned for Patriot Prayer to be part of the week. On Monday, he announced the Tuesday protest on Facebook Live.

“It only takes one person to stand up for free speech,” he said, urging people to show up with a “positive attitude.”

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Gibson had planned and then abruptly called off a rally in San Francisco at Crissy Field on Aug. 26, saying he feared for the safety of his supporters. He also abandoned a press conference later at Alamo Square in the city, holding one instead in Pacifica. Counterprotests in Oakland and San Francisco dwarfed the far-right events. The next day, he was chased away and pepper-sprayed by black-clad activists at a protest in downtown Berkeley.

Gibson has repeatedly denied his organization involves white nationalism, white supremacy or other bigoted ideologies. However, the organization has ties to militias that frequently show up armed to white supremacist events, and has featured white nationalist speakers.

On Tuesday, Gibson led his supporters -- many holding Trump signs and chanting "USA" -- from UC Berkeley's Sproul Plaza through the streets south to People's Park; they were followed by counterprotesters.

Members of Patriot Prayer speak to counterprotesters on Sept. 26, 2017, in Berkeley. Patriot Prayer was protesting cancellation of "Free Speech Week." (Arielle Swedback/KQED)

Both sides exchanged words, with one counterprotester telling a Gibson supporter: “I stand for the truth. You can’t stand the truth.” A quiet ensued -- and many counterprotesters left -- when Gibson spoke at the park.

"Love, truth and freedom, that's all I’m here for," Gibson said at one point. "I’m just here for some foundational things back in the country."

Berkeley police said about 200 people joined in the march. Four people were arrested, and charges included participating in a riot, resisting arrest, battery and carrying a banned weapon.

Gibson said he plans to continue protesting at UC Berkeley, home to the Free Speech Movement.

“Berkeley is starting to feel the pressure,” Gibson said. “They are starting to understand the smartest thing they can do is protect us, those of us who want to come in with a different idea, a different belief.”

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