SAN FRANCISCO – 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. He cancelled a planned rally Saturday at a field under the shadow of the Golden Gate Bridge after he said his members received anonymous threats on social media and feared civic leaders and law enforcement would fail to protect them.
He said Saturday in a phone interview that he felt like San Francisco's Democratic leaders had shut him down. 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.
"They're definitely doing a great job of trying to make sure my message doesn't come out," Gibson said.
San Francisco officials closed the park where Gibson had planned a news conference after cancelling the rally at Crissy Field. City officials surrounded Alamo Square park with a fence and sent scores of police officers -- some in riot gear -- to keep people out. Mayor Ed Lee defended the city's response.
"If people want to have the stage in San Francisco, they better have a message that contributes to people's lives rather than find ways to hurt them," Lee said. "That's why certain voices found it very difficult to have their voices heard today."
Gibson later spoke in suburban Pacifica with a handful of supporters that included African Americans, a Latino and a Samoan American. Several said they support President Donald Trump and want to join with moderates to promote understanding and free speech.
More than a thousand demonstrators against Patriot Prayer still turned out around Alamo Square park waving signs condemning white supremacists and chanting, "Whose streets? Our streets!" Hundreds of others took to the streets in the Castro neighborhood.
"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."
Benjamin Sierra, who organized counter protesters, said the demonstration had become a "victory rally."
The San Francisco Bay Area has nurtured 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.
Gibson had said his followers would attend an anti-Marxist rally on Sunday in Berkeley. But a short time later, the organizer of that rally, a transgender woman named Amber Cummings, called it off. The left-wing group By Any Means Necessary, which has been involved in violent confrontations, had vowed to shut down the event 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.