Organizer of far-right rally in San Francisco cancels Saturday news conference in park

The organizer of a far-right rally that had been scheduled Saturday in San Francisco canceled an afternoon news conference, claiming police have blocked access to the park where it was to be held.

The news conference was set to take place at 2 p.m. at Alamo Square Park in downtown San Francisco, in place of a "Freedom Rally" that had been planned for Crissy Field Beach, according to a Facebook post published by Joey Gibson, founder of the Patriot Prayer group and organizer of the event.

Update: Hundreds of demonstrators turn out in San Francisco to denounce white supremacists »

San Francisco Board of Supervisors President London Breed also announced Saturday morning that Alamo Square Park would be closed to the public. Workers were erecting fencing around the park.

Gibson said on social media he would hold an indoor news conference but did not give a location.

Tourists mixed with joggers at Crissy Field on Saturday morning, along with a few dozen counter-demonstrators who gathered at the entrance, uncertain what to do.

“Everything is real fluid,” said a demonstrator from New Mexico, part of a group called RefuseFascism. He and those with him declined to give their names.

“The concern is the fascists are going to show up randomly around San Francisco. Or they could come here,” he said, standing with demonstrators ready to enter the beachfront park with their placards and leaflets.

Inside the park, the scene was placid. There was little sign the venue had been selected as the gathering point for a rally that city officials feared would draw militant demonstrators from across the political spectrum.

Someone brought sidewalk chalk and a beach wall by midmorning was filled with colorful messages such as “Peace and Love From Paris,” “Alt Left Wuz Here” and “I (Heart) SF.”

The Bay Area resident who added the last note was detained by U.S. Park Police officers, who, despite the innocuous nature of his message, ordered him to sit down while they ran a check on his driver’s license and delivered stern warnings about defacing public property.

Afterward, Amir Proushani, 41, an independent filmmaker, was shaken by the encounter.

“I got here, I just saw this beautiful wall, I saw the chalk …” he said.

Within minutes, a National Park Service truck rolled up with a pressure washer.

“Props to the wall!” a passerby shouted.

The planned Crissy Field rally had drawn concerns from city officials and police after the bedlam that marred protests in Charlottesville, Va., earlier this month, and some politicians had denounced the event as a white supremacist rally.

On Friday, Gibson and the organizer of a similar rally set for Sunday in Berkeley, both said they were canceling the events due to threats of violence from anti-fascist groups who have sparred with a wide range of supporters of President Trump and white nationalists at past demonstrations in the Bay Area. Gibson said he canceled the San Francisco event based on threats of violence and conversations with city police.

Sgt. Michael Andraychak, a spokesman for the San Francisco Police Department, said Friday that investigators had no information about specific threats of violence against the rally.

In an earlier statement, Mayor Ed Lee said the permit for the Crissy Field event had since been rescinded. But late Friday, a group called the American Freedom Keepers created a Facebook group urging people to show up for the canceled event anyway.

"We need to show the left, the media and the nation that their fascism cannot silence the truth," the group’s message read.

Officials in San Francisco and Berkeley said they were still preparing for street clashes.

Gibson told The Times last week that his group was not “white supremacist” and he feared that extreme or racist figures might try to co-opt his event, a concern shared by experts who track hate groups.

“You’ve got two different people in this world right now. You have people that are trying to change hearts and minds of people, and you have people who are trying to divide the country,” Gibson said.

By Friday, he decided the rhetoric about his rally had grown too heated, and he had no way to control who showed up.

“We have a lot of respect for the citizens in San Francisco and at the end of the day, we want people to be safe,” he said. “In our opinion, it seems like it would have been a huge riot.”

The San Francisco Police Department had planned to have its entire roster on duty for the rally. Officials said they could not comment Friday on if their plans changed in light of Gibson’s announcement.

“We are monitoring ongoing developments related to the August 26 rally,” Mayor Ed Lee said in a statement, “and we are prepared for any contingencies and spontaneous events.”

Lee noted that the permit at Crissy Field Beach had not been withdrawn, nor had a permit been requested for Alamo Square.

“Our full contingent of public safety professionals is ready to protect our San Francisco neighborhoods,” he said.

After the cancellation of Saturday’s event, focus shifted to Sunday’s “No to Marxism in America” rally in Berkeley, which has been seen several political clashes turn physical this year. Violent protests on the UC Berkeley campus shut down an appearance by Milo Yiannopoulos in February, and subsequent demonstrations in support of Trump collapsed into roving street fights.

As of Saturday morning, the event’s Facebook page listed the rally as canceled. The organizer, Amber Cummings, said in a Facebook message to The Times on Friday that she was “asking that no one come to my event.”

Cummings cited “grave concerns for the safety of the people attending my event.”

Cummings wrote that she still planned to go to Berkeley’s Martin Luther King Jr. Civic Center Park on Sunday but that “I will attend this event alone.”

“I'm sorry for this but I want this event to happen peacefully and I do not want to risk anyone getting harmed,” Cummings wrote.

Berkeley officials had expressly banned weapons, sticks, projectiles and even soda cans from gatherings of more than 100 people within the city limits.

Cummings had sought a permit, but was denied. She said the city manager’s office told her Wednesday that the permit application failed to include plans for first aid and sanitary services, and that she had failed to provide sufficient identification.

News that Saturday’s organizer had canceled was seen as a partial victory by counter-protesters.

“Wow, it sounds like we’re having success ahead of time," Shanta Driver, the Chicago-based counsel for By Any Means Necessary, said as she waited to board a plane to the Bay Area.

Driver said the cancellation showed “white nationalists know they are a tiny minority in America, and there was absolutely no way they could rally in the city of San Francisco.”

Not so, she said, for the city’s neighbor across the bay, with its recent history of showdowns between white nationalists and anti-fascists.

“I think the people who are coming to Berkeley, they come armed and ready, and they come to do physical harm,” Driver said.

.

james.queally@latimes.com

paige.stjohn@latimes.com

benjamin.oreskes@latimes.com

Times staff writer Rong-Gong Lin II contributed to this report.

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UPDATES:

11:40 a.m.: This article was updated with information from the scene at Crissy Field.

10:0 a.m.: This article was updated with the cancellation of a Saturday news conference.

Aug. 26, 2017, 2:10 a.m.: This article was updated with comments from Amber Cummings about the two weekend events.

Aug. 25, 2017, 9:10 p.m.: This article was updated with additional comments from San Francisco and Berkeley officials.

7:20 p.m.: This article was updated with a statement from San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee.

5:20 p.m.: This article was updated with the cancellation of the Berkeley rally.

4:50 p.m.: This article was updated with reaction from counter-protesters.

4:20 p.m.: This article was updated with the cancellation of Saturday’s event.

3:55 p.m.: This article was updated with new information from Bay Area officials.

This article was originally posted at 3:20 p.m., Aug. 25.

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