Back-to-back rallies this weekend that are expected to draw both far-right figures and large groups of counter-protesters to the Bay Area will offer a test of whether police can prevent the violence that plagued similar protests earlier this year.
Law enforcement has spent weeks planning for the events in San Francisco and Berkeley. At the center of the campaign will be a huge police presence, perhaps more than a thousand officers who intend to crack down at the first sign of trouble.
The San Francisco Police Department plans to have its entire roster on duty for Saturday afternoon’s “Freedom Rally” at Crissy Field Beach. In Berkeley, the site of Sunday’s rally, city officials have expressly banned weapons, sticks, projectiles and even soda cans from gatherings of more than 100 people within the city limits. The National Park Service, which operates the land where Saturday’s protest will take place, has established similar rules.
The need for stronger crowd control became clear in the wake of the violent clashes this month between white supremacists and counter-protesters in Charlottesville, Va., where demonstrators on each side complained of lax law enforcement.
Earlier this week, the American Civil Liberties Union criticized what it called the Phoenix Police Department’s “widespread, indiscriminate, and excessive use of crowd-control weapons,” including tear gas, to subdue a crowd of counter-protesters outside a rally held by President Trump on Tuesday.
But hands-off policing can also allow events to spiral out of control. Anaheim police drew criticism last year after a violent Ku Klux Klan rally. Uniformed officers were nowhere to be found when Klansmen arrived in Pearson Park, and several people were stabbed during a series of brawls between Klan members and anti-racist protesters.
“One of the most difficult things we do in our profession is policing 1st Amendment activity,” said LAPD Deputy Chief Bob Green, who has served as a commander at dozens of protest scenes during his 30-year career.
San Francisco Police Chief Bill Scott said officers need to prevent prolonged clashes and crack down on any exchange that might turn physical, regardless of political affiliation.
“When you see something violent happening you stamp it out immediately,” he said.
Last week, Gibson told The Times he was concerned that some extreme or racist figures might try to co-opt his rally, a fear shared by experts who track hate groups. He has repeatedly denied the assertion that his event is a “white supremacist” demonstration and criticized politicians who branded it as such.
“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,” he said.
Sunday’s rally in Berkeley, branded by organizers as an anti-Marxism demonstration, has drawn additional concern. Berkeley has been home to a number of violent clashes between political opponents 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.
Those opposed to the rallies, including San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee, have called on counter-demonstrators to stage their events several blocks from the proposed far-right events. Some activists have also said they are hoping to avoid the violent exchanges that have marred Berkeley in recent months. One woman affiliated with Pastel Bloc in Berkeley, who would only speak on condition of anonymity, said she hopes the number of counter-protesters will swell because of the planned nonviolence.
“By not directly confronting the white supremacists, who have brought weapons and started fights before, maybe people who have been hesitant to come show solidarity will feel more empowered to do so,” she said, adding that Pastel Bloc itself will not take part in Sunday’s events.
Even with vows of nonviolence on both sides, law enforcement leaders said they are well aware that it would only take a few agitators to cause a fracas. The issue with policing protests, they say, is that it becomes hard to isolate violent individuals in crowds that often number in the thousands.
Green said preparation is critical to minimizing violence at any large-scale demonstration, adding that the move to disarm protesters in the Bay Area is a good idea.
An overwhelming number of police can serve as a simple, but effective, deterrent to violence, he said.
After an incredibly bitter 2016 campaign season, many feared last year’s Republican National Convention would turn downtown Cleveland into a weeklong battleground between Trump’s supporters and counter-demonstrators.
But Cleveland police, flanked by thousands of officers from out-of-state, vastly outnumbered demonstrators on both sides of the political aisle, resulting in few arrests or injuries over the course of the week.
Last weekend, a rally in Boston staged by a few dozen far-right figures also ended in relative peace when a phalanx of city police was able to keep counter-protesters separated from the group.
While the San Francisco rally is expected to be largely confined to Crissy Field, the Sunday event in Berkeley could prove more problematic. During past confrontational rallies in the city, far-right figures and anti-facists have traded punches and projectiles on city streets surrounding Martin Luther King Jr. Civic Center Park. Police hope the emergency powers granted to the city manager can help stymie that issue as well.
“History shows that in previous events we had some success in keeping items out of the park. In every occasion, people have gone outside of the park and that results in fights and people getting injured with these same weapons,” said Berkeley police Capt. Allison Hart, who will command the weekend’s police response.
Complicating matters is the planned attendance of some controversial figures from the far-right who have been linked to white supremacist gatherings and other controversial rallies.
Ninety-seven percent of the people aren’t there to cause trouble. But a small percentage aren’t there peaceful.
Augustus Invictus, described by the Anti-Defamation League as a Florida-based white supremacist, has also said on Twitter that he plans to speak at the Berkeley rally. Invictus filmed himself among a mob of torch-carrying demonstrators chanting “blood and soil,” a known Nazi refrain, in Charlottesville.
Kyle Chapman, a Daly City resident who gained infamy and the nickname “Based Stickman” after he was filmed battling anti-facists with a shield and staff in Berkeley earlier this year, plans to speak at both rallies. Chapman, who has declined a request for comment from The Times and suggested reporters “can all go to hell” on Twitter recently, is currently facing felony weapons charges in Alameda County.
Jack Posobiec, who hawked the false “Pizzagate” conspiracy that led to a shooting in Washington, D.C., and has been accused of hurling anti-Muslim slurs at former Hillary Clinton aide Huma Abedin, will also attend Sunday’s rally in Berkeley, according to Joanna Mendelson, the senior investigative researcher with the Anti-Defamation League’s Center On Extremism.
The presence of those fringe right-wing figures, as well as the Black Bloc anarchists who sometimes appear among counter-protesters in Berkeley, speaks to the heart of law enforcement’s struggle, police leaders said.
“Ninety-seven percent of the people aren’t there to cause trouble,” Green said. “But a small percentage aren’t there to be peaceful.”