SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) — Both the area around Alamo Square Park and the Civic Center Plaza in San Francisco were seeing huge crowds of peaceful counter-protesters responding to a Patriot Prayer rally that had been scheduled Saturday.
“Black Lives Matter” signs, rainbow banners, a marching band, even jugglers joined the upbeat ad hoc gathering around Alamo Square Park, which police closed for safety reasons after Patriot Prayer organizers abruptly switched the location of their event to the park Friday.
The “Peace, Love and Understanding” rally with music and speakers kicked off around noon Saturday at the Civic Center Plaza, with Kate Kendell, executive director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, acting as mistress of ceremonies.
“We have a kid’s zone, kids playing with bubbles, hanging out in the sun and playing with balloons,” said spokeswoman Arielle Goren. “It’s a warm, friendly crowd, lots of people dancing.” She said the Brothers Comatose, a bluegrass band, had just finished a set.
People gathered there called it a unity rally. Planners said it would last until 5 p.m.
San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee issued a statement thanking people for maintaining the peace.
Earlier, demonstrators shut down a major San Francisco freeway off-ramp Saturday and scuffled with police at the edge of Alamo Square Park during the day of protests.
Thousands of demonstrators marched in the streets of San Francisco to protest the politics of the alt-right and to voice their opposition to the policies of President Donald Trump.
The demonstrators marched from Alamo Square into San Francisco’s Mission District, shutting down streets as they went along.
At least one person was detained outside Alamo Square as demonstrators gathered to disrupt a press conference by the alt-right group Patriot Prayer. However, Patriot Prayer leaders had called off the news conference hours earlier.
Then at around 1:30 p.m. a group of demonstrators blocked the Central Freeway off-ramp into San Francisco’s Western Addition, backing up traffic on Highway 101.
Patriot Prayer leaders originally obtained a permit from the National Park Service to stage a rally Saturday at Crissy Field in the shadows of the Golden Gate Bridge.
But late Friday they cancelled their plans for Crissy Field and said they would instead by a Alamo Square Park. The city closed the park, ringed it with police and S.F. Muni re-routed its bus lines.
While KPIX Chopper 5 showed hundreds of demonstrators gathered at both Alamo Square and at Market and Castro streets, these protests appeared to be unrelated to a previously-announced “family friendly” counterprotest scheduled at San Francisco Civic Center Plaza.
Joey Gibson — whose Facebook profile indicates that he manages Patriot Prayer — said the news conference at Alamo Square Park was canceled and meet with reporters at an undisclosed location saying he feared Antifa alt-left demonstration would injure him and other members of his group.
Gibson spoke Saturday in a park in the small city of Pacifica, a suburb of San Francisco, after changing the location and format of the event several times.
“Antifa has been trying to follow us around all day,” he told reporters. “they just tweeted out our location so we got to be in, we got to be out… That’s what it is going to be like all day — going from spot to spot trying to hide from people who dress like ninjas. Who run around and want to burn stuff down.”
“We cancelled the rally because we thought it was the best thing for the city,” he continued. “The way it was set up was a lot of innocent people were going to get hurt. That’s a fact. a bunch of (our) supporters, a bunch of Antifa supporters coming together and all the liberals mixed together it would have been a huge riot.”
The National Park Service late Friday night confirmed organizers associated with the Patriot Prayer rally that was scheduled for Saturday at 2 p.m. in San Francisco’s Crissy Field relinquished the First Amendment permit for the organization’s rally.
Gibson cited concerns for public safety in a video livecast on social media around 3 p.m. on Friday.
After Gibson’s announcement of the press conference on Friday, state Sen. Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) said in a statementL: “Today the right-wing extremist group Patriot Prayer — with a history of violent rallies — showed its true colors by canceling, at the last minute, its permitted rally at Crissy Field and scheduling an illegal un-permitted rally at Alamo Square.
“This rally in Alamo Square is illegal and in the heart of a residential neighborhood, and I am deeply concerned it will lead to violence, particularly given how close Alamo Square is to the counter-protest at Civic Center. As a matter of public safety, it cannot be allowed to happen,” Wiener said.
All sides appeared suspicious of each other’s true plans and motives.
“We don’t trust this group. I never have from the beginning,” San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee said of Patriot Prayer.
Lee said the group had not canceled the event in writing, so police will still be there and anywhere else they need to be to keep the city safe.
“I do believe there are provocateurs in those groups that are intentionally wanting to incite some level of violence,” he said.
Tension over the gatherings had built in the two weeks since violence erupted at a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. James Alex Fields Jr., 20, was charged with murder after driving a car into a crowd of counter-protesters, killing a 32-year-old woman.
Gibson and Cummings insisted their gatherings would be peaceful but critics alleged they would be magnets for racists and others who would seek violence.
A number of counter protests were planned. The left-wing group By Any Means Necessary, which has been involved in violent confrontations, vowed to shut down the Berkeley rally.
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