BERKELEY, Calif. — Ann Coulter’s speech at the University of California at Berkeley was canceled. But the debate and hostility that were unleashed by the controversy over the conservative commentator’s planned event continued here Thursday.
Demonstrators who participated in other recent violent clashes on Berkeley’s streets began gathering at a city park and on campus Thursday to fight for free speech or to protest hate speech. Many were geared up — with helmets, shields and padding — for a confrontation at the park, just blocks from the campus and Berkeley High School. And the possibility of violence caused authorities to turn out in force.
But the conservative and liberal activists mostly spent the afternoon shouting at one another, physically divided by a police line on opposite sides of the street. A total of seven people were arrested by campus and city police and a number of weapons were confiscated, but there were no reports of injuries or property damage.
Campus police arrested one person for allegedly carrying a knife on campus, and another person who was charged with violations including “delaying or obstructing a police officer in the course of duty, false identification to a police officer and wearing a mask to evade police.”
There were a couple of intermittent skirmishes, said Officer Byron White of the Berkeley Police Department, but mostly it was relatively peaceful, with speakers talking at demonstrations.
Naweed Tahmas, a junior who is a member of the Berkeley College Republicans, said the campus was blockaded Thursday afternoon and that he could see police officers on every corner, with helicopters hovering overhead. He said that it is unfortunate that just the threat of unrest could lead to the cancellation of a conservative speech there.
“Berkeley will continue to be a liberal echo chamber unless the university can ensure that conservative speakers can speak on campus,” Tahmas said.
Rallies on campus were peaceful as of about 4 p.m., but anxiety increased as right-leaning activists and curious locals waited for Antifa — an antifascist group — and other left-leaning protesters to arrive. They braced for violence: Many were wearing helmets and goggles and carried pepper spray.
As evening approached, it appeared that large crowds of far-left activists and antifascists didn’t show up to shut down the conservatives’ rally, as they have done repeatedly in recent weeks. The antifascist groups in the area have stopped posting on public forums as authorities in Berkeley and elsewhere have begun focusing attention on them and their violent responses to conservatives.
Rallies remained peaceful in the early evening, but with tension.
On social media, many in the anarchist and antifascist camps pointed to Coulter’s cancellation as proof that their use of violence as a tool works.
But by 6 p.m. some protesters lingered, but the demonstration had mostly died down.
After the protest, the Berkeley Police Department reported five arrests. Those identified were: Mark Wilder, 52, of Irving, Calif., charged with carrying a concealed dagger; Donque Addison, 28, of Oakland, Calif., charged with resisting arrest; and Stephen Hall, 48, of Oakland, Calif., for attempting to incite a riot and violation of probation. A juvenile whose name was not released was arrested for alleged possession of a controlled substance, and a not-yet-identified person was arrested for allegedly resisting arrest.
Many at the rally carried American flags, but some also bore symbols of the alt-right, a small, far-right movement that seeks a whites-only state. Several at the conservative rally carried flags showing Pepe the frog, an Internet meme that has been appropriated in the past two years by the alt-right. A number of people also draped themselves in a green “Kekistan” flag, another meme that has been popular among the far right.
Karissa Healy, a 47-year-old massage therapist from Berkeley who was working in a makeshift medical tent and wearing a shirt that said “Deplorable and Proud,” said she started protesting in Berkeley after the Milo Yiannopoulos rally in February, which escalated to violent mayhem.
“The Milo riot threw me over the edge,” Healy said. “I saw those college kids being tear-gassed and attacked just for wanting to hear someone speak. This is not the America we want for our kids.”
Police kept left-leaning protesters separate across the street. The protesters shouted, “Hell, no! Trump has got to go!” and accused the free-speech rally attendees of being neo-Nazis and interlopers from other cities who had descended on liberal Berkeley.
Dozens of police officers deployed across campus, and officers were posting signs on Sproul Plaza, at the center of campus, with a list of prohibited items, such as baseball bats and projectiles. Police kept antifascist protesters away from the rallies.
A coalition of conservatives and far-right groups held a free-speech rally at Berkeley’s Civic Center Park. The park has been the site of two violent clashes in recent weeks, when many of the same conservatives brawled with far-left anarchists and others trying to halt the event.
“Rally is ON! Let’s show these Commies the Right will not be silenced. We were once warriors and WARRIORS AGAIN WE WILL BE!!” Kyle Chapman, a San Francisco Bay-area man who participated in at least two of the previous rallies that grew violent, wrote on Facebook ahead of the event. Chapman became a hero to some conservatives after a video of him breaking a wooden signpost over the head of a far-left protester at a Berkeley rally went viral.
Coulter said in an email to the Associated Press that she was considering a visit to one of the events Thursday but did not elaborate.
“I’m not speaking. But I’m going to be near there, so I might swing by to say hello to my supporters who have flown in from all around the country,” Coulter said in the email. “I thought I might stroll around the graveyard of the First Amendment.”
Yiannopoulos, a former Breitbart writer whose appearance on campus in February sparked riots and who plans a free-speech week there in the fall, wrote on social media that “all roads lead to Berkeley.”
Kiara Robles, a 26-year-old gay Trump supporter who works at a bitcoin company, said she was disappointed to be attending a rally instead of a Coulter speech.
“I wanted a vigil,” she said. “I wanted something more symbolic, but the guys wanted something else.”
Among the leftists, the International Socialist Organization held an “Alt Right Delete” news conference on campus, saying it hoped to oppose “the very real threat posed by the political right wing, which is growing emboldened from the White House to the streets of Berkeley.”
Members of the group said they are offended by how Coulter and others are co-opting free speech arguments liberals have made in the past to serve the conservative cause.
Berkeley, home to the Free Speech Movement of the 1960s, has become the center of a pitched battle in recent months. Antifascist and anarchist protesters turned a crowd of students protesting Yiannopoulos into a violent mob, breaking windows and setting fires, and police advised university officials to cancel his speech. When they did and protests continued, President Trump raised the threat of pulling federal funding for the public university.
In recent weeks, protests in the city of Berkeley have led to repeated violent clashes.
When student groups invited Coulter to speak, university officials tried to postpone the event until the fall because of safety concerns, then reversed course and asked her to come next week, when they could provide a safer venue for her speech. Berkeley College Republicans and the national Young America’s Foundation filed a lawsuit saying the school had violated their right to free speech. On Wednesday, Coulter announced the speech was canceled.
Many people responded with anger about threats to free speech.