Hundreds of counterprotesters poured into the streets of San Francisco to make their voices heard, after a canceled free speech rally that city leaders had feared could turn violent. (Reuters)

Hundreds of counterprotesters marched on the streets of San Francisco on Saturday, the same day that organizers of a right-wing group canceled their events and moved locations, saying they wanted to avoid a riot.

The pro-Trump group Patriot Prayer canceled the “Freedom Rally,” as city leaders braced for the kind of protest that drew extremist groups to Charlottesville, Virginia earlier this month. The Oregon-based group then planned to hold a news conference instead — but that, too, did not happen after the city blocked the venue from the public. Meanwhile, hundreds of counterprotesters gathered at a San Francisco park on Saturday morning and marched until the afternoon, according to media reports.

In a statement, Mayor Ed Lee said the march was peaceful. Police Chief Bill Scott told the San Francisco Chronicle that there were no major problems, aside from one public intoxication arrest.

“Today, the people of San Francisco, once again, peacefully united to reject hate and violence,” Lee said.

Organizers of the “Freedom Rally,” however, blamed the cancellation of their event on public officials who they say have falsely portrayed them as violent right-wing extremists intent on bringing hate to San Francisco. Speaking with reporters Saturday afternoon, Joey Gibson, founder of Patriot Prayer, also blamed “antifa,” referring to anti-fascist groups, and BAMN, or By Any Means Necessary, a left-wing group. He said the groups followed them throughout the day and kept them from holding events.

“Right now, we had to cancel the rally … It was the best thing to do for the city … because the way it was set up is that a lot of innocent people are going to get hurt,” Gibson told reporters. “It would’ve been a huge riot.”

“Freedom Rally” was scheduled Saturday afternoon at Crissy Field, a recreational area near the Golden Gate Bridge. After canceling it, Gibson said his group planned to hold a news conference Saturday afternoon at Alamo Square Park to “talk about some of the rhetoric in San Francisco.” But the city, suspicious of the group’s intentions, on Saturday morning built fences around the park, where counterprotesters also planned to gather, CBS affiliate KCBS reported. Gibson then wrote on Facebook he will hold an “indoor news conference” and show up at “random spots” in the city to talk to residents.

Counterprotesters later showed up at Alamo Square Park to protest the canceled news conference. Minor scuffles broke out between them and police officers, the San Francisco Chronicle reported. Some demanded to be allowed past police barricades. They chanted, “Let us in!” and, “Our streets!”

Tensions between Gibson’s group and city officials have been brewing over the past several days. Mayor Ed Lee on Wednesday condemned the decision by the National Park Service, which controls Crissy Field, to grant Gibson’s group a permit.

“The shameful, anti-American trend of hate-filled extremist rallies will unfortunately be allowed to continue this weekend in our city,” Lee said in a statement. “Since the beginning of this process, we have repeatedly stated that the public safety of San Francisco residents and visitors is our top priority.”

Lee, Police Chief Bill Scott and Board of Supervisors President London Breed had written a letter expressing outrage over the Park Service’s decision to allow the rally and urging officials to make sure that security measures were in place. Breed said last week groups like Patriot Prayer “are not welcome” in San Francisco, KCBS reported.

“San Francisco has a long and storied history of championing freedom of speech and First Amendment rights, but as we have witnesses in recent months, these types of rallies can quickly turn hateful and violent with tragic consequences,” the letter said, according to KCBS.

Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said in a statement Wednesday she had “grave concerns about the public safety hazard” tied with the “white supremacist rally.” In a letter last week to Park Service officials, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said the rally “poses very real threats to the public should the protest devolve into racial violence and clashes with law enforcement.”

In a statement Friday, Lee confirmed Patriot Prayer has relinquished its rally permit, but he said law enforcement officials are prepared for “any contingencies and spontaneous events.”

“San Francisco does not welcome outside agitators whose messages of hate have the sole purpose of inciting violence,” Lee said, adding Patriot Prayer has neither requested nor obtained a permit to hold an event at Alamo Square Park. “I want to reinforce that existing San Francisco law prohibits firearms and weapons in city parks. Those who seek to commit acts of violence or damage property will be arrested and prosecuted.”

Patriot Prayer, originally based in Vancouver, Wash., and later moved to Portland, Ore., describes itself as a group that fights big government.

According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, the group has held protests that attracted white supremacists and white nationalists. For instance, Jeremy Christian, a white supremacist accused of stabbing three men who tried to intervene when he shouted anti-Muslim slurs at two young women on a Portland light-rail train, attended a rally organized by Gibson in April.

Recently, however, Gibson has tried to distance himself and his group from extremists. He openly denounced white supremacists and neo-Nazis at his rally in Seattle on Aug. 13.

Gibson pushed back at how San Francisco officials had characterized his rally, which he said would not have welcomed white supremacists and other extremist groups. He said organizers decided to cancel, fearing a clash between white supremacists and anti-fascist groups would lead to unrest.

“They could’ve come at the park, and we would not have been able to filter them out,” Gibson said on Facebook Live. “So there’s just so many things … In our opinion, it seems like it would’ve been a huge riot.”

Gibson said Friday speakers and band members who were supposed to perform at the “Freedom Rally” will be at the news conference to urge public officials to denounce anti-fascist groups who he said planned to disrupt their demonstration with weapons and chemical irritants.”

“They say they’re against violence. They say they’re against hate,” Gibson said of public officials, pointing to Lee and Pelosi. “We’re really asking … Do they support antifa? Do they support BAMN?

San Francisco Supervisor Mark Farrell, whose district borders Crissy Field, dismissed the news conference as a way to “cause further disruption,” the San Francisco Chronicle reported.

“Whether they hold a rally at Crissy Field or make plans elsewhere to disrupt our city, it is our responsibility to make sure every contingency is planned for,” Farrell said, according to the Chronicle. “I was hoping they would cancel and pack up their tents and go home.”

California state Sen. Scott Wiener, a Democrat whose district includes San Francisco, said organizers of the Patriot Prayer rally canceled at the last minute because of security restrictions placed by Park Service officials. These include banning any object that could be used as a weapon. Wiener said Friday he is “deeply concerned” the event at Alamo Square Park will turn violent.

“Patriot Prayer is not interested in simply exercising free speech. Rather, Patriot Prayer wants to create a volatile, chaotic, violent tinderbox,” he said in a statement shared on Twitter.

In response to Wiener’s statement, Gibson wrote on Facebook: “Senator Scott Wiener says it is illegal for me to talk with media in a public park, come arrest me. The truth will come out.”

Across the bay, an anti-Marxism rally scheduled for Sunday at Martin Luther King Jr. Civic Center Park in Berkeley, Calif., was also canceled. The event was never granted a permit.

In an email obtained by the Chronicle Friday, organizer Amber Cummings asked people to not come to her event, called “No to Marxism in America,” because she feared “terrorist groups like Antifa and BAMN are trying to incite riots and violence.”

She said she, alone, will attend the event.

“I do not want to risk of violence happening or anyone getting hurt. … If in the event I am hurt or killed attending this rally, I ask you to please not retaliate on each other as result of my injuries. Let my life be the last one lost,” wrote Cummings, a transgender woman and a Trump supporter.

Berkeley city officials have imposed rules preventing protesters from bringing metal pipes, baseball bats, poles, rocks, glass bottles and other objects that could be used as weapons. Masks, scarves, bandannas and other accessory items not meant for religious purposes are also prohibited.

This story, originally published on Aug. 26, has been updated. 

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