by Nik Wojcik
After days of costly preparation and heated contention, followed by sudden venue and schedule changes, the much-anticipated Patriot Prayer rally never happened in San Francisco Saturday. What actually did occur in that vacuum was a historical show of resistance across the city in several counterprotest gatherings that drew combined crowds rivaling the numbers of people that turned out to protest the presidential inauguration in November.
Joey Gibson of the alt-right Patriot Prayer group was nowhere to be found at Alamo Square Saturday, but counter demonstrators and hundreds of San Francisco police officers showed up in full force. The residential park area was to be the location of a last-minute press conference in lieu of the highly debated National Park Service-permitted Crissy Field gathering for the conservative “free speech” organization.
Although several demonstrations, protests and marches popped up simultaneously across the city, a vast majority of those opposing the far right ended up where Gibson said he and his followers would be, at Alamo Square. The park itself had been hurriedly barricaded by the City of San Francisco after Gibson’s surprise switch to the peaceful neighborhood. Taking over the middle of an intersection adjacent the park on a hot summer day, impassioned speakers and vibrant protesters trickled in.
What began with a few hundred participants at 11 a.m. quickly became a group of about 1,500 as the street below filled in with people, signs and flags expressing support for just about everything the alt-right in general seemingly stands against: LGBTQ equality, Black lives, fair immigration policy, an end to police brutality, anti-capitalist political reform and remembrance of slain activist Heather Heyer. The messages may have been varied, but were remarkably united.
Although several demonstrations, protests and marches popped up simultaneously across the city, a vast majority of those opposing the far right ended up where Gibson said he and his followers would be, at Alamo Square.
Speakers from various organizations took to the mic to applaud the group for what was seen as a victory over the alt-right movement, but took the opportunity to encourage continued engagement with the mantra to “stand up, fight back.” Occasionally, organizers were disrupted by thunderous cheering as yet another group would be seen approaching with more supporters, and more flags.
That theme continued as the mass descended from the hill at Alamo Square in a march that took over the streets of San Francisco for approximately four hours. By the time participants reached their destination at 24th and Mission streets, the crowd size had grown to an estimated 4,500 people, where they arrived in style and in great spirits.
Mayor Ed Lee, who had fought to have the Patriot Prayer permit revoked, commended the peaceful gathering. “Today, the people of San Francisco, once again, peacefully united to reject hate and violence,” Lee said in an official statement.
The glaring lack of alt-right presence was appreciated but noted as odd by many. John Thompson, who came to represent the “1 percent,” questioned the motives of the Patriot Prayer cancellations. “Is this fake news?” Thompson asked. “Is this crowd manipulation?”
His observation may not be unfounded. An anonymous thread titled “Operation Exhaustion” was retweeted by Twitter user @polreport and suggests the alt-right intend to incite confusion and exhaustion among opposition by creating multiple free speech events on social media over several weekends in different cities. The thread continued to read: “The trick is … we don’t show up. The left will waste their time and resources trying to protest a new free speech rally every weekend.”
“Today, the people of San Francisco, once again, peacefully united to reject hate and violence,” Lee said in an official statement.
However, crowds showed no sign of wear as they marched and danced for miles on end. What the right may see as a clever way to throw counterprotesters off balance, the left took as an opportunity to stand up to what Bay Area Refuse Fascism organizer Xochitl Johnson calls “all the earmarks of hatred.” Johnson believes that this is the time, that the country is “having a moment” in reaction to the tragic events in Charlottesville. “If we don’t do this now, we won’t have a chance later,” Johnson said.
“These thugs in the streets are just a symptom of what’s coming down from the top. Everybody can see the brutality of what they’re bringing down, from the Muslim bans to the immigrant round-ups. Every day, what they do becomes normalized.”
Johnson was one of several speakers during the march from Alamo Square to the Mission. At one point, she led the group to lie down in the middle of the intersection and with her bullhorn in hand, she counted down for them to rise again “with the world.”
She hopes to inspire millions to keep coming out in cities across the nation and fight the emboldened white supremacist movement that recently sent a “terrorizing” chill with torches and anti-Semitic chants. On Nov. 4, signifying nearly a year of the Trump presidency, she encourages people to join in the streets and stay in the streets all over the country, “for people to stand up and say ‘No, we won’t be terrorized, we won’t be scared and we won’t back down.’”
Thompson, who arrived at Alamo Square armed with a medical bag sling bag to provide help if needed, agrees that people need to make a stand.
“I didn’t think that good people should stand by and not let them know that they’re not wanted, anywhere,” Thompson said. The protest veteran misses “boring” municipal arguments like where community gardens should be placed and when the next affordable housing project will begin.
Thompson pointed out that we have bigger issues we need to address as a country. “We need a living wage; we need to be able to retire comfortably; we need to be able to have clean water (and) clean air,” Johnson said. “We have bigger fish to fry than Trump.”
Many like Thompson and Johnson, who both plan to attend Sunday’s rallies in Berkeley, are no stranger to protests. But Saturday’s events enticed several first-timers to participate in protest. Bryce Granado is one of those newcomers. He was drawn to join the march by the threat of Nazis presence in what he calls a “city of love.” He believes the Trump administration has given white supremacists the OK with actions like permitting the Patriot Prayer rally.
Although Gibson insists that his organization does not condone hate or racism, it has been documented that several white supremacists have joined his rallies in the past. The fear of that occurring again in the city’s treasured Golden Gate Park is what sparked the counterprotest to begin with.
The tension is far from over this weekend as Berkeley braces for alt-right and counter protest activity Sunday between the university campus and the now notorious free speech epicenter at Martin Luther King, Jr. Civic Park. How it will all play out remains unseen but the crowd in San Francisco Saturday made one thing abundantly clear, they are far from exhausted and intend to show up and stand for what they believe at a moment’s notice, and they plan to be victorious.
Nik Wojcik is a freelance journalist and former editor in chief of the SF State newspaper, Golden Gate Xpress. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.