Reports of an alt-right rally descending on San Francisco were confirmed Tuesday, as city officials rushed to halt a permit issued by the National Park Service. Patriot Prayer, a right-wing group that hosts rallies attended by white supremacists and neo-Nazis, applied for a permit to hold an event on Aug. 26, at Crissy Field. As the land is part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, it is under federal jurisdiction, and out of the city’s hands. But as the news spread, Mayor Ed Lee and Board of Supervisors President London Breed held a last-minute joint press conference condemning the decision to grant the permit, and made it clear that alt-right groups are not welcome in San Francisco.
Lee told reporters that City Hall only learned of the permit on Monday. “We have demanded that the National Park Service re-evaluate this,” he said. Citing the violence that occurred in Charlottesville last weekend, Lee doesn’t believe the Park Service is fully aware what they are inviting. “You wouldn’t do this in such a cavalier fashion if you knew what was going to happen,” he said.
Breed too was powerful in her opposition. “To say that we are outraged is an understatement,” she began. “No matter what the names are — whether it’s the KKK, white nationalists, neo-Nazi — these groups promote racism, they promote hate, they promote violence, they promote all the things that we are against here in San Francisco.
“You are not welcome here. Don’t come to San Francisco. We’re going to do everything we can to stop you.”
But how city leaders will actually stop the rally remains to be seen. Lee penned a letter to the GGNRA’s Superintendent voicing his displeasure. He has also called in powerful state officials, notifying senators Kamala Harris and Dianne Feinstein of the situation. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi stated that she is “deeply alarmed” by the event’s implications, and its timing “so soon after the horrors of Charlottesville.”
“The NPS should reevaluate its decision and its capacity to protect the public during such a toxic rally,” she said in a statement released Tuesday. “Free speech does not grant the right to yell fire in a crowded theater, incite violence or endanger the public in any venue.”
While local politicians are certainly right to be alarmed about the potential for hate speech and violence, the rally itself may not be as epic and destructive as many believe. As of Tuesday afternoon, only 267 people had RSVPed on the Facebook event page — many of whom are local reporters and leftist activists. In contrast, 826 people have said they’re attending a counter-protest titled “Unafraid!”
Alt-right rallies don’t always have a great turn out. In April, media flocked to People’s Park in Berkeley when more than 200 alt-right protesters gathered in a “freedom of speech” rally. The attendees — many of whom had flown in from out of state — were geared up to fight, with milk for rinsing tear gas from their eyes, bags of first aid supplies, and protective gear like helmets and football shoulder pads. But the antifascists failed to show up, and instead of the expected brawl, the rally was peaceful and anticlimactic. All told, there were almost more media than alt-right defenders in attendance.
The Southern Poverty Law Center covered a rally held by Patriot Prayer in Seattle last weekend, and noted that “As in previous rallies led by Joey Gibson, Patriot Prayer’s chief organizer, counter-protesters massively outnumbered his band of right-wing supporters.” Gibson himself also may not be as extreme as his cohorts — in Seattle he condemned the violence that broke out in Charlottesville, and even invited protesters of the event on stage to speak their views.
That said, permitting alt-right protesters to gather on federal ground in San Francisco is still something that should be closely watched. And for Lee, the threat of violence is more important than nitpicky interpretations of the First Amendment.
“We are a city of tolerance. We do enjoy free speech. But I suggest to you: There is a difference between free speech and hate speech with the intent of causing violence. That must be distinguished. There is clarity in my mind that people are coming here to commit violence, not to have an academic dialogue, not to have a fire chat on differences of opinion. They’re aiming their guns at our people, and we’re going to stop them.”