Some hundred-odd “alt-right” supporters gathered on the steps of City Hall and in Civic Center on Friday, May 3, for a “Demand Free Speech” rally in response to alleged bias against conservative people on social media.
Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and Instagram — inarguably the four most popular social media platforms — have banned a number of prominent alt-right pundits in recent months for Terms of Service violations, such as targeted abuse towards other individuals, or in one recent case, being “dangerous individuals or organizations,” usually reserved for hate groups.
Infowars’s Alex Jones and Paul Joseph Watson, conservative Internet personality Laura Loomer, Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, and failed author and public speaker Milo Yiannopolous all received permanent Facebook and Instagram bans for that reason on Thursday.
Friday’s rally, dubbed the #DemandFreeSpeech rally, was meant to garner awareness and support for what speakers said was suppression of free speech on the internet and capitulation to liberals and the far left. Loomer and fellow alt-right troll Jacob Wohl — best known for trying to smear various Democratic politicians with false sexual assault allegations – were supposed to headline but ultimately failed to show, though a host of other, lesser-known speakers stepped up. One woman — Evangelist internet influencer Bernandine Barber — was particularly noteworthy, screaming that “hate speech was free speech” about Islamophobia, and that there should be “no safe spaces,” while standing across the street from an art installation celebrating Holocaust survivors.
Most of the speakers and their supporters who appeared in San Francisco on Friday were from out of town, such as one conservative shock jock radio show host from Fresno, and a handful of their security escorts, who claimed membership in the Proud Boys, an alt-right “Western chauvinist” fraternity founded by a former VICE News founder, and the III%ers, a violent anti-government militia group that sees itself as modern-day American revolutionaries. One exception was San Francisco mayoral candidate Ellen Lee Zhou, who is running on an anti-communist, pro-free speech platform to make San Francisco “Clean and Safe Again.”
Members of the SFPD clad in riot gear, park police, deputy sheriffs, SWAT team members, and rooftop sharpshooters also appeared.
“Fascism will grow if it’s not opposed, like any disease or infection,” said one antifascist counter-protestor who gave their nom de guerre as Laura Secord. “Unlike their people, who are rich and white and can take off of work in the middle of the day, most of our folks are working-class, and can’t just leave in the middle of the workday,” they said. “But at great cost to themselves, our folks aren’t willing to let them organize in the city that we love.”
On the question of free speech, which has remained an issue since President Trump’s election in 2016 and the subsequent rise in hate crimes that have followed, Secord took a staunch position, pointing out that allowing hate speech to fester unchecked would only encourage speakers like those at the #DemandFreeSpeech rally to continue, and pointing out the financial and social benefits that alt-right provocateurs at Friday’s rally stood to gain.
“If we allow them to organize, the kind of intimidation that they’ve been allowed to engage in will become a regular thing,” says Secord, “Some of these people, their whole purpose is to fight, showing up in body armor. As far as letting themselves just wear themselves out, these people are here not only to organize but to grift. They show up, they come to San Francisco, they get video, they get their show and talk about what ‘this is what’s wrong with America today!’ Ultimately for them, that’s how they raise money.”