BERKELEY (CBS SF) – A substantial police presence both on the Berkeley campus and at a gathering in a downtown park kept hundreds of activists on both sides of the free-speech debate in line during protests Thursday.
Hundreds of far-right protesters, some dressed in goggles, gas masks and knee pads, rallied in support of conservative speaker Ann Coulter in Martin Luther King Jr. Civic Center Park .
Some at the rally were wearing combat gear, including military grade ballistic helmets and body armor. Dozens of police in riot gear stood by ready to crack down on violence as had been anticipated between provocateurs of both the alt-right and antifa (anti-fascist).
Many of the pro-Coulter protesters have "Build That Wall" or "Trump" stickers across their helmets and several are concealing their identities wearing mirrored ski goggles over their eyes.
Over the course of the day, there was no sign of their antifa opponents, who have violently clashed with the far-right demonstrators previously in Berkeley.
By early evening, the protest in the park had dwindled to a couple dozen people on the two sides, squaring off in their debate over free speech.
Officers came out in droves, lining every inch of Berkeley's sidewalks, batons and zip-tie handcuffs at the ready. Backpacks of people going onto the UC Berkeley campus were searched, weapons confiscated.
"I'm a student here this is not what we're used to at all," said UC student Nick Garcia. "This is completely militarized. Some students have been arrested and they haven't committed any crimes"
While some students complained about this show of force, that's what critics say was missing during previous protests.
Howard Jordan, the former Oakland Police Chief who now provides law enforcement analysis for KPIX 5 said enforcement of protests like presented unusual challenges.
"Police have a very tough job of balancing first amendment rights of everyone," said Jordan. "These things are fluid. They're rapidly evolving police have to be ready for whatever contingency comes up"
Jordan said given the number of officers on hand and the advanced notice for Thursday's protests police would likely be able to keep Berkeley in control.
"Calling in additional help can take hours, but if you know in advance those hours are reduced to 30 minutes or less," said Jordan.
While there were some tense moments and a few arrests, no violence broke out.
Police said they arrested four people at demonstrations on and near the campus related to the canceled Coulter speech.
Another morning rally had been relatively peaceful, but the strong police presence grew as the number of demonstrators swelled in Berkeley's Civic Center Park in anticipation of the afternoon rally hosted by the alt-right "Proud Boys" and the Oath Takers.
"No one's saying that anyone should not be proud of their culture or who they are," said Proud Boy Chad Lanyon. "We are just reacting to what we feel is push back against our values."
Two people were arrested on the Berkeley campus. Campus police said one person had been arrested for carrying a knife and a second had been taken into custody for wearing a mask and confronting an officer.
Among those gathered in the Civic Center Park was Chris Cox, the leader of a group called Bikers For Trump, who flew in from Washington, D.C. to attend the rallies. He said his group was not there to repeat the violence of past demonstrations, but to keep the peace and let people know that Trump supporters also support free speech.
"It just takes one radical voice to take a whole group so I needed to make sure we don't have anybody out here that is being a fool," he told KPIX 5.
"If indeed this is the birthplace of free speech," he continued. "And they (UC and Berkeley officials) have made it nearly impossible for Miss (Ann) Coulter to come here to speak. To me, that would demonstrate that free speech has died."
But a member of the Oath Takers -- who were part of the unruly crowd at the April 15th rally -- said they would step in if police did not do their job during the afternoon rally.
"We hope the police will stand up (to the anti-fascist protesters) and that we will have a chill day in the park," an Oath Taker told KPIX 5. "But if they don't stand up, we will."
Dozens of police wearing flak jackets and carrying 40 mm launchers that shoot "foam batons" flanked the university's main plaza while a small group of protesters condemning Coulter staged one of two earlier rallies outside campus. Officers also took selfies with students in an attempt to lighten the mood.
Police erected barricades and refused to let participants enter the campus.
Protesters from the International Socialist Organization held what they called n "Alt Right Delete" rally with signs reading "Refuse Fascism" and "Fascist free campus." The group endorses free speech, and some members oppose the way Coulter and others have co-opted the free speech movement.
"I don't like Ann Coulter's views, but I don't think in this case the right move was to shut her down," said graduate student Yevgeniy Melguy, 24, who held a sign that read "Immigrants Are Welcome Here."
The tension illustrates how Berkeley has emerged as a flashpoint for extreme left and right forces amid the debate over free speech in a place where the 1960s U.S. free speech movement began before it spread to college campuses across the nation.
Berkeley student Joseph Pagadara, 19, said he is worried about violence and says the university is caught in the middle of the country's political divide.
"Both sides are so intolerant of each other. We are a divided country. We need to listen to each other but we're each caught in our own bubbles," he said.
Dozens of California Highway Patrol officers from around the state deployed on the UC Berkeley campus Thursday morning. Helicopter video showed dozens of motorcycle officers and patrol cars parked and a staging area set-up near the Greek Theater on campus.
Campus police also posted signs saying anyone near the Sproul Plaza on campus would be subjected to a security search and listing items that were banned from the University property.
While the list contained the obvious weapons – guns, ice picks, daggers and stun guns – it also included items like frozen fruit, pet dogs, coolers, umbrellas, e-cigarettes, laser pointers, skateboards, bikes and balloons.
A joint statement released by the university and Berkeley city leaders early Thursday promised less restraint than shown at two other demonstrations that have exploded in violence.
"While we cherish our freedoms of speech and assembly, there is no freedom to silence others or to commit violence," the statement read. "If you are at a demonstration and you see violence, separate yourself. Keep a distance from violence. If you can do so safely, report it to police."
At a Wednesday news conference, UC Police Capt. Alex Yao said his officers and those called in from neighboring law enforcement agencies to help would "have a very, very low tolerance for any violence."
While an on-campus speech by conservative pundit Ann Coulter scheduled for Thursday had been canceled over fears of violent protests, the far right and far left political camps were not backing off - as was Coulter, who hinted she may show up anyway.
"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 an email to the Associated Press. "I thought I might stroll around the graveyard of the First Amendment."
VIOLENCE IN BERKELEY:
- Coulter Vows To Speak At UC Berkeley Despite Event Cancellation
- Yiannopoulos Plans Return To Berkeley As Cal Prepares For Coulter
- Woman Punched During Berkeley Protest Describes Melee
- Alt Right 'Proud Boys' Declare Victory In Berkeley Melee
- Berkeley Police Release Names Of People Arrested At Trump Protests
- Berkeley Police: 20 Arrested, 11 Injured In Saturday Protest
Gavin McInnes, founder of the pro-Trump "Proud Boys," said he would fly to Berkeley to speak Thursday and was encouraging other alt-right forces to make a large appearance at the gathering, scheduled for 2:00 p.m. at Civic Center Park.
In a YouTube video, McInnes challenged the so-called anti-fascist groups, "... our army will be a bigger audience than most of these liberals get when they do talks. So you f***'ed up. Once again, you have created this mythical universe of Nazis on every corner and you've tried to shut it down based on that lie. Well, we're not allowing that to happen. The show must go on."
The Proud Boys call themselves Western chauvinists who "refuse to apologize for creating the modern world." They flooded Berkeley in huge numbers earlier this month and appear to be amassing a return visit from such characters as the "Based Stickman" and others who have made their name with violent responses to the antifa (anti-fascist) anarchists.
Just two weeks ago, a "Patriots' Day" protest exploded into violence that ended with 20 arrests and 11 injuries. More arrests were expected as police continue reviewing videos and photos taken of the violence.
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