The National Park Service on Wednesday issued a First Amendment permit and paved the way for a right-wing rally at Crissy Field on Saturday, drawing the ire of San Francisco leaders.
A group called Patriot Prayer is holding a "Freedom Rally San Francisco" from 2 to 5 p.m. According to the group's permit application, the rally will feature live music, need a sound system and a generator, and be free to the public. Organizers are expected to begin setting up around 11 a.m. and finish tearing down by 6 p.m.
As of Wednesday, just under 400 people plan to attend the rally, while more than 1,000 are interested, according to a Facebook event page. Dozens of counter-protests, with clowns, dancing and sheetcake, are also being organized around San Francisco.
At a news conference Wednesday, the city's Mayor Ed Lee said, "I remain deeply disappointed and opposed to the issuance of this permit."
Although Crissy Field is federal land and lies outside the city's jurisdiction, Lee said, "We are responsible and feel responsible for everyone's public safety, particularly residents of San Francisco."
Lee also urged residents and visitors to the San Francisco Bay Area to "not dignify people who are coming in here under the guise of 'patriot' and 'prayer' words to really preach violence and hatred, and incite violence. Avoid going to Crissy Field and engaging with members of Patriot Prayer because that is precisely what they wish us to do."
Instead, counter-protesters have been invited to City Hall at 12 p.m. Friday. Elected leaders and "people from all walks of life" will give speeches and enjoy performances at a "Unite Against Hate" rally, according to London Breed, president of San Francisco's Board of Supervisors.
"All of this is because we, as a city, have chosen to unite against hate, to push for love, to push for inclusiveness," Breed said. "We will not let this rally tear us apart. We will not let this rally destroy our city."
She also urged media organizations to "not waste time" giving groups like Patriot Prayer "the attention they don't deserve" and yet thrive on.
Instead, Breed said: "Let's show the country how San Francisco does it. We bring people together, we push for peace, we push for love. I want to see more images of that nature in our media."
For its part, Patriot Prayer, which has been described as an "alt-right" group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, offers a dramatically different description of Saturday's event.
Organizer Joey Gibson told NBC Bay Area that he wasn't surprised by the permit's issuance. In fact, he had expected the rally to be approved because freedom of speech is protected by the First Amendment.
"We’ll have different messages but the main thing is unity and peace, love … (and) free speech," he said.
On the event's Facebook page, Gibson added: "Love and Peace is the only way to heal this country- so we ask that you do not use hate against us with the intent of fighting hate. We are here to spread a message of love."
He also stressed that extremists, neo-Nazis, communists, white nationalists, and members of Antifa and the Klu Klux Klan are not welcome.
"This is an opportunity for moderate americans to come in with opposing views. We will not allow the extremists to tear apart this country," he wrote on Facebook.
Scheduled speakers include Gibson; Amber Cummings, who is organizing an anti-Marxism rally in Berkeley on Sunday; and Kyle "Based Stickman" Chapman, a right-wing figure associated with violent protests in Berkeley that took place in March and April. Placerville-based band Good Ol' Boys is expected to perform, according to Facebook.
In response, criminal defense lawyers Tony Serra and Curt Briggs announced that they will join a number of colleagues at San Francisco's Pier 5 Law Offices and provide pro bono legal services for people who are charged in connection with protesting the Patriot Prayer rally.
"Racism is vile," Briggs said in a statement. "Should a counter-demonstrator be charged with a violent crime against a Neo-Nazi or White Supremacist at the Patriot Prayer event, lawyers at our office will represent that person regardless of their ability to pay for our services."
They also issued a call to action to other attorneys who may be interested in offering their services.
Senator Nancy Pelosi on Wednesday joined the ranks of California leaders who condemned the National Park Service's move.
"As we ponder where and by whom the ill-conceived decision to approve this permit in a national park was made, we must all pray it does not become an invitation to incite violence," she said in a statement.
Assemblyman David Chiu echoed the same sentiment.
"The First Amendment does not protect the right to incite violence, so it’s deeply unfortunate that the National Park Service is allowing a rally in San Francisco on Saturday that well-known hate groups will attend," he wrote in a statement. "These racist radicals have a history of violence and do not represent the values of San Francisco, California, or the United States."
As the right-wing rally dominates headlines, Lyft has partnered with the Southern Poverty Law Center, to send safety alerts to help protect its drivers, 66 percent of whom belong to minority groups. In an email, the ride-sharing company urged its drivers to "report incidents of hateful intimidation and harassment."
Acting General Superintendent Cicely Muldoon, however, defended the choice made by the National Park Service.
"The National Park Service has a long and proud tradition of being the site of peaceful expressions of people’s views under the First Amendment to the US Constitution which guarantees everyone the right to gather together and express their opinions non-violently," she wrote. "We cannot deny a permit to anyone planning to exercise their First Amendment rights based on their political stance or beliefs."
However, law enforcement agencies are on alert, following violence at a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va., on Aug. 16.
To that end, the San Francisco Police Department collaborated with Golden Gate National Recreation Area officials and the United States Park Police to create a public safety plan.
To start, the park has been divided into two zones: one closed to cars and bikes and the other to everyone.
Police have identified and banned 26 potential safety hazards. They also plan to set up check points, and screening people before they enter the part of the Crissy Field where the protest will be held.
A large number of police officers will be stationed not only around the rally, but also across the city, according to Police Chief Bill Scott.
"We insisted on the highest level of safety," Lee said, adding that the security boost is "on our dime."
With barricades going up and preparations in full swing on Thursday, some counter-protesters say their plans will include demonstrations on the bay itself.
"I don't want to do battle on land with these people," said Ren Volpe. "I want to protest peacefully and I want to ruin their photo (opportunity)."
Protesters and counter-protesters alike have legal rights, San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi said in a statement.
"Attending a protest doesn’t mean you give up your right to due process. In fact, this right is at the core of our national values," he said. "We want to make Bay Area residents leave these actions with both their safety and civil rights intact."
People who work in Adachi's office will don safety vests so they are easily identifiable at Saturday's rally in Crissy Field. As legal observers, they will "document and record" law enforcement officers' behavior toward demonstrators "from use of force to denying access to public areas," according to Adachi.
Meanwhile, visitors and San Francisco residents have been warned of traffic congestion and delays, detours and road closures.
The Golden Gate Bridge, Highway and Transportation District is shutting down parking lots on the south end of the iconic bridge between 9 p.m. Friday and 8 p.m. Saturday. The Bridge and Round House cafes and the Golden Gate Bridge welcome center will also be closed, officials said.
Between 11 a.m. and 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, only tour buses will be allowed access to the vista point located on the north end of the Golden Gate Bridge.
"This is the first time we've closed the south end of the visitor amenity for a free speech activity, especially on a neighboring piece of property," said bridge district spokeswoman Priya David Clemens.
Pedestrians and bicyclists can access the bridge's sidewalks, but the National Park Service will close all routes through Crissy Field. The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency will not run Muni buses to Golden Gate Bridge on Saturday.
The bridge district issued a statement, which reads in part: "Please note there is NO access to the First Amendment event from the Golden Gate Bridge by vehicle, walking, or bicycle. All roads to the event are closed from this location. The only access to the event is through the Marina Gate."
Portions of the Presidio and many businesses within the park will also be closed on Saturday. Although that is the busiest day of the week for many shop owners dotting Old Mason Street, they welcomed the news Wednesday, saying public safety comes first.
"Saturdays are typically our busiest days! We have a lot of birthday parties. It’s a busy season with kids going back to school," said Shoshanna Moody, general manager of House of Air, an indoor trampoline park. "But, really, we just care about customer safety. So we’re glad that they have a plan to keep everyone safe and shut the businesses down."
Rocky Lobos, a sales manager at bike store, Roaring Mouse Cycles, was stunned that Patriot Prayer had received the necessary permit.
"It was a surprise that it was granted, and we were hoping that last minute they would just cancel it, knowing that for safety reasons ... because there’s a lot of children, a lot of families, a lot of tourists," he said.
Others, however, believe that the San Francisco Police Department is up for the challenge.
"You don’t like intolerant people coming to your neighborhood, obviously," said Alex Dempsey. "And certainly, I applaud anyone who stands up to them. But (the First Amendment) is fundamental to our country."
Taking safety into their own hands, business owners also plan to bar windows and remove high-value inventory over the weekend.
Patriot Prayer may have been given a permit, but it comes with several conditions, each one in place to protect the public, according to police.
Here is a list of items that are prohibited at Crissy Field Saturday:
- Aerosols / pressurized canisters
- Animals other than working service animals
- Backpacks and bags exceeding the size restriction of 18" by 13" by 7"
- BBQ grills (propane tanks with any open flame)
- Drones and other unmanned aircraft systems
- Firearms (including licensed concealed carry firearms)
- Gas Masks
- Glass, thermal or metal containers
- Laser pointers
- Liquids (other than water in factory-sealed, clear plastic bottles)
- Mace / pepper spray
- Pop up tents or canopies
- Selfie sticks
- Signs exceeding the size restriction of 24" by 36"; Signs will only be allowed if made of foam core, cardboard or paper
- Supports for signs and placards including sticks of any material
- Toy or replica guns or weapons of any kind
- Wagons or carts that can be pulled
- Weapons of any kind