The city is preparing for a potential pro-Trump demonstration planned for Saturday at 2 p.m. at Civic Center Park in downtown Berkeley, as well as for a counter-protest that has been called for noon in the same location.
“We’re planning for a number of different contingencies,” said city spokesman Matthai Chakko Friday. Chakko said the expectation was that the pro-Trump event would be a “small gathering of people.” Nobody has filed for the necessary permit to hold a protest, he said. “Somebody contacted the city expressing interest, but they didn’t respond to our calls back,” he said.
On the surface, it appears that a group called March For Trump is spearheading the demonstration, as Berkeley is listed as one of many locations where protests are being planned around the country Saturday, including at the Washington Monument in DC. March for Trump states the purpose of the events is to unite against a “seditious fringe [that] has resolved to sabotage [President Trump’s] restored purpose” of putting “America first.” However, the Berkeley event’s Facebook page, linked to on the March for Trump’s site, lists Rich Black as the leader of the demo.
When contacted by Berkeleyside Friday, Black said he alone was organizing the event. Black said the purpose of the Berkeley event was “to promote free speech” and that it would be “a peaceful gathering.” He said a permit was not required for such a demonstration and declined to say how many people he anticipated would show up. The Facebook event page lists 152 people as attending, with 244 interested in attending from a total of 483 invited.
No local groups, political or otherwise, have said they are affiliated with the Berkeley pro-Trump event. A Feb. 8 article in Breitbart News about pro-Trump demonstrations across the country directed readers to the Main Street Patriots website which lists more than 50 rallies scheduled for Saturday, but none in Berkeley.
On Feb. 27, Black posted on Twitter, where he has just 87 followers, a statement that stressed the protest was peaceful: “We are to arrive at Berkeley in the name of peace and in hopes to show the world that freedom is a fire that refuses to be extinguished,” he wrote. “Take pity on those who are lost in a sea of rage… Be the peace that Berkeley deserves.”
Meanwhile the Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action, Integration and Immigrant Rights and Fight for Equality By Any Means Necessary (BAMN) — has announced a counter-protest to the pro-Trump demo, stating its purpose is to “confront and defeat the Trump movement” with “no platform for fascists and white supremacists.” A focus of the action, the group says, is to defend Berkeley’s sanctuary city status.
Nervousness about the Saturday protests has been fueled by events in Berkeley on Feb. 1 when a peaceful gathering to protest the later-canceled appearance of far-right provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos on the Cal campus was disrupted by more than 100 black-clad agitators. The demonstration turned violent, several people were injured, and the agitators caused extensive property damage, both at UC Berkeley and downtown.
Local residents have also expressed concern about the location of Saturday’s protests which is the site of the farmers market.
“One of my primary concerns is the proximity to the market and the potential for a reaction that endangers farmers and families at the farmer’s market by a bad reaction from either side,” wrote one reader to Berkeleyside.
Chakko said the city was coordinating its efforts with the farmers market.
Another reader wrote encouraging Berkeleyside to provide information about the protest, “given that it could potentially be violent/dangerous” and “folks might want to avoid it.”
At least one downtown business has decided to close on Saturday because of the proposed demonstrations. In an email shared with Berkeleyside, Kristine Seinsch, owner of Jazzcaffè, said for the safety of its employees she has decided to keep the café on Addison Street, closed during the day. She hopes to be open for an evening concert there.
Chakko said the Berkeley Police had reached out to the people it understood were the organizers of the pro-Trump demo, as they do routinely ahead of any planned protests.
“The police talk to them about being adequately prepared, advise them on how to be safe, and the need for a permit,” he said.
The city’s website has a Protest 101 section with advice for anyone interested in organizing or participating in a protest.
While the police say they are preparing for any potential problems Saturday, they cannot say precisely what those preparations involve, including how many officers might be mobilized. At the Yiannopoulos demonstration both BPD and UCPD kept their distance and only one arrest was made. Afterwards both agencies were criticized for what was perceived by many commentators as too hands-off a response. BPD Chief Andrew Greenwood said the department’s approach had been informed by the East Bay Black Lives Matters protests of 2014. “Placing police officers into a potentially volatile crowd situation could have prompted a focused, sustained violent attack on police, thereby rapidly escalating the risk of harm to all involved,” he wrote in a two-page memo to Berkeley City Manager Dee Williams-Ridley about the Yiannopoulos protest. (Read Berkeleyside’s story on that memo and our interview with UCPD Chief Margo Bennett about that department’s approach to handling the Feb. 1 protest.)
Chakko said the goal of the city in preparing for protests is to protect free speech and keep the community safe, but he acknowledged there is always an unknown element.
“We know demonstrations can be dynamic with the potential to transform from peaceful assembly to violence,” he said. “People can have different motives and interests during a demonstration.”
This developing story was updated after publication.