Pro-Trump ‘free-speech’ rally draws hundreds for peaceful protest downtown

Berkeley police form a line down Allston Way to keep BAMN protesters away from pro-Trump supporters in the park, following the end of the rally. Photo: Tracey Taylor

Update, 9:56 p.m.: Berkeley Police say they made a total of five arrests Thursday during the protests. In an alert issued around 9:10 p.m., they said the demonstration-related activity in Berkeley was over and normal police operations had resumed. They added that they had confiscated numerous weapons during the day but there were no reports of injuries nor any property damage. The names of those who were arrested are included in the Nixle alert.

Update, 6:30 p.m.: Berkeley Police have reported four arrests.

Update, 4:30 p.m.: As the Trump supporters’ free speech rally ended shortly after 4 p.m., around 100 antifa protesters gathered on Allston Way in front of Berkeley High School, protesting against the rally. Berkeley police formed a line across Allston Way to prevent the two sides from clashing. The far-right organizers of the free speech rally encouraged its supporters to leave the park.

A plane with a message flew above Berkeley where demonstrators gathered in Civic Center Park on the afternoon of Thursday April 27. Photo: Eric Panzer

Original story: Hundreds of Trump supporters made their way to Civic Center Park on Thursday to protest the fact that Ann Coulter was not speaking at UC Berkeley today. But, in sharp contrast to two other recent rallies in the park, the mood was mostly calm.


The scene was similarly serene at UC Berkeley, where Coulter had wanted to speak. Students were more interested in their classes than in protesting in favor of or against Coulter’s appearance on campus.

A major law enforcement mobilization proved unnecessary. At 1 p.m UC Police reported making two arrests on the campus. By the end of the day Berkeley Police had made five arrests (details in a BPD Nixle alert). 

The difference between Thursday and the violent riots that forced Cal to cancel Milo Yiannopoulous’ talk on Feb. 1, as well as the sometimes bloody March 4 and April 15 rallies downtown, is that antifa, the masked demonstrators who use black-bloc techniques, were absent. So there was no one to challenge the pro-Trump speakers, some of whom hold strong nationalist, white-supremacist views.

Nevertheless many of those at Civic Center Park had come dressed for battle. Robert Montgomery, 33, of Pleasanton, wore a Trump baseball hat, but he also had a bulletproof-like vest under his T-shirt that read “Proud Member of the Basket of Deplorables.”

Tyler Smith drove down from Tacoma, WA, with fellow members of American Freedom Keepers. The group left Washington Wednesday morning and had been traveling for three hours when people heard Coulter had canceled. They decided to come to Berkeley anyway. Smith said he was at the park to protect free speech, but was also very concerned the direction the country was taking.


“We are at a point in our society where we are at a breaking point,” said Smith, who voted for Barack Obama twice before casting a vote for Donald Trump. “Something needs to change.”

Berkeley High School is across the street from the park, and at lunchtime a few dozen students stood at the edge of the greenery. They wanted to know what was happening but were slightly fearful of the Trump supporters because they thought they might be racist and have views that ran contrary to Berkeley values. Finally, a handful walked into the park and struck up conversations, one with a man wearing a helmet.

Drake Nighswonger, center, of Corona, and other conservative demonstrators prepare to rally in Martin Luther King Jr. Civic Center Park in support of free speech and to denounce the cancelation of an appearance by conservative writer Ann Coulter, in Berkeley, on Thursday, April 27, 2017. Photo: David Yee ©2017
Shields are stockpiled for a rally in Martin Luther King Jr. Civic Center Park on Thursday, April 27, 2017. Photo: David Yee ©2017
Civic Center Park on Thursday April 27. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

Coco Rosos, 15, a freshman, said her father told her to stay away from the park. But she couldn’t resist. “I wanted to see what happens in person, myself,” she said. “He told me not to go to the park. I have the right to know what is going on.”

She and a group spoke with John Guraul Turano and his daughter Bianca Turano, 22.

Berkeley High principal Erin Schweng accompanied some of the students to the park at lunchtime.


Carrie Fleming, 46 of Huntington Park, left Orange County around 1 a.m. to come to Berkeley. There were about 11 people in her group. She said she had been apathetic about politics until Trump entered the race for president. His presence turned her around and now she is an activist. She was one of three coordinators for a recent MAGA rally in Orange County that drew 3,000 participants in March.

“I liked the fact Trump was a businessman, not a politician,” said Fleming, who has three young sons. “We needed fresh blood. He may not have experience but he can lean on his (more experienced) cabinet members for support.”

Fleming said she felt Coulter should have stood up to the university and appeared despite the fact there was no venue reserved for her.

“I am disappointed that she (Coulter) caved in,” said Fleming. “We were going to protect her.”

Many people at the park got into relatively friendly conversations with each other and at one point, around 2 p.m., an airplane overhead trailed a banner that read: “Don’t take the bait! Fly above the hate!”

A small number of people from the Respect Berkeley group stood across the street from the park acting, they said, as non-violent witnesses and calling for “discourse not force.”

“We are progressives,” said Marc Staton, one of the founders of the new group. “We do not agree Berkeley should be a battle ground for the culture wars. Certain forces on the right have identified that this is a place to come and provoke a fight.”

Gabriel Diamond of Berkeley had been discouraged by the violence of previous rallies in Berkeley and wanted to do something to increase the dialogue and reduce the fighting. He made up a cardboard sign saying “Free Hugs,” and has been pleased by how many he doled out. “I was feeling more and more helpless and fearful by the level of dialogue and lack of empathy and the name calling,” he said. “Both sides were calling each other ‘Fascists.’ I felt we had to insert something else.”

When brief speeches started at around 2 p.m. at Civic Center Park, there were several hundred supporters in attendance, as well as dozens of reporters and TV cameras, and a helicopter overhead. Some speakers could hardly be heard over the chatter and helicopter noise. Speakers railed against antifa, Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguín, and what they saw as Berkeley values. One said, “Berkeley is ground zero for neo-Marxian ideology in America.”

Along with denunciations of their political opponents and the “mainstream media,” many speakers led chants of “USA! USA! USA!” and “Trump! Trump! Trump!”

Free hugs in Civic Center Park. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel
Demonstrators in Civic Center Park on Thursday April 27. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel
Berkeley Fire Department staged trucks and equipment in preparation for possible violence on Thursday, April 27 in Berkeley. Photo: Colleen Neff
There was a heavy police presence on the UC Berkeley campus on April 27 in anticipation of violent demonstrations that didn’t happen. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

Over at UC Berkeley, protests were nearly non-existent, although the campus had prepared for violence. When students arrived on campus Thursday morning, they found bright orange barricades lining Sproul Plaza. By 11 a.m. UCPD had a strong visible presence in the area, with dozens of officers stationed around the plaza. Later in the day the department issued an alert saying access to Sproul Plaza was limited: “Those wishing to enter may be subject to search for restricted items.” Signs posted around the area named those items, including hard bottles, masks and signs.

The first protesters to arrive at UC Berkeley, around 11 a.m., were a group of five from the San Francisco chapter of Refuse Fascism.

“Free speech is a stalking horse for their agenda — deportations, taking away democratic rights, and war,” said organizer Raphael Kadaras, of Coulter, the College Republicans and the far-right groups rallying in Berkeley.

After the campus police issued them a warning for carrying signs that were big enough to theoretically use as weapons, they moved just off campus on Telegraph Avenue and Bancroft Way. There, they got into a shouting match with a Trump supporter carrying a large flag, who said “Hispanics” should not be let into the country. A number of students gathered around to observe, and occasionally interject. “What are you both for? We only hear what you’re against,” one said.

At noon, a few student members of the International Socialist Organizations gave what they billed as a news conference, in the middle of the small gathering.

This is the legacy of the Free Speech Movement — leftist organizers on this campus,” the socialist spokesman said. “We must defend the right to free speech…We do not need the university to bureaucratically maneuver” to stop conservatives like Ann Coulter from speaking. Instead, they said, students must organize together against the right.

The small crowd soon thinned, and regular lunch-goers and students coming out of class soon swarmed Sproul Plaza. Most students, said junior Suher Adi, a former Cal Berkeley Democrats vice president, do not have a strong opinion about the Coulter controversy. She said she thinks the national figures putting in their two cents and the conservative students going to the media are “turning our campus into a spectacle.”

Looking around at the police, Adi said, “This is unbelievably excessive. I wonder how much it’s costing and where the money is coming from. Hopefully not student fees.”

Adi said she supported the outside protesters at Milo’s speech, because he was expected to reveal the identities of undocumented students. “Ann Coulter was not going to do that,” she said.

A Berkeley woman tries to engage Trump supporters in conversation at Civic Center Park on Thursday April 27. Photo: Daphne White
Two demonstrators wave American flags during a rally in Martin Luther King Jr. Civic Center Park in support of free speech and to denounce the cancellation of an appearance by conservative writer Ann Coulter, in Berkeley, on Thursday, April 27, 2017. Photo: David Yee ©2017
Berkeley police officers gather in Martin Luther King Jr. Civic Center Park during a rally in support of free speech and to denounce the cancellation of an appearance by conservative writer Ann Coulter, in Berkeley, on Thursday, April 27, 2017. Photo: David Yee ©2017
Berkeley police officers speak with organizers of a rally in Martin Luther King Jr. Civic Center Park on Thursday, April 27, 2017. Photo: David Yee ©2017
Conservative demonstrators pose for a group photo before their rally in Civic Center Park on Thursday, April 27, 2017. Photo: David Yee ©2017
An armored vehicle was deployed for the potentially violent rallies on Thursday April 27 in Berkeley. Photo: Ted Friedman
A far-right protester in Civic Center park after the rally. Photo: Natalie Orenstein
International Socialist Organization demonstrators on the UC Berkeley campus on April 27. Photo: Ted Friedman

Reporting by Frances Dinkelspiel, Natalie Orenstein, Lance Knobel and Tracey Taylor.