- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 17, 2017

A violent white supremacist rally in Virginia on Saturday has prompted leaders elsewhere to scuttle similar events in their communities, while police develop security plans to prevent skirmishes like that in Charlottesville.

The University of Florida and Texas A&M University have canceled events featuring white nationalist leader Richard Spencer, citing security concerns.

In Boston, Mayor Marty Walsh had a simple message for organizers of a free speech rally set for this weekend: We don’t want you in Boston.

But organizers of the New Free Speech Movement pledged to go forward with the event, pushing back against attempts to tie them to the racist groups involved in Charlottesville’s demonstration.

The Boston group until recently had planned to host speakers with white nationalist ties, but organizers this week wrote on their Facebook page that “we will not be offering our platform to racism or bigotry.”

The event, set for Saturday at the Boston Common, was in doubt after Charlottesville. But late Wednesday the city granted permits with strict guidelines to keep attendees and protesters safe.

“No weapons, no backpacks, no sticks,” Mr. Walsh told The Boston Globe. “We are going to have a zero-tolerance policy. If anyone gets out of control — at all — it will be shut down.”

The Boston Police Department is getting ready for whatever may come, saying officers “will be prepared to provide appropriate coverage to ensure the safety of all.”

In San Francisco, Mayor Ed Lee accused the National Park Service of issuing a permit for an Aug. 26 Patriot Prayer rally without taking public safety concerns into proper consideration.

“San Francisco has a long and storied history of championing freedom of expression and First Amendment rights, but as we have witnessed in recent months, these types of rallies can quickly turn hateful and violent with tragic consequences,” Mr. Lee said in a letter to Park Service officials.

“Events in Charlottesville and Seattle are proof that rallies such as these attract extreme and racist fringe groups who only want to provide malice and incite brutality,” he wrote.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who represents San Francisco, also criticized the Park Service for overlooking “the hateful and dangerous nature of the event,” which she called “a white supremacist rally.”

“What Nancy Pelosi did was lie and put a bunch of people in danger,” said Joey Gibson, founder of Patriot Prayer. “She called it a white supremacist rally, which is totally false.”

The event will feature conservative speakers but mostly is meant to open dialogue between those who hold different viewpoints, Mr. Gibson said.

While white nationalist figures have been associated with Patriot Prayer in the past, Mr. Gibson said that in the wake of Charlottesville, he’s sought distance from such groups, telling members of the white supremacist group Identity Evropa that they are not welcome at the San Francisco rally.

Given the opposition to the San Francisco event, Mr. Gibson said he does worry about the safety of those who attend.

“Our message is good and positive. I’m willing to take the risk,” he said.

Law enforcement’s role

It’s not just the swell of potentially volatile events that has lawmakers worried: There is also concern over how police respond.

Video from Charlottesville showed white nationalists and counterprotesters engaged in street brawls, in some cases while police officers stood by and appeared to take no action.

In the aftermath of those skirmishes, a man plowed his car into a crowd of counterprotesters, killing one woman and injuring 19 other demonstrators.

Experts in law enforcement tactics were troubled by the slow response in Charlottesville, saying it emboldens those seeking to incite violence at other events.

“White supremacists are no longer coming to a protest where they will have sharp disagreements with counterprotesters. They are coming there to fight. That is a very different thing,” said Michael German, a former FBI agent who specialized in domestic terrorism investigations and has gone undercover in neo-Nazi and white supremacist groups.

“Part of the reason it’s ratcheted up is they know the police are going to let them engage and, almost inevitably, they know they are going to be outnumbered,” Mr. German said. “Of course they are going to go prepared for battle.”

Police departments can take steps to prevent violence at rallies, said Drew Tracy, a former assistant police chief in Maryland who has served as a Justice Department consultant and now consults for the State Department’s Anti-Terrorism Assistance Program.

Police should be in contact with event organizers and have a plan for participants’ entry and exit to keep them apart from protesters.

“If there is an infringement on where people are supposed to be, that is when the uniformed police need to go in there,” Mr. Tracy said.

He called for a two-pronged approach, with one team of officers dedicated to holding the line and separating opposing sides and a second team focused on extracting anyone who is hurt or is going to be arrested.

Charlottesville Police Chief Al Thomas has defended his department’s actions, saying officers were “spread thin” after those gathered for the rally disregarded an agreed-upon plan on how to enter the city park and police moved in to shut down the event after fights broke out.

Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe has ordered a review of law enforcement preparation and response to the rally as well as the process for issuing demonstration permits.

One of the best ways to prevent violence at future events is to get dangerous individuals known to play a role in inciting chaos off the streets, Mr. German said.

Just as law enforcement visited known activists ahead of the Democratic and Republican national conventions and police surveilled protesters to learn more about their plans ahead of President Trump’s inauguration in Washington, D.C., Mr. German said federal authorities have a role in investigating known white nationalist leaders before they incite violence at events like in Charlottesville.

“The people who were involved in the worst instances of violence are already known to police,” said Mr. German, estimating up to a dozen people under surveillance for domestic terrorism-related activities were likely in Charlottesville for Saturday’s rally. “They should be focusing on them.”

Free speech implications

Though university leaders and lawmakers have discouraged white nationalist rallies, officials run the risk of trampling on demonstrators’ First Amendment rights if they block such events entirely.

“Americans have a constitutional right to express themselves, but courts have held that communities have a right to regulate the time, place and manner of these events,” said Ken Paulson, president of the Newseum’s First Amendment Center. “A city cannot cancel a march, but they could reasonably postpone it to another date if they felt they were not able to provide adequate safety.”

At Texas A&M officials acknowledged Mr. Spencer was allowed to hold an event at the campus in December. But they said circumstances have changed, noting that promotional material for the Sept. 11 “white lives matter” rally bills the event as “Today Charlottesville, Tomorrow Texas A&M.”

“Linking the tragedy of Charlottesville with the Texas A&M event creates a major security risk on our campus,” the university said in a statement explaining cancelation of the rally. “Additionally, the daylong event would provide disruption to our class schedules and to student, faculty and staff movement (both bus system and pedestrian).”

Preston Wiginton, the man organizing the event, said he intends to sue over the university’s actions, according to The Texas Tribune.

Organizers of other upcoming events say they hope to avoid similar crackdowns on their events and are taking steps to deter violence by distancing themselves from white nationalist groups. But even facing the threat of violence, they said it’s important to go forward with the events to exercise and promote free speech.

“We are witnessing an unprecedented move towards sweeping censorship that undermines our democratic system,” wrote New Free Speech Movement organizers on their Facebook page for Boston’s event. “We believe that the way to defeat and disarm toxic ideas and ideologies is through dialogue and reason, and that attempting to silence any voice by force of mob or force of law only empowers the radical elements of society and divides us.”

Mr. Gibson said his group will be partnering with the Oathkeepers for additional security at the San Francisco event, but that he hopes security intervention between participants and protesters won’t be necessary.

“The violence does not work in our favor,” he said. “The message gets lost.”

 

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