BERKELEY, Calif. (AP) — Berkeley, known as the home of the free speech movement, was under heavy police watch on Thursday as hundreds of people waving American flags and chanting USA gathered in a park to protest a canceled appearance by conservative commentator Ann Coulter.
University police erected barricades and refused to let any protesters enter the campus. Four people were arrested — one for obstructing an officer and wearing a mask to evade police, and another for possessing a knife.
Coulter previously said she was forced to cancel a speaking event at the University of California, Berkeley, although she added that she might still “swing by to say hello” to her supporters, prompting police and university officials to brace for possible trouble. She was not spotted at the rallies.
Several hundred people gathered for an afternoon rally supporting Coulter at Martin Luther King, Jr. Civic Center Park in downtown Berkeley.
“It’s a shame that someone can’t speak in the home of the free speech movement,” said Wilson Grafstrom, an 18-year-old high school student from Menlo Park.
He wore a military grade helmet with a “Make America Great Again” sticker across the back, goggles, gas mask and knee pads. He blamed Coulter opponents for forcing him to gear up for problems.
Many at the park rally about a mile (1.6 kilometers) from the university’s main Sproul Plaza also wore military grade helmets and body armor. Some had “Build That Wall” or Trump stickers across their headgear. One man had duct tape reading “Berkeley” over his mouth.
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 was 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.
As for Coulter, Pagadara said the university should have let her speak. “Now she’s making herself look like the victim and Berkeley like the bad guys,” he said.
Earlier in the day, dozens of police wearing flak jackets and carrying 40 mm launchers that shoot “foam batons” flanked Sproul Plaza while a small group of protesters condemning Coulter staged a small rally outside campus.
Officers took selfies with students in an attempt to lighten the mood.
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.”
Gavin McInnes, founder of the pro-Trump “Proud Boys,” said he would speak at the downtown park gathering and encouraged other groups to help make a large showing.
The group on its Facebook page calls itself a fraternal organization aimed at “reinstating a spirit of Western chauvinism during an age of globalism and multiculturalism.” It said it supports minimal government and is also anti-political correctness, anti-racial guilt and pro-gun rights.
In emails to The Associated Press on Wednesday, Coulter confirmed that her planned speech on illegal immigration, followed by a question-answer session, was canceled. But she remained coy about what she might do instead.
“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. “I thought I might stroll around the graveyard of the First Amendment.”
Officials at UC Berkeley said last week they feared renewed violence on campus if Coulter followed through with plans to speak. They cited “very specific intelligence” of threats that could endanger Coulter and students, as Berkeley becomes a platform for extremist protesters on both sides of the political spectrum.
Efforts by the university to cancel or delay the Coulter event dealt a blow to Berkeley’s image as a bastion of tolerance and free speech.
Chancellor Nicholas B. Dirks sent a letter to the campus Wednesday saying the university is committed to defending free speech but also to protecting its students.
“This is a university, not a battlefield,” Dirks said in the letter.
Earlier this month, a bloody brawl broke out in downtown Berkeley at a pro-Trump protest that featured speeches by members of the white nationalist right. They clashed with a group of Trump critics who called themselves anti-fascists.
In February, violent protesters forced the cancellation of a speech by right-wing writer Milo Yiannopoulos, who like Coulter was invited by campus Republicans.
The Berkeley College Republicans and the Young America’s Foundation, a conservative group that had helped book Coulter’s campus speaking events, both pulled their support Tuesday citing fears of violence.
Associated Press writer Kristin J. Bender contributed to this report from San Francisco.