This past week’s news has been rightfully dominated by the ongoing natural disaster in Houston. My heart goes out to those whose lives have been upended by this crisis.
Here in the Bay Area, there was another big story that became more of a footnote in the national conversation. First, a legal pro-Trump event on Saturday in the Presidio of San Francisco was canceled at the last minute by its organizers. Then, an unauthorized rally in Berkeley on Sunday morphed from a peaceful march by anti-extremist demonstrators into a violent melee set off by Antifa radicals intent on wreaking havoc.
As long-time resident of the Bay Area and someone who works in the Presidio of San Francisco, I have both a personal and professional connection to this unique urban oasis. And as a pragmatic Republican who didn’t support President Trump, I was deeply opposed to the pro-Trump Patriot Prayer group holding a rally in one of our most historically diversified National Parks, just two weeks after the horrific events in Charlottesville.
I also cherish our First Amendment rights and recognize that all Americans are allowed freedom of speech. But unlike our president, we must acknowledge the difference between peaceful protestors and the violent, racist, anti-Semitic fanatics he has flip-flopped on labeling as such. The Presidio event, which the organizers insisted would have been a peaceful demonstration, would have likely have attracted white supremacist individuals and groups eager to parade their virulent brand of extremism.
In San Francisco, a massive law enforcement presence was prepared to limit access to the park and search attendees for weapons, helmets, masks, liquids, etc. and ensure that barriers separated the two sides. For those committed to a large, peaceful protest, the injuries they hoped to inflict would have been to pro-Trump demonstrators’ morale. But we never got to find out if the police strategy would have worked and how the opposing dynamics might have played out.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the bay, thousands of marchers gathered to protest against a small gathering of Trump supporters. The pro-Trump group was initially met with hostility, but not physical harm. However, 100 black masked and hooded Antifa later overwhelmed local police forces and began assaulting the president’s supporters, including Patriot Prayer leader, Joey Gibson, who had to be rescued by police. The exponentially larger number of demonstrators who had turned out for a peaceful protest were thwarted by a smaller group of anarchists and naturally, headlines focused on the ensuing rampage. Berkeley, the birthplace of the Free Speech movement, was again upstaged by a violent minority.
Going back to the Presidio, something else should be noted. The planned rally there would have taken place on hallowed ground with a long, rich history. Seen through this lens, hot-button issues such as immigration, racism, nationalism and patriotism that have been highlighted in this ideological clash, come into a different focus.
The Presidio was established as a military outpost by New Spain in 1776, becoming the northernmost outpost in the Spanish Empire. In 1821, Mexico became independent of Spain and took over the fort. In 1846, it was captured by a small group of US Army soldiers and frontiersmen. While our president talks about building a Wall, the fact is that the original occupants of this base were people of Hispanic origin, not white.
When President Theodore Roosevelt visited the Presidio In 1903, his honor guard was the African American “Buffalo Soldiers” 10th Cavalry Regiment, who later took a role in Roosevelt’s famous charge of San Juan Hill in Cuba. Black lives and deaths mattered to that commander-in-chief.
From 1920-1932, the Presidio was home to Crissy Field, the West Coast’s major pioneering military aviation field, where trail-breaking transpacific and transcontinental flights occurred. Those breakthroughs could be seen as further advances in globalism, as reaching out to the rest of the world became an integral part of our national spirit, compared to the isolationist principles being preached by so many nationalists.
It’s also significant to note that more than 30,000 military veterans and their families have been laid to rest at the San Francisco National Cemetery in the Presidio. These are men and women who fought for freedom for Americans of all colors, races and religions. So, when we talk about the concept of patriot prayer, this is Ground Zero.
Over the last 240 years, the Presidio has mirrored the social and cultural issues our nation is confronted with today. As the entire country now celebrates the 50th anniversary of the Summer of Love, San Francisco once again found itself at the political epicenter. Faced with a cauldron of disunity and enmity, I’d like to believe that that love and peace would have overcome racism and violence. A commitment to these vital principles was a challenge that the Presidio’s venerable history demanded we meet.
As I look out over the vast green expanse of Crissy Field that sits beneath the majestic Golden Gate Bridge, I wonder what kind of statement a civil assembly of concerned citizens here would have made to fringe bands of extremists and their supporters. In years past, I would have suggested that the public simply ignore these outliers. But in today’s highly charged climate, with the president openly inciting divisiveness and anger, silence is not an acceptable response to hatred. Yet violent actions taken by the alt-left only give their right-wing counterparts further publicity and helps legitimize Trump’s claim that it’s happening on both sides. It’s one thing to say you’re not welcome here and another, to forcibly assert you have no right to express your opinions.
The president’s pardon of Joe Arpaio only further demonstrates his intent to reach out to the most radical factions of his base. In response, Republican leaders must continue to disassociate themselves from white supremacists, while Democrats also denounce fanatical acts of brutality and mayhem. The possibility of any rational discussion and dialogue on social injustice in America is being held hostage by a radical few.