BERKELEY, Calif. (AP) — Hundreds of people waving American flags and chanting “USA” gathered peacefully Thursday for a rally at a park in Berkeley — home of the free speech movement — to protest a canceled appearance by conservative commentator Ann Coulter.
Police in riot gear had prepared for possible violence between supporters and opponents of Coulter, but there were no major confrontations as the raucous rally wrapped up in the late afternoon.
Still, Berkeley student Joseph Pagadara, 19, said he had been worried about violence and added that 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.
University police erected barricades and refused to let any protesters enter the campus. Six 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 rally.
Several hundred people gathered for the afternoon event 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 people opposed to Coulter and President Donald Trump for forcing him to gear up for problems.
Many at the park about a mile (1.6 kilometers) from the university’s main Sproul Plaza also wore such 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.
While the afternoon rally ended without serious conflict, police at one point formed a human wall in the street separating anti-Trump protesters from the park where pro-Trump groups were gathered.
Anti-Coulter protesters at the park held a banner that read: “It’s not about ‘free speech,’ it’s about bigots trying to normalize hate.”
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.
Gavin McInnes, co-founder of Vice Media and founder of the pro-Trump “Proud Boys,” spoke at the park gathering later in the day. He said America doesn’t have an obligation to take people from other countries.
“We are here because Ann Coulter got canceled,” he said. “She is one of the most inspiring writers in America today. She is an American hero.”
On its Facebook page, the group 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 thought I might stroll around the graveyard of the First Amendment,” Coulter said in an email.
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.
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.
Associated Press writer Kristin J. Bender contributed to this report from San Francisco.