BERKELEY, Calif. â€” Ann Coulter did not turn up in Berkeley where hundreds held a raucous but largely peaceful demonstration in her absence and lamented what they called the latest blow to free speech in the home of America’s free speech movement.
The conservative pundit’s cancelled appearance at the University of California, Berkeley drew hundreds of her supporters to a downtown park Thursday, many of them dressed in flak jackets, ballistic helmets adorned with pro-Donald Trump stickers and other protective gear in anticipation of violence.
But there were no major confrontations between Coulter’s supporters and opponents, largely because of a significant police presence and the fact that members of an extremist left-wing group did not show up to provoke clashes.
Coulter had publicly floated the idea of making a controversial visit to Berkeley despite the cancellation, but did not show.
Her supporters and students on the UC Berkeley campus, many of whom expressed distaste for Coulter’s political views, voiced frustration that she didn’t get to speak and that the university’s reputation as a bastion of tolerance was suffering. Coulter planned to give a speech on illegal immigration.
“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 24-year-old grad student Yevgeniy Melguy, who held a sign earlier in the day saying “Immigrants Are Welcome Here.”
Anthropology major Christina Katkic, 21, worried that the university was getting increasingly stuck in the middle of the country’s political divide.
“Berkeley has become a platform and a lot of people want to come here and use it,” said Katkic, who had joined other students on campus blowing bubbles near a message scrawled on the ground in chalk that read: “If only bubbles actually made our campus safe.”
“I think Ann Coulter has a right to speak here. Berkeley students are interested in political discourse,” she said.
University police erected barricades and refused to let any protesters enter the campus. Six people were arrested, including one for obstructing an officer and wearing a mask to evade police, and another for possessing a knife.
Hundreds of Coulter’s supporters gathered about a mile (1.6 kilometres) from the university’s main Sproul Plaza at the 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, California.
He wore a helmet with a “Make America Great Again” sticker across the back, goggles, a gas mask and knee pads. He blamed people opposed to Coulter and President Donald Trump for forcing him to gear up for problems.
Gavin McInnes, co-founder of Vice Media and founder of the pro-Trump “Proud Boys,” was one of several speakers at the gathering. He delivered the speech Coulter had planned to give on illegal immigration, on her behalf, to the crowd’s raucous applause.
“They tried to ban her and we can’t allow that. It’s unacceptable,” McInnes said as he left the gathering surrounded by private security. “Free speech is about uncomfortable speech. Yes, it’s often about hate speech and it’s about speech that’s banned.”
On its Facebook page, McInnes’ group calls itself a fraternal organization aimed at “reinstating a spirit of Western chauvinism during an age of globalism and multiculturalism.”
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 and anti-Trump protesters at the park held a banner that read: “It’s not about ‘free speech,’ it’s about bigots trying to normalize hate.”
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.
Officials at UC Berkeley said they feared renewed violence on campus if Coulter followed through with plans to speak, citing “very specific intelligence” of threats that could endanger Coulter and students, which Coulter said was motivated by a university bias against conservative speakers.
Police had faced criticism after the earlier clashes for failing to stop the violence.
UC Berkeley spokesman Dan Mogulof credited the peacefulness of Thursday’s rallies partly to an increased police presence. He declined to specify how many police were deployed but said there were a “wide range” of local and regional agencies present.
“I think it’s clear that having a strong visible police presence was important both in terms of deterrence and law enforcement,” he said, noting that even in Coulter’s absence hundreds descended on Berkeley. “This points to the challenges we face in the climate we’re living in.”
Associated Press writers Janie Har and Kristin J. Bender contributed to this report from San Francisco.
Jocelyn Gecker, The Associated Press