“There was a black man with an anti-BLM shirt who I was told was a street preacher. I was also told that there was a neo-Nazi in the group.”
What follows is a firsthand account and analysis of the events that transpired at Crissy Field, San Francisco, on Saturday, August 26, 2017. I am not affiliated with nor represent any organization.
I arrived at Crissy Field at around 10:30 AM to meet friends and comrades who were concluding a morning prayer. These were water protectors from Standing Rock, activists in the #NoDAPL campaign, and allies. Chase Iron Eyes and Isabella Zizi spoke eloquently about the convergence of environmental justice, racial justice, and economic transformation (you can find a live stream on Indigenous Rising Media’s Facebook page). Other than the horns of passing freighters, the park was quiet, and having been born and raised in San Francisco it seemed like it always had: runners and bicyclists, groups of tourists, blue skies and heavy fog. The only things out of the ordinary were the piles of barricades that sat stacked around the field like hay bales. That and the legions of park rangers and police officers, they had set up base in one of the large hangers and could be seen standing and watching from a distance.
The gathering of water protectors ended around eleven, and my friends and I debated how to proceed with the day. As most were aware, Patriot Prayer had cancelled the rally at Crissy Field, then cancelled the subsequent plan to rally at Alamo Square, and finally said that they were going to hold an indoor press conference at 2 PM then “pop up at random spots in the city.” We had several options:
- Go to Alamo Square, where we knew police had barricaded the park but counter-protesters were gathering anyway.
- Go to Civic Center, where the larger march and rally were taking form.
- Stay at Crissy Field. After all, the permit could still be active and this was the original destination of Patriot Prayer.
We opted for #3 and sat down on a pile of barricades. Some napped, others went for sandwiches. Hours passed like the fog, quickly and with little notice. We got sunburned. In the early afternoon Refuse Fascism marched along the path with a large anti-fascist banner, handing out leaflets and holding small rallies. Their presence was encouraging as other than the tourists, joggers, and three police on horseback, we were the only ones on the field.
Around 1:30 PM a solitary man walked onto the field holding a large American flag on a pole. We all took notice as he look confused, got on his phone, then went back to a parked car and placed the flag inside. He was ordinary looking, wearing khaki shorts, a t-shirt, and a baseball hat. I went and canvassed the parked cars in the lot, noting that many displayed government license plates and had individuals sitting inside. It was unclear if they were with the Patriot Prayer people or unmarked law enforcement. Time, which had been passing so quickly, seemed to slow down. Had everyone really abandoned the field for Alamo and Civic Center?
We discussed these realities until a group of six men exited a parked car and walked across the field to a small area between two buildings bordered by the beach. Attired in a hodgepodge of camo, American flag decor, an anti-BLM shirt, and a red hat, they were obviously who we had been waiting for. I left my friends and canvassed the gathering, wondering if they intended to hold their rally in that location. As I walked back, the park rangers sped across the field in several cars and confronted the group, apparently telling them that they could not gather there. They in turn chose to rally under a large tree on the field.
More began to arrive in twos and threes, and they stood around and took photos of themselves with their flags unfurled, the fog refusing to provide them with a clear shot of the Golden Gate. Bless the fog. We communicated with friends and comrades in the city, telling them that the ‘cancelled rally’ was indeed a bluff and that they were convening at this very moment. The rally numbered about fifteen now, and two of the original six walked towards us. Both had cameras strapped to their chests and they introduced themselves, stating that they were here for dialogue and free speech, and wanted to know what we were doing here. A conversation ensued and while I did not participate, I heard the entirety of the many discussions.
“Patriot Prayer has completely co-opted ‘progressive’ discourse. they practically have ID cards with all their racial credentials.”
The first thing I noticed was that each member of Patriot Prayer opened with a list of their racially-diverse credentials. One even went so far as to refer to himself as a “half-breed,” explaining how much racial discrimination he had received due to the supposed darkness of his skin. This was a commonality among every single individual I witnessed. They all had some story to tell to prove they were not racist because of their wife, kids, colleagues, neighbors, or whatever. Another commonality is that most were white men, white men who liked to hear themselves speak. But not all were white. There was a black man with an anti-BLM shirt who I was told was a street preacher. I was also told that there was a neo-Nazi in the group, though the individual speaking to me went on to explain how they did not like said person. When I confronted them, arguing that shielding and harboring a neo-Nazi makes them a sympathizer, they changed the subject and went back to trying to paint the Patriot Prayer group as different from other alt-right groups. This group, it was claimed, was simply out to bridge the gap between conservatives and centrists or leftists through dialogue and free speech. I beg to differ.
Take Home Point #1:
- What Patriot Prayer utterly fails to realize is that free speech does not exist in a vacuum. By this I mean that all free speech is contextualized historically and socially. This is to say that a black person speaking freely is not the same as a white person speaking freely. Thus, for a group like this to aspire to such goals would demand that they also confront the structural inequalities that frame any dialogue. But Patriot Prayer refuses to do this. They firmly argue that all free speech is identical and by extension there is no such thing as structural white supremacy and racism, or systemic patriarchy, sexism, and homophobia. All acts of oppression and brutality are written off as bad apples or individual actors failing to respect the law. This perverted and willfully-ignorant perspective was repeatedly confirmed at nearly every minute of discussion. And what kind of a discussion can one really have with such a person? My conclusion is that Patriot Prayer doesn’t really have anything to say; they don’t actually have a point.
This supposed dialogue inevitably ran its course into oblivion and the guys returned back to their rally that had now grown to about twenty or more. Counter-protesters arrived with banners and signs and stood about a hundred yards away, perhaps evaluating the situation. I went and spoke to them as they had medics in their midst and informed them of what I had witnessed, what I had been told about the plans for the rally by the Patriot Prayer people themselves, and where the police were stationed. At this point the sides were about even in number and a police officer came out to explain how beautiful the day was and what the ground rules were: yell all you want, no fighting. Thus the yelling began.
Most of the controversy surrounded a single woman who wasn’t having any of the Patriot Prayer shit. She was loud and proud and stormed this way and that. But she was all alone in the middle of a group of twenty-plus who were yelling and demeaning her. One of our group said they were going in to support this lone woman and did so. Eventually others joined and the other counter-protesters moved in closer, some coming into the fray to see what the ‘dialogue’ was all about. It was pathetic. Arguments ranged from how great or terrible coal power was, to how Trump did or didn’t demean women. There was no room for progress as the Patriot Prayer group clung firm to a distorted, bastardized world-view littered with talking points and absurdities.
Take Home Point #2:
- Patriot Prayer has completely co-opted ‘progressive’ discourse. As I mentioned above, they practically have ID cards with all their racial credentials. They are readily prepared to try and refute claims of racism with ‘evidence’ to the contrary and most of this has to do with questionable counter-examples of discrimination. But they are also ready and willing to call out others on body shaming (see below), gender assigning, and so forth. The fact that they will in one sentence discriminate and verbally abuse someone and in the next call out that person for doing the same does not show itself as self-contradictory to them. The black man wearing the anti-BLM shirt (the words Black Lives Matter were surrounded in a cross-hair) introduced himself as being for “peace.” Discourse has many levels to it, and Patriot Prayer has overwhelmed the surface with absurdities, contradictions, and false flags. It is impossible to reach any deeper level of dialogue, and that is the point of their “free speech”: it is a surface-level phenomenon that exists as an end in itself. As such, this form of free speech undermines the efforts for real transformative action as it posits the two as equal when they are not. A false equivalency is at play, whereby white privilege is now basic freedom – a freedom obviously not available to most.
The arguments being so absurd and fruitless, the pitch and tone of the exchange increased. When a counter-protester asked how the women present felt about Trump’s open sexism and sexual violence, a woman responded that she didn’t care because her husband talked to her like that all the time. This caused a general cringe among both sides, until another woman commented that no one would want to sleep with her anyway because of her appearance. This comment was labeled as body shaming by a member of Patriot Prayer. No more than a minute later, another member of Patriot Prayer said that Trump was right, that Rosie O’Donnell was a “fat pig,” and when confronted with that statement as being body shaming, the response was that since O’Donnell was not physically present it was not body shaming. The twisted logic of these people was astounding. Other things were twisted too. Openly standing in their ranks was a person dressed nearly identically to the Nazi character Arnold Ernest Toht in Indiana Jones: Raiders of the Lost Ark. The sole addition to this cosplay was a Kekistan flag pin.
This nonsense seemed to have no end until one person, clad in all black, masked, helmeted, and holding two large black megaphones, unleashed a maximum volume siren upon the group. Bless the siren. Its ear-piercing screech drown out everything except the most committed of yelling. It said without saying anything what we all knew: there was no dialogue to be had here. It surrounded the ensemble with perpetual din and had its intended effect: the Patriot Prayer group began to move. Some tried to end arguments with handshakes and “thanks for talking with me,” others haphazardly walked back in the direction of their vehicles. The police had been quiet until this moment, but they began to stretch their lines along the warehouses, presumably preparing to shuttle the alt-right out. As Patriot Prayer was leaving, one member ran over to my friends and said: “Just so you know, there’s a group coming here right now called BAMN. I don’t know what it stands for, By Any Means Necessary, I think. There are 1,500 of them and they are coming here to make every white person unrecognizable. That means you and me brother.” [Editor’s Note: This faulty information seems to come from photoshopped messages that were posted on social media. Again showing that the rank-n-file of the far-Right falls for it’s own bullshit.]
Then he ran off. A small group of black bloc had arrived at this point and the counter-protesters were swelling in number, standing on the field across the street from the parked cars and in front of the police. The riot police emerged from their hidey-hole, presumably having been cooped up there for the entire day, and formed ranks a hundred yards from the bloc and protesters. BAMN arrived in numbers far less than 1,500 and with no intention of hurting white people in general. The siren continued its glorious wail and the alt-right fled.
Take Home Point #3:
- Patriot Prayer exists to carve out social space for reactionary ideas. They are a low-intensity front of the alt-right. Basically, it’s a bunch of white men terrified about losing their privilege, something they claim they don’t have. If you’re wondering how you can lose something you don’t have, you have entered into the logic of Patriot Prayer. They are using the law to create space for hate speech by effectively saying nothing and calling it freedom. At first glance, this seems to serve them but in reality it serves every other alt-right group from which Patriot Prayer goes out of their way to distance themselves (note that an Identity Evropa sticker was found on a sign near Crissy Field after the rally). After all, if they can have a rally and be non-violent, why can’t the KKK? Make no mistake, this whole event was nothing more than a PR move. The goal was to create a self-serving spectacle, film themselves ‘engaging in dialogue,’ force the police and counter-protesters to run around the city chasing phantoms, and flee home. And it worked.
Liberals and centrists rallied in Civic Center and declared victory over an enemy that at that very moment was succeeding in their task in the exact spot they said they would. Was everyone away at Burning Man? [Editor’s Note: Earlier in the day thousands of people also confronted and shut down Patriot Prayer at a failed press conference. Hours later at Crissy Field people pushed the Alt-Right to their cars and they quickly left.] Has San Francisco changed so much since I was a child that letting your dog defecate on a field counts as activism? Patriot Prayer is analogous to San Francisco in that both live in vacuums. This alone explains why so few showed up to confront the alt-right as well as why the city claimed victory. Both the city and Patriot Prayer live devoid of, or in spite of, historical context. Both see themselves as legitimate but only insofar as they ignore and attempt to rewrite history at large. Thus, institutional racism and sexism do not exist, and analogously, homelessness, gentrification, and homogeneity are written off as functional problems to be addressed through bureaucracy and policy. No social assessment or change is necessary. San Franciscans are losing their history—Patriot Prayer denies history. Free market—free speech. All of this leads to one conclusion: without history, the present is a prison.