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Volatile backdrop sets stage for violent counterprotest in SF ‘free speech’ rally

Donald Trump supporters held a permitted rally for “free speech” at the San Francisco United Nations Plaza Saturday, though the term rally in this case is overstated given the small crowd that showed up. Members of the Proud Boys were supposed to attend and speak, but ultimately backed out.

On the other side were hundreds of counterprotesters. 

Pockets of violence erupted early — the rally’s organizer, Philip Anderson of Team Save America and self-proclaimed member of the Proud Boys, was punched in the face and had two teeth knocked out. Some rally attendants, who carried Trump flags and wore “Make American Great Again” hats, were chased down and at least one man was assaulted by several others in that incident.

Police say three officers were injured, including one who was transported to the hospital after he was allegedly pepper sprayed by a counterprotester. According to police, “several rally participants sustained non-life-threatening injuries.” 

(Video credit: Thomas Pendergast.) Right-wing groups and Donald Trump supporters held a permitted “free speech” rally at the San Francisco UN Plaza on Saturday, October 17, 2020. Counter protesters heavily outnumbered the rally group and pockets of violence erupted as right-wing attendees fled for safety.

The rally itself lasted just minutes before police declared it a public safety hazard and used vans to move people to safety. Counterprotesters later marched down Market Street toward the waterfront behind a wall of shields.

In a statement issued Saturday night, police said:

“Within minutes of the rally beginning[,] opposition demonstrators began throwing glass bottles, plastic bottles filled with an unknown liquid, metal cans, and eggs at free speech rally participants and law enforcement personnel. Opposing demonstrators rushed the established barricade line in an attempt to knock it over thereby putting the safety of participants and officers at risk.”

Police added:

“As officers escorted rally participants from the area, opposition protesters continued to act aggressively. Several rally participants sustained non-life-threatening-injuries.”

Leading up to the rally, organizer Philip Anderson posted video where he said:

“All we’re going to be doing now is beating the living shit out of all the people trying to stop us.”

His message fueled an already volatile situation.

Tensions have mounted between groups on the left and right over the past several years, but the Proud Boys in particular have drawn increased scrutiny in recent weeks. Again, the group’s presence was missing from the rally, but prior reporting indicated to the public they’d be there, which may have exacerbated tensions.

From the debate stage on Sept. 29, Donald Trump told the Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by” when he was asked to denounce white supremacist groups. That nationally televised shoutout was later amplified by viral videos of Proud Boys members warning of a “civil war” if Trump loses the upcoming election.  

Though the group does include members of different races, Proud Boys have affiliated themselves with more blatant white supremacist and right-wing extremist organizations during past rally and protest events. The Proud Boys define themselves as “western chauvinists” and have expressed anti-Muslim sentiment.

The group often claims to be peaceful but have engaged in numerous acts of violence resulting in arrest. Founder and former leader Gavin McInnes repeatedly used podcast and video platforms to call for more violence from his membership ranks. The far-right organization is currently led by Enrique Tarrio, who was originally scheduled speak Saturday.

The chaos that unfolded during the rally was not indicative of most recent protests focused on racial justice and police reform. The Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project, a nonprofit organization that researches protest and political violence, found that of more than 7,750 Black Lives Matter events between May 22 and August 22, less than 7 percent turned violent.

The ACLED defines violence as “acts targeting other individuals, property, businesses, other rioting groups or armed actors.”    

Police announced in a news release issued Monday that Adroa Anderson, 25, of Watsonville was arrested shortly before 3 p.m. Sunday on suspicion of an assault that resulted in the victim’s loss of two teeth. The suspect was located and detained in Oakland and was booked at San Francisco County Jail on charges of mayhem with a hate crime enhancement.

UPDATE: This story has been updated to reflect the arrest of Adora Anderson, as announced by San Francisco police Monday, Oct. 19.

CORRECTION: This story was updated to correct the spelling of Adroa Anderson’s name and age, based on a San Francisco police correction issued Oct. 20.

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