Modesto straight pride message is hateful. But they have right to free speech

If conduct before and during Wednesday’s City Council meeting is an accurate preview of what might happen at a proposed straight pride event in a couple of weeks, Modesto may have little to worry about.

Many speakers from the audience cited potential for violence in demanding that City Hall deny the National Straight Pride Coalition’s request to reserve the Mancini Bowl amphitheater in Graceada Park on Aug. 24.

While the group’s message — which includes glorifying whites and denouncing “the inherent malevolence of the homosexual movement” — is divisive and hateful, its supporters did not appear Wednesday to be seething warriors with violent intent.

Most looked to be somber, older, Bible-quoting folks who genuinely believe it’s their duty to make a symbolic stand. Their leader is pathetically desperate for publicity of any kind. None looked like they wanted to throw punches or Molotov cocktails.

This is a very different crowd from the bigoted, well-organized agitators who descended en masse on Charlottesville, Virginia, two years ago, or who chanted Nazi slogans and held up clenched fists in Berkeley a few weeks before that. Those dangerous white supremacists clearly wanted to pick a fight. And when extreme leftist militants — some armed, some dressed like guerrilla combatants — showed up, the fight was on, and even turned deadly in the case of Charlottesville.

The scene Wednesday evening in Tenth Street Plaza, where people protested the straight pride proposal in a calm vigil before the council meeting, did not resemble Charlottesville or Berkeley in the least. People here held signs advocating peace and unity. Hugs were frequent and abundant. Many held candles or glow sticks. Children blew bubbles near a banner reading “Bubbles, not bashing.”

Several urged that straight pride organizers be guided toward a less offensive venue than our beloved Graceada Park, surrounded by homes and with other parts of the park already reserved by other groups for family celebrations. That suggestion seems wise.

These protesters came Wednesday in droves, but they didn’t come with chains or baseball bats. They clearly are not Antifa.

For the Aug. 24 gathering to spin out of control, somebody has to want to take illegal action. Judging from both sides of Wednesday’s crowd, that’s not likely.

And if things do start to go sideways, we’ve got law enforcement authorities with specific experience at containing the threat of violence, however unlikely it may be.

Two years ago, the Stanislaus Republican Central Committee brought fiery conservative Ann Coulter to speak at an annual dinner, and she also booked a piggyback show at nearby UC Berkeley. The violent, unrelated confrontation in Berkeley we mentioned above scared the university enough to uninvite her.

All eyes turned to Modesto to see what nightmare might unfold here. Protesters indeed showed up, but Modesto police — backed by deputies from Stanislaus and San Joaquin counties, and Stockton police — showed up, too. They were ready, and nothing bad happened.

When 120 animal rights activists descended on a ranch near Oakdale to protest treatment of calves in December, they met a contingent of Stanislaus deputies on horseback and ATVs, and freshly strung barbed wire fencing preventing trespassing. Our officers were ready for action, the protest stayed peaceful, and nothing bad happened.

Straight pride supporters at Wednesday’s council meeting swore that they mean no one any harm. It’s not a question of taking them at their word. It’s a question of being prepared.

Our law enforcement agencies have shown that they know how to diffuse potential conflict. They know how to hope for the best while preparing for the worst.

Mayor Ted Brandvold and other city officials on Wednesday made it clear that allowing the straight pride event to go forward — although some details still need working out — would not constitute a city endorsement of hate speech. In fact, he and others on the council soon will consider a resolution condemning intolerant rhetoric, Brandvold said.

Straight pride protesters must dial back their intolerance of others’ right to free speech, no matter how appalling the message. Insisting that something bad might happen is not reason enough to deny anyone that Constitutional right.