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Police, city prepare for conservative rally as online tensions swirl

Mayor Kenney said Wednesday that city officials were "aware of the potential issues" with a planned "We the People" rally, which has drawn attention due to claims that white supremacists or other hate-related groups might attend.

Demonstrators gathered at Philadelphia City Hall Wednesday, Nov. 14, 2018 to denounce a rally scheduled for Independence Hall Saturday that they believe could include white supremacists or other hate groups.
Demonstrators gathered at Philadelphia City Hall Wednesday, Nov. 14, 2018 to denounce a rally scheduled for Independence Hall Saturday that they believe could include white supremacists or other hate groups.Read moreChris Palmer

City and federal officials say they are prepared for Saturday's planned rally at Independence Mall, which has drawn attention amid claims that the event touted as a gathering of conservatives and patriots will draw white supremacists or members of other hate groups.

The size and tenor of the "We the People" gathering, which organizers have described as a "pro-Constitution rally," remained a guessing game. One speaker said he'd heard 400 people had expressed interest in coming, while a co-organizer said he had "no idea" how many attendees would actually show up. Opponents have promised a counter-rally.

The event was attracting intense reaction online due to comments made or shared on social media, some of which appear to have since been deleted. Opponents of the rally have referenced the comments to bolster allegations that violence-prone, right-wing hate groups such as the Proud Boys or Three Percenters were planning to send members, linking the groups and their potential attendance to events such as the deadly white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va., last year.

On Wednesday, about 15 people gathered outside City Hall to denounce Saturday's event as a magnet for bigotry and racism, calling on the National Park Service to revoke its permit and vowing to host a simultaneous "pushback rally."

"We do not want them here. They are not welcome here," said a speaker, Ted Kelly, who stood in front of a banner that read "No White Supremacists in Philly." Kelly cited Facebook posts and other since-deleted screenshots to insist rally-goers "are coming here to commit acts of violence."

Event organizers have denied that allegation, saying that they want their rally to be peaceful, and that anyone seeking to promote bigotry or incite violence would be removed. On Facebook, they describe the rally as being "for all Patriots, Militia, 3%, constitution loving Americans, pro good cop, pro ICE, pro law and order, pro life, pro American value, pro gun and anti illegal immigration."

"We're not welcoming any type of hate there," Sonny Sullivan, 30, a co-organizer, said Thursday.

Adam Duncan, spokesperson for the National Park Service, which owns the site where the 11 a.m. rally is scheduled to take place, said the agency was taking "all reasonable and necessary precautions to keep the public safe." He declined to elaborate.

Mayor Kenney said city police would offer support and help keep the event under control.

"We're aware of the potential issues there, and we'll have coverage and hopefully everything turns out all right — hopefully [hate groups] don't show up at all," Kenney said Wednesday. If anyone seeks to destroy property or hurt others, he said, "we're going to take them into custody, they're going to be arrested and charged."

The Philadelphia Half Marathon is scheduled for Saturday morning and the course passes near Independence Mall, but police said streets east of City Hall were expected to reopen around 10 a.m., an hour before the rally kicks off.

Tensions about the rally have been bubbling online for some time.

Recently, Facebook pages were created to speak out against the rally, and Twitter users have been encouraging followers to call the Park Service and demand it revoke the event's permit.

A Twitter user identified as "AntiFash Gordon" posted claims Monday that a Harrisburg man allegedly affiliated with the Proud Boys was seeking to work security at the rally. The Twitter thread earned more than 8,000 re-tweets, and a petition calling for the man to be fired from his job at Comcast gained more than 400 signatures.

Wednesday, a Comcast spokesperson told Philadelphia Magazine: "There's no place for disrespectful, offensive behavior in our culture. The individual is no longer employed by Comcast." A spokesperson declined Thursday to answer any further questions on the matter.

Bobby Lawrence, 52, from Franklin County, Pa., who said he was planning to speak at the rally, said the online tumult was transforming the event into something other than what attendees were expecting.

"All we want to do is have a peaceful rally about the Constitution," he said Wednesday, adding: "We don't want extremism on either side spewing hate and racism and bigotry. All the conspiracy theorists, they can stay away. They're not welcome."