Outrage, demands to cancel and plans for protest flowed through Riverside on Friday, July 16, a day before Republican Reps. Matt Gaetz and Marjorie Taylor Greene are set to hold an America First Rally at the Riverside Convention Center.
While a city councilman sympathized with the rally’s opponents, he said the city cannot cancel the Saturday evening, July 17, event.
The rally, part of a nationwide tour featuring two out-of-state lawmakers with reputations for far-right politics and spreading misinformation, moved to the city after being kicked out of an Orange County venue earlier this month.
Organizers on Thursday announced the rally would take place in Riverside, and while they withheld the location citing security concerns, the CEO of the company that runs the city-owned convention center confirmed the downtown facility would play host.
The news shook up Riverside County’s largest city, which has become more liberal politically in recent years as Democrats overtook the GOP in countywide voter registration — a plurality of Riverside city voters are registered Democrats — and a more left-leaning, diverse City Council replaced a set of predominantly White male Republicans.
Gaetz, who represents a Florida House district, and Greene, who represents one in Georgia, are known for their staunch support of former president Donald Trump, their rejection of COVID-19 safety measures and their false belief that the 2020 presidential election was stolen.
Greene also is known as a conspiracy theorist who has written pro-QAnon articles and reportedly said 9/11 was a government plot and that a California wildfire was the work of a “space solar generator” controlled by a Jewish banking family, among others.
Video clips have surfaced of her espousing racist and Islamophobic views, and a recording showed Greene, who has reportedly claimed the government orchestrated several mass shootings to gin up support for gun control, following and taunting a survivor of the 2017 school shooting in Parkland, Florida.
While Greene has said her past social media posts don’t reflect who she is, 11 House Republicans joined all House Democrats in February in voting to remove Greene from her committee assignments as punishment for her statements.
Gaetz, who has said leftist radicals posing as Trump supporters were responsible for the Jan. 6 Capitol riot, is under investigation for an alleged sexual relationship with a 17-year-old girl. He has denied the allegations and said he’s the victim of an extortion plot.
Raincross Hospitality Management Corp., a private entity connected to the Riverside Convention & Visitors Bureau, runs the convention center for the city. In a Thursday evening statement, the city stressed that Raincross’ booking of the rally “is not an endorsement by the City of Riverside of the views that may be expressed at that event.”
In an email, Scott Megna, the convention center’s general manager, said the facility was contacted the evening of Friday, July 9, “regarding holding a political speech/event” on July 17.
“ … At that time they were informed the space they required for the event was available,” Megna said, adding that the convention center didn’t learn Gaetz and Greene would speak at the event until Monday, July 12.
“(Raincross) welcomes clients and guests with diverse opinions and beliefs and does not discriminate against groups who wish to hold lawful events at the center,” Megna said. “Views and opinions expressed by clients and guests are theirs alone.”
Raincross “has coordinated extensively” with Riverside police “to ensure the safety of all concerned” at the rally, he added.
Officer Ryan Railsback, spokesman for the Riverside Police Department, said the department is developing and refining plans for policing the rally.
Railsback said he did not know how many officers will be assigned to it or what the price tag likely will be for providing security. The department could add officers “at the last minute” or send some home depending on how conditions in and around the convention center develop, he said.
Railsback said the department is committed to providing adequate coverage to keep the peace.
“We want to ensure that everybody can peacefully assemble within the law, and express their constitutional rights,” he said.
Railsback said he had not been informed of any rally-related death threats being received by convention center people or city officials.
“If we’re contacted about that, we’ll assess it.”
Riverside City Councilmember Ronaldo Fierro objected to a rally featuring Greene and Gaetz occurring at a city-owned facility.
“The hateful and racist rhetoric that will be perpetrated at this event by these two well-known extremists has absolutely no place in our City,” Fierro said in an emailed statement late Thursday.
Fierro said the city cannot prevent the event from going forward.
“The Riverside City Council does not have the legal ability to stop or cancel the booking of this event,” he said via email.
City Councilmember Clarissa Cervantes, who was sworn into office Tuesday, July 13, after her June election win, said she learned about the event about 2 p.m. Thursday. Shortly after that, she said, she called for an emergency Riverside City Council meeting to address the matter. That session would have been Friday, she said.
However, Cervantes said she needed three councilmembers’ support to schedule an emergency meeting and did not get that. She received the endorsement of one member, Mayor Pro Tem Gaby Plascencia, Cervantes said.
Cervantes said Friday the community should have been informed well in advance about who was coming to Riverside to speak at a city-owned facility and given the opportunity to talk about it in a public forum.
“That’s why I called for a special emergency meeting,” she said.
Cervantes said her biggest concern is that the event could threaten public safety.
“If it’s a public safety issue for Orange County, how will this not be a public safety issue for Riverside?” she asked.
Cervantes also objects to the message she anticipates that Gaetz and Greene will bring to Riverside.
“This is not aligned with our core values” of diversity and inclusion, Cervantes said.
Cervantes added she has been receiving dozens of emails on the matter, as are other council members. Social media posts urged people to call the city and convention center demanding the rally’s cancellation, and a petition to cancel the rally circulated via email.
Riverside’s progressive community is already planning to protest the event. Women’s March Inland Empire, which organizes an annual march calling attention to women’s issues, used social media to announce a No Hate in Our State protest outside the convention center at 5 p.m., two hours before the rally’s scheduled start time.
In a Facebook post, Indivisible 41, a Riverside-area liberal group, said its board spent Thursday afternoon discussing the pros and cons of protesting the rally and decided against it, partially due to safety concerns.
“To us, it feels like throwing gasoline on a blazing fire and we do not want to give them the satisfaction of raging against ‘radical Democrats,’” the post read. “They are nothing but racist, sexist provocateurs who seek any kind of attention they can get. Let’s not give it to them.”
The group will support “legitimate activism groups” who want to protest, the post added.
The League of Women Voters Riverside also wants the rally canceled.
“We appreciate that the convention center is a business and has a responsibility to its bottom line,” organization President Joan Donahue wrote in a letter to city leaders posted on Facebook. “But the convention center also has a responsibility, as a city funded entity, to respect the city’s ideals and reject business that will reflect negatively on our city’s image and leave residents questioning our city’s priorities.”
Tickets are free to reserve for general admission. But those who register get an email asking if they want to upgrade to VIP status for $250 per person, which includes the chance to take a photo with Gaetz and Greene plus preferred seating.
Proceeds go to the Put America First Joint Fundraising Committee, formed in Georgia in late April to support Gaetz’s and Greene’s reelection campaigns.
Rally critics on social media suggested reserving general admission tickets and not showing up, both to deny tickets to rally supporters and to depress the rally’s turnout.
City Councilmember Chuck Conder said the rally should be allowed to take place.
“To me, this is truly a constitutional issue, the right of free speech, period,” Conder said. “I spent a career in the military fighting for our constitutional rights, the first one being freedom of speech.”
Conder said the “true test” of freedom of speech is when one doesn’t like someone’s message but permits them to speak anyway.
“Everybody has to be allowed to speak their mind,” he said. “The government can’t start saying ‘You can say this, but you can’t say that.’”
While the city should not attempt to halt the event, Conder said, officials should provide a police presence to keep the peace and prevent clashes between protestors on opposite sides.
“If they want to yell at each other, fine,” he said. “That’s free speech. That’s America.”
Conder said Raincross should be allowed to continue managing the convention center.
“They’re doing a darn good job,” he said.
Source: Orange County Register