A protest and prayer rally headlined by right-wing provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos led to verbal skirmishes with counterprotesters on Baltimore’s waterfront Tuesday, but city officials’ fears of a violent clash downtown were not realized.
Baltimore officials attempted to cancel Tuesday’s event, hosted by conservative Catholic group Church Militant at the MECU Pavilion, out of concern it would “incite violence in the heart of downtown Baltimore.” Church Militant sued the city, winning the right to host the rally.
As hundreds of attendees flowed into the rally Tuesday morning, no counterprotesters were on hand and only a handful of police officers were visible at the Inner Harbor site. The event, which was timed to coincide with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops meeting at the nearby Marriott Baltimore Waterfront, proceeded uninterrupted for most of the day.
Around 1 p.m., however, a group of about two dozen protesters marched to the pavilion and gathered at its gates, calling participants inside fascists and bigots. Protester and city resident Alex Rodgeres led the group in chants through a megaphone: “Sexist, racist, anti-gay, born-again Christians go away.”
Several rally attendees sparred verbally with the protesters who lined the path out of the facility during the event’s lunch break. The altercations were brief, however, and almost entirely verbal. The counterprotesters left the site after about an hour.
Inside the pavilion, the counterprotest could not be heard and the conservative Catholics called on the church leaders gathered nearby to take action against clergy sexual abuse. They also denounced progressive policy positions taken by church leadership.
The event has been at the center of legal wrangling since August when Baltimore officials attempted to cancel the gathering slated to be held on city property. City officials objected to advertised appearances by Yiannopoulos and Steve Bannon, CEO of former President Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign. Bannon, who was indicted Friday on two counts of criminal contempt of Congress, did not show Tuesday.
Church Militant, also known as St. Michael’s Media, sued the city over the cancellation, arguing that the city’s move violated the group’s First Amendment rights to free speech, expression of religion and assembly. The pavilion’s waterfront location is critical to sending the group’s message to the Catholic bishops, organizers argued.
Last month, U.S. District Court Judge Ellen Hollander sided with Church Militant, issuing an injunction barring Baltimore officials from interfering with the rally preparations. In her 86-page opinion, she said the group was likely to prevail in its argument that the city’s cancellation of the rally would infringe upon the group’s rights to free speech and assembly.
The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld Hollander’s decision.
During Tuesday’s rally, organizers were jubilant about the legal victory. Yiannopoulos suggested participants donate to Church Militant, noting it cost the group $350,000 in legal fees to “force the city of Baltimore to obey the law.”
Participant Patti Sacks of Media, Pennsylvania, said the city’s attempt to block the rally sparked her interest. The retired physical therapist said she participated because of her “dissatisfaction for how the Catholic Church is trending.”
“When the city tried to cancel the rally that made up my mind,” she said.
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Sacks said it was unfair that the city would try to silence those who are are expressing their frustrations with the church.
Attorney Marc Randazza, who represented the group in its lawsuit against Baltimore, received a hearty welcome from the crowd when it was announced he was responsible for “kicking Baltimore’s butt.”
Randazza stood watch near the gates of the pavilion midday as counterprotesters shouted at participants. He said he wanted to be on site in case Baltimore officials made any additional moves to stop the rally.
“Given what they’ve done already, I’m not laying down my sword yet,” Randazza said.
Church Militant, based in Michigan, is a conservative Catholic group unaffiliated with the Roman Catholic Church that is billed by organizers as a defender of morality. The group, which operates a news website, has been critical of the Black Lives Matter Movement and called global warming “garbage.” The Southern Poverty Law Center considers Church Militant a hate group for its views on LGBTQ issues.
Tuesday’s event was the group’s second in Baltimore. Church Militant held a similar protest at the MECU Pavilion during the 2018 gathering of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops without incident. That event, which did not include speakers Bannon and Yiannopoulos, attracted about 1,000 people.
Organizers said 1,500 people registered in advance for Tuesday’s event.