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Police form a line in front of Berkeley High School as a rally for free speech takes place across the street Thursday, April 27, 2017, in Berkeley, Calif. Demonstrators gathered near the University of California, Berkeley campus amid a strong police presence and rallied to show support for free speech and condemn the views of Ann Coulter and her supporters. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
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Berkeley praises police for keeping peace at Coulter rallies

Police form a line in front of Berkeley High School as a rally for free speech takes place across the street Thursday, April 27, 2017, in Berkeley, Calif. Demonstrators gathered near the University of California, Berkeley campus amid a strong police presence and rallied to show support for free speech and condemn the views of Ann Coulter and her supporters. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

BERKELEY, Calif. (AP) — Berkeley officials declared their handling of protests over Ann Coulter’s canceled appearance a success thanks to a massive police presence that ensured the city did not become a “fight club,” the mayor said Friday.

Hundreds of Coulter’s supporters gathered in a downtown park Thursday after the University of California, Berkeley, nixed a speech by the conservative commentator. Many of them came dressed for conflict, wearing flak jackets, ballistic helmets adorned with pro-President Donald Trump stickers and other protective gear.

There were tense shouting matches but no major confrontations between Coulter’s supporters and opponents, who held a nearby counter-rally. The two sides were separated by a wall of riot police, while hundreds of other officers were deployed around the city and campus.

“Having a large police presence definitely helped yesterday,” Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguin told San Francisco TV station KTVU on Friday. “What we saw was people in the park speaking out, there were lots of discussions and debates that happened, and that’s what we wanted to facilitate.

“But nobody crossed the line to violence, and that’s what we wanted. We don’t want to turn our city into a fight club,” the mayor said.

Police and officials, both for the city and its prominent public university, have faced criticism for failing to keep the peace at several political rallies in recent months that have erupted in violence.

This time, police said they took a new approach, including a large deployment of visible officers and a low tolerance for violence. Seven people were arrested, including one for obstructing an officer and wearing a mask to evade police, and another for possessing a knife.

Officers on campus also took selfies with students to try to lighten the mood.

Neither the university nor the police have disclosed how many officers were involved, but UC Berkeley spokesman Dan Mogulof said it had backup from a “wide range” of law enforcement agencies.

It is not clear how much the security cost, but Arreguin said the university footed the bill.

“This was a university event, they invited Ann Coulter and so they took on the responsibility of paying for, calling in mutual aid and helping coordinate with the city the mutual response,” Arreguin said.

Coulter was invited to speak by campus Republicans, who also had invited right-wing provocateur Milo Yiannopoulous to speak in February. That event was canceled because of violent protests by a left-wing extremist group that smashed windows on campus and set fires outside the student union.

Arreguin also attributed Friday’s peaceful rallies to the fact that the “very extremist left-wing groups didn’t really show up,” as had been expected.

Berkeley, birthplace of the U.S. free speech movement in the 1960s, has emerged as a flashpoint for the extreme left and right amid debate over free speech.

Earlier this month, a bloody brawl broke out in downtown Berkeley at a pro-Trump protest that featured speeches by members of a self-described white nationalist group. They clashed with a group of left-wing Trump critics who called themselves anti-fascists.

Officials at UC Berkeley had said they feared renewed violence on campus if Coulter followed through with plans to speak despite the cancellation, citing “very specific intelligence” about threats that could endanger Coulter and students. Coulter said the threats were motivated by a university bias against conservative speakers.

She posted Friday on Twitter about the peaceful rallies in Berkeley: “Amazing what cops doing their jobs can accomplish!”

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