The message from a day of protests in Boston

Tens of thousands turned out to protest a rally organized by a group with ties to the alt-right. The day underscored the tensions between free speech and trying to counter hate speech.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
A Black Lives Matter activist hugs a Free Speech rally attendee, who wears an American flag as a cape. The man had been surrounded and taunted by counter protesters after leaving the rally Aug. 19, 2017. Boston Transit Police escorted him and his friend from the scene.

One of America's oldest theaters for free speech today signaled that when it comes to issues of white nationalism, it doesn't want to have a public conversation.

At a Boston “free speech” rally organized by a small group with ties to the alt-right, counter-protesters turned out in the tens of thousands to assert both their own values of inclusion and to shout down what many view as hate speech rooted in white supremacy. 

They marched peacefully along a two-mile route to the rally on Boston Common, many of them protesting publicly for the first time and toting the humorous and heartfelt signs that have become hallmarks of anti-Trump demonstrations.

But the afternoon had a new and noticeable edge to it. Last week's large alt-right rally in Charlottesville, Va. – and President Trump’s subsequent blaming of “many sides” for violence that injured 19 people and killed one counter-protester – appeared to infuse the crowd with a sense of urgency as well as anger. Even as Boston's Mayor Martin Walsh praised those who "expressed themselves in such a positive, great manner today,” the firm hand that Boston police exhibited throughout the day underscored the challenges cities across the nation face as they try to strike the right balance on free speech at a time of deeply polarized politics. 

Alfredo Sosa/Staff

A small huddle

Before noon, off to the side of the Boston Common bandstand where the rally is scheduled to take place, around 15 free speech protesters are huddled in the shade, waiting for the main organizer to show up with the necessary permit. With the exception of one man wearing a shirt bearing an image of Mr. Trump, they blend in with the counter-protesters – no Nazi symbols, racist slogans, or signs.

A tall white man in his early 20s, who asked to only be identified by his first initial, "A.," says he really is here to support free speech – not hate speech.

“We’re not seeing each other as people,” says A., who identifies himself as a Libertarian. “They’re seeing each other as the ‘other’ and that’s the problem.… It doesn’t matter if you’re with Antifa [anti-fascist activists] or if you consider yourself a white nationalist.”

After the organizer arrives with the permit, the free speech protesters are patted down by Boston police officers before passing into a fenced-off area that surrounds the bandstand. "A." and other rally organizers invite The Monitor inside, but the police officers refuse: no counter-protesters or media allowed in the gates.

Soon there are thousands of counter-protesters surrounding the fenced area. They are looking for the rally organizers, unsure of where to direct their chants.

Matt, a mechanic from Hull, Mass., 15 miles south of Boston, wears a “Proud Boys” t-shirt – a reference to a far-right “Western chauvinist” group. He says he came to support the free speech protesters, but isn’t being allowed inside the fenced area.

“Anyone that is different from them will be considered a Nazi,” he says, pointing to the dozens of black-bandanna-clad Antifa members walking through the park. “I know what I am, and I know what I am not. I am not a Nazi. I respect people who respect me – of all races.”

Getting ready to march

Outside the Reggie Lewis Track and Athletic Center in Roxbury, a Boston neighborhood with a large minority population, Laura Moon is waiting with her teenage daughter, Monique, for the counter-protest march to start. They both have signs, and Monique has a Pride flag tied around her neck like a cape. It’s their fifth or sixth march since Trump became president, but this one, Ms. Moon says, feels a bit different.

“The other marches we’ve been to, we’ve been standing for something,” she continues. “Today I feel a little nervous because I don’t know what to expect.”

A young woman named Amelia, wearing a yellow felt Star of David on her dress, has also joined a half-dozen rallies since Trump became president. Today, for the first time, she wore a bracelet with her allergies and emergency contact information written on it.

“It’s always going to be difficult when there are people out clearly with two sides,” she says.

The man next to her, also wearing a felt Star of David and a bracelet, chimes in: “There’s an aspect of fear to it that’s more present after what happened in Charlottesville." 

Largely peaceful

The march is almost entirely peaceful, as the thousands of all ages and races chant and wave signs. But there is a strong sense among many of the marchers that only one group of protesters has a right to be in the city.

“I think [the free speech rally is] using free speech as an excuse to incite violence, incite hate,” says Tori Schein, as a friend pushes her in her wheelchair, “and that radically goes against the point of free speech.”

As the march moves closer to the Common, with the marchers battling the cloying humidity and gulping from water bottles, Matthew Martin elaborates.

“I’m not going to say I’m against free speech,” says Mr. Martin, a young African-American man sporting a black t-shirt, “but why can’t ISIS and Al Qaeda have nonviolent representatives march? Because it’s incitement.”

“The Klan is a terrorist organization,” he adds, “so if ISIS can’t march, the Klan shouldn’t be able to march.”

An early end

On the Common, the small group of "free speech" protesters mill around on the bandstand. The growing crowd of counter-protesters – separated from them by a large, fenced-off neutral zone – breaks periodically into loud chants, diminishing the prospects that those on the bandstand will be heard: "No hate, no fear, Nazis are not welcome here!" ""Hey hey, ho ho, white supremacy's got to go!"

By 1 p.m., a roar goes up, and everyone seems to agree the protest is over. Estimates of the size of the counter-protest crowd vary, but all agree it runs into the tens of thousands. Two of the free-speech rallyers walk into the street without police supervision. John Pacheco, wearing a black t-shirt and a “Don’t Tread On Me” hat, is soon surrounded by about 50 counter-protesters who yell obscenities and make crude hand gestures.  

Mr. Pacheco begins by rebutting their slurs, but then decides to leave. He walks down the street with hundreds of counter-protesters yelling and throwing trash at his head. He keeps walking across the street as a crowd follows him, yelling. 

“This is for free speech. Everyone has free speech. I just don't understand,” says Pacheco, with tears in his eyes. He is standing in the middle of an intersection with counter-protesters yelling at him from four sides. The light turns from red to green, but everyone stays in the middle of the street.  

Pacheco and his friend ask two transit police officers on the corner for help. Soon the transit police officers are loading them into an armored police truck to drive them to a safer location.

“Make them walk!” the call rises from the sidewalks.

At about the same time, the march that has been flowing through Boston's streets finally reaches the Common, and news spreads that the free speech rally has ended early. Sweaty and smiling, the crowds begin to disperse onto the grass and into the shade. A few minutes later, around a dozen counter-protesters start sprinting toward the State House. Police officers are escorting a man in a Trump t-shirt away from the park. Counter-protesters chase them down and start shouting and throwing water bottles at him.

The pursuit ends behind the State House, where the counter-protesters face off with a few dozen police officers. After a few tense minutes, a protester with a bullhorn turns to the crowd and tells them to calm down.

“Back up!” he shouts. “We won!”

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