Organizers of Saturday’s overblown “free speech rally” on Boston Common got far more than they bargained for when they showed up to find tens of thousands of fired-up but mostly peaceful Bostonians and visitors intent on making a statement of their own.
Or, rather, statements.
There was a wide array of political speech in currency on the Common and surrounding streets on Saturday. Socialists, anarchists, trade unionists, peace activists, and militant leftists rubbed shoulders with aging anti-war demonstrators, veterans, and Black Lives Matter adherents. It was a big, chaotic tent —one that would surely have collapsed without the twin pillars that propped it up just long enough on Saturday: a seething disgust for the current president and the white supremacist, neo-fascist column that he has stroked into a renewed threat to Americans, and to people of color in particular.
The organizers of Saturday’s rally — mainly faceless internet trolls and right-wing provocateurs— say they were denied a true platform for their Parkman Bandstand speeches. The permit issued last week by city leaders did limit the rally’s potential size, penned off the bandstand, and — for good reason— limited the likelihood of hand-to-hand combat among the extremists on both sides. But that’s what the rally instigators accepted in staging last weekend’s event.
They could have sought relief in court to broaden their permit— but why do that? The city-imposed restrictions gave them a convenient foil to explain away the fact that their pathetic sideshow failed to draw an actual audience.
No journalists were allowed through the barricades to record or stream-out the speeches, which is too bad. What has come out via recordings by participants in the days since indicates that actual white supremacist-types who were on the original bill bailed out. Still, it would have been better to have a more complete understanding from a reporter of exactly who did show up to speak and what they had to say.
Some were disappointed that no actual “Nazis”— or at least, very few, were in evidence anywhere near the Common. “I feel like we were stood up,” James Hilliard, a 22-year-old student from Allston told Zack Huffman, one of several reporters for DigBoston and the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism (BINJ) who covered the day’s events in great detail.
Huffman continued: “Back in the day, you could spot the neo-Nazis at punk, metal, and hardcore shows by their shaved heads and the red laces on their combat boots. These days, it’s wicked difficult to distinguish between the average cul-du-sac-bred boat-shoe dude and the tiki torch-wielding Bannon-esque preppy bro-bags seen in Charlottesville, the likes of whom feel threatened by the social advancements of women, LGBTQ people, and minority groups as their beloved American normalcy erodes.”
Two BINJ correspondents witnessed the day’s only on-scene gun arrest— that of a young man wearing a signature Trump “MAGA” hat who tried to evade Boston Police and was found to be carrying a concealed handgun. A correspondent for the Reporter saw none of the isolated violence or arrests, but watched as a phalanx of state troopers in full riot gear marched into positions around the State House. There were 33 arrests— mainly when counter-protestors tangled with Boston Police trying to extricate the “free speech” contingent from the Common in prisoner transport wagons.
It was an unfortunate twist to a day that was — on balance— a much-needed antidote to the images streamed out of Charlottesville the week before.
Whether on the march from Roxbury— or among those massed on the Common itself— there was a quiet jubilance to Saturday’s gathering that mirrored that of the much larger Women’s March that followed Inauguration Day last January. For so many who are struggling to come to terms with the daily indignities of the Trump debacle, Saturday offered hope, solidarity, and, however fleeting, a way forward.