Metro

Adrian Walker

As a ‘free speech’ rally fizzled, a march for unity triumphed

Counterprotesters during Saturday’s march from Roxbury to Boston Common.
Nicholas Pfosi for The Boston Globe
Counterprotesters during Saturday’s march from Roxbury to Boston Common.

Boston Common was the scene of two rallies Saturday. One was joyous and boisterous, the other minuscule and impotent. One triumphed, one fizzled.

There was supposed to be a “free speech” rally at which self-described libertarians were supposed to make some kind of statement about their rights, with the help of a few speakers from the far right. It started late, ended early, and its headliners were fortunate to make it out of the area unscathed.

The so-called counterprotest was the day’s true main event — a resounding display of unity and harmony.

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The crowd for the counterprotest began gathering early in Roxbury. By the time they began marching from Malcolm X Boulevard to the Common, the crowd was an estimated 15,000 strong, far larger than anticipated. It was a mix of Black Lives Matter activists, suburban Women’s March veterans, organized labor stalwarts, and regular citizens intent on refusing to let intolerance carry the day. There was a visible, through unobtrusive, police presence, bolstered by a significant cadre of undercover officers and a SWAT team.

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As the crowd grew, Superintendent in Chief Willie Gross of the Boston Police Department worked the crowd. He thanked marcher after marcher, individually, for coming out to make their voices heard. He complimented people on their creative signs. He took dozens of pictures with marchers who looked relieved to discover that the police weren’t there to give them a hard time.

“This is how we do it in Boston,” he said. “We exercise our right to free speech, but we do it peacefully. If anyone starts anything [at the Common] we’ll get them right out.”

Gross was also monitoring events around town by radio. And something unexpected was happening — or not happening — downtown: right-wing troublemakers, who so many feared would trigger violence, were barely showing up.

By the time, the counterprotesters, fortified by a brass band, began their march down Columbus Avenue, the it was clear that the other side was likely to be drowned out.

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After the counterprotesters were on their way, Gross stopped into the command center at Boston Police headquarters. There, a group of officers from agencies across the area watched both the Common and the counterprotesters on a bank of television monitors. Commissioner William Evans was in charge.

To my surprise, Governor Charlie Baker was there too. True to form, he was immersed in the details. He said he was there because he’d been nervous. But by early afternoon, everyone in the room was breathing a tentative sigh of relief. As planned, the protesters and counterprotesters were far enough apart to have little opportunity for direct confrontation. The major concern of the “free speech” group seemed to be getting out of the area.

One of them was followed down Charles Street South by a group of counterprotesters chanting “Shame!” as police led him away. Others, on the Tremont Street side, were taken out by police in riot gear. A small number were held — voluntarily, police said — in a building on Boylston Street across from the Common, until after the crowd thinned out.

In effect, the “free speech’” rally became a giant peace rally. The were a few tense encounters between police and demonstrators, but nothing out of the ordinary for an event like this.

To be smug about that would be silly. There’s doesn’t seem to be much doubt, in this unstable time, that those who harbor bigotry and hate feel more free to express, and act on, those feelings than they have in years. There’s no question that a president who cannot bring himself to condemn evil has emboldened it.

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But Boston resisted, emphatically. That’s no small thing.

Toward the end of the day, Gross stared over at an empty Boston Common bandstand, abandoned ahead of schedule by the “free speech” provocateurs.

“I won’t say they were driven out, but they decided to leave,” Gross said. “I think they were influenced by love. They couldn’t stand any more.”

Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at adrian.walker@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Adrian_Walker.