On Saturday, Boston Common was packed with tens of thousands of protesters who sometimes engaged in conflicts with those they had come to protest: participants in a small “free speech” rally organized by conservative groups.
The following day the placid scene at the nation’s oldest public park could hardly have been more different.
Couples and families lolled on picnic blankets spread across the grass of the Common Sunday afternoon or gathered in circles with toddlers in strollers and dogs on leashes.
Near the Parkman Bandstand, where Saturday’s “free speech” rally took place, Boston Latin School students Eman Umaiya and Laura Clabaugh, both 17, drew on an asphalt pathway with colored chalks purchased at a nearby pharmacy.
Kneeling on the pavement, Umaiya, of Roxbury, sketched the head and shoulders of a woman with blue skin and short, thick hair yet to be colored in.
“It’s supposed to be a black woman, and it’s supposed to show power and courage,” she explained. “Usually women are discouraged from wearing their hair natural, and I wanted to show that black is beautiful.”
Umaiya said she had not been at Saturday’s rally, but her sister attended, and she watched the action through her sister’s Snapchat videos. She said she was glad to see that the conservative rally was so much smaller than the response, but she was relieved to be watching the action from a safe distance.
“I loved how the counterprotesters outnumbered them, but I was also scared because there were so many people yelling, even at the police. … They were just doing their job,” she said.
She had made plans days earlier to spend Sunday afternoon with Clabaugh, she said, and had spontaneously suggested that they come to the Common and make drawings on the pavement.
“I thought it sounded cool,” Clabaugh said of the suggestion. “I didn’t know if she was being serious at first.”
Clabaugh, of Charlestown, said she had wanted to take part in Saturday’s counterprotest, but her parents didn’t let her, so she also followed the action through social media.
“The fact that the counterprotest was bigger than the original protest, I think, said a lot about the kind of people that live in Boston,” she said.
Nearby, at a company picnic attended by co-workers of widely varied ages and backgrounds, Cambridge resident Liz Catanzano, 65, questioned the value of any public protest.
“I think it’s a waste of time, because first of all, who’s going to listen to anybody? The government’s not going to listen,” she asked. “No one listens to anybody. They do what they want. … Everyone’s hating each other or attacking each other.”
She said protesting isn’t worth the risk of getting hurt if a demonstration turns violent, suggesting that Heather Heyer, who was killed in a peaceful counterprotest against a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Va., last weekend, would still be alive if neither group had taken to the streets.
Her husband, Stephen Catanzano, also 65, said the problem with American society is that people have lost touch with their faith.
“If you look at the direction the country’s going in — and most of the world — it’s a godless world,” he said. “If you say to a KKK guy, ‘You’re never going to go to Heaven if you hate,’ do you think he gives a [expletive]? These people are going to do whatever they want to do because there’s no fear of God.”
“If they want to rally, they should go to church,” he added. “Maybe it would change their perspective on life.”
But some of the Catanzanos’ co-workers praised the counterprotesters for rejecting racist rhetoric and sending a message of unity and inclusion. Roslindale resident Arlene Smith said she had watched Saturday’s demonstrators for hours on television.
“I thought it was fantastic, fantastic,” said Smith, 64. “It was peaceful. It was powerful. … I was so moved by it. There were so many kinds of people in the crowd: black, white, Asian, the clergy.”
Smith also praised the police response, which mostly avoided using force against protesters, though she said recent events have made her concerned about civil rights protections for people of color and the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community.
“I think it really is a scary time in America. It seems like we’re going backward,” she said.
Another co-worker, Wendell Edmonds, 63, of Woburn, noted that on the left, some self-proclaimed antifascists have been confrontational at rallies both in Charlottesville and Boston.
“These here antifa people, they aren’t playing,” he said. “They will confront the right.”
He expressed mixed feelings about the growing public conflict between white nationalists and left-wing protesters who reject their racist beliefs and ambitions.
“We’re all standing up for peace and we’re getting together, but it pushes the other side back into the shadows,” he said.
He said racism still thrives in American society and some “white males feel they’re being discriminated against,” which drives racial animosity from the right.
“America is … very diverse,” he said, “but on the whole, there’s still a lot of work to be done.”Jeremy C. Fox can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jeremycfox.