Columns

JOAN VENNOCHI

Protesters face a tricky balance on free speech

epa06152312 A white nationalist supporter is surrounded by antifascist counter-protesters after he was knocked down by the group on the Boston Common in Boston, Massachusetts, USA, 19 August 2017. Thousands of both white nationalists or the 'Alt-Right' and counter protesters have organized protests in Boston. EPA/MATTHEW HEALEY

Matthew Healey/European Pressphoto Agency

A white nationalist supporter was surrounded by antifascist counterprotesters Saturday on Boston Common after he was knocked down.

Call them Nazis, white supremacists or “free speech” advocates — whatever label you prefer, they were the hunted and harassed Saturday on Boston Common.

A baker’s dozen or so of conservative activists gathered forlornly on the bandstand in advance of a “free speech” rally whose true agenda stirred enough concern to shut down the city’s famous swan boats for what the mayor said was the first time in Boston’s history. Meanwhile, thousands of counterprotesters held signs, chanted some words that Anthony Scaramucci would appreciate, played music and did their best to demoralize the enemy. In that, they succeeded, as the tiny bandstand group left early. Those alleged “free speech” proponents who inserted themselves into the anti-hate crowd were surrounded amidst chants of “shame” and “Nazi scum.” During tense moments when shouting matches broke out, police protected the pursued from their pursuers.

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Silencing hate was the point, the counterprotesters said. When I asked one young woman who carried a sign that said hate speech is not free speech to explain why she believes that, she said “Neo-Nazism is a call to action” and therefore is not protected speech. Violence is not protected, but there is no hate speech exception to the First Amendment.

She traveled from Connecticut to participate in the counterprotest because “I’m not going to let Nazis come into New England,” she said. On one hand, that’s a worthy cause. On the other, the sight of a young man wearing a red, white, and blue helmet, encircled by a crowd of protesters screeching “shame, shame, shame,” raises questions about tactics. The last thing an anti-hate movement should want to do is stoke sympathy for those they identify as haters.

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Hundreds of police were deployed to keep order. In the end, this was a mostly peaceful protest, marred by some scuffles and arrests. Of course, Boston has weathered many protests, over many causes, including, not so long ago, the fight over desegregating the city’s public schools. That was also about race and hate, yielding an infamous photograph — the Pulitzer Prize-winning shot taken by Stanley Forman of a young, white man lunging at a black man with the sharp point of a flagpole, with the American flag attached. That was 1976. It’s sad to think the division and racial tension behind it are still alive and well in so many parts of this country.

Boston’s protesters wanted to send the opposite message, that hate is not welcome here, that today this is a city of love and inclusion for everyone except Nazis. I just hope that by silencing their enemies, they don’t empower them and give them a louder megaphone than they had before.

Joan Vennochi can be reached at vennochi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @Joan_Vennochi.
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