The last time a bunch of oh-so-aggrieved white guys organized a rally on Boston Common, in May, hardly anyone paid attention.
The Facebook invitation to the Boston Free Speech Rally said the organizers wanted “libertarians, conservatives, traditionalists, classical liberals, or anyone who supports Trump or just hates leftists.” That’s a pretty big tent.
And when you put up a tent, the circus inevitably follows.
They gathered around the Parkman Bandstand and a guy wearing a baseball cap with the words “Taxation is Theft” on the front used a megaphone to talk about freedom and, um, being free.
The crowd was made up mostly of white guys in their 20s holding American flags. Some belonged to various “alt-right’’ groups that ranged from white supremacists to militias. One guy was dressed up as a frog, the mascot of the “alt-right’’ movement. A young woman wearing a hard hat held a so-called Kek flag that some in the “alt-right’’ movement think is swell. A lot of the guys wore military garb.
There were plenty of Trump signs and hats. “Hillary For Prison” T-shirts were also de rigueur. A young guy held a “Bill Clinton is a Rapist” sign that he made himself with magic marker. To his credit, all the words were spelled right.
As is standard whenever a group of “alt-right’’ whiners show up to complain about how hard it is to be a white guy in America, anti-fascist counter demonstrators appeared and officers from the Boston Police Department were dispatched to keep the groups separated. The so-called antifa demonstrators held the high ground, at least literally, on a hill looking down on the “alt-right’’ crowd.
There was a lot of shouting, some very bad language, and way, way too many megaphones. But unless you were walking through the Common that day, you wouldn’t have known it was going on.
At one point police led a couple of people away in handcuffs, including a guy wearing one of those red Make America Great Again baseball hats. Two arrests were reported: a 19-year-old woman from California and a 28-year-old man from New York.
All in all, a fairly innocuous day on which many parents’ basements were deserted.
Now many of the same people who gathered at the Parkman Bandstand three months ago are coming back to the Common and everyone’s paying attention. In the wake of what happened in Virginia over the weekend, Saturday’s planned rally is being treated as a potential powder keg.
But right now, there’s little evidence to suggest the rally — if it even happens — is going to have anything approaching the volatility of Charlottesville, where neo-Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan were openly involved.
Police Commissioner Bill Evans said the people organizing this Saturday’s rally are different from those who organized the one in May. The group’s Facebook page claims they are the same, but Evans says the police are still trying to figure out who’s really organizing it. Evans said his intelligence detectives are scouring social media to get a handle on what to expect.
It is certainly admirable to see Mayor Martin Walsh, Governor Charlie Baker, and a host of elected officials and faith leaders mobilize so quickly in response to the planned rally. All of this attention is leading some of those who had planned to speak at Saturday’s rally on the Common to have second thoughts.
Just as admirable is the speed with which so many vigils have been organized in response to what happened in Charlottesville.
And Walsh might be right that it’s too soon after Charlottesville for such a rally, but I’m leery of inclinations to ban it. Boston Common is a bastion of free speech.
The answer to offensive speech is more speech, and there are already far more people committed to taking part in counter-demonstrations against whatever and whoever shows up for Saturday’s rally on the Common. It is those voices that will linger long after the guy in the frog suit hops away.
Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at email@example.com