Tens of thousands march for unity, overwhelming ‘free speech’ rally
A “free speech” rally on Boston Common that was met with massive counterprotests Saturday ended with few injuries and 27 arrests, officials said at a late afternoon press conference.
A throng of demonstrators that at times was 2 miles long marched from Roxbury to protest the rally, whose lineup included speakers with extremist ties, and which had prompted fears of a repeat of the violence that rocked Charlottesville, Va., earlier this week. Police estimated that 30,000 to 40,000 people ended up in and around the Common.
But Boston Police Commissioner William Evans said that “99.9% of the people here were [here] for the right reason, and that’s to fight bigotry and hate.”
“For the most part, it went off just as we had planned,” Evans said, explaining that officers kept the opposing crowds separated. “We didn’t want what happened in Virginia to happen here.”
Still, some in the crowds threw rocks and urine-filled bottles at officers, Evans said. Others tried to block police vans carrying the “free speech” organizers away from the area, forcing officers to deploy crowd-control units armed with batons to push them back.
Police recovered at least one gun from one of the people who were arrested, Evans said. The other arrests were mostly for disorderly conduct and assault and battery on police officers. No one was seriously injured, he said.
Mayor Martin J. Walsh said he was proud of those who “came out today. . . to share that message of love, not hate, to fight back on racism, to fight back on anti-Semitism, to fight back on the white supremacists that were coming to our city, on the Nazis that were coming to our city.
“I want to thank everyone that came here and expressed themselves in such a positive, great manner today,” he added.
At one point, columns of counterprotesters waving signs and shouting messages of inclusion stretched over about 2 miles from Roxbury to the Common.
Despite the fact that there were few arrests, President Trump tweeted that there were “anti-police agitators” at the Boston events. He later added, “I want to applaud the many protesters in Boston who are speaking out against bigotry and hate.”
Looks like many anti-police agitators in Boston. Police are looking tough and smart! Thank you.— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 19, 2017
Evans declined to respond to Trump’s tweets.
Many of the confrontations that occurred between counterprotesters and police happened after the “Boston Free Speech” rally ended and police escorted speakers and participants of the rally off the Boston Common.
As those gathered for the rally left their cordoned off area around the Parkman Bandstand, a large crowd surrounded one young man who appeared to be leaving the rally, shouting “Nazis suck” as he walked down a Boston Common path to Charles Street. He walked onto Charles Street with a police escort until a police van arrived and he was placed in it.
Several dozen Boston Police officers with batons and other crowd-control gear held back a gathering crowd counterprotesters while other officers loaded the “free speech” rally supporters into vans for transport out of the area. Some in the crowd shouted “make them walk!” and challenged police for defending people they called “Nazis,” while the crowd of hundreds chanted “No Trump! No KKK! No fascist USA!” and “off our streets Nazi scum!”
As the vans left the area, with helicopters hovering overhead, protesters booed their occupants and shouted “who do you serve?” at police officers while others ran after the vehicles. Officers restrained several people with plastic zip-ties around their wrists, but it was unclear why had been detained.
A law enforcement official said the attendees at the “free speech” rally spoke for 50 minutes and were escorted out by police as planned.
The “free speech” rally had been scheduled to last two hours and had advertised 14 speakers, including two right-wing extremists.
Samson Racioppi, a libertarian candidate for congress who was scheduled to speak, said the event was disorganzied and he never made it to the bandstand where he was to take the stage.
“I kept on getting redirected around the Common,” he said, explaining that police told him he’d eventually see the security gate entrance but the large crowds kept him back.
Watch: Counterprotesters marched from the Reggie Lewis center towards the “Free Speech” rally on Boston Common.
Watch: Counterprotesters marched from the Reggie Lewis center towards the "Free Speech" rally on Boston Common. http://bit.ly/2wbZUO9Posted by The Boston Globe on Saturday, August 19, 2017
The tense confrontation occurred later at Tremont and West streets, where police said projectiles were thrown at officers. The confrontation ended when police backed down.
Organizers of one of the counterprotests said the vast majority of participants were not violent.
“When there seemed to be a little bit of a skirmish, the rest of the group was yelling, ‘Do not engage!’” said Angelina Camacho. “The solidarity in keeping it a peaceful event was very clear.”
Camacho also praised police for working with her group to prevent widespread confrontations. “We’re going to give credit where credit’s due,” she said. “Everybody’s leaving safely and I have to be thankful for that.”
Many within the group who had marched down Tremont Street carried banners and posters decrying racism, sexism, and war, such as “White silence = violence” and “black lives matter.” Others wore T-shirts to show their affiliation — unions and the Chinese progressive association, among others. All joined in loud chants of “Hey hey, ho ho, white supremacy has got to go!” and “the people united will not be defeated!” in both English and Spanish.
One small confrontation happened before noon, when a young man wearing a red “Make America Great Again” hat walked through a crowd that met him with loud chants.
“Shame!” “Go home!” We don’t want you here” they yelled. “We don’t want any hate here.”
The man changed course, but was cornered along a fence. Police rushed to form a barrier around him with their bikes.
A short time later, a crowd surrounded another man in a Trump hat and screamed expletives in his face, saying “no one likes you” and chanting “go home!”
Imani Williams, a 27-year-old Connecticut woman aligned with the counterprostestors, tried to defend the man as others spit at him, sprayed him with silly string, and blew clouds of vaporizer smoke in his face.
“I couldn’t get through a KKK rally with the same treatment,” Williams, who is black, explained a moment later. “But we shouldn’t be like them . . . It’s the right thing to do at the end of the day. We’re all part of the same country. It’s unfortunate what’s happening but the response we should have is to be nonviolent.”
After Williams tried to intervene, police arrived and led the man, Sean Cronin, out of the crowd.
“I guess people can’t talk,” Cronin said after he had been escorted out of the crowd. “They need to attack. It just turned into a mob pit.”
Minutes after speaking to reporters, Cronin was again confronted by counterprotesters who shouted “Nazi!” as he walked out of the Common.
Authorities had feared the “free speech” event would attract white supremacists. Two of the rally’s scheduled keynote speakers have ties to extremist elements — including one who attended the rally in Charlottsville, Va., last weekend that turned violent. Seeking to prevent violent confrontations here, police and city officials partitioned the Common with fencing designed to keep the dueling crowds separate. Dozens of police officers in reflective vests were stationed at entrances and throughout the park.
But John Medlar of Fitchburg, one of the rally’s organizers, insisted as he arrived at the Common that the event was not a right-wing gathering.
“We want to bring together people from across the political spectrum for people to listen to,” Medlar, 23, said. “We want people to come away with good arguments, thinking maybe, ‘hey that’s interesting, I hadn’t considered that before.’ We want to do is show people that we can listen to each other, that we can bring reasonable opinions together without resorting to violence.”
Medlar, a self-described libertarian, said the lineup of speakers included progressives, conservatives, anti-war activists, and veterans.
However, Medlar said that “media hysteria” has led some white supremacists to mistakenly believe the event was for them. He denounced their ideology and said he hoped anyone with such views would stay away.
“Get your own rally,” he said, referring to neo-Nazis and others with similar beliefs. “This is our platform, our message . . . They use the First Amendment as shield for themselves but they won’t stand up and defend the First Amendment for the people that they oppose.”
Those who attended the “free speech” rally were vastly outnumbered by the counterprotesters. About 50 people appeared to attend the rally before it ended.
But people streamed from MBTA stations and nearby streets to join the counterprotest, while others waited at the Common.
Larsen, who was one of those waiting, blamed President Trump for encouraging the far-right, and decried his remarks blaming “both sides” for the violence earlier this week at a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.
“If Trump came out and condemned the racists and Nazis at that march [in Charlottesville] the way he’s condemned Mexicans, Muslims, and every other marginal group in this country, a lot of us would have said, ‘okay there’s hope,’” Larsen said. “But what he said this week showed us that there’s no hope coming from the top down. It’s up to us.”
Nearby, 33-year-old Justin Cohen of Somerville stood beside his bicycle, to which he had affixed an enormous rainbow flag emblazoned with a silver Star of David. Cohen, who is bisexual and Jewish, said he had been circling Boston Common with the handmade flag — the first time he had ever demonstrated publicly.
“I wanted it to be bigger than any swastika flag,” Cohen said. “I was excited to make it, because it’s more important than ever, but sad that I had to.”
This is a developing story that will be updated throughout the day.
Dan Adams, Evan Allen, Steve Annear, Meghan E. Irons, Martin Finucane, Jeremy Fox, Cristela Guerra, Beth Healy, Akilah Johnson, Aimee Ortiz, Jan Ransom, and Patricia Wen of the Globe staff contributed and Meghan Barr of boston.com to this report.