In the gray of early morning on Boston Common, a group of women moved gracefully through their tai chi routines. A lone runner loping across the grass checked her watch.
At the empty Parkman Bandstand, ringed by rows of metal fences put there the night before and dotted by police officers in bright yellow, people stopped to look or take pictures — families, tourists, morning walkers.
“Who are they keeping out?” one man wondered aloud. “How are they going to tell who is who?”
Everyone seemed to know that in a few hours, inside the ring of barricades, a “Boston Free Speech” rally with a roster of speakers linked to white supremacy was set to proceed. And despite the workaday quiet and casual curiosity, everyone seemed to know the possibilities of what might unfold; one week after torch-bearing men had marched in Charlottesville, setting off a wave of violence that killed a woman in that city and sparked tremors of outrage across the country, anything seemed possible. Would there be bloodshed here, too?
Across the park, a few ralliers began to assemble, unfolding signs and donning goggles.
Two miles away, at the Reggie Lewis Center in Roxbury, counterprotesters were also beginning to arrive. They wore T-shirts that read “We are not afraid” and “Black Lives Matter.” There was yet just a smattering of people, but the crowd was growing. Speakers took turns talking to the crowd.
“Today, we are going to make white supremacists hide again,” one thundered, and the crowd thundered back.
By 10 a.m., the smattering was a throng, with hundreds gathering and then thousands. The crowd moved to Madison Park High School, where there was more room, and then began to march toward the Common. People streamed from side streets and T stops to join the procession. Somewhere, drums were beating.
The crowd chanted: “Hey hey! Ho ho! White supremacy has to go!”
Shakara Carter, who is black, took pictures of the marchers while standing next to her 3-year-old son. “Look at how many people who aren’t black there are protesting against white supremacy,” she said.
Even before the marchers arrived at the Common, the crowd outside the bandstand was growing, too. Some seemed itching to fight. Ralliers and counterprotesters had begun to clash.
“Here’s the thing,” a white rallier who gave his name only as Dave told Louisiana pastor Glenn Campbell, who is black, about people who advocate white supremacy. “Once they start doing evil things, we have to start doing whatever is necessary to stop them. But they’re not doing the evil things, they’re saying they want to do the evil things.”
Dave was calm as he explained that slavery was wrong, but advocating for slavery was protected speech. Campbell grew up in the segregated South and still remembered the sting of having to use a different water fountain. When Dave walked away to do a TV interview, Campbell wheeled on the crowd surrounding him.
“That young man is representative of the failure of adult white America!” he shouted, pointing back over his shoulder. “Why are we here today? Because we thought racism and Nazism was settled with wars, with blood, and we are ready to kill each other all over again.”
As the clock ticked toward noon, ralliers pressed against the barricades keeping the bandstand empty. Counterprotesters searched for speakers, who darted through the crowd escorted by police to chants of “Shame! Shame!”
One at a time, police patted down ralliers looking to make it inside the bandstand, peering into backpacks and turning out pockets, searching for anything that could be used as a weapon. Media and counterprotesters were kept hundreds of yards away, and each rallier walked alone toward the bandstand as the crowd screamed “Nazis suck” and “Smile for your exit interview on Monday.”
Reggie Bly watched as his friend, whom he identified as Orrin, sidled up to the police. Bly and Orrin are black, and Orrin was trying to sneak into the bandstand by claiming to have spoken to the organizers, Bly said. He wanted to talk to the ralliers, reason with them. Orrin let police search him, even checking inside his box of Newports before letting him through. Bly stood anxiously at the gate watching him.
They had decided to come because of Charlottesville, but Bly didn’t think his friend could change any minds. The thousands who turned out in Boston to protest the rally raised his spirits, he said, but overall he wasn’t sure whether he thought more or less of his country Saturday.
“To be honest? I don’t know. I honestly don’t know,” he said.
He lost sight of Orrin among the milling ralliers.
Almost as soon as they had opened the gates for the rally, police closed them, leaving ralliers walking frustrated from checkpoint to checkpoint. The bandstand was too far away to hear or see anything but the flags affixed to its columns: American, Don’t Tread on Me, and the 13-star colonial flag. At one point, a man in a gray suit raised his arms, punctuating some inaudible point from the bandstand steps, and the thousands arrayed outside the barriers erupted in boos.
When the event concluded well before its scheduled 2 p.m. end time and ralliers began leaving, the counterprotesters’ chants turned personal and ragged. When counterprotesters caught sight of police escorting a man wrapped in an American flag out of the Common, they surged, surrounding the group and yanking at the officers and the man, screaming and cursing. The officers ran with the man, shoving off counterprotesters who lunged at them.
“This is my chance!” shouted one counterprotester, who hurled a foul-smelling liquid. A man tried to block counterprotesters with a bicycle, but someone pushed him, and several people knocked over the bike. The melee surged through the Common and out to Charles Street, where it ended almost as quickly as it began when police bundled the man into a wagon.
Back inside the Common, the scene repeated, as one by one the ralliers tried to leave only to find themselves surrounded by seething crowds. Fights broke out on the streets around the Common, and police in riot gear poured out of their vehicles to give officers enough room to make arrests.
In the end, this was Boston, not Charlottesville. And by evening, the streets had mostly cleared, save for a group of protesters near Tremont.
Young men on skateboards sailed across sidewalks. Couples walked hand in hand, and people sat on benches reading.
Around the bandstand, police collected the metal barricades as helicopters buzzed overhead. The only thing protesters had left behind were their signs, taped by the dozens to a chain-link fence.