About 30 right-wing activists who had planned a “free speech” rally on Boston’s City Hall Plaza faced off Saturday with about 300 counterprotesters in a war of words that became the latest in the nation’s growing list of vitriolic public political confrontations.
As the rallies ranged from Beacon Hill to the Bunker Hill Monument, participants traded taunts and accusations, but no violence was reported.
One counterprotester was led away in handcuffs by Boston police. A department spokesman said no arrests were made but one man was briefly detained as part of an unspecified investigation.
Counterprotesters began rallying outside the State House about 10 a.m., with the goal of disrupting the noontime rally planned by the coalition that organized another “free speech” rally last year that drew an estimated 40,000 counterprotesters.
Members of Stand Against Hate—Boston, the Democratic Socialists of America, Black Lives Matter Boston, and other groups said the right-wing rally was intended to give voice to neo-Nazis.
“They seem to think if they just don’t use swastikas that we won’t notice what they actually believe in,” said Peter Berard, an organizer of the counterprotest. “What we’re trying to do today is we’re trying to show that Boston is no place for their hate.”
Police officers monitored the counterprotest and helped organizers guide marchers to City Hall Plaza, where they encountered rallygoers carrying US flags and an anti-Marxist banner. Officers then circled the right-wing activists, using their bodies and bicycles to create a barricade as chanting counterprotesters surrounded them.
Neither group had city permits for their demonstrations. An organizer of the “free speech” rally said the group had tried to obtain one but to no avail. Berard said his group didn’t need one.
The right-wing rally was intended to be a protest against “far-left violence,” according to Boston Free Speech, the group organizing it.
Brandon Navom, an organizer of last year’s Boston Free Speech Rally, said it was an “absolute lie” that the rallies have racist ties.
Navom sued Mayor Martin J. Walsh for slander last October after Walsh said speakers at the earlier rally included “white supremacists,” “hate group members,” and “neo-Nazis.”
On Saturday, Navom said counterprotesters were trying to block rallygoers from speaking freely.
“We’re trying to have a civil discourse,” he said. “It’s these people who are trying to shut us down.”
Rally participant John Camden said news reports that described last year’s violent, racist rally in Charlottesville, Va., as a white supremacist event made him “sick” because only some participants were neo-Nazis.
“Like President Trump says, there were good people on both sides,” said Camden, who wore a T-shirt that read “American Guard New Hampshire.” The Anti-Defamation League has described the American Guard as a white supremacist group.
Camden also has a tattoo on his neck that appears to be a “Wolfsangel,” an ancient runic symbol the ADL describes as “a symbol of choice for neo-Nazis in Europe and the United States.”
Camden said he was a former white supremacist but changed his stance about two years ago because he concluded that it was a “fallacy” to focus on race, seeing common cause with conservatives regardless of skin color or sexual orientation.
Counterprotesters chanted the names of people killed in confrontations with right-wing extremists, including Heather Heyer the counterprotester killed in Charlottesville, and Rick Best and Taliesin Myrddin Namkai-Meche who were fatally stabbed when they intervened as a man yelled anti-Muslim slurs at two teenage girls.
Martin Henson, of Black Lives Matter Boston, told the crowd that bigotry can wear a familiar face.
“Sometimes the far-right looks like the people next door,” Henson said.
Counterprotesters tied many of the issues they discussed to President Trump’s rhetoric.
“I just find Trump’s actions reprehensible,” said Elena Garofoli, of Roslindale.
Counterprotesters also chanted at police, “Cops and Klan go hand in hand.”
One counterprotester berated a Boston Herald reporter for interviewing Camden.
“There aren’t two sides here,” the man yelled at the reporter. “They’re Nazis.”
After more than an hour of shouting, “free speech” rally participants left Government Center surrounded by police and reconvened at the Bunker Hill Monument.
Sadie Jordan, of Boston, tried to shout down speakers at the monument. Jordan wanted to challenge them for encouraging white nationalists to spread their beliefs, she said.
“I want them to know they are not going to scare me,” she said.
Melanie Miller, who was vacationing from Pennsylvania with her family, said they were following the Freedom Trail when they heard a loud voice from the monument.
“I think it’s an interesting display of free speech, and I appreciate that,” she said. “I don’t appreciate that it’s a historical site in Boston that many people would be coming to with their children and their families.”