The far-right rally on Boston Common on Saturday tested the city’s capacity to allow unpopular, even wicked, causes. The city passed: the 50 or so rallygoers, who claimed to be marching for free speech but who have links to white supremacist groups were able to hold their event at Parkman Bandstand.
The tens of thousands of counterprotesters, meanwhile, were able to voice their emphatic disapproval. Waving signs, marching, and screaming at the far-right activists, they vastly outnumbered the tiny group at the bandstand. With the nation’s attention focused on Boston, the counterprotesters upheld the city’s reputation and provided living proof of the old adage that the best response to offensive speech is more speech.
Most importantly, there was no violence, apart from a few minor scuffles. The police arrested 33 people, some of whom apparently were detained for trying to block vehicles carrying the far-right demonstrators away.
Saturday put the lie to a common whine of the so-called alt right — the loose movement of anti-Semites, neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and freelance bigots emboldened by President Trump’s election — that they are somehow deprived of their free speech rights. Nonsense. If being mocked, booed, and heckled is the alt-right’s idea of censorship, it may be time to rethink who gets labeled a “snowflake” in today’s political environment.
The fears of “antifa” violence directed at conservatives also turned out to be overblown. A few counterprotesters in black outfits showed up, made some noise, and then went home. Sorry, but left-wing cosplay isn’t a security threat comparable to neo-Nazi violence.
Still, while Saturday was mostly a success, it left a few disquieting questions.
Why was media restricted from the bandstand? It may be the case, as First Amendment specialists say, that the right to free speech doesn’t create a right to be heard, but it still would have been better had the public known exactly what the rallygoers were doing and saying. And had the event actually become violent, a media presence would have helped ensure a complete accounting.
And, what happens next? The far-right rally’s attendance may have been small, but if the election and the ensuing tumult have showed anything, it’s that the radicalized racist fringe is getting bigger and bolder. Screaming matches at rallies probably won’t change the minds of extremists; there needs to be a genuine effort to turn angry white people away from radicalism.
The huge response to Saturday’s rally should be seen as an important statement of public disgust toward vile groups and the hateful beliefs they espouse. But unpoisoning a poisonous movement will take longer than an afternoon, and more than just the city’s scorn.