In the days after a huge rally overtook Boston last weekend, a short video I took was used by media and activists on the right and the left as an emblem of their respective struggles.
That has left me feeling confused and exasperated. To me, the video doesn’t represent either of these sides and shouldn't be used as fuel for any movement or ideology. Doing so is merely a distraction.
The 41-second video captures one of the few heated scuffles I saw in Boston. About 15 minutes before a free speech rally was set to begin on Boston Common, I was in the thick of a large crowd of people there to protest the event. Though not led by white supremacists, the rally did involve a few people linked to Charlottesville, which took place a week earlier. Nearly midday, and with the sun hot overhead, people were starting to sweat as they screamed chants and protest cries. The mood was frenetic: around the Common, I could feel the bottled-up anger of the crowd spilling out onto the grass.
Suddenly I heard shouts from behind, and I noticed a mass of people screaming angrily at someone in their midst. It looked like a mob. Cameras were clicking above as I pushed past a number of bodies to get closer. The focus of the group’s ire was a young man in a “Make America Great Again” hat and a t-shirt that read “Proud Member of the Basket of Deplorables.” He was draped in an Israeli flag.
I could tell right away that the crowd surrounding him was very angry. People called him a “piece of shit” and a “fucking racist.” He was told to “Get the fuck out of our fucking town.” His hat was knocked off his head. Another young man in a white bandana pressed his face in close and screamed an odd mix of sentiments, including: “I will donate to everything you stand against.”
The Trump supporter was physically shaken, and so was I. My hands wobbled as I tried to hold the phone steady, feeling sure that the protesters’ anger would soon erupt into physical violence.
The embattled man did not appear to say anything. Instead, as the video shows, he walked through the crowd and did not respond to the words being hurled at him. Eventually his friend appeared, and he reported that they couldn’t enter the rally because the gate was “closed off.”
Unfortunately, I did not get the young man’s name amid the chaos. But I did ask him why he was there. “I wanna show that people shouldn’t be afraid to voice their other views, and voice their opinions,” he said. “You should be able to go outside and say you’re a conservative, and it’s pretty sad that things like this happen.”
The video I took of the incident was viewed hundreds of thousands of times. It appeared on media including ABC, the Daily Mail and a number of Israeli outlets.
The right-wing media used it most often to show the violence of the left. Not surprisingly, it was shared by many to underscore the idea pushed by President Donald Trump in recent weeks that an extremist “alt-left” is somehow comparable to the white supremacists on the extreme right. (Even Fox News’ Hannity -- who invented the term “alt-left” in April -- sent me a request to air the video.)
The Boston Antifa, a radical far-left movement devoted to fighting fascism, also posted the video on its Facebook page in self-congratulation, using it to show off the group’s effective tactics in pushing undesirables out of Boston: “Nazis are not welcome! #BostonResist #StopFreeSpeech,” the post read.
(Furthermore, Boston Antifa thanked Univision for its defense of that movement, which is inaccurate.)
It’s disconcerting to watch your own video used to represent beliefs on such differing ends of the ideological spectrum, especially when neither feels quite accurate.
Those screaming protesters don’t represent the entire left, especially at a protest where there were plenty of notable moments of peace and tolerance. On the video, voices can be heard calling for restraint. “No violence, no violence,” they say repeatedly.
Nor does it accurately represent the “pushing out” of a Nazi from the protest. I don’t think the man wrapped in an Israeli flag was a Nazi.
Just as the protesters in this video seemed like bullies thirsty to engage in conflict, many people on social media seem to be looking for the next hot clip to bolster their side. To me, the video and its aftermath represent a sad state of affairs.
On the right, many are seeking these types of moments to prove there's no distinction between peaceful demonstrators and “violent” leftists. They use this to discredit their opponents and the fight against toxic white supremacy.
And on the far left, the words “Nazi” and “fascist” appear set to become the new labels of choice for any opponent, whether or not that’s remotely accurate.
Videos can provide interesting front-line glimpses into events that most people aren’t able to be physically present for. That’s valuable.
But we must also watch and consume them within a much larger, more nuanced context. In the end, they're often just moments. Using them to fuel conflict can be a distraction from far deeper issues.
I worry that this is just another example of how far Americans are sliding into vitriol without any desire to recognize the humanity in those we oppose. It seems far easier these days to name-call, menace and insult.