BOSTON, Mass. - Boston was not Charlottesville. There were no deaths, nor armed Nazis in the streets. Some 30 people were arrested and numerous scuffles broke out, but violence did not overwhelm this city Saturday, when thousands protested against racism and white supremacy. Nearby, some 50 people participated in a 'free speech' rally that featured a number of far-right speakers.
Saturday’s event was held in the historic bandstand on Boston Common, the oldest park in the United States. Police used fences to separate speakers from protesters, and restricted entry to the event to only a very small group of people. They did not allow access to journalists.
“I want them to open the gate so I can get in there,” said Janet Desmond, an older Trump supporter from Charlestown, Mass., who was surrounded by protesters and could not get into the event. “This is a real scary situation. I’m just wanting to get into the rally and praise the president for all he’s trying to do.”
The event ended an hour ahead of schedule and participants left the park in trucks, escorted by heavy police presence.
A Mayor in disbelief
In a series of tweets after the event, Trump denounced anti-police activists, applauded Boston police and the city’s mayor, Marty Walsh, and applauded those “speaking out against bigotry and hate.”
For protestors, the day began around 10 a.m. in Roxbury, on the city’s south side. Thousands gathered to listen to politicians, religious leaders and activists express their rejection of white supremacy. Many were with children. Mayor Walsh - who had ordered some 500 police officers to keep order - shook hands with protesters.
“I can’t believe what’s going on in this country,” Walsh told one woman.
Protesters marched towards Boston Common, through neighborhoods full of Hispanic, Indian and African immigrants. They passed a mural of abolitionist Frederick Douglass, who gave one of his most famous speeches in this city.
“This is not an issue just for one group, it’s not just an issue for African Americans,” said Ana Victoria Lamarche, from the Dominican Republic, who carried a pro-immigration sign. “A very dangerous, murderous, neo-Nazi group is being organized, whose goal is to make us all disappear. This is a country of immigrants and we have the same rights as they have. We are determined to fight for what belongs to us.”
A tense scene
The event being protested, dubbed the “Free Speech Rally,” was organized months ago by John Medlar, a 23-year-old libertarian who sought to feature speakers of different ideologies. But after last weekend’s events in Charlottesville and with a number of far-right speakers on the agenda, the city was on edge. Earlier this week, Mayor Walsh announced to hate groups: “Boston does not want you here.” He prohibited bats, sticks and backpacks from the event.
Maxwell Hansen said he was riding his bike when he decided to stop at the Common to try to talk to rally participants. A self-described liberal, he said he had a surprisingly civil conversation with a man who described himself as a Trump supporter.
“It’s cathartic,” he said. “That dude was a nice person, but I think he is using ‘free speech’ as a red herring and doesn’t really wanna say what he is about.”
A number of incidents broke out. In one instance, protesters surrounded a Trump supporter draped in an Israeli flag and screamed obscenities in his face, knocked off his “Make America Great Again” hat and ordered him to leave.
The Boston Police Department reported 33 arrests.
While interviewing Trump-supporter Sean Cronin, who described himself as “anti-immigration,” protesters surrounded Univision reporter Jessica Weiss and declared she should not give a platform to racism.
“Trump is not connected to the KKK, he’s not racist,” Cronin said. “I don’t see it. They’re yelling at me that I’m a racist? Oh really, my cousin’s black? If I’m a racist then what the hell is that?”
The majority of protesters were not violent. Some even sought to protect those participating in the rally. Imani, a young African American woman from Connecticut, escorted a small group of Trump supporters through the crowd.
“I don’t believe in this right wing narrative of alt left and how we are crazed looking to get violent,” she later told a reporter at the Boston Globe. “What better way to show them they are wrong?”
“I couldn’t get through a KKK rally with the same treatment. But we shouldn’t be like them,” she added.
But clearly, not everyone protesting shared her opinion.
When asked, Hansen said he wasn’t necessarily against violence.
“I don’t condone non-violence just for the sake of non-violence,” he said. “I can’t bring myself to condemn people for punching Nazis. Nazis should be discouraged from congregating in a free society.”