Between the protesters, the counterprotesters, the media, the cops, and a handful of trolls, countless stories unfolded in Boston last weekend. These are several we encountered…
PHOTOS, WORDS, AND REPORTING BY SARAH BETANCOURT, BRITNI DE LA CRETAZ, CHRIS FARAONE, KORI FEENER, NATE HOMAN, ZACK HUFFMAN, DEREK KOUYOUMJIAN, JAY LANCASTER, DAN MCCARTHY, JASON PRAMAS
Many have suggested that Bostonians were essentially trolled this past Saturday, when the ratio of white supremacists along with rank-and-file Donald Trump supporters to supporters of an open multicultural society on Boston Common turned out to be roughly 100:35,000. Maybe people were punked, maybe they weren’t; it’s an easy argument to make either way, as both those in the stark numerical minority who spoke amongst themselves on the Parkman Bandstand and the passionate picketers barking at them from more than 200 feet away got their messages across to some extent—the former through the media, which apparently loves nothing more than shining big bright lights on assholes with intolerant views, and the latter through the direct screams and streams of tens of thousands of hollering people.
Whatever happened, in the aftermath, it would be truly foolish to allow the handful of provocateurs who set up a “Free Speech” rally to keep on racking up wins. Which the trolls accomplish every time that some tendentious pundit wonders out loud if an individual with shitty xenophobic views should be labeled alt-right or white nationalist or another kind of hate monger, or when anybody suggests that it’s more egregious when the cops step on the First Amendment rights of conservative extremists than when they step on the arms, legs, and faces of protesters and pepper-spray crowds. They’re both unfortunate scenarios, but in the wake of these dramatic and traumatic happenings, the establishment outlets have been far more concerned about free press than freedom.
With so many stories of the protesters who marched, rallied, and romped—against hate, as well as in response to local, national, and international concerns, which sadly seem to accumulate faster than usual these days—disappearing in the emerging master narrative, our crack team of writers and photographers compiled this attempt at an expansive people’s history of what unfolded from Roxbury to the Common, all compiled from our firsthand accounts on the front lines.
On the day before the rally, organizers of one of the counterprotests held a press conference in Roxbury…
The scrum at the Thursday morning Black Lives Matter media availability in Dudley Square was noticeably thinner than the crowd outside of City Hall three days earlier for a conference called by Mayor Marty Walsh and Gov. Charlie Baker. Which was interesting, since the organizers—from groups including Violence in Boston, Black Lives Matter Network, Black Lives Matter Movement, Black Lives Matter Boston, and Black Lives Matter Cambridge—were expecting more than 30,000 people to join them out in the streets the next day. In comparison, the organizing instigator of the so-called Free Speech rally got extensive coverage all week, including at least one intimate interview with an international outlet.
For the cameras that showed up in Roxbury, Violence in Boston organizer Monica Cannon read from an exceptionally pointed statement written by the joint alliance:
The individuals and institutions most effective in harming Black and Brown people do not carry torches or wear white hoods. Instead, they aggressively patrol our neighborhoods, enforce laws unequally, systematically impose poverty, and suppress the voices and needs of oppressed communities. This supremacy is upheld by all who benefit from it, and is in alignment with capitalism, cis-hetero patriarchy, ableism, queer and trans antagonism, misogynoir, and all existing forms of oppression.
“We are very clear that we are focused on a peaceful engagement, [and] that we do not want weapons of any kind,” said Angelina Camacho, one of the organizers and a candidate for Boston City Council in District 7, where the presser was held. “We do not want to entertain anything that would actually detract us from expressing our message.” –CF
Meanwhile, another group, which would ultimately merge with the Roxbury marchers downtown, had been planning a counterprotest of sorts—to take place in front of the State House—for weeks…
With organizers starting to put plans in motion even before the events in Charlottesville, Virginia, that fomented tension in Boston, the Stand For Solidarity Rally was meant to be visible opposition to what planners described as “grass-roots led, far-right mobilizations.”
Led by C.O.M.B.A.T., the ANSWER Coalition, Boston Party for Socialism and Liberation, and Boston Democratic Socialists of America, organizers set their programming to include a variety of speakers, with the goal of bringing attention to local issues that the community is currently fighting.
We spoke to three organizers about why they led this mobilization, and asked what they hope Boston should be doing to fight white supremacy in general. Kimberly Barzola, a coordinator from the ANSWER Coalition, explained: “We saw a similar [free speech] demonstration in May with a fairly large group of free speechers at the Common and, at that time, they greatly outnumbered us. We wanted to bring attention to active campaigns and the different kind of struggles and work our organizers are engaged in. Today is actually also the Millions For Prisoners Human Rights March in Washington, DC, and some of our organizers are there. [MCI-Norfolk] prison has been promised a new water filtration system since 2011, and it’s resulted in really egregious water quality, black and brown water.”
Added Stephanie Houten of the anti-Trump mobilizing outfit C.O.M.B.A.T.: “One of the things we were worried about was safety because last time we were very close to a free speech rally and they had [members of local far-right, anti-government group] Oath Keepers with open firearms on the Common, which isn’t legal in Massachusetts, but they were allowed last time. So as a safety procedure and political strategy, we wanted to be in front of the State House, where Beacon and Park streets meet.”
Houten continued: “[Our goals] have to do with things that are a direct result of white supremacy and systemic racism, things like justice for Terrence Coleman, who was killed by a Boston police officer last year. Police brutality generally—there are people in jail who shouldn’t be. We wanted to show, in the context of Boston, what does white supremacy mean here? We wanted it to be about local struggles and what white supremacy means in Massachusetts and Boston, like [how Gov.] Charlie Baker is cutting funding for HIV services [and homeless youth].” –BDLC
Before cops in riot gear escalated protest and counterprotest activities into a raucous scene in which marchers, including many people of color, were trampled, bound, and shoved to the ground, Saturday in Boston started off on a positive note…
As thousands of demonstrators waited on Boston Common for participants in the “Free Speech” rally to surface their hideous heads, thousands more from the Black Lives Matter front gathered 2.5 miles south of downtown in Roxbury. In front of the Hub’s beleaguered vocational institute, Madison Park High School, organizers stepped onto the bed of a pickup truck soon after the 10 am start time to wake up the crowd.
“Today we are going to make white supremacists hide again.” With every new speaker, the benevolent horde, which by 11 am filled an entire four-lane street for several blocks, grew louder, more determined. “WE ARE THE RESISTANCE. RESISTANCE ISN’T SOMETHING YOU SAY. IT’S SOMETHING YOU DO … THESE FASCISTS PICKED THE WRONG TOWN TO COME TO.”
The Roxbury leg of the resistance focused on issues germane to the city’s struggling neighborhoods. As one speaker noted, “We need to fund schools more and the police department less.” City Councilor Tito Jackson, who is currently running for mayor against the incumbent Marty Walsh, noted the severe cuts to the vocational school behind him and to programs for poor people in general. “We are the Boston that you refuse to see,” Jackson said. “We are the Boston that you refuse to hear. But ladies and gentlemen, we are right here, and we are going to be heard.”
The slog downtown was slow but inspiring, with people walking in the open sunny street and sweating while they danced and chanted. Different spots on the march featured varying flavors. The front, where organizers tagged along with the truck and sound system, packed the energy of an Apollo Creed ring entrance. Antifa activists held down the middle: “GET UP, GET DOWN, ANTIFASCISTS RUN THIS TOWN.” There were countless clumps of friends, as well as many families, though very few children, as parents said they didn’t want to put their kids at risk of injury. In the whitest section, people chanted, “This little light of mine,” with some walking up to thank BPD Commissioner William Evans for his service as they walked past police headquarters.
Organizers threw the brakes on several times to dance and remind people about the housing crisis around them, the whole time taking rhetorical shots at the racists they were prepared to encounter. Police in shorts on bikes and on foot in regular uniforms also manned the route, and—save for one who rolled by a local photographer and shouted “FAKE NEWS,” his badge hardly in view—appeared to be treating the marchers respectfully. –CF
People on the Common said they came out for innumerable reasons. Here are a few who we spoke with…
“I’m here today to stand for what I believe in, and to protect people who will be potentially hurt. After Charlottesville happened, I caught wind of this one, and I feel a duty to be here … I can use my privilege to get more done in some situations while others could be unfairly judged. I have a duty to be here because of that.”
–Lily Mangan, 18, college freshman coming from New Hampshire
“After Charlottesville, I felt it was important for me to get out on the ground and see things as it happened … I’m an odd case. I go to Emerson, but I came here from Alabama, so I’m used to navigating this conservative-liberal divide. They talk past one another and what the other is saying.”
–Christian Gibbons, 22, Emerson College student studying globalization
“I came to show that there is opposition to the white supremacy that has been going on lately, and how that’s affecting not just my own life but my friends’ lives and my family’s lives … I think they’re realizing that you can say what you want, but that doesn’t mean anyone has to listen to you, or that it doesn’t have consequences.”
-Gabby O., Boston resident
“It’s not about free speech; that is a coded way of trying to slip in white nationalist beliefs. If it was about free speech they would have a variety of speakers coming from different political perspectives talking about the history of what free speech was and not focusing on violent and hateful speech.”
“We can’t tolerate white supremacy in this town, in this state, in this country at all … I don’t think it was ever really about free speech. I think it’s about the right to hate.”
–Maddy, Boston resident and UMass Amherst research assistant
“There was a time when people didn’t stand up to Nazis, and some really terrible things happened, so when they come around again, I feel like it’s my duty as an American to stand up against Nazis … I believe that is hate speech, and I believe that hate speech is violence, not free speech … I think violence for some people can feel like a last resort when you feel hopeless and helpless and don’t feel like you have channels that you can actually make change with, but I entirely disagree with violence and I don’t believe that it changes anything.”
–Tara, mental health worker from Hudson, Mass
–Interviews by SB + JAL
All along Tremont Street in the South End, people lined up like paradegoers, even hanging out of windows to cheer marchers on while snapping pictures. Others watched as they ate brunch…
One of the most jarring parts of Saturday’s march out of Roxbury was the walk through the South End. As organizers of color led 40,000 people through the streets of Boston, the sidewalk looked more like a parade route, with people waiting to gawk, wave, and snap photos. But perhaps the most dissonance occurred when a march made up predominantly of folks who are marginalized in some way—most marchers were people of color, queer, trans, Jewish, and/or women—passed restaurant patios full of mostly white people leisurely brunching and watching the crowd go by.
At Stephi’s on Tremont, people pulled out their phones to take photos of the march as it passed, while staff came outside to cheer. Most people remained seated, but a few stood up to get a better shot. Several of the patrons knew the march was happening and had chosen to brunch there for the stellar view. They all said they were there to show support for the march, which, in their case, looked like waving and taking photos.
The pedicab drivers I spoke to, who were parked next to the restaurant, eventually became frustrated. One said, “The optics are so bad. Like, a bunch of privileged people gawking at people who are just asking to have their humanity recognized.”
Further up Tremont Street at the Beehive, with its unique patio set up in the middle of a sidewalk, one in a group of three women was sporting a “Fuck Trump” shirt. They were paying their tab, and planned to eat some food and join the march when it reached them. They hopped over the chains surrounding Beehive’s outdoor seating and jumped into the crowd.
At Barcelona Wine Bar, two men stood gawking at the crowd. “This is, like, a rally against Trump, right?” one asked. “Wait, really?” the other one asked. Despite being given an explanation about the actual purpose of the march, the first guy remained steadfast in his understanding that it was “a Trump protest.” The two men, both from the Boston area, had no clue that either the “Free Speech” rally or any of its counter actions were taking place.
At Picco, an older white couple said they had been with the march since it started. But they were hot, tired, and really, really hungry, and they had to call it a day. They were going to have pizza, because marching is important, but so is making sure you’re hydrated and fed. –BDLC
And then two counterprotests became one…
It took more than two hours for the mass to move from the South End to downtown, where the scene was markedly different. Helicopters hovered. Tension lingered. And despite the mayor and police commissioner’s boasting earlier in the week that their cops have rarely had to sport riot gear, authorities were decked from boot to helmet with clubs drawn.
With the minimal “Free Speech” gang sectioned off by barricades up on the elevated bandstand, way out of earshot from adversaries, counterprotesters from all walks of life surrounded the metal, screaming, chanting, and scanning for Nazis among them.
While things were relatively calm on the perimeter for the first several hours—by the Park Street MBTA stop, Boston’s favorite busker Keytar Bear jammed away—by 1 pm, as Black Lives Matters marchers finally arrived, the police state manifested in full force. Near Emerson College on the Boylston Street side of the Common, cops safely escorted speakers from the hate stage out of the area. In other cases, activists from groups like Black Lives Matter also helped with such extractions, blocking potentially volatile actors from attacking chumps leaving the inner ring.
As two massive counterdemonstrations merged, the cops began to mark their territory. One group of stormtroopers attempted to impede the Black Lives Matters swarm from getting near the “Free Speech” set; another miniature army suddenly appeared near the State House, ensuring that ensuing aggravation wouldn’t spill up Beacon Hill. Resulting melees ended with a score of counterprotesters in plastic ties, some face down on the ground. This as white supremacists, in some cases, were taken off the premises in wagons. –CF
One guy brought a gun to Boston Common…
As free speech activists, white supremacists, Donald Trump supporters, Antifa, Black Lives Matter protesters, and others converged on Boston on Saturday, one exchange led to a man with a gun sprinting away from the Boston Police Department.
The man was wearing a “Make America Great Again” hat, and according to witnesses he attempted to pull out a gun on the black man he was arguing with.
In the moments prior to his arrest, he and a small group of men gathered on Boylston Street, just outside of Boston Common. Some of their clothing identified them as supporters of Donald Trump, with a few wearing MAGA hats. As the conversation escalated, counterprotesters asked attendees of the “Free Speech” rally why they viewed themselves (white people) as superior. In response, one man replied that “race doesn’t matter, as long as you’re American.” The argument continued until one of the counterprotesters thought that he saw one of the men in the MAGA hats reach for a gun, and then alerted police.
That’s when the man in the MAGA hat took off, attempting to run from the cops, who chased after him. He was apprehended just a short distance away, police confiscating his firearm and taking him into custody. The Boston Police Department also arrested two men with artillery vests.
At a 4:30 pm media availability, more than an hour after the masses cleared out, police went into minor detail about the gun incident. Commissioner William Evans said, “We don’t really know if they’re white supremacists, but I can tell you the three we did arrest had a ballistic [vest], and when we brought them and the vests back to the station, one had a gun.”
A friend of the armed man arrested who identified himself to these reporters as Luke said that he came to the “Free Speech” rally from the Worcester area. He said that his “buddy works with security and must have forgot he had it on him.” He was visibly aggravated, adding that the friend who was arrested was supposed to give him a ride to his niece’s birthday party. –SB + BDLC
And then came the incident that conservatives won’t stop talking about…
The crowd was thick with various small groups of activists in full-body black bloc garb, complete with bandanas and masks in some cases. These are the protesters who are often shown on television news starting street fights, but in Boston there was barely anyone to brawl with.
“I came here to tell fascists and racists that they aren’t welcome,” said one of the few masked demonstrators who was willing to speak to reporters.
The “Free Speech” crowd seemed to get the message, as their rally was cordoned off by fences forming inner and outer boundaries. The only way in and out was through a phalanx of police in riot gear.
Meanwhile, counterprotesters flowed into the Common, with little else to do but wonder where the white supremacists were hanging out.
At one point in the early afternoon, a dust-up took place by the Frog Pond, when a person who appeared to be a man in a vest grabbed an American flag out of the hands of an elderly Trump supporter. She chased the culprit, but tripped on the flag dragging behind him. While the details remain murky, activists contend that while masked medics may have been in the vicinity, it was a random instigator who caused all the trouble with the flag. Whoever’s to blame, those same medics, some of whom ran over to assist the fallen woman, said that police used the incident as an excuse to search the bags of several counterprotesters and in the process trashed a water station.
Meanwhile, as that episode went viral on Fox News for all the wrong reasons and with infinitely asinine interpretations, some of the “Free Speech” folks were escorted out of the park like rock stars ducking paparazzi. Without a larger riot on their hands, the significantly staffed force was available to help the speakers escape, leading some through the Boston Common parking garage and to the edge of the park, where arrest wagons and police chauffeurs awaited, and others onto Boylston Street, where all hell later broke loose.
“In my opinion, the arrangement was very problematic,” said Urszula Masny-Latos, executive director of the National Lawyers Guild, Massachusetts Chapter. “It was obvious that the BPD’s goal was to protect the Nazis, not the counterprotesters. The number of cops at the protest was overwhelming and unnecessary, and what they did was just to show their authority and power and to limit the movement and speech of the counterprotesters.
“Boston’s police commissioner claims that they needed this kind of buffer zone to protect both sides. I find this statement problematic. Violence in Charlottesville was a result of lack of proper police intervention. Nazis there showed up with sticks, torches, and guns, and when they attacked, cops didn’t do much to protect anti-Nazis. In Boston … there was no need to bring such ridiculous force and restrain people to a suffocating level.” –SB + ZH
Overall, there were more furries in attendance than friends of the Fuhrer…
There was no use in searching high and low for groups that could be waiting in the wings to flank the speakers. There were not even apparent fascists loitering around the South Station bus terminal, nor in the alleyways around the Common and Chinatown. According to the gentleman outside of the Centerfolds strip club, no free speech fanatics or people dressed in white sheets were seen getting lap dances.
Though you never really know who may have been amid…
Back in the day, you could spot the neo-Nazis at punk, metal, and hardcore shows by their shaved heads and the red laces on their combat boots. These days, it’s difficult to distinguish between the average cul-du-sac-bred boat shoe dude and a tiki torch-wielding preppy brobag with bad intentions, as seen in Charlottesville.
The circus came and went with zero hardcore fascists making an appearance. Not a single swastika either, other than the ones that were crossed out on many homemade placards. No stars, no bars. No tiki torches. No Proud Boys. No Pepe. Not even any Kekistani garb, like “Free Speech” rally organizer John Medlar wore to a similar event on the Common in May. No Milo Yiannopoulos. No David Duke. No Richard Spencer.
It was like going to Disney World while Mickey Mouse was away on vacation.
But I did spot Wolftits under a tree. Wolftits was in a full werewolf costume and seemed to be enjoying some mind-altering substances. He wanted everyone to “calm down and respect each other.”
Wolftits had a tough day.
“I hate mean people, man.” He moaned, “I didn’t expect people on my side to be so judgemental … I know I look different, but I’m not a Nazi wolf. It’s not right that they would just assume that just because I look different.” –NH
After about 1:30 pm, events followed a troubling pattern, from the State House on the hill atop the Common to some narrow side streets…
Police platoons popped up to arbitrarily block protesters, some of whom held their turf and were pushed, threatened, and at certain points even pepper-sprayed in the process. Some were dragged, mangled, and bruised, others left to wipe the tears and vomit from their chins as medics came to aid them. Reporters got it too; to compound the insult of being kept outside of the barricades and away from the speakers, many journalists were tossed aside in the effort to clear the area. One writer working with DigBoston and the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism was pushed to the ground by a cop, where she was nearly trampled, while another had his phone broken as the fuzz plowed a crowd to make room for the wagons.
By 4:30 pm, the only remnant left that revealed there had been a significant action was by Park Street, where departing protesters hung signs on fences, making for a Berlin Wall of anti-Nazi messaging. At a press conference near the site of his department’s cold aggression, Commissioner Evans answered a few simple questions, sticking to the basics like arrest numbers. Addressing reporters alongside Mayor Walsh, Evans said of the 33 people arrested, “We had some kids block the street, and they got a little confrontational … They were given every option to leave, but the officers … were getting bottled, they were getting pushed, and I think they did a good job handling it.”
Nobody explained how, or why the department came into a charged but relatively peaceful rally in militarized gear and made a moderate situation markedly worse while defending the rights of some racists to shout in the wind. –CF + SB
This dispatch was produced in collaboration with DigBoston and the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism.
Edits by Mitchell Hansen-Dewar.