Counter-protesters chase ‘free speech’ rally goers out of town, but endure police aggression after peaceful march
Hours before cops in riot gear escalated protest and counter-protest 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.
With thousands of demonstrators waiting on Boston Common for participants in the contemptible “Free Speech” rally to surface their hideous heads, thousands more—led by local and national Black Lives Matter fronts, along with the group Violence in Boston—gathered two-and-a-half 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.”
Whereas the news popping nationally out of Boston today appears to be focused on the significantly few Donald Trump supporters and hatemongering speakers who showed up and spurred a number of scuffles, and on the alleged heroics of the Boston Police Department, 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.”
And then they marched. “We are going to come down to Boston Common and wipe that smile off your face,” said one of the BLM organizers as the path cleared for the pickup truck to make its way to the front. The speaker acknowledged that some of the heads in the crowd may not see eye to eye all the time, but said, “We don’t have to agree on everything to unify and fight nazis.”
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”; “HEY HEY, HO HO, NAZI SCUM HAS GOT TO GO.” There were countless clumps of friends, as well as many families, though very few children around, as parents this reporter spoke with said they didn’t want to put their kids at risk of possible 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.
It took more than two hours for the mass to move through the South End, a neighborhood being rapidly gentrified, and where many of the walkers live. Hundreds hung out of windows cheering them on, with innumerable more lining the street like a parade route. Organizers threw the brakes on several times to remind people about the housing crisis afoot, all the while taking rhetorical shots at the racists awaiting them on the Common. Police in shorts on bikes and on foot in regular uniforms also manned the route and appeared to be treating the marchers respectfully, save for one who rolled by a local photographer and shouted “FAKE NEWS,” his badge hardly in view.
The scene was different downtown. 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 walled off by barricades and cops galore on the elevated Boston Common bandstand, way out of earshot from adversaries, counter-protesters from all walks of life surrounded the metal, screaming and chanting and looking 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, or at least attempted to.
As two massive counter-demonstrations merged, the cops began to mark their territory. One group of stormtroopers attempted to block the Black Lives Matters swarm from getting near the “Free Speech” instigators. The resulting melee ended with counter-protesters in plastic ties, some face down on the ground. This as white supremacists, in some cases, were taken off the premises in wagons.
The following two hours followed a similar 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 stood their ground, and were pushed and threatened in the process. Reporters got it too; besides not being allowed to enter the barricades, many journalists were tossed aside in the effort to clear the area. One writer working with 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 advanced toward a crowd to make room for the wagons.
By 4:30 pm, the only sign left that 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 their recent aggression, BPD Commissioner Evans answered a few simple questions, only covering basics like how many people they had arrested (27 at last count). 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.
A Queens, NY native who came to New England in 2004 to earn his MA in journalism at Boston University, Chris Faraone is the editor and co-publisher of DigBoston and a co-founder of the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. He has published several books including 99 Nights with the 99 Percent, and has written liner notes for hip-hop gods including Cypress Hill, Pete Rock, Nas, and various members of the Wu-Tang Clan.