Boston’s ‘Free Speech’ Rally Proved That No One Is Listening

August 25, 2017
A large crowd of people gather ahead of the Boston Free Speech Rally in Boston, Aug. 19, 2017. | Reuters

The Lessons The Media Missed At The Boston Anti-Fascist March

On Saturday, August 19, a group of white-supremacists and Neo-Nazi types affiliated with infamous ultranationalist Richard Spencer held a rally in Boston, Massachusetts, under the auspices of exercising “free speech.” Despite being protected by hundreds, perhaps thousands, of police officers — on bikes, motor cycles, in cars, helicopters, on foot, in plain clothes, in uniforms, in riot gear, in SWAT equipment — and at great taxpayer expense, only about 40 “free speechers” showed up, and even fewer decided to exercise their right to free speech. After 45 minutes they asked for a police escort and were evacuated, again at taxpayer expense, by Boston Police Department paddy wagons.

Between 30,000 and 40,000 protesters, a diverse collection of concerned citizens, showed up to counter-protest, marching a two-mile route to greet the rally on Boston Common. As it turns out, counter-protesters were the main event, and only a few hundred in the massive crowd even encountered a “Nazi.” While in attendance for more than six hours in the crowd, I saw five to seven members of the initial “free-speech” protest, and perhaps another three people who may or may not have been at the rally but were brave enough to confront the much larger crowd.

Most of the media reporting of the rally has been insufficient, and has failed to adequately capture the ‘je ne sais quoi’ of the event, or the zeitgeist of the crowd. Furthermore, many conservatives and liberals alike who have not attended such events in recent months both seem at best to be out of touch with the realities of these protests, and at worst are actively spreading misinformation.

A detailed account of my experience would be boring, because if Saturday was anything it was anticlimactic. I will attempt, therefore, to correct this narrative and to stress some of the larger points raised by the events of Saturday’s gathering, which was far more important than the sum of its non-eventful parts.

The protesters were not anti-free speech, nor were the “ralliers” pro-free speech

Upon making it to Boston Common, large groups of disappointed counter-protesters were left wandering aimlessly because their task was already accomplished. While the counter-protest was made up of many different types of people with different viewpoints, two goals were more universal: 1) to show the world that most Americans reject the far-right, ultranationalist, and racist agenda of those whom they were directly protesting (and the sitting president) and 2) to actively engage these people in debate. One woman, a self-described ”Jewish Asian lady,” was upset that there was no one to talk to. “I just want to talk to these Nazis, to show them that we’re good people and that their hatred is silly.” It’s naive, but it’s also the perfect recipe for countering these extreme attitudes.

The protest was less violent than an average Saturday night in Boston

According to Boston Police, 33 people were arrested (not all of them counter-protesters). This means that this author has attended house parties that ended with fuller jails. In more than six hours in this area I witnessed none of these arrests. According to news reports, at least one of the members of the rally tried to take a gun onto the Boston Common, and three ballistic vests were confiscated by police as such items were a violation of their initial permit. In perhaps a separate incident (it’s unclear), video shows a man wearing a “Make America Great Again”  debating several non-white counter-protesters before he was arrested, reportedly for carrying or brandishing a gun.

At no point did I witness the assault of a police officer, though to be clear some of the arrests were for just that. Violence and unruly conduct was so rare that it was virtually unseen to this reporter and to most who attended the rally.

The most violent thing I witnessed was one girl, no older than 22, splashing a Trump supporter with water from her plastic water bottle. At a different point, a small scuffle between that same Trump supporter and another protester broke out though it was impossible for me to see how it began. Both incidents ended, however, with the bulk of the crowd surrounding and protecting the Trump supporter and chanting “no violence.” A young woman, Imani Williams, has become a bit of a celebrity for her efforts to protect the “free speech” protesters despite not agreeing with their message.

Interestingly, just a dozen meters away another confrontation occurred when a young man in his twenties said “blue lives matter” to a group of people who were chanting “black lives matter.” This incident ended after several tense minutes of shouting followed by 30 minutes of low-volume conversation. Ultimately, the young white man and two young black men embraced, exchanged pleasantries, and went on with their day.

Having lived in Boston at one point I can attest that if I walked around this neighborhood on an average Saturday night I might have seen more street fighting or arrests than at this massive event. Anyone hoping to see sparks fly was surely disappointed. What they would have found is tens of thousands of peaceful people who were seeking to make their voices heard, and literally a handful of bad apples. Simply put, discounting a handful of individuals and isolated incidents, there was no violence.

There was, however, plenty of anger.

Boston’s largest Black Lives Matter protest

On one hand, Massachusetts is not a particularly diverse state, and the counter-protest march had a large number of racial minorities. On the other hand, there is no denying that the crowd was overwhelmingly white, and those minorities were lost in the crowd.

But it didn’t stay that way.

Almost immediately after the counter-protest march made it to Boston Common, the crowd slowly, then quickly thinned out. Those who had the least at stake went shopping or went home, satisfied that their voices were heard and that the Nazis had been run out of Boston. Within a few hours, a growing percentage of the crowd was made up of local Black Lives Matter protesters, and they were determined to use the media’s camera crews as a megaphone for spreading a message that appears to have been largely been ignored.

It was an uphill battle.

The reality is that Boston has had many struggles with police brutality. It is one of the most racially segregated cities in New England, an area where the racial and poverty divides could not be more clear. No, it’s not Ferguson or Baltimore, but the problems in Boston are very real, progress is very slow, and tension is building. While anti-Semitism is rampant among members of the alt-right, and while the Jewish community in Boston should fear their hate, the reality is that Brookline, one of the most heavily-Jewish neighborhoods in America, is upscale, inhabited largely by those in the upper-middle class. For the black and Latino community, the threats of racism, both systemic and overt, are much more immediate.

The reality is that the black and Latino communities have plenty to be angry about. By and large, their schools are worse, their opportunities are scarce, and even their life expectancy is shorter than their white counterparts. These problems have plagued these communities for generations. In some places they’re even getting worse.

Furthermore, the black and Latino communities rarely have an opportunity to engage in discussion with a broad segment of the American populace. Real chances to engage in dialogue, and meaningful opportunities for their voices to be heard, are few and far between and the media coverage of the Charlottesville and Boston rallies underscore this. As Chris Faraone argues in his must-read article on the Boston rally, major media outlets covered the large counter-protests (deservingly so), the violence in Charlottesville (which was truly noteworthy), and the cat-in-tree local media outlets covered the few clashes and arrests in Boston, drama which was less worthy of their attention though was likely more dramatic for their viewers than the reality of those who attended the rallies. Some outlets interviewed the white supremacists themselves, including Vice News’s Elle Reeve who embedded with the white supremacists in Charlottesville. These provided crucial insight into the true nature of those who are holding these “free speech” rallies. And yet, without anyone giving equal attention to other voices, particularly the black, Jewish, Latino or Muslim groups that are so often the target for this radical hate. The “Nazis” may have received more free press than the victims of their hate whose problems will continue, no matter how many people show up in Boston.

Two groups that don’t really support free speech?

There are still those who are debating the “free speech” nature of this event. Were the event organizers KKK/Nazi types or crusaders for free speech? (This author believes they were the former). Were the tens of thousands of counter-protesters there to shut down free speech? (No). Dozens of groups, many politicians, and tens of thousands of Americans who were not receiving their marching order from anyone in particular showed up at this rally. But one very large group was noticeably absent — average Republicans.

Contrary to popular national opinion, Donald Trump has MANY supporters in New England. He won the GOP primaries in all New England states except Maine (which Ted Cruz carried). In the general election, Trump got nearly 38,000 votes in Boston alone. And yet this author did not encounter any Republicans other than the handful of protesters described above. If this really was a “free speech” rally, almost no Republicans came out to support free speech. If this really was a hate rally, almost no Republicans came out to show their opposition to the hate speech or in solidarity with the victims of hate speech.

If anything, the past few weeks have further underscored the massive political divide between the left and the right. We are far past the point where the right should have stood up against the policies and messages of the alt-right. Simply making statements is not enough. Too few Republicans stood against Trump’s nomination. Almost all registered Republicans voted for him in the general election. Almost no Republican lawmakers opposed Trump’s most controversial appointees (like Jeff Sessions). Not enough Republicans are standing in solidarity with those who are concerned about systemic or overt racism.

Another group that inadvertently sent mixed messages on Saturday — the Boston police. The BPD has been accused of actively suppressing the speech of the “free speech rally,” and denied journalists the opportunity to interview rally attendees. A recent segment from one of Boston’s local NPR stations, WGBH, discussed whether or not Boston police commissioner Bill Evans overstepped his authority in his strategy to keep the peace. All would agree, however, that BPD had a very difficult task to perform, especially in light of the Charlottesville fiasco. The Boston police department should be praised in that it was able to keep everyone safe, preventing most clashes between the two rival groups, and did so while using impressive levels of restraint. From my perspective, a common perspective of most attendees, at no point during the march or the events on the Boston Common did the police presence seem intimidating or overbearing.

What happened next, after most of the crowds were gone, is a somewhat different story. As the crowds dwindled and the spontaneous Black Lives Matter protest spread to the Downtown Crossing neighborhood near the Commons, a large force of police officers closed down an intersection on one of the side streets. A local camera crew told me that the police may have initially been responding to an incident where a protester was injured, but I walked on all sides of the area the police had cordoned off and saw no signs of a disturbance. However, protesters on all three sides of the intersection were unsure why the police were there, and the rumor quickly spread that the police were there to clear the BLM protesters. The very presence of these police, with no clear reason for their attendance, only further agitated the protesters, who were gathering to decry police brutality and the militarization of the police force. I watched this dynamic continue for more than 45 minutes. It was clear to me that if the police simply dispersed, the growing crowd would likely disperse as well — which is exactly what happened when the police left. It was the perfect example of the continued misunderstandings between the Black Lives Matter movement and local police forces. The local media, of course, gleefully reported on the tensions between the crowds, yet failed to cover the message of the Black Lives Matter protest.

Though many have hailed Boston’s rally a success, it’s unlikely that Saturday’s events have brought any increase in understanding or healing to the city of Boston, nor the nation as a whole. At the end of the day, racism is real, racial inequity thrives, and the political divide is just making it worse. Charlottesville’s violence may have been a rarity, but how long can this dynamic continue before more violence is in our future? Recent history teaches that the answer is ‘not long.’