BOSTON — In the wake of deadly clashes outside a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va., last weekend, plans for a “free speech” rally in Boston Saturday featuring speakers with links to the “Unite the Right” event in Virginia sent a wave of anxiety through the city, which despite its progressive reputation and historical association with abolition also has its own history of racial animosity.
“Free speech” has become a rallying cry for some on the right, in opposition to what they say is censorship of their views in the media and on college campuses.
But following promises of heavy security, and stern warnings against violence from both the city’s mayor and police commissioner, what took place on the Boston Common Saturday was not a repeat of Charlottesville but rather a liberal counterpunch. An estimated 40,000 protesters surrounded a few dozen rally-goers quietly huddled atop the barricaded Parkman Bandstand.
Slideshow: Scenes From Boston’s Counterprotest »
Though the counterdemonstrations were largely peaceful, with the Boston Police Department reporting a total of 33 arrests for disruptive behavior as of Saturday night, there were many in the crowd indisputably looking for a fight — making anyone in a Trump T-shirt or “Make America Great Again” hat prey for angry protesters.
Yahoo News went into the crowd in Boston Saturday and talked to mostly right-wing marchers for “free speech” and to mostly progressive counterprotesters. Here is some of what we found:
Aylin, 22 — Counterprotester
Dressed in nearly full body armor, Aylin, who is from Michigan but declined to give her real name, had visited counter-protesters injured in Charlottesville before she made her way to Boston. While she did not shy away from the possibility of physically tangling with white supremacists or other activists from the so-called alt-right, she was coy on whether she was a member of the antifa, a leftist anti-fascist movement known for its willingness to use violence against their opponents. “I’m from Turkey originally. … We can’t do this in my country. People like me, we know the value of standing up. Many people don’t feel that urgency, and you have to show them that there’s urgency because this is our country. … We can’t let history continuously repeat itself. … Antifa doesn’t have a rigid hierarchal structure. … It’s a matter of are you willing to do what you need to do? If so, you are antifa. If you are sympathizing with the other side and showing passiveness when it doesn’t call for it, you aren’t antifa. These two groups are not one in the same at all. You leave antifa alone, and they will just chill. You leave Nazis alone, and they’ll start killing. It’s a matter of stopping them before it gets to that point because even waving the Nazi flag around is a call to action for their side to start killing people. Our call to action is to stop the from killing people.”
Anthony Moretto, 19, and Misha Shpits, 19 — Free-speechers
Moretto lifts up his black Trump T-shirt to reveal a second shirt printed with the green and black flag of Kekistan, a fictitious country created by 4chan users and popularized by the “alt-right” as a means of poking fun at politically correct progressives. “It’s basically just a giant laugh at identity politics,” Moretto said, explaining the joke at the root of the “Kek” meme, a satirical religion based on the worship of a mythical frog-headed deity. “I was hoping some people would recognize it. I’d high-five them, have a laugh.”
Though Moretto, who attends the University of Massachusetts at Boston, dismissed the torch-lit march of white supremacists through Charlottesville last weekend as “hilarious,” Shpits admitted that such imagery “makes me uncomfortable.”
“I’m actually Jewish. I spent the last three months in Israel. Hearing people call me a fascist is, I don’t want to say ‘hurtful,’ but it’s insulting, really.”
“Personally, it hits kind of close to home,” he continued. “My father, in the Soviet Union, he lived in Moldova, small little breakaway region called Transnistria. and there’d be cases where people would go up to him and ask him to take his pants down to see if he’s circumcised.”
“I don’t want to have that in a country that he fled to, that he immigrated to so I would have that freedom,” he said, comparing his feelings of hostility from the left to the anti-Semitism his father experienced growing up in the Soviet Union. “I want to have the security to walk out in the streets … without being afraid to say I’m a conservative.”
Shpits said he looked forward to hearing speaker Shiva Ayyadurai, a right-wing former MIT lecturer seeking to unseat Massachusetts Democrat Elizabeth Warren in next year’s Senate race. But he and his friend didn’t make it that far. Before noon, when the speeches were scheduled to begin, the pair was swarmed and ultimately shoved out of the park by protesters shouting “Nazis go home!”
Nat, 25 — Counterprotester
A longtime activist affiliated with the Workers World Party, Nat, from Saugus, Mass., who declined to give her full name, said her mission Saturday was “fighting Nazis.” She hoped for “non-confrontation” but said she and others were determined to stand their ground, no matter what. “We are living in a dumpster fire. If you aren’t doing something about it, then you are on the side of the Nazis. We are here trying to get fascism out of the U.S., trying to protect people who need protecting … to do whatever we can to scare the fascists away because it’s time for them to be the ones in fear.” As she spoke, she wore a sign around her neck that read “Cops & Klan Go Hand in Hand.” Though Boston Police had deployed hundreds of officers to walk along with counterprotesters and along the route, she said she had no confidence that they were there to shield activists like her from potential violence. “They aren’t here to protect us. They are here to protect the Nazis,” she said.
“We are living under a fascist government. Believe me or not, those are the facts. They are oppressing people left and right … the same game they have been playing since this country was founded. The cops are just agents of the state. And I don’t care about what anybody says about there being good cops, if you are a cop, you are on the side of the state.”
Nick Haines, 21 — Free-speecher
Armed with a helmet, a roll of duct tape, and two quarts of milk, Haines, from Oxford, Mass., said he drove an hour and a half to Boston to help keep the peace alongside the small cluster of militia members standing guard at Saturday’s rally.
“I would like to be here with the Oath Keepers, but I am not currently an Oath Keeper,” he said, referring to the national militia group whose heavily armed members controversially patrolled the streets of Ferguson, Mo., during the unrest there in 2014 and 2015, and who’ve more recently been called on to provide security at right-wing events. Though the Oath Keepers, which the Southern Poverty Law Center describes as “one of the largest radical antigovernment groups in the U.S.,” are largely composed of current and former members of the military, National Guard, police officers and other first responders, Haines said he has no military or law enforcement experience. “Just a citizen who doesn’t want to see people get hurt or arrested,” he said. “I don’t want to see a civil war happen.”
“Everybody seems to be angry and at each other’s throats right now, so the best thing for me to do is remain neutral. I don’t want to choose sides. There’s too much fighting going on. American citizens need to unite.”
“This is actually my first rally,” Haines said, admitting, “I was nervous about coming here because Charlottesville was very hectic.”
“A lot of people believe that it was the same group that planned this rally from Charlottesville, but that’s not true at all. Nobody from Charlottesville is even up here at all. … Well, I hope so. The protesters, maybe, but I’m not entirely sure.” Members of the Oath Keepers were reportedly at last weekend’s violent rally, as were Three Percenters, a similar so-called “patriot” group whose symbol, a Roman numeral III encircled by 13 stars, was spotted in hand tattoos and backpack patches on the Boston Common Saturday.
“I actually did not vote,” said the adamantly neutral Haines. “I look at it this way: Donald Trump is the president, so I do agree with what he says.”
Ben Taylor, 33 — Counterprotester
Taylor, from East Hampton, Mass., and his friend Sean Tousey were handing out fliers on behalf of the International Socialist Organization, the group they had mobilized with for the march in Boston. Though he hoped for a peaceful rally, he called it idealistic for people to suggest members of the left could have a civil conversation with groups that he said were peddling pure hate. “White supremacists think that they can get away with murder. Here, we’ve got thousands of people who say, ‘No, you can’t.’ We know this free-speech rally, as they are calling it, is a farce, that Nazis don’t fight for free speech, they fight for genocide. … Fascists don’t rely on logic. They don’t come to their position because they’ve analyzed society and think this is a better way. They are coming from a place of hate. I welcome them to repudiate their hate, to drop their positions, and then maybe we can have a civil conversation. But not before that. It’s not a matter of opinion whether black people should live, whether Jewish people should live. … These are not people you can have reasoned discussions with. We are trying to show people at home, people who are horrified by this, that there are people willing to stand up and fight for justice. We will not cave to fascism. We will not cave to Donald Trump. We will fight for a better country.
Blake Simon, 20 — Free-speecher
Though relatively few rally-goers seemed to actually make it to the bandstand to hear the speeches, greatly outnumbered Trump supporters were easily identified among the throngs of counterprotesters surrounding the barricades. Walking defiantly across the Boston Common In a red T-shirt with the words “Save America, Vote Republican,” Simon was quickly spotted by one man, whose loud booing attracted a small crowd.
“I wanted to see the reaction to this T-shirt,” Simon, from Billerica, Mass., said over the shouts of “Shame!” and “Nazi go home!” “I feel like I made my point pretty valid to my left-wing friends that these people are just ridiculous.”
Simon, a political science major at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, noted that he comes from a “Jewish family” whose relatives had been “slaughtered by Nazis.”
“I’m not a racist,” he said. “I’m not a white supremacist. I have black family members; I have gay family members. I support everybody. I’m for marriage equality, I’m for smoking weed, do whatever you want. I’m not a far-right person.”
Asked whether he thinks Trump shares his views, Simon said, “Not all of them, but we’re similar enough,” adding, “I support his response to Charlottesville.”
Simon appeared remarkably unfazed as the chants directed at him grew louder and more crass. He calmly refused to remove his shirt at the insistence of a woman who said she’d come to the rally “to fuck a Nazi up.”
“I went to Trump’s inauguration. And I went to a Bernie Sanders rally, actually, at Amherst,” he said. “I’ll continue to attend things like this.”
Hattie Nestel, 78 — Counterprotester
A retiree from the western Massachusetts town of Athol, Nestel, who is Jewish, came with a group of friends to spread what she described as a “spiritual” message and counter a message of hate that she believes has been whipped up by Donald Trump’s presidency. “We can’t let this go unopposed, this mindset of killing … and hate that has been spewing out of this White House for eight months. There has to be a force of religion, and we are bringing our spiritual guidance and prayers to this march. I’m Jewish, and I’ve been to a lot of Nazi concentration camps. And this is the beginning. It has to be stopped.”
John Medlar, 23 — Free-speecher
When Medlar and some friends he’d met online decided to organize their first “free speech” rally on the Boston Common back in May, a couple of hundred people showed up — including counterprotesters.
“Most of the guys that I’ve been working with here, I didn’t know their names or faces up until I met them in person at the first rally and we all kind of came together,” said Medlar, a film student at Fitchburg State University in Massachusetts.
“It’s a very interesting phenomenon, especially with young people these days with meme culture and with gamer culture and how that’s sort of, in a weird way, transformed into people’s politics. … Young people these days like to make their politics fun, which is something that a lot of the older generations don’t understand.”
But after spending the past several days negotiating with Boston police and insisting both on Facebook and in interviews with the local press that the rally was in no way affiliated with white supremacists or neo-Nazis — despite reports that local members of the Ku Klux Klan would be in attendance — Medlar said, “I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t [nervous].”
“We did very seriously consider canceling, but we realized that even if we did cancel people would essentially show up anyway which might increase the risk for violence,” said Medlar.“Some of [the speakers], maybe one or two of them, have spoken out against this sort of new phenomenon of people using white people as a boogeyman as the foil for their own political agendas. But ultimately we think that bigotry against all people is wrong.”
“I was raised with the values of Martin Luther King. My parents held him up as a major role model for me growing up. … I think if Martin Luther King were alive today there would be some fringe people that would call him a sellout, that would call him an Uncle Tom.”
“My parents were Catholics, I was raised Catholic. They’re nervous, but they’re praying for me. They tell me that they’re proud of me for sticking to my convictions.”
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