In a resounding rebuke of white supremacy and the racist violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, 40,000 people converged on the Boston Common Saturday, shutting down a so-called free speech rally that drew figures from the far right.
“That’s the saddest demonstration I think I’ve ever witnessed,” one counter-protester remarked as they looked at the Parkman Bandstand, where a few dozen people stood surrounded by about 50 police officers and an expanse of empty grass.
“We have massive opposition here today. We are completely surrounded,” Trump supporter Kyle Chapman announced in a livestream near the bandstand. Chapman calls himself “Based Stickman” after a viral video that shows him breaking a stick over an antifascist activist’s head. By Chapman’s count on his livestream, there were about three dozen people in attendance. He lamented that police had not allowed them to bring in so much as a selfie stick.
“Where’s your rally?” the counter-demonstrators chanted from across a line of police barricades.
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The “free speech” attendees did deliver speeches through a bullhorn while huddled in a circle on the bandstand, but no one in the crowd could hear them.
Around 12:45 p.m., police escorted them from the bandstand and into police trucks. A group of counter-demonstrators attempted to block the trucks from leaving, chanting, “Make them walk.” Several people were arrested.
In total, police said they arrested 33 people, including one person with a gun. There were reports of police aggression. Witnesses said the person with a gun was wearing a “Make America Great Again” hat.
Sporadic verbal confrontations with Trump supporters erupted throughout the day, but appeared largely nonviolent, if tense. About half an hour before the “free speech” rally was scheduled to begin, counter-demonstrators swiftly surrounded a man with a Trump/Pence flag who began shouting, “All lives matter!” before police whisked him away. Rewire saw at least two others in Trump regalia being escorted away by police, surrounded by counter-protesters, over the course of the day.
Four days after Trump appeared to equate the white nationalist violence in Charlottesville with the actions of what he termed the “alt left,” the rally—and others like it across the country—served as a decisive rejection of what many see as the president’s alliance with racists and bigots.
“Why are you guys against Trump? He’s not a racist,” one man, who said he supported Trump’s economic policies, shouted amid a crowd of anti-racist demonstrators who gathered in another section of the park after the “free speech” rally dispersed.
A dialogue ensued, which ended with a demonstrator wearing a t-shirt that read “The Gayest” shaking hands with the Trump supporter and declaring, “Welcome to the march.” At the urging of the anti-racist demonstrators, the Trump supporter then led the crowd in chants of “Keep it peaceful.”
“We’re happy to have you,” Juan Ricardo Williams, a 21-year-old Boston resident, told the Trump supporter, before throwing an arm around him and escorting him out of the crowd.
Some demonstrators appeared more skeptical of the Trump supporter.
“If you support [Trump’s] views, then what are you thinking about us?” Bilguissa Barry, 17, of Boston, told Rewire. Barry said she is from Guinea, in West Africa. “I’m Black, I’m a woman, and I’m Muslim. You want to see my family go. And if you support that, who’s going to be here for me?”
Some traveled from hours away to attend the rally in Boston.
“I heard the sentence, ‘Nazis are marching in Boston,’ and as an American, as a Jewish American, I’m not OK with that,” David Velona, 18, who drove from Westchester County, New York, told Rewire. Velona wore a striped shirt with a yellow star, a reference to the uniform Jewish prisoners were forced to wear during the Holocaust. “I felt it was my civic duty to come here and stop them,” Velona said.
In addition to denouncing Trump and Nazism, counter-protesters sought to draw attention to institutionalized racism in Massachusetts, including state budget cuts, mistreatment of prisoners, and police killings. In contrast to the open displays of anti-Semitism and white supremacy in Charlottesville August 12, some demonstrators said racism in Massachusetts can seem less overt.
“It’s not something you see. It’s something you feel,” Joseph Charles, 21, of Brockton, told Rewire. “A lot of people up here are blind to it, or they choose to be blind to it.”
There are more visible instances too. Carol Ampey-Sullivan, 54, told Rewire that earlier on Saturday, her husband had seen a car with a swastika in front of their Salem home.
“When I hear people say all this about we’re in the bastion of liberalism, that’s bullshit,” Ampey-Sullivan, said. “A lot of people don’t realize, one of the most prosperous slave traders was from New England: the DeWolf family. So we can feel like because we took in people from the Underground Railroad, and we can claim all this, but there are a lot of people that are hateful here. They want to hold onto white privilege.”
Ampey-Sullivan was among those who marched two miles from Boston’s Roxbury neighborhood to the Common, where they joined other counter-protesters.
“I’m happy to see that so many people came out, and I think that it should send a message to not just leadership in this state, but also the White House,” she said.
Once the “free speech” rally had been shut down, the gathering took on a jubilant tone. A brass band played. People danced. Spontaneous speeches erupted all around the park. A crowd cheered as demonstrators lit a Confederate flag on fire.
Activist Khury Petersen-Smith praised the diversity of those who had gathered.
“I saw Black folks out here today. I saw queer folks out here today. I saw Muslims out here today. I know we have undocumented comrades among us. I saw Jewish comrades out here today. I see women out here today. There were trans folks out here today,” Petersen-Smith said, speaking into a bullhorn and surrounded by a cheering crowd.
“We know what it is like if you belong to any one of those groups, to walk down the street with your eye over your shoulder, watching your back. And what we’re saying is: We’ve got your back.” Petersen-Smith declared. “We’ve got your back.”