Thousands Gather to Protest the Boston “Free Speech Rally”

Counter-protesters outnumbered the rally attendees by far. By Spencer Buell, Jamie Ducharme, and Lisa Weidenfeld

Boston free speech rally

Crowds gather near the Reggie Lewis Track and Athletic Center before marching toward the Common. / Photo by Lisa Weidenfeld

Crowds of thousands soldiered through scorching hot temperatures this weekend to rally in and around Boston Common in response to a planned “Free Speech” event. While attendees of that rally numbered in the dozens, the counter-protests filled Tremont Street all the way back to the Reggie Lewis Center in Roxbury. Simultaneously, thousands gathered at the State House to rally against attendees’ perceived allegiance with white supremacists, while many more people went straight to the Common to face off with the rally participants.

Disparate groups came together to get the rallies in motion, with C.O.M.B.A.T., Answer Coalition Boston, Boston Party for Socialism and Liberation, and Boston DSA organizing the State House rally, and Violence in Boston, Angie Camacho, Black Lives Matter Network, Black Lives Matter Cambridge, and Black Lives Matter Boston organizing the March from the Reggie Lewis Center. While events remained largely peaceful, Boston Police Commissioner William Evans says 27 arrests were made related to disorderly conduct and assaults on police officers. Evans, who estimates 40,000 people turned out, says there were not many injuries and no significant property damage. The speakers at the free speech event were ultimately escorted out by police after large crowds gathered.

All in all, when Mayor Marty Walsh addressed reporters by late afternoon, he called it “a very successful day.”

It had been an open question how many pro-Trump “Free Speech” protesters would be arriving in Boston. Media attention from around the country had spread the word far and wide about the event, and there were concerns it might attract the same horde of white nationalists who showed up in Charlottesville the prior weekend. But on Saturday, an estimated 50 people stood on the Parkman Bandstand for the rally—significantly fewer than the hundreds who said they would attend on Facebook, and a fraction of those who attended a similar, much less publicized, rally on the Common in May.

Amid all the attention, many of the speakers lined up for the event dropped out. But not Shiva Ayyadurai, the provocative Senate candidate vying for Elizabeth Warren’s seat. He shared a photo on Twitter of himself giving a speech into a megaphone, while a sign reading “Black Lives Do Matter” was held up behind him. He challenged assertions that he and others who attended the “Free Speech” event sympathized with white nationalists. “To all FAKE NEWS, this was the “White Supremacist” FREE SPEECH RALLY I just spoke at. #BostonFreeSpeech

There did not appear to be any protesters who showed up in the regalia of explicitly white supremacist groups like neo-Nazis or the KKK.

The counter-protest, which was mostly nonviolent, did see some skirmishes as the vastly outnumbered pro-Trump attendees made their way through a passionate crowd. Protesters swarmed members of the Free Speech squad as they walked through the park and made their way to or from the Parkman Bandstand, an area that police had cordoned off with metal barricades and with one checkpoint where participants could enter. “Fascists go home!” a swarm of protesters yelled in the face of one young man, who draped himself in a “Make America Great Again” flag and sipped a can of Pepsi while marching through the crowd.

As they walked through the park, many of the counter-protesters got aggressive with the rally attendees, shouting insults and waving signs in their faces as many in the crowd, including men from the anti-war group Veterans for Peace, who urged protesters not to harm them, yelling, “No violence!”

Dan Luker, coordinator of the group’s Boston chapter, says that’s what they do. “We’re Veterans for Peace. That’s our job,” Luker says. “We believe that peaceful protest—as was in Standing Rock—that is the only way we win. As soon as it devolves into violence we have Trump saying what he said. If we have no violence on our side, the only people he can condemn are the racists. He has no excuse to condemn us.”

The organization of anti-war veterans joined protesters who opposed the Dakota Access pipeline.

People identifying with the anti-fascist group Antifa made their presence known, marching with a large sign up to the checkpoint to prevent rally attendees from accessing it.

Other counter-protesters who lined the huge semi-circle barricades peppered the few dozen members of the “Free Speech” crowd with taunts about the size of their gathering. “Where’s your rally?” they yelled.

Among those giving the protesters a hard time was Chris Largey, who wore a Red Sox jersey and led a chant of “Nazis suck.” Largey, a Waltham native who now lives in Florida, says he and friend Jason Zwart, who is a Yankees fan, came to Boston to see the game, but stopped by when they heard about the rally. “We were supposed to tour Fenway today,” he says. “We chose to be here instead.” Zwart says they yelled particularly mean things at a “Free Speech” demonstrator they spotted wearing a Tom Brady shirt. “We were relentless on this guy,” he says.

Hello from Boston Common, where a guy in a Sox jersey just started a chant of “Nazis suck.”

Others took a more gentle approach. Kayla Grossman, a historian, carried a pink sign with the words, “Ask me things! Historian” written on it. She thinks America needs a history lesson. “People have it a little confused right now.”

Karen Lindquist, from Lynn, carried a large sign equating Trump supporters with Nazis reading, “We beat ’em before… We’ll beat ’em again.” She says she arrived at the rally as demonstrators were leaving the Parkman Bandstand. “I got here just in time to boo them off stage,” she says, adding that she’s pleased that the counter-protesters vastly outnumbered them. “I think free speech did prevail today.”

The “Free Speech” rally had been scheduled to run from 12 to 2 p.m., but the demonstrators left before 1 p.m., when they were led by police escort past the thousands of counter-protesters and taken into protective custody in paddy wagons.

Protesters clashed with riot police clad in armor and carrying batons on Tremont and Beacon Streets as the protesters were driven away from the Common. In all, 27 people were arrested.

President Trump weighed in before 3:30 p.m. with tweets condemning what he described as “many anti-police agitators in Boston” and congratulating law enforcement and Mayor Walsh for doing a “great job.”

He later added that he wanted “to applaud the many protesters in Boston who are speaking out against bigotry and hate.”

Boston free speech rally

A speaker at the Boston Counter-Protest and Resistance Rally. / Photo by Lisa Weidenfeld

free speech rally boston

A protester at the Boston Counter-Protest and Resistance Rally. / Photo by Lisa Weidenfeld

Boston free speech rally

A protester at the Boston Counter-Protest and Resistance Rally. / Photo by Lisa Weidenfeld

free speech rally boston

Crowds cheer at the Stand for Solidarity rally in front of the State House. / Photo by Jamie Ducharme

free speech rally Boston

Counter-protesters dressed in all black, despite temperatures in the high 80s. / Photo by Jamie Ducharme

boston free speech rally

After being chased away from the Stand for Solidarity rally, a free speech protester argues with counter-protesters on the Common. / Photo by Jamie Ducharme

Boston free speech rally

A line of clergy leads marchers into Boston Common. / Photo by Lisa Weidenfeld