The Boston Common was filled with activists on Saturday as protesters gathered in opposition to a rally held by the Boston Free Speech Coalition.
Police Commissioner William B. Evans estimated around 40,000 counter-protesters were in attendance.
Many feared that the “free speech” rally would be similar to the recent “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, that protested the removal of a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee.
Attendants of the Charlottesville rally included white nationalists, supremacists, and a variety of other racist groups and individuals, including members of the Ku Klux Klan.
Eventually, protesters and counter-protestors violently clashed, and a speeding car was driven into the anti-racist crowd, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer and injuring 19 others.
Organizers of the Boston rally, which was planned prior to the events in Charlottesville, attempted to distance themselves from what happened in Charlottesville.
The group's Facebook page said, “While we maintain that every individual is entitled to their freedom of speech and defend that basic human right, we will not be offering our platform to racism or bigotry. We denounce the politics of supremacy and violence. We denounce the actions, activities, and tactics of the so-called Antifa movement. We denounce the normalization of political violence.”
Some controversial speakers, such as Vice Media co-founder and “alt-right” activist Gavin McInnes, dropped out or were uninvited from the Boston event. However, remaining speakers have still drawn a significant amount of criticism.
One keynote speaker, Kyle Chapman, became famous online after a video was recorded of him assaulting an anti-Trump protester with a stick at a Trump rally in Berkeley, Calif. He later founded the “Fraternal Order of Alt Knights,” which has been described by the Southern Poverty Law Center as a “New Alt-Right Fight Club ready for violence.”
Another speaker, Joe Biggs, previously worked at Infowars, a media outlet known for conspiracy theories and far right content. Other speakers included Shiva Ayyadurai, who is running for a Senate seat against Elizabeth Warren, and congressional candidate Samson Racioppi.
The “Free Speech” rally was intended to take place in the central area of the Common around the Parkman Bandstand. This areas was surrounded by barricades on all sides with small paths leading in. Over 500 police officers were deployed to ensure event safety.
Counter-protesters came from a variety of places and organizations. A contingent of students from the Democratic Socialists of Boston College were among those in attendance.
The massive number of counter-protestors that surrounded the bandstand area made entering difficult. An estimated 50 protesters made it to the bandstand, while an unknown number were unable to enter, but were still in the area.
The Facebook event for the rally showed little more than 200 people intended to go, a number that is dwarfed by the tens of thousands of counter-protesters.
Event organizers secured a permit for two hours of protesting starting at noon. However, the organizers decided to end the rally at 12:45 p.m.
As the protestors on the bandstand exited, counter-protesters chanted “Shame,” “Go home,” and various “Boos” and curses. Many ran towards the exit path to watch the “Free Speech” advocates and continue chanting.
While violence did not escalate to levels similar to Charlottesville, 33 arrests were made, many of which were in relation to weapon possession and assault charges.
Prominent public figures and politicians, including Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, WCAS ‘09, showed support and pride in the behavior of counter-protesters.
Walsh told WCVB-TV that most of the people in the Common were there “to pass a message along of hope and unity and love.” However, he also acknowledged that “there was about 200 people in that crowd that were there to start trouble.”
A full-length feature will be released later this week that will include interviews with participants from both sides of the Boston rallies.