Thousands March in Boston for Counter-Protest to ‘Free Speech Rally’

Published: Aug. 19, 2017 at 1:44 PM CDT
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Tens of thousands of counter-protesters flooded the streets of Boston on Saturday to confront right-wing “free speech” demonstrators in a display of solidarity after the deadly white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia last weekend.

The counter-protesters gathered near Boston’s Malcolm X Boulevard, chanting "Whose streets? Our streets!" and "No Trump, No KKK, No Fascist USA.” They also held signs that read: "Resist," "Black Lives Matter," and "Get the hell off my lawn, you bigots."

The massive group of diverse demonstrators dwarfed the “Boston Free Speech Rally” in Boston Common, a downtown city park, where approximately 100 people attended.

The dueling protests, on a hot and humid day, quickly evaporated after the free speech rally, which was scheduled to begin around 10 a.m., ended at 1:30 p.m., according to the Boston Police Department.

Skirmishes between the competing groups, however, did break out before the free speech rally attendees left. Some with the counter-protesters were seen antagonizing a man draped in the American flag and a free speech attendee tried to rile up the counter-protesters.

After the rally, a counter-protester set fire to a large Confederate flag, prompting a few hundred people nearby to break out into cheers.

The protests, however, remained largely peaceful.

Counter-protest attendees told NBC News they viewed the free speech rally, taking place at the same time, as code for hate speech.

“I think as a country you have a right to free speech,” said Boston resident Beth Chandler, “but there’s a difference to me with hateful speech and free speech. And a lot of what the separatists are saying is hateful speech and there’s not a place for that in our country.”

“I think there are many groups that are marginalized in our community… and I think we need to stand together and say that is not OK,” she added.

The free speech rally was organized by a coalition of self-described Libertarian and conservative groups, some of whom identify with the so-called alt-right — a political grouping mixing racism, white nationalism, anti-Semitism and populism.

John Medlar, one of the organizers of the free speech rally, previously told multiple media organizations the rally is not intended for white supremacists, neo-Nazis or members of the Ku Klux Klan. He also said the rally is not for those who attended the protests in Charlottesville.

The Boston Free Speech Coalition said on its Facebook page that the group is "strictly about free speech. We denounce the politics of supremacy and violence."

Other rallies, organized by various political factions, have been planned Saturday in New York, Los Angeles, Dallas and Hot Springs, Arkansas.

The Boston rally has been planned since late July, but gained immense interest after unrest in Charlottesville, Virginia on Aug. 12, which left 19 injured and one dead.

The Virginia college town devolved into chaos when counter-protesters violently clashed with white supremacists, who were protesting the proposed removal of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.

The violence escalated when a car plowed into counter-protesters, killing a 32-year-old woman and injuring 19 others, authorities and witnesses said.

President Donald Trump defended the torch-wielding white nationalists, saying it was unfair to suggest all the marchers were neo-Nazis or white supremacists. He also blamed "both sides" for the violence. The president's remarks drew swift bipartisan rebuke.

Boston Mayor Marty Walsh tweeted Saturday to "ask everyone to be peaceful."

There is noticeable police presence walking in tow with the protesters and at the park. Officials had said earlier that 500 police officers, including some undercover and with cameras, would be on patrol. Dozens of police were also wearing protective gear as a precautionary measure.

The counter-protest also included some members of Antifa — shorthand for anti-fascists — a mix of far-left leaning militant groups that resist neo-Nazis and white supremacists at demonstrations and other events, often donning all-black attire.

In Hot Springs, dozens of members of The Highway Men, a group of pro-Confederate men who hold demonstrations, gathered in support of preserving Confederate symbols.

Organizer James Del Brock said his group is not linked with the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville and his members are advocating "saving our heritage and constitutional rights."

"We were in Charlottesville, we had nothing to do with that 'Unite the Right' rally, we were there to support the monument… and support the freedom of speech of both sides," he said.

The rally, which also drew opposition, was held in downtown Hot Springs near Confederate Memorial Park, where a statue of a Confederate soldier was dedicated in 1934. It was also the site of two alleged lynchings, according to The Arkansas Times.

"Taking them down isn’t going to change the hate in someone’s heart. It’s not going to change the way they think about anything," he added, referring to the nationwide efforts to remove Confederate statues.

Local clergyman also attended the rally, opposing the racism they said has been openly expressed since last week's unrest in Virginia.

“My perspective is, what is the purpose of trying to conserve a statue?” asked Gregory Nettles, pastor of Visitors Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church. “What does brick and mortar do when there’s no change in the heart?”