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Who Might Attend The Boston 'Free Speech' Rally? A Look At One In May04:47Download

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At the rally in May, people were allowed to carry flags and shields, but those won't be permitted this time. (Max Larkin/WBUR)MoreCloseclosemore
At the rally in May, people were allowed to carry flags and shields, but those won't be permitted this time. (Max Larkin/WBUR)

This Saturday's self-described free speech rally on Boston Common will be the second one held there this year. But its circumstances couldn't be more different from the first.

On May 13, a group of veterans, ex-police, Tea Party Republicans and young people affiliated with the self-described "alt-right" -- a conservative faction that mixes racism, white nationalism, anti-Semitism and populism -- gathered around the Common's historic Parkman Bandstand.

Organizers claimed that they were honoring their First Amendment right to assemble and express radical viewpoints. But the event felt more like a small, right-wing rally than a celebration of the Constitution.

Speakers like Augustus Invictus, a political activist from Florida, used their speaking time to encourage attendees to arm themselves for another civil war.

But that rally passed mostly unnoticed, attracting relatively small crowds: a few hundred at the rally and a slightly smaller crowd protesting it.

A crowd of counter-protesters gathered around the Soldiers and Sailors Monument in Boston Common in May. (Max Larkin/WBUR)
A crowd of counter-protesters gathered around the Soldiers and Sailors Monument in Boston Common in May. (Max Larkin/WBUR)

This weekend's rally has the same organizers and the same professed mission, but it will play out against a very different backdrop: the images of lethal violence and homegrown extremists carrying torches and automatic weapons in Charlottesville, Virginia.

In response, Boston Free Speech, the group behind both rallies, has announced hurried adjustments to Saturday's schedule. It has cancelled a planned march, the program has been shortened by several hours, and three of the four most controversial headliners -- including Invictus, who was also present at the Charlottesville rally -- have dropped out.

Event organizer John Medlar says he has invited left-wing speakers from groups like Black Lives Matter to take part -- without much success so far.

Back in May, a heavy police presence kept the demonstrations, for the most part, to a war of words. Members in both of the two crowds wielded bats and sticks, but the only rally participant to punch a counter-protester was promptly arrested and escorted from the scene.

Boston Police arrest a rally participant after a scuffle at rally on Boston Common in May. (Max Larkin/WBUR)
Boston Police arrest a rally participant after a scuffle at rally on Boston Common in May. (Max Larkin/WBUR)

Mostly, attendees shouted insults back and forth, both sides accusing one another's members of living in their mothers' basement. Meanwhile, Boston police officers stood, shoulder to shoulder and behind their bicycles, between the two groups.

Even after the changes to Saturday's rally, a much larger counter-protest is taking shape this time around. The organizers who first planned that protest were responding to the violence in Charlottesville, and weren't aware at first that the free speech rally was due to happen at the same time.

But owing to that coincidence, the protest has attracted a lot of interest on Facebook -- and organizer Monica Cannon estimates as many as 20,000 to 30,000 participants might attend.

Cannon's efforts have been helped along by familiar political organizations like Black Lives Matter and the Women's March.

Karen Clawson Cosmas, director of March Forward Massachusetts, a group that arose out of the January women's march, says the mood in the country has changed since that day in January. Then, she says, Boston Common filled with people protesting President Trump's "violent words" against women and ethnic minorities.

"It's different now. It is different," Clawson Cosmas says. Those words "have become violent actions."

At the May rally, there was a heavy police presence. (Max Larkin/WBUR).
At the May rally, there was a heavy police presence. (Max Larkin/WBUR).

As for what will happen Saturday, of course, no one knows. The counter-protest does look likely to dwarf the free speech rally. And Boston police, who were effective at containing violence last time, have signaled that they're taking this rally even more seriously -- using physical barriers and "neutral zones" to keep the two groups apart. And rally attendees won't be allowed to carry weapons as they did last time.

Medlar says the area around the Parkman Bandstand could feel a little like "a shark cage," given how large the counter-protest may be. But he says he's still looking forward to the event.

"Our goal is to have a fun and interesting time with a lot of interesting people, and ultimately we want to have a celebration of our constitutional values," he says.

But, Medlar says, his group trusts the Boston Police Department to keep the two crowds safe -- and separated from each other.

This segment aired on August 18, 2017.

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Max Larkin Twitter Reporter
Max Larkin is a multimedia reporter for Edify, WBUR's education vertical.

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