Support the news

A Debate Over Speech As A Boston Common Rally Is Cut Short05:03
Download

Play
A counter-protester, left, holds a sign beside a man wearing a T-shirt bearing President Donald Trump's name. (Michael Dwyer/AP)
A counter-protester, left, holds a sign beside a man wearing a T-shirt bearing President Donald Trump's name. (Michael Dwyer/AP)

Police estimate that 40,000 people converged on Boston Common on Saturday to protest a few dozen people attending what organizers called a free speech rally.

Critics of that rally, including Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, said the event gave a platform to people who promote hate. The rally was cut short, and organizers of it said they were denied their right to exercise free speech.

'Don't Let Him Speak!'

The day was hot and humid, and mostly peaceful. There was music, and all manner of free expression by counter-demonstrators. Some women dressed as witches, and a few men were wearing tutus. One person wore a gingerbread man costume. And everywhere, there were signs and T-shirts with slogans — some nice, some nasty. One pregnant woman even wrote on her belly, "This baby hates Nazis."

Police were out in force, and bottles and weapons were banned in order to prevent violence like that which occurred last week in Charlottesville, Virginia. There, during a "Unite-the-Right" rally, neo-Nazis and alt-right demonstrators attacked onlookers and counter-demonstrators, and 32-year-old Heather Heyer was killed.

Organizers stand on the bandstand on Boston Common during a self-described free speech rally staged on Saturday in Boston. Counter-protesters stand along barricades ringing the bandstand. (Michael Dwyer/AP)
Organizers stand on the bandstand on Boston Common during a self-described free speech rally staged on Saturday in Boston. Counter-protesters stand along barricades ringing the bandstand. (Michael Dwyer/AP)

On Boston Common, there were added surveillance cameras, and undercover officers mingled with the crowd. Fences were set up to keep the few people who wanted to get to the Parkman Bandstand to hear the speakers separate from counter-demonstrators, creating a 30-yard no-man's land in between.

No reporters or members of the general public were allowed in.

Counter-demonstrators lined the fence, blocking access to the bandstand.

One man, who would not give his name, tried to get into the area. He was surrounded and interrogated by the crowd.

One counter-demonstrator asked him, "What brings you here today?" As he started to answer, his reply was drowned out by people in the crowd shouting, "Don't let him talk!" "Don't let him speak!" "We don't want to hear him!"

Another person said: "You don't get a voice! You don't get to talk!"

Then, the counter-protesters broke out in a chant of "Shame, shame, shame."

Counter-protesters surround a man who was trying to approach the Parkman Bandstand. (Bruce Gellerman/WBUR)
Counter-protesters surround a man who was trying to approach the Parkman Bandstand. (Bruce Gellerman/WBUR)

Police stood behind the barriers. The man was followed by counter-demonstrators as he left the Common. He and others who wanted to get to the bandstand never made it.

A Message Debate

Boston Police Commissioner Bill Evans was asked why some of the speakers that planned to join the free speech rally said they were not let through the perimeter.

"We had a job to do. We did a great job," Evans replied. "I'm not going to listen to people who come in here and want to talk about hate. And you know what? If they didn't get in, that's a good thing because their message isn't what we want to hear."

The rally had a permit from the city to run for two hours, but it lasted less than half that time before police escorted those on the Parkman Bandstand into wagons and away from the Common.

Counter protesters amassed outside of the barriers at the Parkman Bandstand. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Counter protesters amassed outside of the barriers at the Parkman Bandstand. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

John Medlar, organizer of the self-described free speech rally, was among those transported and protected by the police.

"This was mob rule today," he said on WBUR. "This was not justice." He added: "We had to get out of there because there were people out there trying to kill us."

In the days before the rally, several alt-right speakers were disinvited from the event, and Medlar publicly disavowed bigotry, hatred and racism. He calls himself a libertarian and his group a coalition of classical conservatives, liberals and Trump supporters.

Medlar said that by blocking the gate to the Parkman Bandstand, counter-demonstrators were not exercising free speech or expression.

"You think honestly that if we're not allowed to speak, then you'll be allowed to speak?" he asked. "The First Amendment applies to everybody. We're trying to defend everyone's right to speak here. Including the people who shut us down today."

Medlar said that Boston has not seen the last of him, or his coalition.

"I'm telling you, this is not going to be the last rally," he said. "We're not going to give in to threats of violence."

This segment aired on August 20, 2017.

Related:

Bruce Gellerman Twitter Senior Reporter
Bruce Gellerman is an award-winning journalist and senior correspondent, frequently covering science, business, technology and the environment.

More…

+Join the discussion
TwitterfacebookEmail

Support the news