(Photo: Scott Eisen, Getty Images)
By their shear numbers, thousands of anti-racist protesters marching through downtown Boston on Saturday effectively prevented conservative and libertarian activists from mounting a “Free Speech Rally” in the aftermath of deadly clashes last week in Virginia.
Only a handful of rally-goers, some wearing red “Make America Great Again” Trump caps, appeared to navigate their way through waves of marchers pouring into the Boston Common area, where the “Boston Free Speech” was planned.
Some media reports said only two dozen people actually attended the rally that had sparked the counter protest in the first place.
CNN reported that eight were arrested in clashes.
At 1:30 p.m., about 90 minutes after the rally had been set to begin, the Boston Police Department tweeted that the “Free Speech” rally was “officially over” and the demonstrators had left the Common.
By noon, Boston police said at least 15,000 counterprotesters were peacefully marching toward the park where the rally area was blocked off by a ring of metal barriers.
Thousands more descended on the area over the next hour.
Many carried signs saying “Love your neighbor,” “Resist fascism” and “Hate never made U.S. great.” Others held a banner reading: “SMASH WHITE SUPREMACY.”
One column of marchers carried a sign stretching almost the width of a street that read, “Which side are YOU on?”
Many along a single two-mile line of protesters shouted “shame!, shame!” as they moved toward the rally area.
In the end, the free speech rally itself appeared to fizzle from lack of attendance, either because supporters decided to stay away or were unable to make their way through the massive numbers of counterprotesters.
Meghan Barr, senior editor at boston.com told MSNBC that the crowds of people effectively blocked would-be rallygoers from reaching the rally site.
Regarding one Trump supporter who was trying to get the site, she said, “People shouted “nazi!” at him and sprayed him with silly putty.”
“It is hard to tell how many people would have tried to attend the really because it was actually difficult to get in,” Barr said.
One video posted by Boston.com showed a man in a tee-shirt and wearing a red “Make America Great Again” Trump cap was surrounded by protesters and immobilized for several minutes until the crowd dissolved.
TV cameras showed a group of boisterous counterprotesters on the Common chasing a man with a Trump campaign banner and cap, shouting and swearing at him.
But other counterprotesters intervened and helped the man safely over a fence into the area where the conservative rally was to be staged.
Black-clad counterprotesters also grabbed an American flag out of an elderly woman’s hands, and she stumbled and fell to the ground.
City officials made no secret of their wish that marchers on all sides would have stayed away, given the level of violence that erupted in Charlottesville, where one woman was killed.
He vowed to shut it down if anyone got out of control.
Police Commissioner William Evans said 500 officers — some in uniform, others undercover — were deployed to keep the two groups apart during the two-hour rally.
Boston placed tight restrictions on rallygoers, banning backpacks, sticks or anything that could be turned into a weapon.
Boston Free Speech Coalition, which organized the two-hour rally, said on Facebook that it is not affiliated with the Charlottesville rally organizers in any way.
“We are not associated with any alt-right or white supremacist groups,” the coalition said. “We are strictly about free speech.”
The coalition said on its Facebook page that speakers will include Joe Biggs, who recently worked for AlexJones’ conspiracy friendly website Infowars, and Kyle Chapman, also known as “Based Stickman,” and who founded the Fraternal Order of Alt-Knights, which the Southern Poverty Law Center calls a “new Alt-Right group of street fighters.”
Opponents had feared that white nationalists might show up in Boston anyway, raising the specter of ugly confrontations in the first potentially large and racially charged gathering in a major U.S. city since Charlottesville.
For their part, counterprotesters from Black Lives Matter and other groups condemning racism and anti-Semitism marched from the city’s Roxbury neighborhood to the Common while a second group rallied on the steps of the Statehouse overlooking the park.
The 383-year-old Boston Common — the nation’s oldest city park — has been the site of numerous rallies and protests for centuries.
Monica Cannon, an organizer of the “Fight White Supremacy” march, tells Reuters that “(i)gnoring a problem has never solved it.”
“We cannot continue to ignore racism, ignore white supremacism, ignore neo-Nazis and pretend it’s not a problem,” she said.
The Charlottesville clashes, that left counterprotester Heather Heyer, 32, dead, erupted after white nationalists, white supremacists, KKK supporters and neo-Nazis tried to hold an officially permitted “Unite the Right” rally at a downtown park to protest the city’s decision to remove a statue of Robert E. Lee in the center of the Virginia college town.
The rally was declared an “unlawful assembly” by the city only minutes before it was scheduled to begin after street brawls erupted between protesters and counterprotesters.
Contributing: Associated Press