Supposedly Boston is known for free speech: the sort that leads to epoch-altering revolutionary wars, fancy tea getting dumped in harbors, and the occasional massacre. Perhaps that is why the organizers of this summer’s two Boston “free speech” rallies chose a notoriously Democrat-leaning city as their venue. Perhaps it’s because organizer Daniel Medlar is an early-twenties kid from Boston with a distinctly limited understanding of both his surroundings and of basic optics.
Regardless of the reasons: there have been two “Free Speech” rallies in Boston since the start of 2017, one on May 13th, and the other on August 19th. One was very small and you probably didn’t hear about it. The second was very large and you almost certainly heard about it. I went to both of them to observe, out of both a sense of documentary responsibility and the same perverse instinct that compels children to turn over moldy logs in the forest.
I want to write about both rallies because I think that what happens at the first represents what the organizers had naively assumed would happen at the second. That is because Boston largely shrugged at the first “Free Speech” rally: it was a tolerance of right-wing loonies that would not persist after Charlottesville ripped away the fig-leaf of peaceful disagreement from the alt-right once and for all.
The First Boston Free Speech Rally: May 13th:
The first “Free Speech” rally was held on May 13th, in the middle of an unusually cold spring. The organizers had chosen the vaguely-Grecian-if-you-squint Parkman Bandstand on the eastern side of Boston Common as their venue, and had optimistically declared that it would run from 12:00 PM until 5:00 PM. The Free Speech ralliers milled around in brightly-colored packs around the bandstand: a walking path separated the stretch of land they occupied from Flag Staff Hill and the Soldiers and Sailors monument, which black-clad antifa protesters had arrayed themselves around. Boston bike police officers in bright yellow jackets stood in a tight line on the walking path, presenting a human-and-bicycle shield for the protesters in case anybody got particularly restive.
The Free Speech Rally was organized in part by actual high schoolers, including one Steven Verette, who proudly told The Daily Beast that the idea for the event had “originated on 4Chan’s /pol/.” (The oldest organizer was, apparently, the advanced age of 32). The organizers were youthful, but they had still managed to attract a half-decent slate of big-name alt right stars, or what passes for a star on the nasty bits of the Internet. The biggest-ticket name was Based Stickman, who is actually Kyle Chapman, who is actually a thrice convicted felon from California best known for beating anti-Trump protesters in Berkeley with a leaded stick. There were the Oath Keepers, a virulently anti-government organization that was founded as a direct response to Barack Obama’s election in 2009: largely comprised of former military and law enforcement officers, they are particularly fond of showing up as self-appointed and often distinctly unwanted armed guards for people they decide they like. They claimed on their website that they had “been asked to assist with security” and would coordinate with other alt-right groups to “ensure the safety of the event from several terrorist organizations.”
There were dewy-faced high school boys and college freshmen with hand-made “Kekistan” signs and red Trump caps: one held his sign up for me to photograph like a beaming 3rd grader who has just drawn a somewhat serviceable picture of a giraffe. A number of protesters had showed up with crash helmets, gas-masks, goggles, body armor, and other tactical gear, as if they were preparing for a pitched machine-gun battle in Fallujah and not for a mildly damp day in a verdantly green park in spring in Boston. One helmet-wearing boy showed off a hand-painted wooden shield with a slightly wobbly rendition of the Bennington flag, while another carried a shield with a bald eagle painted on it. Some people were waving the Japanese flag, for reasons I am too lazy to look up. Many people had appeared in camo, perhaps under the impression that it would make it harder for antifa to see them. A few men had showed up in full Centurion armor. (Did they just have it lying around? Did they buy it for the occasion? Was this armor set aside for dual LARPing and white supremacist protesting purposes? Does anyone have answers?).
A young and very skinny man in a purple greatcoat was holding a large wooden stick: he used the stick to guide a group of snickering alt-righters into some simulacrum of a military formation while he shouted, presumably as a show of organizational superiority to the shouting counter-protesters on the other hill.
“Man, I hate to admit it but they’ve got hotter girls over there,” I overheard one free speech rallier say to another, as they surveyed the counter protesters on the other hill. (I know this sounds implausible, like wishful thinking on my part, but I swear I actually heard it).
Off to the side were the Proud Boys, who emanated great waves of frustrated masculinity, in such quantity that I am pretty sure they could be be captured by any normally sensitive camera, perhaps sensed from miles away. The Boys were members of Gavin McInnes white supremacist fraternity, which is (I swear to God) actually named after a song from the Aladdin Broadway musical. It is meant to evoke a sense of chummy, supportive white male solidarity, and I guess that it is what these men to the side were up to, all these lumbering beardy men in baseball caps who shouted and hooted at each other in the same fashion as any group of thwarted male primates.
The Proud Boys were feeling very thwarted indeed. Despite the line of police in neon-green vests separating them from the counter-protesters, they hyped each other up as if they would, at any moment, bum-rush the police and burst through the line. “We’re going to take back that hill,” they shouted at each other, casting angry glances at the counter protesters on the other side.I later read social media chatter that indicated they and a number of other attendees were angry at the Oathkeepers for (apparently) holding them back from getting rough with counter-protesters and by proxy the police – which indicated to me that the Oath Keepers, for all their other flaws, at least had a sense of basic self-preservation.
Prevented from punching any liberal arts undergraduates, the Proud Boys occupied themselves with their central initiation ritual. Picture it like this, although you can also watch video. One Proud Boy stands in the middle of a circling of shouting Proud Boys, and then he begins to recite different, beloved brands of breakfast cereal. As he does this, the other Proud Boys punch him. He is supposed to name six different types of cereal before he gives up. “Frosted Flakes, Cheerios, Cocoa Pebbles,” he squeaks, as the Proud Boys rain not-exactly-ferocious blows upon him. “Cinnamon Toast Crunch, Wheaties, Froot Loops,” he continues, as his other Boys hit him. Sometimes there is giggling.
This ritual is then followed by the recitation of the Proud Boys oath: “I am a Western chauvinist who refuses to apologize for creating the modern world.” (This seems to imply that the assembled Proud Boys had personally discovered weaving, the printing press, thermonuclear physics, and the Internet, which I am reasonably sure they did not). They even have a manifesto, which you can read here, and which they take very seriously. It begins with ‘clear the area of all women,’ which should give you an idea of the contents to follow. They politely ignored me as I filmed them: maybe they assumed I was a fan, like the “Proud Boys Girls” who cheer on their men’s minimalist achievements on social media.
At one point, a young man with a scraggly beard walked swiftly through the crowd from the counter-protesters side, his head down. He was spotted, as he presumably walked towards the subway: the thwarted Proud Boys and a few other free-floating Free Speech Ralliers formed into a pack and circled around him hungrily. One Proud Boy acted as if he’d dump a cup of soda over his head, perfectly fitting all known stereotypes of damp-pitted and vicious lunchroom bullies. Others screeched “REEE” at him in ear-splitting tones, which is the sound that white supremacists on the Internet like to believe that both people with autism and “social justice warriors” make. The young man with a beard looked less afraid than he looked disgusted, or maybe disappointed, and he began to argue with them.
A few of the Free Speechers had a bullhorn, and they were attempting to carry their voices over to the counter-protesters on the other side with extremely limited success. “Your women want to sleep with us!” one guy with a beard in olive-green army fatigues shouted through an underpowered megaphone. Everyone cheered. The speeches began on the bandstand, behind an American flag backdrop. I did not stick around for these, in part because I knew they’d all be on the Internet anyway, and in part because I was much more interested in the anthropological weirdness of watching the alt-right tribes mingle than I was in the usual boilerplate about Taking Back Our Country and Western Chauvinism and Why Can’t I Use Racial Slurs When I’m Just Telling Lighthearted Jokes.
I had edged away from the speeches and was walking back towards the counter-protester side when I noticed a certain large Proud Boy with an orange shirt and a neon-green belt who had been creeping closer and closer to the line of police. I had turned my back when I heard a commotion behind me: a police officer was already twisting the Proud Boy’s arms behind his back and was preparing to cuff him. “He tried to punch that girl!” someone said by way of explanation: apparently he’d lunged over the cops and attempted to deck a female counter-protester, but she was able to get out of the way. I got out my phone and began filming as the police perp-walked him away. Later I cut it to the theme music from Curb Your Enthusiasm, at my boyfriend’s request, which perfectly captured the hapless look of *surprise* on the Boy’s face, as if the universe he’d been promised had suddenly dissolved beneath his feet and left him stranded.
The counter-protesters began to filter away in boredom. We did, too. Later, on social media, the free speech ralliers posted images of themselves standing on the hill where the counter-protesters had been, smiling and celebrating. “WE TOOK THE HILL!” said one caption. I suppose winning an ideological battle on the basis of simply boring the other side to death is a sort of strategy.
All told, the May 13th Free Speech Rally attracted roughly 200 participants and a smaller number of counter-protesters. The tiny baby organizers figured it to be a great success, on the basis of their exultant Facebook posts after the fact and the underwhelming numbers of counter protesters. They began feeling confident. They began planning for a second event on August 19th.
And then Charlottesville happened.
The Second Free Speech Rally: August 19th
The second Free Speech Rally was held on August 19th in the same location and at around the same time. This time, there were roughly 48 alt-right and free speech-y participants, an over-confident batch of die-hards that failed to fully appreciate how the death in Charlottesville had changed the debate. They cheerfully continued planning for the rally in the days leading up to it, predicting an even bigger turnout and an even More Fun time than the prior event. As an unnamed Boston police source observed to the New York Daily News: “To tell you the truth, I think they were too stupid to be scared.”
We got down there early, unsure of what to expect. There had been hope that the city would deny the event its permit, in part because an honest-to-God anime cosplay picnic had been scheduled for the same space at the same time – but the understandably spooked cosplayers dropped out, and the alt-right were able to appropriate the slot.. As we walked to the Common, we scanned for signs of right-wingers but saw no one who seemed to obviously fit the bill: no Trump hats, no Gadsen flags, no American flags inappropriately used as capes. Media trucks lined the Common. A tour guide in a large pink duck boat said “Yes, that’s where it’s going to happen,” then rumbled by again.
I assumed that the ralliers would mill around loosely as they did at the first event, but the Boston Police had other plans, plans that were obviously influenced by footage of the horror in Charlottesville. As we walked into the park by the Boston Massacre monument, we saw an intricate pattern of chain-link barrier fences: the police had apparently decided to fence in the bandstand and the free speech ralliers for their own safety, aware that keeping thousands of irate counter-protesters with a taste for fascist tears would be impossible.
Thousands of counter-protesters were expected, who had been rallied in large part by Monica Cannon, Violence in Boston, Angie Camacho and the Black Lives Matter Global Network in its Fight Supremacy Facebook event. Rally organizers had offered non violent direct action free training on Thursday and Friday at multiple locations. The early estimates of 20,000 counter-protesters proved to be a major underestimate: city officials would later estimate an attendance of 40,000.
By the time we arrived, many had begun to mass on the same hill the counter-protesters had used last time, except there were already vastly more of them. Another huge contingent of protesters, led by Black Lives Matter, were set to begin marching in from Roxbury by 11:00 AM. People joined us to lean over the fence and squint, looking for Nazis. “Is there even anyone there?” they asked each other.
The crowd grew and grew and grew from 10:00 AM onwards, and had turned into a large and rowdy summer block party by 11:00 AM. A huge swath of Boston humanity was represented, from some weird shirtless white guy with bulging veins doing one-handed pushups and growling “Fight me!” in the general direction of the Nazis to glittery pink drag queens with magic wands to bandanna-wearing Antifa clad in all black to a very large and very discordant array of musical instruments and speakers blasting mid-2000s emo music (for some reason). The Nazis served as hard-to-see entertainment – not that we could hear them, and I’m pretty sure they couldn’t hear us, beyond a distant, threatening roar.
We positioned ourselves on a hill and looked out over the roiling mass of shouting, largely cheerful humanity below us. I was taking a photograph of the crowd when I noticed a group of black-clad Antifa members moving in a line below me on the hill: I had just snapped an iPhone photo when I realized that someone had winged a mostly-full bottle of Polar Seltzer in watermelon-lime flavor at Antifa, overshot their target, and nailed me in the thigh. It only hurt a little (although the bruise would end up being impressive): I picked up the seltzer bottle, nonplussed, and looked into the crowd for the thrower, the person who had inflicted upon me the most New England injury I will likely ever have. But whoever it was had disappeared again.
There were some skirmishes when a very small number of foolhardy MAGA’s and Trump supporters wandered the crowd attempting to rile people up, but rally marshals and Black Lives Matter did a good job of crowd control. I saw one skinhead looking guy on the ground after apparently being punched, while a counter-protesting black woman defended him and told other people not to attack anyone. People who were angling for a fight didn’t get one, although there was a lot shouting and anger at the white supremacists, which is, after all, as it should be.
I noticed that some people were moving through the crowd, down the road between the hill and the field that sloped down to the bandstand. I put it together that the police were leading a couple of the right-wingers through the crowd and out of the park, right through the center of the counter-protest: people were following behind them as if the right-wingers were a particularly punchable ice cream truck. “Get the fuck out of here,” people shouted. “Fuck Nazis” people roared, collectively.
I joined the scrum, which pushed through the crowd until the police held everyone up for a second to give them some lead time – after about 30 seconds, they nodded and let us through again. Some of the counter-protesters began to jog and then to run in the direction of the police and the retreating ralliers. I began to run too, with my phone in my left hand – it looked like the police were headed to the gates of the park and to the street beyond it. I got out in front of the crowd and videotaped the two right-wingers, who were smiling nervously and pretending not to be frightened: one was wrapped in an American flag and the other wore a red newsboy cap and was wrapped in the bright-yellow Gadsen flag.
They made it past the green truck that was being used as a temporary barricade at the gate to the park, and the police hustled them through at a brisk jog – it appeared they were making for a white police van that was parked in the middle of the road. Another police van came screaming down the road and made a quick three point turn to block off one access point to the van. I was in the scrum of press and protesters as the guy in the American flag was stuffed bodily into the back of the police van by police, like a racist sack of potatoes. The van drove away quickly, and we all stood around, this former and now dissipating scrum, and appreciated each other. “Wow, I hadn’t done that in years,” one grinning news photographer said to another, mopping his sweaty brow. “That was fun,” a butch woman wearing black said to her girlfriend. We all smiled at each other.
That woman expressed the general feel of the day, which I can sum up as joyful release – and it was something I felt too. It was an opportunity, a moment for the quivering rebels to finally get a chance to score back. For these were 40,000 people who had since November been watching in powerless anguish as the Trump administration vomited upon American norms and pimpley Nazis stomped through the streets and the GOP ceaselessly attempted to take away relatives access to inhalers and cancer treatments. And then, just a week after Charlottesville, the proud fans of this stress, this horror, this fear, had decided it would be a good, an absolutely skippy idea, to parade around in an easily-accessible park with little wooden shields. Right smack-dab in the middle of a very Democratic city in a very Democratic state. We came out to meet them in anger, certainly, but in the great gathering of enraged people I do think there was a lot of fun, a sense of beer-drinking-in-the-park commitment to the great cause of frightening Nazis out of the public sphere.
We had begun walking back across the street and into the park when I stopped and looked up the road at the wavy, black blobs of a group of unidentifiable people approaching: were the other protesters coming that way. I began walking up the road, back towards the city: a few people who were counter-protest organizers were already running ahead of me, talking into their cell phones. “Yeah, the riot police are moving,” I heard one of them say: and sure enough, a big crowd of the riot police I’d seen standing around at the Au Bon Pain strode into view, decked out in body armor and holding billy clubs.They paused briefly and began walking in tight formation into the park. Were they coming out to extract the other right-wingers from their bandstand enclave? Were they going to empty out the Gazebo Full of Racists before the end of their appointed time? I began following them.
The “Free Speech” ralliers social media accounts from around this time indicate that a siege mentality had begun to set in, which strikes me as the natural thing to feel when you’re huddled in a gazebo with a bunch of your fellow racists and are surrounded on three sides by enormous numbers of people who think you suck. They seemed just as surprised as the Proud Boy was, when the police marched him out of the Common: they’d expected to be met unopposed, or at least met with light and easily mockable opposition, but they hadn’t expected this sheer mass of pissed-off Bostonians to sally forth on a pretty Saturday to tell them to go eat a dick.
The alt-right forum banter before the event involved a lot of tough talk about turning out numbers to intimidate the liberal weaklings of Massachusetts. It had not anticipated this. And so they decided to turn back, and had presumably asked the police to escort them out. They had lasted for a total of 40 minutes. Former Infowars “reporter” and PizzaGate proponent Joe Biggs Tweeted a picture of himself inside of the Parkman Bandstand: “We are huddled around in the common waiting to find out if we have police protection or we have to fight our way out. This is America,” he wrote. The photograph shows half of his face (worried, scrunched-up brow), and just visible in the distance, a fence with a huge mass of cheerfully fascist-rejecting humanity behind it.
At approximately the same time that the Free Speechers were begging to be escorted by police out of their Gazebo of Refuge, a huge contingent of marchers organized by Fight Supremacy arrived at the Commons: they had walked over from Roxbury, and they soon began to fill the Commons up, even more than it had already been filled. The police, I realized, had been sent out to escort the alt-righters out of the park, through the protective corridor that ran from the bandstand out to Tremont Street. I walked around the fencing and down to Tremont Street to what looked like the usual park maintenance entrance – all walled off – and joined the group of people peering over the iron fence.
We could see police vans lined up behind the gate, that presumably contained the frightened alt-righters within them. Police began to line up on Tremont Street, wielding billy clubs and standing in formation with their black helmets on and black boots, perfect fodder for dystopian photographs. I accidentally got too close to one of the police officers forming a human barrier around the entrance from the utility gate to the street: he wheeled around and snarled “Don’t startle me like that!”
I apologized and stepped back: soon enough, the gates opened up and, sirens flashing, the police vans drove through, surrounded on all sides by police protection. People followed the vans out of the park, yelling “Make them walk!” and other appropriate missives of love, and I followed. I was at the corner of Tremont and Park Street when I saw a black man on the ground, who was soon entirely surrounded by police, blocking our view. He was getting arrested for something: “I think he punched a cop,” someone speculated over my shoulder, but they weren’t entirely sure. No one was sure, but there was a man on the ground, on his face, getting arrested with the police blocking our view of it all.
The protesters showed no signs of dispersing. Next to me, two men were conversing: a white man in a t-shirt who seemed to have arrived on the scene only recently, and a black man in a green bucket hat. “Who chased off the Nazis?” the white man asked.
“Man, the whole city,” the black man replied.
It seemed over; I mean in that the dramatic climax of the Nazis being repelled off to their suburban dens had happened. But it wasn’t over. We’d walked to get celebratory drinks downtown, to get out of the heat and to stop sweating for a moment or two. Our chosen bar was on Temple Street: so were the riot police, wearing gas masks and black gloves. “What the hell is going on?” I asked a nervous-looking guy with swim goggles around his neck. (He’d been in Occupy). “Some people got tear-gassed down there,” he said, and by that he meant Washington Street, which runs parallel to Boston’s featureless downtown mall. “People were throwing rocks at police or something. Don’t go down there – they’re going to shut the street down.”
I debated going down there anyway, and advanced forward a bit, but I couldn’t see anything happening still. We decided that we’d get a drink at the bar on Temple Street, operating under the perhaps dubious logic that if a street-fight went down, we’d hear about it and be able to rush out and take photographs. So we had a couple drinks, and then we re-emerged back onto the street an hour or so later, and it still wasn’t over and everyone hadn’t gone home yet.
We walked all the way down Temple Street this time, towards the T, when we found a group of angry people gathered on Washington Street. They were shouting at a line-up of police in full-riot gear with gas masks on. Hanging out behind them was Boston Police Department Superintendent in Chief William Gross. “It’s your job to protect us,” a woman screamed in his direction. “These are our streets!” a man yelled. A skinny white kid wiped tears from his eyes: he’d been tear-gassed earlier and was attempting to flush out the poison with milk. I took his picture, and asked him if it was OK if I posted it on Instagram. “Oh, I’m also on Instagram!” he said, excitedly. We added each other.
Gross smiled and came forward from behind the line of cops, walking right into the crowd. He had gentle words for everyone. He behaved as the personification of a warm hug, your nice grandmother, a plate of warm cookies. He told everyone that he understood how they were feeling, and that he just wanted everything to stay calm. He was deeply complimentary. “You should be proud of yourselves, you all did this the right way,” he said, beaming, as if we were his children and we had just learned an important lesson by means of doing something understandably naughty. He described how Martin Luther King had spoken at the same bandstand back in the 1960s, a remarkable analogy, considering, and people nodded. “I’m sorry I didn’t bring enough doughnuts for everyone,” he cracked. The woman who’d previously shouted at the police ended up hugging him. People took photographs with him. It was an act of raw charisma.
As Gross benevolently worked the crowd, we spoke with a young woman and her friend, who had been there when the police started tear-gassing people. “I had to rescue this dumb old white guy,” she said. Apparently, he’d been taunting the largely non-white protesters, and they were about to attack him. But she felt as a black woman that they wouldn’t attack her, so she grabbed him by the back of the shirt in a sort of protective tackle and dragged the idiot backwards down the road, towards the T, away from danger. “They interviewed me on the news,” she said, contemplatively. She worked at Northeastern University and studied education, and we exchanged our information, mentioned getting drinks sometime: another meeting of professionals under slightly curious circumstances, as is the way of things for our particular millennial subset, in the year of our Lord 2017.
Almost to the T, we passed by a couple of reporters wearing flak jackets and helmets. Up against the wall, they were fiddling with their video cameras and adjusting their helmets, wondering if it was over yet. We assumed they were some easily-scared local reporters who’d hyped themselves up for something worse than this was. “Hey, what’s with the jackets?” one of us asked. “Oh, early Halloween!” said one of the men, with a fairly thick accent. “We’re Al Jazeera!” the other man said. “You’ve had a rough couple of months,” I said, thinking of the Saudi government’s ever-more aggressive efforts to shutter them. We fist-bumped each other.
It was over.