How Boston’s massive “free speech” rally fell apart

The city and its police force had feared the event would attract a newly emboldened white supremacist crowd.
August 19, 2017, 8:17pm

Boston turned out — in a big way — against white supremacy on Saturday when a so-called “alt-lite” group, theoretically separate group from the recently known “alt-right,” held a free speech rally on Boston Common.

With the event coming just a week after neo-Nazis flooded the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia, and left three dead, Boston and its police force had feared this rally would attract a newly emboldened white supremacist crowd. But the free speech rally, which had been planned for months, fell apart soon after it began.


By VICE News’ estimate, only about 50 people showed up, and they found themselves up against as many as 40,000 counterprotesters, comprised of Black Lives Matter activists, far-left anti-fascist organizers, and pissed-off Bostonians, just to name a few. Meanwhile, a concurrent protest against white supremacy gathered steam on the other side of town and made its way toward Boston Common.

Earlier in the week, the national director of the Ku Klux Klan said its members from Massachusetts would show up at the rally. But the event’s organizers had said they opposed white supremacy. And speakers, including prominent “proud boy” social media personalities like Gavin McInnes and August Invictus, had also started to pull out of the event.

Even local law enforcement told VICE News they had little sense of what to expect.

The rally began at noon when about 50 rally attendees, including former Infowars contributor and “Pizzagate” conspirator Joe Biggs, gathered at Boston Common, the country’s oldest city park. But soon after, out of concern for the attendees’ safety, police had to barricade them in the park’s bandstand.

Officers ultimately had to escort them away from the park in police vans — again, for their safety — sparking clashes between police and counterprotesters, who didn’t understand why law enforcement was protecting people they called “white supremacists.” At least 27 people were arrested in the course of the day, Boston Police Commissioner William Evans said.


In the morning, counterprotesters had gathered in Roxbury, a historically black neighborhood of Boston, to make signs, rally, and then march the two miles to Boston Common. Trese Ainsworth, 46, and her daughter, Lauren Ainsworth, 25, who was wearing a pink pussycat hat, held signs that read, “Freedom of speech does not mean hate speech.”

“I’m a white suburban mom, and people like me have to come and stand up and say, ‘This is not OK,’” Trese said.

Similarly, Chuck Lacey, 61, a farmer, drove with his family down from Vermont to march. “I’m just mad,” he said.

“I was motivated to come out because it’s time to take responsibility and respond to what happened last weekend,” Lacey added. “I told my black friends they shouldn’t come. This is our responsibility.”

As the morning rolled on, the crowds of counterprotesters began to swell. A van pulled up, with the Chi-Lites’ “Give More Power to the People” blaring from its speakers. Black-clad antifa, many wearing signs that read “smash white supremacy,” and Black Lives Matter organizers energized the streets, chanting, “Hey, hey, ho ho, white supremacy has got to go,” while a brass band played to the rhythm. Speakers like Roxbury Councilman Tito Jackson and Monica Cannon, a local racial justice activist, addressed the crowd from the van’s platform. They talked about systemic issues, like gentrification, schooling, and income inequality.

Down at the Boston Common, however, the atmosphere was more tense than among the counter-protesters marching their way from Roxbury.


Even though police had sequestered the free speech rally attendees from the crowd, the occasional stray Trump supporter would venture away and be mobbed by counterprotesters and media. Every time, a tall man in a cream suit and a straw hat would break up the fights and say, “no violence,” over and over again.

“I see a sea of ignorance,” remarked Darrel O’Connell, 57, a laundry worker from Rhode Island there to support free speech with his son Eamon O’Connell, 30, who’s in the military.

Darrel rejects the “white supremacist” or “neo-Nazi” label. “They are unfair and intimidates anyone who disagrees with Black Lives Matter or communists,” he said. “I’m not a white supremacist. I’m an American.” Darrel added that he believed what happened in Charlottesville last weekend was a “setup” designed by city officials, but he offered no evidence to back up his claim.

Meanwhile, a group of counterprotesters, including a young black woman later identified by Huffington Post as 19-year-old Imani, from Connecticut, helped another rally attendee through the crowd to the bandstand while people booed and spat on him. “I don’t want this shit to get violent,” one of his protectors said.

At about 1:30 p.m., half an hour earlier than planned, the free speech rally disbanded, reportedly because some of the organizers hadn’t even showed up. As the rally attendees left, the people in Boston Common cheered, chanted “Black Lives Matter,” and danced.

“It’s clear today that Boston stood for peace and love, not bigotry and hate,” said Boston Mayor Marty Walsh at a press conference later in the day.