Boston was flooded with counter-protesters this weekend as a right-wing event drew a few dozen people.
A protester in Boston. Photo by Jonathan Wiggs/The Boston Globe via Getty Images
Garrett Kirkland, one of the organizers of Saturday's Boston "free speech" rally, a gathering of libertarian and right-wing demonstrators that was drowned out by tens of thousands of left-wing activists, was feeling a little grouchy in the aftermath.
Kirkland expected a strong engaged turnout due to perceptions "created by the media" and had previously told a local radio station that Mayor Marty Walsh helped "ratchet up tension." In the end, just a few dozen showed up for the right-wing rally at the 105-year-old Parkman Bandstand. The counter-protest, around 40,000 strong, was all rainbow flags and antifa symbols and middle fingers and hollering.
Kirkland believes the opposition was uninformed. "Everyone said [rally speakers] were all hate groups, so it mobilized people to march against 'them,'" he told me the day after. "The magnitude of people who came out, and the various groups, had a complete disconnect from reality versus what was being portrayed [by the media]."
No one outside of the bandstand could hear what the rally's speakers were saying; the tens of thousands of counter-protesters weren't there so much to protest the specific groups in attendance but the broader alt-right ideology. Even if these weren't the same sort of overt white supremacists who came to Charlottesville the previous weekend, the crowd was still determined to tell them that their MAGA hats weren't welcome in Boston.
The counter-protest crowds, including thousands of Black Lives Matter–supporting marchers who walked in solidarity from Roxbury to Boston Common, were kept away from the bandstand by police. So were some right-wing demonstrators—including one who allegedly had a concealed gun.
That meant no one could hear the speakers at the rally, including Shiva Ayyadurai, a GOP challenger to Senator Elizabeth Warren who is most famous for suing anyone who says he didn't invent email. Reading off his phone, Ayyadurai denounced Democrats Harry Reid and Joe Biden as racists for remarks they once made about Barack Obama. Behind him supporters waved signs that said "black lives DO matter."
Kirkland maintains he would never condone hate speech or the kind of philosophies that seek to cause harm on others. Like many on the alt-right, he says he's opposed to the naked, ugly racism on display on Charlottesville. "We had considered changing the date of the rally or postponing, and we disinvited Augustus Invictus [after Charlottesville], because we wanted to make sure we're separated from this guy."
As to the inclusion of controversial Kyle Chapman, the California activist known as "Based Stickman" for bashing an antifa protester over the head with a stick, Kirkland said it's hard to judge people's specific motives for attending on Saturday, but that since Chapman didn't participate in the Unite the Right rally Kirkland said there was no reason not to invite him.
Still, though Chapman rejects claims that he's a white nationalist, some of his rhetoric wouldn't have seemed out of place at Charlottesville. "I can tell you that there is a war against whites," he told the Atlantic at an Irish pub north of Boston bar after being escorted by cops away from the rally. "Whites are discriminated against en masse. I personally have been the victim of multiple hate crimes. As a people, we do have our own grievances, we do have our own story to tell."
If he had to organize the free-speech rally again, knowing the turnout of Saturday, Kirkland wouldn't change anything. "We would have done a peaceable assembly as planned. You can't punish people for the actions of other people, and because we had no connection to the [Unite the Right rally], there's no reason to bow down to public pressure based on untruths."
If Kirkland has no regrets, neither do the counter-protesters. Kimberly Barzola, one of the ANSWER Coalition organizers for the Stand for Solidarity rally at the Statehouse on Saturday, described the counter-protest as "a complete denouncement of what happened in Charlottesville, and I'm not buying this rebranding with constitutional language or calling it about 'free speech.' When we open up public spaces for free speech and Oath Keepers and Proud Boys show up, they're not talking about free speech or repping identities."
Though the rhetoric was heated, there was nothing in the way of violence that hit Charlottesville. That was partly due to the police and partly due to a group of activists committed to enforcing nonviolence. A Muscogee-Creek man who goes by Fixico was around every single dustup I witnessed. He told me that he had served a similar role at Standing Rock: a neutral figure who intervened by throwing himself between protesters and police.
"A very good friend of mine died in my arms getting hit with concussion grenade in the heart, so nonviolence is extremely important to me," he said.
At one point, Fixico placed himself between a free-speech rally supporter with an American flag around his neck and counter-protesters as a neutral barrier*, before Boston bike cops escorted him out of the park and into a wailing wagon to safety. Scott Hannon, a Cambridge Air Force veteran with tours of duty in the Middle East who was also at Standing Rock, tried taking the flag from the man's neck when he saw it dragging on the ground.
"I didn't want to see the flag that I protected and served for being dragged in the mud by that little piece of shit," he said. "This rally is about what good humans are versus shitty ones. How can [Shiva Ayyadurai] go to a vigil for Heather Heyer one night and the next day go speak at an event like this with people like Kyle Chapman, who was busted for selling illegal firearms out of a tattoo parlor?"
In the end, the event didn't dissolve into chaos. To hear Donald Trump and even the Boston Police commissioner tell it, law enforcement did the impossible with all but a few moments of clashing tensions. But Fixico says it was close.
"I was very shocked at how people could not control themselves," he said. "And it seemed like there were three distinct sides at play: the 'free-speech' rally, all the counter-protesters, and then the police. Reading the cops and city workers faces, they were nervous. I witnessed officers [in riot gear] getting off rhythm with their movements and weren't listening to their commanding officers, who were getting aggravated. That rubbed off on protesters, who then became more aggravated, and police began batoning people in the back that were retreating. Everyone was on edge."
Correction 8/21: This story has been updated to better reflect Fixico's motivation—he sees himself as a nonviolent neutral barrier between sides.