Thousands of counterprotesters march in Boston against "Free Speech Rally."

“Free Speech Rally” Cut Short After Thousands of Counterprotesters Flood Boston

“Free Speech Rally” Cut Short After Thousands of Counterprotesters Flood Boston

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Aug. 19 2017 2:19 PM

“Free Speech Rally” Cut Short After Thousands of Counterprotesters Flood Boston

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Counterprotesters march to a planned “Free Speech Rally” on Boston Common on Saturday in Boston.

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Around 15,000 counterprotesters marched through the streets of Boston on Saturday to condemn neo-Nazis and white nationalists as right-wing activists planned a “Free Speech Rally.” There were hundreds of police officers on hand to prevent a repeat of the violence that descended on Charlottesville last week and left a woman dead, but in the end the rally seems to have disbanded early after the conservative activsts were vastly outnumbered by the counterprotesters.

Organizers of the “Free Speech Rally” had distanced themselves from white supremacists but there was still widespread fear that violent neo-Nazi groups would show up in Boston. In the end, only a couple of dozen conservative activists went to the rally that was held on Boston Common and they left early as thousands of counterprotesters descended on the downtown city park. Police escorted the few dozen attendees out of the area and into police cars for their own safety. One of the scheduled speakers at the rally said the whole thing quickly "fell apart," noting that he didn't realize "how unplanned of an event it was going to be."

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Thousands of counter-protesters march to a planned "Free Speech Rally" on Boston Common on August 19, 2017 in Boston, Massachusetts.

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Earlier, the rally organizers took pains to emphasize that they were not looking for trouble and blamed “media hysteria” for the connection between their events and the violent white supremacists who were in Charlottesville last week. “I think we've taken pretty much every precaution, not only with [Boston police], but with the other organizers, to make sure our message is clear, it is unified, and it is one that is anti-hate and pro-peace,” rally organizer John Medlar told WBUR earlier on Saturday. But the connection was also based on experience. A previous “Free Speech Rally” that had been held in Boston in May included lots of the same white supremacist groups that were present in Charlottesville. That rally at the time went largely unnoticed. Now many felt a renewed sense of obligation to make it clear they were not OK with this type of gathering. “Ignoring a problem has never solved it,” one of the organizers of the march said. “We cannot continue to ignore racism.”

Many of the counterprotesters said that regardless of what the organizers said, the rally that was supposedly for “free speech” was really all about hate speech. “I think as a country you have a right to free speech,” Boston resident Beth Chandler told NBC. “But there’s a difference to me with hateful speech and free speech. And a lot of what the separatists are saying is hateful speech and there’s not a place for that in our country.” As they chanted things like “No Trump, No KKK, No Fascist USA,” counterprotesters carried signs that read “Resist” and “Get the hell off my lawn, you bigots.” One column of marchers carried a sign that took up almost the entire width of a street that read, “Which side are YOU on?”

Daniel Politi has been contributing to Slate since 2004 and wrote the Today’s Papers column from 2006 to 2009. Follow him on Twitter.