How Boston's rainbow sea of thousands forced far-Right to cut short rally
It was billed as a clash of Americas: rival rallies going head to head in the city of Boston. Free speech campaigners had been planning their event for months but it took on a whole new significance after the bloody events in Charlottesville last weekend. Fearing an invasion of white supremacists, local groups organised a counter-protest. It was far from a fair fight. About three dozen mostly white figures gathered on the Parkman Bandstand at the appointed time, ringed by American flags, police officers and fencing. Organisers cut short their free speech rally on Boston Common bandstand as their numbers were dwarfed by counter-protesters Credit: AP As they began their speeches there were met by distant jeering from the more than 15,000 people who had paraded on to Boston Common to declare the city a Nazi-free zone. “Where’s the rest of your rally,” went up the cry. Far from being a threat to the American way of life, the various libertarians and conspiracy theorists gathered on the bandstand looked to be outnumbered, out of touch and out of sorts. After 45 minutes of their allotted two hours they were gone, hustled hurriedly away by police officers for their own protection. Speakers depart after cutting short their rally Credit: AP More humiliation followed. Some were bundled into a police van that was brought to a standstill as soon as it left the common, surrounded by counter-protesters who realised what game was afoot. “Make them walk, make them walk,” cried the mob, before someone sent a plastic bottle of orange Gatorade (or something else) arcing through the air. Protesters face off with riot police escorting free speech campaigners in Boston Credit: Getty Images Riot police armed with batons appeared alongside officers on bicycles. Between them they formed a rolling blockade. As the bike cops set a cordon to ease the van on its way, their armoured colleagues picked out anyone who stood in their way. The day finished with 27 arrests. It was one of those pivotal moments that could have gone either way. In Ferguson, three years ago, police used former military vehicles and little caution in a heavy handed response that ensured America smouldered for months. This country is again tinder dry. Last weekend’s clashes between violent anti-fascists and white supremacists horrified a nation that has never come to peace with its legacy of slavery and segregation. Drone captures the moment car ploughs into Charlottesville protesters 00:50 The death of Heather Heyer, a 32-year-old paralegal, has ensured more soul searching about America’s direction of travel. And all week Donald Trump’s stance on white supremacy and Confederate era statues – th issue the sparked trouble in Charlottesville – has emboldened hardliners on either side. Amid that toxic mix, John Medlar, a 23-year-old student and one of the Boston Free Speech organisers, found himself the centre of national and international scrutiny. He had been planning the rally since May but was suddenly inundated with questions about who he was inviting and why. A counterprotester holds a photo of Heather Heyer on Boston Common on Saturday Credit: AP “We had no idea it would end up like this,” he said on Saturday morning. “With just a week to go for an event we were already planning, basically the dice was cast. People would have showed up if we had cancelled.” He insisted the purpose of the rally had been misreported. An honest effort to promote free speech was being misrepresented as a vehicle for white supremacy, he claimed. Counter-protesters marching through Boston It is easy to see why opponents thought otherwise. The list of speakers included Kyle Chapman, founder of a group of Right-wing vigilantes known as the Fraternal Order of Alt-Knights, who was this week charged with an alleged assault at a Trump rally in March. Others included Joe Biggs, who used to work for the conspiracy-mongering website Infowars, and some from other sides as well as some claiming to be progressives. For better or worse, their words went largely unheard on Saturday. Free speech rally now confined to bandstand. An island surrounded by no man's land then 1000s of counterprotesters #bostonpic.twitter.com/ko5S1T5tJF— Rob Crilly (@robcrilly) August 19, 2017 Only a handful of supporters were allowed through the police blockade leaving the speakers stranded in the distance, speaking mostly to each other. And then they were gone, drowned out by thousands more voices singing and waving goodbye. Afterwards, Samson Racioppi, who is running for Congress and one of the scheduled guests, described the air of chaos. I want to applaud the many protestors in Boston who are speaking out against bigotry and hate. Our country will soon come together as one!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 19, 2017 “I didn't realise how unplanned of an event it was going to be,” he told the local TV station WCVB. “I really think it was supposed to be a good event by the organisers but it kinda fell apart.” It was a victory instead for the assorted campaign groups – from Black Lives Matter and Bernie Sanders supporters to church congregations and pacifists – that massed on the common. There were the black-scarved militants of the much-hyped Antifa Leftist agitators, but they found themselves unneeded. There was no-one for them to fight. Instead, as one bystander said, it was a day when a vocal minority was defeated by a show of common decency. Boston avoided the violent clashes seen in Charlottesville last weekend Credit: AP “It is frustrating that white nationalism is so out in the world but at the same time heartening that they are outnumbered about 1000 to one,” said Jake Phelan, an engineer from Boston, as the crowds began streaming away. Earlier Marty Walsh, mayor of Boston, had appealed for calm. "These signs and the message so far this morning is all about love and peace," he said as he joined thousands of people assembling in a predominantly black neighbourhood of the city. "That's a good message." He urged people to stay away from the common to avoid drawing attention to the far-Right rally. In the end his city avoided the clashes that rocked America last weekend. And, if the counter-protesters did draw attention to the far-Right, it was merely to highlight their insignificance – no more than a few dozen in a rainbow sea of thousands.