BOSTON — A crowd of counterprotesters estimated to exceed 40,000 packed a public park and took to the streets of Boston on Saturday in an effort to drown out a controversial rally that organizers described as a demonstration in favor of free speech.
The planned speeches never took place, however, and police escorted some attendees away from a bandstand on the Boston Common around 12:45 p.m., more than an hour before the rally was scheduled to end.
Tensions flared, skirmishes briefly broke out and police reported making more than two dozen arrests. But the event remained largely peaceful, soothing anxieties that New England’s largest city might see a repeat of last weekend’s deadly violence that beset Charlottesville, Virginia.
The rally against removing a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee by neo-Nazis, Ku Klux Klan members and others in Charlottesville prompted people from across the Northeast to gather in Boston to protest an event they worried would draw a similar crowd.
Days before the gathering in Boston, the organizers said that they had no association with the white hate groups that had descended on Charlottesville. But many of the counterprotesters, including a contingent from Maine, said Saturday that they believed the stated agenda of defending free speech was a ruse.
“We don’t believe that hate speech is protected speech,” said Madison Raymond, a 22-year-old Portlander who studies at the University of Southern Maine. “This is a white supremacist rally in sheep’s clothing.”
None of the prominent symbols of fascism and white hate that were on display in Charlottesville could be seen in Boston. And one of Saturday’s scheduled speakers said before the rally started that her only agenda there was defending the First Amendment.
“If there are hindrances to a free speech rally, then those hindrances should be eliminated whether they are left or right,” Tammy Lee, a member of a group called the American Freedom Keepers, told the Bangor Daily News
Lee, 40, came to the rally from near Albany, New York, and declined to discuss her political leanings beyond saying she was a “constitutionalist.” She spoke to a reporter encircled by several other members of the American Freedom Keepers, some of whom wore military-style protective vests and signaled what they considered to be threats to one another with clipped references to the numbers on a clock — “at your 12.”
Raymond said that he had come with other Mainers to stand for transgender people and to support the Antifa, a loosely organized left-wing group that goes by a contraction of the word “anti-fascist” and does not shy away from violence.
The possibility of conflict with people wearing all black with their faces covered who appeared to be affiliated with Antifa seemed to make Lee’s protectors nervous.
In several instances, people wearing Trump paraphernalia were followed across the Boston Common lawns by a surging, screaming mass of people shouting epithets. The crowd at one point shouted, “Nazi scum” at a young man who was wearing a “Make America Great Again” cap and had an Israeli flag draped around his shoulders like a cape.
In another tense moment, a handful of black-clad people who had their faces covered knocked a man to the ground and yelled, “Nazi” after one said he’d seen him on the bandstand where the rally organizers had gathered. The group then attempted to stop a photographer from taking a picture of them surrounding the man on the ground.
The man, Joe Panzica, 58, later said he was not a fascist but rather a teacher from Greenfield, Massachusetts. With a tuft of grass and soil stuck in his glasses, Panzica said he was glad people were standing against hate groups.
The vast majority of counterprotesters, however, were peaceful, and after police called an official end to the rally, the Boston Common took on a festive air in parts, as some who showed up to oppose the rally celebrated their perceived victory.
Boston Police Commissioner William Evans said Saturday afternoon that 27 people had been arrested at the event.
Trump, who faced harsh condemnation for his equivocal response to the white hate groups in Charlottesville, took to Twitter as the rally was winding down to praise Boston Mayor Marty Walsh and the Boston police. The president also decried the “ many anti-police agitators” he claimed were at the event.
Evans, however, seemed largely impressed with the counterprotesters who showed up Saturday.
“We probably had 40,000 people out here, standing tall against hatred and bigotry in our city, and that’s a good feeling,” the police commissioner said.