BOSTON — A small-scale free speech rally one week after the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, was drowned out by thousands of protesters in Boston on August 19, ending relatively peacefully despite a few arrests.
On a hot and muggy Saturday, about 100 attendees at the Boston Free Speech rally were taunted and harassed by scores for holding the rally soon after the white supremacist and Nazi march in Charlottesville. And while the First Amendment-focused event was not meant to celebrate racism or bigotry, some participants — primarily rally speaker Kyle Chapman — promote those views.
The event was a small window into a national conversation about the limits of free speech. For the small group of rally-goers, the event provided a chance to celebrate the ability to express how one feels, even if it advocates violence against others. For counterprotesters, it was an opportunity to denounce hate-filled chatter, not just in Boston but as a rebuke to the rise of racist rhetoric nationwide. In all, an estimated 40,000 people, according to Boston Police Commissioner William Evans, showed up to fight for something they hold dear.
Before and during the free speech rally, I spoke with some attendees and some supporters of the small event. All denounced Nazism and other hate groups, with most expressing that they didn’t want those groups to participate. Still, they said it was important to protect their First Amendment rights, even if it was unpopular.
The event protesters disagreed. That led to a remarkable few hours in the heart of Boston where contrasting viewpoints clashed in dramatic — and sometimes physical — ways.
Below are the conversations I had with Free Speech rally attendees and non-protesting onlookers based on my notes. All people referenced below gave me permission to take a photo and publish the main points of our conversations. Press was not allowed into the rally, and its events could not be heard from outside the barricaded, police-protected area.
1/ Meet Dave, 21 from MA. Wouldn't give last name. (Worried antifa would track him and family down.) pic.twitter.com/hLXakPNQcA— Alex Ward (@AlexWardVox) August 19, 2017
“Dave” — which I later found out was not his real name — is 21 years old and from Massachusetts. He believes violence in support of any ideology is wrong. That’s why he agrees with the president that “both sides” were to blame for the conflict in Charlottesville (even though evidence shows the Nazis and white supremacists instigated the conflict).
He worried for his safety because of the presence of antifa, anti-facism activists that protested the event.
Dave said he is Jewish and dislikes being called a Nazi. “Even if I wanted to be a Nazi, I couldn’t be,” he said. He said he’s not a fan of the Daily Stormer — a prominent neo-Nazi, white supremacist website — but mentioned he would give the site money if it were ever in legal trouble so it could continue to exercise its freedom of speech.
He also mentioned his biggest reason for attending the rally was to point out the conservative bias in the entertainment industry. “It bothers me that people who think like me are unwelcome in Hollywood,” he said. “I do think free speech is in danger.”
1/ Meet Ron Villareale, 71, from Easton, MA. pic.twitter.com/g9ZD5lWF9h— Alex Ward (@AlexWardVox) August 19, 2017
Ron is a 71-year-old Navy veteran from Easton, Massachusetts, who said the nation is being torn apart because people with opposing views refuse to listen to one another.
“I support free speech,” he told me, “because that is the bedrock of America.” In fact, he believes diversity of opinion is at the heart of what sets the US apart. “What makes America great is our diversity,” he said.
I asked him what he does when he hears the views of those he disagrees with, including those of white supremacists. “I just ignore them,” Villareale responded. “You don’t throw rocks at them.”
And when I asked him his thoughts about holding the rally so close the events at Charlottesville, he didn’t seem fazed. “Charlottesville was 1,000 miles away,” he told me. “It has nothing to do with this.”
Villareale didn’t attend the barricaded rally but said it was important to show his support.
1/ Meet Chris Hood, 18, a high school grad who wants to join the military. pic.twitter.com/uHQyZvzhLA— Alex Ward (@AlexWardVox) August 19, 2017
Chris Hood is a recent high school graduate from Dorchester, Massachusetts, and says he wants to join the military someday. But today he wanted to defend free speech.
Hood said Trump was right to point out “both sides” were at fault for violence in Charlottesville. That said, he did say the timing of the Boston event was unfortunate since it happened only a week after the violence in Virginia.
He supports everyone’s right to free speech, but was against hosting white supremacists at the rally. “If [they] show up, we’ll kick them out,” he said. “No one wants them here.”
Chris was confused why protesters thought the event was a Nazi rally. “This is Boston. We don’t support Nazis here.” He expected the crowd of protesters to far outnumber the rally-goers. After all, the permit the Free Speechers only allowed for up to 100 participants.
1/ Meet Andrew (wouldn't give last name). He's 29 and from Suffolk County, NY. pic.twitter.com/8zZnrgR6Ga— Alex Ward (@AlexWardVox) August 19, 2017
Andrew, a self-identified LGBTQ+ ally, is 29 years old and comes from Suffolk County, New York (he did not want to reveal his last name).
He also attended the rally to support free speech as he thinks everyone has a right to their own opinions. But he was “a little bit” concerned with the event’s timing because of its proximity to Charlottesville and he denounced the violence in Virginia. “I don’t approve of those things,” he said.
Andrew attended the rally because, he says, LBGTQ people and other minorities are ostracized if they hold conservative views. That’s why he wanted to defend their right to follow any political inclination they had.
He also doesn’t believe that violence should be used in the name of getting points of view across. One would not be protected by the First Amendment, he argued.
Deaconess Anne Armstrong and Canon Alan Gordon
1/ Meet Deaconess Anne Armstrong and Cannon Alan Gordon from The Healing Church (note the "THC"). Armstrong is the 1st speaker at noon. pic.twitter.com/stW2OkOKJ5— Alex Ward (@AlexWardVox) August 19, 2017
Deaconess Anne Armstrong and Canon Alan Gordon are the leaders of the Healing Church (THC) in Rhode Island. (Keep the “THC” acronym in mind.)
Armstrong was the first speaker at the event, where she performed the opening ceremony, read the Bill of Rights, and led a moment of silence for Heather Heyer, the counterprotester who was hit by a car and died in Charlottesville.
However, she and Gordon decided to perform a prayer before entering the barricaded entrance to the rally, mostly because police were worried someone might use the shofarot — the biblical-style horns — they were carrying for violent means.
Part of the ritual included smoking cannabis (hence “THC”) and blowing the smoke through the instrument. The two said they are big advocates of religious freedom and freedom of expression.
Timothy Lavin and Philip Falco
1/ Meet Timothy Lavin (R) and Philip Falco (L). Both 24 and from Methuen, MA. pic.twitter.com/4Z7Q1LfzpZ— Alex Ward (@AlexWardVox) August 19, 2017
Tim Lavin and Phil Falco are both 24 years old from Methuen, Massachusetts. Lavin is currently a student at a nearby community college, and Falco is a mechanic.
They said they were both “unaffiliated observers.” And while they both lean more to the political left, they were dismayed by how the protesters were acting, particularly antifa. “They came here looking for a fight,” Falco said.
They were both adamant they had “no sympathy” for Nazis or white supremacists. However, they said the tactics used by protesters — shouting, name calling, intimidation — were counterproductive to their cause. Lavin and Falco said protesters were missing the point and making a big mistake.
“There’s a demonization of white people that goes on,” Lavin said. “It’s fodder for the other side who live off the idea that whites are discriminated against.”
They didn’t want to attend the rally.
1/ Meet Cass Michael, 28, from Cranston, RI pic.twitter.com/SGxPGgVtHz— Alex Ward (@AlexWardVox) August 19, 2017
Cass Michael, 28 and from Cranston, Rhode Island, wanted to attend the free speech event but couldn’t figure out how to get in. Instead, she chose to spread her message to onlookers who would listen.
“Everyone is talking politics, not principles,” she said. “We need open minds on both sides.”
Basically, she doesn’t like the ideologies promoted by Nazis, white supremacists, or leftist groups — but says they all have a right to express their views.
She said holding the rally one week after Charlottesville was “the right time” to do so. If organizers postponed the event, she worried that both the left and right would try to take away free speech rights. When I asked her why she thought that, she did not provide any specifics.
However, she said that left-leaning protesters were using Nazi tactics to silence right-leaning thought. She also didn’t specify exactly what she meant by that. But she was adamant that all viewpoints should have the opportunity to be heard and people not resort to violence to promote their beliefs.
Rally participants wanted this to be about free speech. Protesters were focused on Charlottesville.
The Boston rally was nothing close to what happened in Charlottesville.
The attendees or event supporters I spoke to didn’t openly promote hate-filled causes. Again, most preferred that racists and bigots not take part in their rally.
Still, hate speech advocates were given a platform at their event because the organizers wanted to give them a chance to speak their minds. That’s different from an entire event in Charlottesville based on white supremacy. This group even held a rally in May with the same objectives; it just received far less press attention.
The protesters — who numbered in the thousands — didn’t seem to buy the nuance. Among them were a mixture of peace-loving veterans, masked agitators, teenagers, champions of racial, gender, and sexual equality, and more.
Some protesters took advantage of their numerical advantage by shouting and denouncing rally-goers, even chasing them around Boston Common. Many Free Speechers I saw required police assistance to make it through the thousands of protesters. (Around 500 police guarded the rally and its participants from start to finish.)
Below is just one example of one of those altercations I filmed.
2/ First Video pic.twitter.com/zigrPaxl9j— Alex Ward (@AlexWardVox) August 19, 2017
The rally was meant to last about two hours, from noon to 2 pm, but ended about a half-hour early. Police escorted the participants out of Boston Common and into official vehicles.
But as of this writing, the events were nothing like those in Charlottesville. That said, protesters celebrated the early end to the event with a big march and even some dancing (see below).
#BostonFreeSpeech protestors are in a good mood pic.twitter.com/daPgZSTo8d— Alex Ward (@AlexWardVox) August 19, 2017
#BostonFreeSpeech rally protestors dancing to drums in the Commons. pic.twitter.com/rganfEpS0f— Alex Ward (@AlexWardVox) August 19, 2017
Still, both sides effectively talked past each other. And while they for the most part restrained themselves, it seems pretty clear that not many divides were bridged this weekend.
Correction: “Dave” said he would give the Daily Stormer financial assistance if it were in legal trouble, not simply financial trouble.