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September 19, 2017

Four takeaways from Boston’s ‘Free Speech’ counter-protest

(Abhi Suryawanshi / Unaltered / License)

On August 19, I stood in Boston with thousands of others to protest an extremist right-wing rally. I met an elderly woman who was appalled that she was seeing the swastika branded in public after so many years. When asked if she had come alone, she shook her head. “I’m in Boston. I’m never alone.”

In such a partisan atmosphere, there was a rush to call this protest violent, rowdy and shameful. But this woman did not wear a mask or carry a baseball bat. She, like thousands of others, came to protest peacefully. What defined this protest was not overblown disputes or disorder, it was people like her, expressing their views under the First Amendment. Between my experience and the facts, any claim that counter-protesters are bringing violence to this country is a false equivalency, which breeds disinformation and needlessly aggravates the divisions in this country. After participating in the counter-protest, here are my take-aways.

  1. All things considered, the protest was relatively crime-free.

According to the Boston Globe, several men were found wielding knives and arrested for assault. One man from New York was illegally carrying a firearm, although he never used it. Others were arrested for disturbing the peace, with reports of bottles of urine and rocks thrown at police.

While this is still unacceptable, there were not any significant injuries, nor any destruction of property. Many of the offenses were rather minor, with one person charged only with drinking alcohol in public. It would be hard to imagine a gathering of this size with less disorder.

  1. Critics of left-leaning groups ignore their peaceful approach.

While at the protest, I saw masked “Antifa” and Black Lives Matter activists leading small groups of people through the crowd, commanding people to let them through without conflict. Many of those escorted were wearing Trump campaign merchandise, white shirts or other attire that indicated their affiliation with the “Free Speech” protest. These activists offered right-wing protesters safe passage out of the vicinity.

  1. Verbal disputes caught on camera don’t mean the protest wasn’t peaceful.

Our inter-political discourse needs improvement, especially when many centrists or conservatives attempt to have reasonable debates with liberals. But lumping even the most heated encounters in with accusations of violence, like many of the counter-protest’s detractors have done, is an outrageous comparison. There is a big difference between an argument that ends with name-calling and one that ends in a physical altercation—let alone one that ends in disablement, long-term injury or death. In Boston, we saw a few isolated incidents of the former, but none of the latter.

  1. Disorder is a crime, but it is not comparable to assault and murder.

In Charlottesville, a man drove into a crowd of counter-protesters, killing one person and injuring 19 others. Another man was caught on video shooting at a counter-protester with a pistol. One of the main organizers of the Charlottesville rally, Kyle Chapman, has been charged with swinging a wooden baton at protesters during an earlier clash in California. For a protest that drew only hundreds in attendance, this is an amazing amount of violence. No one on either side of the rally in Boston suffered as much as those who were at the Charlottesville riot, no matter how much disorder was brought about.

  1. I witnessed nothing but pleasantries among other protesters.

I was surprised to see how cordial protesters carrying signs with profanity or wearing a face mask actually were. Despite accusations that the protests were anti-police, the sheer presence of a police officer incited “thank-you’s” and very typical Bostonian small talk. Some on the left might say they were too friendly—that argument is not mine to defend or neglect—but regardless, the atmosphere was respectful and cheerful.

The divisions flared up by these protests revolve around the straw man of “free speech,” but at no point in Boston was free speech in doubt. If anything, these protests reveal what free speech looks like: sometimes ugly, with profanity and name-calling, but also sometimes civil—clever signs, attire, flags and songs about democracy and our country. Those who cross the line of violence overstep their bounds and deserve to pay the price under the law; but in Boston, nonviolence was the dominating force as the people demonstrated their dissatisfaction with the revival of white supremacy and neo-Nazism.

James Mazarakis is a Collegian columnist and can be reached at jmazarakis@umass.edu.

Comments
2 Responses to “Four takeaways from Boston’s ‘Free Speech’ counter-protest”
  1. Nitzakhon says:

    Don’t forget the woman holding an American flag who was pushed over.

    “Mostly peaceful”. That’s like “just a little bit pregnant”.

  2. Sarah Swart says:

    No, actually, it is not. She was not driven over, and she was not shot.

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