BOSTON — Despite fears to the contrary, a 40,000 person-strong protest against right-wing activists speaking on the Boston Common ended without violence on Saturday, with the anti-racism demonstrators hugely outnumbering the conservative activists.
Among the anti-bigotry protesters were thousands of New England Jews, some of whom invoked the Holocaust in their protest. Others also took part in an interfaith vigil at the city’s Temple Israel on Friday evening to condemn white nationalism and anti-Semitism.
The protesters streamed into Boston on Saturday morning to denounce a Free Speech Rally, an event that had been on the books before last week’s neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, during which protester Helen Heyer was killed by a white supremacist. In this charged climate, there was speculation the Boston Free Speech Rally would attract neo-Nazis and held the potential for additional violence.
Those fears proved unfounded as some 50 activists ultimately joined the Free Speech Rally. The only swastikas in sight were on the banners of anti-bigotry protesters, crossed out or sometimes contorted into the number 45, a reference to President Donald Trump.
In the end, there were about 800 protesters for every free speech activist.
Some Jewish protesters carried “Never again” signs, while others used Hebrew to quote the Bible. There was a healthy display of “Jews for Jesus” and “Jesus was Jewish” signs, and one tallit-clad woman with a shofar ram’s horn had the Virgin Mary sewn onto the back of her prayer shawl.
Also related to the Holocaust, a young man wearing a yellow star and black-stripe shirt attracted the attention of many photographers. Another woman carried a poster with the words, “This one’s for you Grandma,” along with a Jewish star.
The Free Speech coalition huddled in the park’s tightly protected bandstand, with some members giving interviews or posting to social media about their opposition to Nazism and racism.
It was difficult for the sea of protesters to hear speeches given in the bandstand, including because anti-fascist chants drowned out the activists. A wide no-go zone, several layers of fencing, and two security cordons were put up to protect the right-wing activists, most of whom were taunted with chants as they exited the bandstand under guard.
“The last time citizens were silent about white nationalists, more than 6 million people died,” wrote one protester on her sign, along with the admonition, “silence is compliance.” Hundreds of signs, banners and T-shirts contained anti-Nazi slogans — some of them obscene — and there were many Jewish stars combined with slogans for Black Lives Matter, refugees, and Pride flags, among other causes.
After the right-wing activists were escorted out of their protective zone, Boston’s police commissioner William Evans gave a speech to praise law enforcement and declare the day a success.
There were, however, still skirmishes taking place in some neighborhoods, and around the Common itself. Some 27 protesters were arrested, according to police.
“We got the First Amendment people in, we got them out,” said Evans.
“No one got hurt, no one got killed, and there was no significant property damage,” said the police commissioner, adding that “99.9%” of the 40,000 protesters “were here for the right reason and that’s to fight hate and bigotry.”
‘All the love we need to build… unity’
Nearly 1,800 members of local faith communities gathered for a vigil at Boston’s Temple Israel on Friday evening. Hosted by the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization, the song-filled Shabbat service included condemnations of bigotry from the city’s top religious and civic leaders.
“After the terrible events last weekend in Charlottesville, and the second desecration of the [New England] Holocaust Memorial in Boston… I can’t tell you how grateful I am for the folks who gave us the chance to come here,” said Mayor Marty Walsh, referring to the summer’s second attack on the downtown Shoah edifice.
“Our neighbors have all the love we need to build a unity that is stronger than racism, stronger than anti-Semitism, stronger than hate,” said Walsh.
With regard to the Holocaust memorial, Reverend Liz Walker of Roxbury Presbyterian Church spoke about a “pledgeit” campaign to raise funds for 10 anti-bigotry groups, including the memorial and Black Lives Matter. By Saturday evening, $84,000 had been donated.
During their remarks, Walker and other faith leaders refrained from urging people to participate in the Saturday protest. Earlier in the day, Mayor Walsh had urged Bostonians to stay away from the Common during the Free Speech Rally.
“Follow your conscience, but if you do go, buddy up,” said Walker, after which the synagogue audience chanted, “I will do something,” several times.
Connecting the violence in Charlottesville to a regional surge in anti-Semitism and other hate crimes, some speakers put the blame for America’s summer of hate on Trump, who was widely labelled a stoker of racism.
“Anyone who struggles to denounce white supremacy or Nazism does not deserve to be president of the United States,” said Massachusetts’ attorney general, Maura Healey.
Temple Israel, New England’s largest Reform congregation, received threats from a local white supremacist after he was outed for participating in the “Unite the Right” rally last week.
The synagogue has long partnered with local churches and, in more recent years, with the city’s Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center.
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