The organizers of a so-called “free speech” rally scheduled to take place on the Boston Common Saturday say the controversial event will go on despite criticism from public officials and reports that several speakers have dropped out.
On Wednesday, organizers received a permit from Boston’s parks department to hold the rally. The permit allows the group space, staging, and amplified sound.
John Medlar, who says he is an organizer for Boston Free Speech, the group behind the rally, told Boston.com Tuesday that his group is not associated with the white supremacists who marched with tiki torches in Charlottesville, Virginia, last weekend. But the group has admitted in comments on a Facebook post that there would be some “overlap” in attendance between the two rallies.
While Medlar defined Boston Free Speech as “intentionally neutral libertarians,” the Anti-Defamation League said in a blog post Monday the rally “has been organized under the auspices of the alt lite,” also known as the New Right, a “loosely-connected movement whose adherents generally shun white supremacist thinking, but who are in step with the alt right in their hatred of feminists and immigrants, among others.”
In an email late Tuesday, Medlar said he disagreed with this characterization of the rally’s organizers and said he wished the league had reached out to his group directly instead of rushing to judgment.
“We are a grassroots coalition of local progressives, libertarians, and conservatives,” he wrote. ” … The topic of our event is free speech itself, and issues related to free speech. [Every] speaker at this event was invited to speak about issues related to free speech, not their other personal politics.”
Plans for the Boston event emerged on social media after violence erupted at the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, which left one person dead after a car rammed into a group of counter-protesters. Two Virginia State Troopers assigned to monitor the demonstrations were also killed when their helicopter crashed. The investigation into the cause of the crash is ongoing.
During a press conference Monday, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh said “hate groups” are not welcome in Boston.
“We are a city that believes in free speech, but we will not tolerate incitements to violence,” he said.
“While we maintain that every individual is entitled to their freedom of speech and defend that basic human right, we will not be offering our platform to racism or bigotry,” Boston Free Speech said in a post on its Facebook page.
Here’s what we know so far about the event.
Who is behind the rally?
The rally is being organized by a group called Boston Free Speech, which Medlar said is largely comprised of students in their mid-teens to mid-20s who live in the Greater Boston area.
The 23-year-old Newton native said that, as of Tuesday, the confirmed speakers for the event include Joe Biggs, who worked until recently for Infowars, the website founded by conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, and who reportedly promoted the Pizzagate conspiracy theory.
On Wednesday morning, a spokesman for U.S. Senate candidate Shiva Ayyadurai confirmed earlier reports that the Cambridge Republican intends to speak at the rally.
“As a person of color, Shiva feels that speaking at this event will have a great deal of impact and will afford [him] the opportunity to educate the masses about what actually drives the behavior that we saw in [Charlottesville] this past weekend,” Ronald Megna said in an email.
Other speakers previously billed for the rally had included Gavin McInnes, a former Vice Media co-founder and founder of the Proud Boys, a far-right group. After Monday’s press conference by Boston officials, McInnes said on Twitter he would not be attending the event.
McInnes elaborated on his tweet in an interview on Herald Radio.
Medlar said Tuesday that Boston Free Speech is not associated with any of the groups from the Charlottesville rally, doubling-down on a statement put out by the group Saturday and one from June 17.
In its blog post, the Anti-Defamation League said there are “significant differences between what happened in Charlottesville and what’s scheduled for Boston.”
“Unlike Charlottesville, the Boston event, as currently planned, is not a white supremacist gathering,” the post said. “It has been organized under the auspices of the alt lite, which embraces civic nationalism, rather than the alt right, which advocates white nationalism.”
However, the organization later added, “There are a number of people and groups who walk the line between alt right and alt lite, to the extent that it’s not always easy — or even possible — to tell which side they’re on.”
Medlar said the whole point of his group is to “celebrate and promote” the First Amendment.
“We are primarily free speech absolutists,” he said. “We believe that as long as it’s just words that are being exchanged, no matter how much you might hate the words, the best response to speech is with other speech. Not with fists.”
In addition to promoting a May “free speech” rally on the Common, Boston Free Speech has used its Facebook page to encourage people to attend an “anti-Sharia” march and to float the idea of a march against Boston’s sanctuary-city status.
Medlar acknowledged Tuesday that most of the groups that have reached out to be involved with his organization have been “right-wing.”
“They at the moment seem to be the ones that feel their free speech is mostly under threat,” he said. “But we want to have more involvement from liberals and progressives who share our commitment to free speech.”
Medlar said his group is asking anyone attending Saturday’s rally to abide by state law and not bring any weapons, but is also cautioning people to be prepared to protect themselves.
“We are advising people to keep handy some protective gear, such as a helmet or safety goggles in case things get out of hand,” he said. “We want to do everything possible to keep that from happening, but we want to keep people from getting hurt.”
Why are people linking the group to Charlottesville?
The affiliation appears revolve around the Proud Boys’ links to Charlottesville. Jason Kessler, an organizer of the Charlottesville rally who is described as a white nationalist blogger by the Southern Poverty Law Center, reportedly was a member of the Proud Boys and rallied with the group as recently as June.
However, McInnes describes Kessler’s involvement with the group as limited.
“He came to a few meetings and said he wasn’t alt-right. When they saw he was, they booted him,” McInnes tweeted Monday.
In June, the Proud Boys said members of the group should attend the Charlottesville rally if they wanted.
“If a chapter or an individual Proud Boy feels compelled to go, we encourage him to do so,” the group said in a statement. “Chapter autonomy is a big part of the group as well as personal liberty.”
Medlar said Boston Free Speech was originally partnering with the Proud Boys, which has since disassociated itself from the Boston rally. He said the invitations to all of the speakers went out months before the events in Charlottesville.
However, Kessler and the Proud Boys aren’t the only connection between the two rallies.
Augustus Invictus — who headlined the Charlottesville rally and is credited for writing an early draft of a white nationalist manifesto recently published by white supremacist Richard Spencer — had been scheduled to speak at the Boston rally. But Louis, another organizer of the Boston rally, who would only give his first name, told Boston.com that he had since been uninvited.
“We actually have told Augustus not to come in light of Charlottesville,” he said in a Facebook message Monday.
Boston Free Speech was also involved in a rally on the Common in May. As Esquirereported at the time, many of the demonstrators expressed similar far-right or white nationalist sentiment as seen in Charlottesville. Two people — one demonstrator and one counter-protester — were arrested during the May rally after they got into a physical confrontation, according to The Boston Globe.
What are local officials doing?
Walsh and other local officials said the sentiment expressed in Charlottesville will not be tolerated in Boston and had suggested Monday they’d work to prevent the scheduled rally from occurring.
“Boston does not welcome you here,” Walsh said. “Boston does not want you here. Boston rejects your message.”
Medlar said Tuesday his group believed “the mayor has been very much misinformed about what we stand for and our intentions.”
At the press conference Monday, officials also said they were hoping to gain organizers’ cooperation in the run-up to the event. Walsh and Boston Police Commissioner William Evans said organizers had not yet filed for a permit, but that they were hoping to reach out to work with the group to set parameters for the rally, such as route and stage restrictions. The group then filed for a permit Tuesday afternoon and it was granted Wednesday.
“We have made it clear that we will not tolerate incitements to violence or any threatening behavior,” Walsh said in a statement late Wednesday afternoon. “I ask that everyone join me in making Boston a more inclusive, welcoming, love-filled city for all.”
According to the Globe, the permit limits the rally from noon to 2 p.m. and stipulates that it must be peaceful. Certain items, such as bats and sticks, will be banned, and police have asked people not to bring backpacks.
“We’re often, as police officers, thrust in the middle of protecting groups we don’t necessarily agree with and I think that may be the case on Saturday,” Evans said Monday.
Evans said that he expects counter-protesters to vastly outnumber those participating in the “free speech” rally and that police are planning to use barriers to keep the groups separated. On Wednesday, he said police met with organizers from the rally and a “solidarity” march and they were very cooperative, the Globereported.
Gov. Charlie Baker said during the press conference Monday that those who engage in violence “of any kind” will be held responsible. According to Baker, both state and local police will be working with community organizers to monitor the rallies Saturday and “make sure everyone plays by the rules.”
Will there be a counter-protest?
At least two separate counter-protests have already garnered significant interest.
Several thousand people have indicated on Facebook that they plan to attend a “Fight Supremacy” counter-protest and march that will stretch nearly two miles, from Roxbury to the Common.
“Counter-protests send a message to white supremacists that their hateful rhetoric, physical violence, and fear mongering will not go uncontested,” organizers wrote on Facebook.
In a statement to Boston.com, Monica Cannon, one of the organizers of the counter-protest, said the group does not condone violence — “especially violence perpetrated and supported by the State and white supremacy.”
“We also promote non-violent protests and local organizers are asking people to come out to be non-violent,” Cannon said. “Community safety is a priority of the Movement for Black Lives and we are committed to helping to create a world in which life, particularly black life, is protected.”
Another counter-protest, “Stand for Solidarity,” is scheduled for Saturday afternoon at the State House, across the street from the “free speech” rally. The protest is being organized by the Coalition to Organize and Mobilize Boston Against Trump and Answer Coalition Boston, an anti-racism group.
“We must remain united in struggle and bring the left together to fight against hate and the rise of white nationalism,” organizers wrote. As of Tuesday afternoon, the event had 2,200 expected attendees.
Edited for mb3-org.com