How Boston turned the tide on the far right

August 21, 2017

Spurred on by the horror in Charlottesville, tens of thousands of people poured into the streets of Boston in protest--and the fascists went home early, reports Ryan Roche.

TENS OF thousands of people mobilized in Boston on August 19 in a magnificent display of solidarity against a rally that far-right and neo-Nazi forces had been organizing for weeks.

Defying sweltering summer heat and humidity, thousands upon thousands marched and chanted their way through the streets of Boston.

Some 15,000 took part in a two-mile march from Roxbury Crossing to Boston Common, where the white supremacists were gathering. But by the time the march arrived, the two-dozen or so fascists had already packed up and left, with the help of a heavy police escort.

Another 10,000 people who wanted to show their opposition to the right came directly to downtown Boston, gathering where the white supremacists planned to meet or at a smaller demonstration on the steps of the State House.

The horrible neo-Nazi violence one week earlier in Charlottesville, Virginia, convinced many that they had a responsibility to make a statement against the far right. As protesters gathered in Roxbury, there was anxiety mixed with angry resolve about what the day might hold.

Thousands flood the streets of Boston to protest the Nazis
Thousands flood the streets of Boston to protest the Nazis

But by the time the march ended, the fear had melted away, replaced by confidence in the power of solidarity and a sense of jubilation that the far right's mobilization had failed utterly to achieve any of its goals.

The march received support from dozens of organizations in the city: Labor unions, NGOs, liberal organizations, leftist and activists groups and so on. In particular, the march from Roxbury--which members of Black Lives Matter played a key role in organizing--gave people the opportunity to gather into a large force away from where the far right was gathering.

This gave confidence to organizations such as the Massachusetts Teachers Association--the state's largest union--to mobilize their members to attend. This tactic, combined with a single point of unity in opposition to the fascists, helped mobilize a massive and inspiring turnout.

Nearly 40 years after the busing riots in Boston--when local politicians marched under the Confederate flag in opposition to de-segregation--Boston showed that hate will be met with solidarity. This victory in the streets of Boston needs to be repeated everywhere that the far right tries to mobilize.

"I'm here because my Japanese-American grandparents were sent to an internment camp during the Second World War," said local resident Ashley in an interview as she carried a Black Lives Matter sign. "The other side of my family is Mexican, and Trump's whole campaign was built on slandering people I love. I also felt like I needed to come out against the president--as a woman and as a survivor of a sexual assault.

"After Charlottesville, enough is enough. We need to stand up, and I want to build a better world for my kids."

BACK IN May, a similar cast of reactionaries held a rally on Boston Common, but anti-racists, despite strong efforts, didn't organize a united response. The 150 or so activists who came to protest the neo-Nazis found themselves outnumbered two to one.

This time, though--with the death of Heather Heyer in Charlottesville one week earlier focusing the world's attention on the violent threat of the far right and Donald Trump's defense of them--people of all ages and backgrounds poured into the streets to send the message that Boston would not stand by and allow a repeat.

After Charlottesville, the number of people indicating on Facebook they would protest on August 19 grew from several hundred to a combined 15,000 for the two main counter-protests that took place--the march from Roxbury and a rally on the State House steps.

Meanwhile, some of the right's high-profile speakers, including Gavin McInnes of the "alt-reich" Proud Boys, announced they were backing out of the planned mobilization.

People came from Vermont, Maine, western Massachusetts, Connecticut and New York to answer the call for an all-out effort to counter the Nazis. This high level of mobilization built the confidence of key activists who were the organizational backbone of the events--and were integral to making the day a success for our side.

In Roxbury, the rally began with a speech by a contingent of Indigenous people, who reminded the crowd that the land our country is built on was stolen from them, and that white supremacists have no right to lay claim to it.

The next speech was from an organizer with Black Lives Matter, who called for diverting money from the police to underfunded public schools, and decried the rapid gentrification of the city's Black and working-class neighborhoods.

Then, Khury Petersen-Smith of the International Socialist Organization (ISO) electrified the crowd, in speaking about the importance of mobilizing to confront the far right. "Now that they have some friends in the White House...they are walking out, they are in the open and marching with torches and with smiles on their faces," said Petersen-Smith. "And what we are here to say is that if you come to Boston, we're going to march down to the Common and wipe that smile off your face!"

A number of socialist organizations, including Socialist Alternative, the ISO and Democratic Socialists of America, marched together in a joint contingent.

As the contingent prepared to step off, news spread that the Industrial Workers of the World and the Boston Socialist Party had also decided to join in. Hundreds of people cheered and shouted from windows and sidewalks in support of the contingent all along the route.

Our contingent was very close to the front of the march and maintained a loud and lively chorus of chants. Favorites included, "If they attack one of us, they attack all of us!" "Heather is a hero" and "Hey hey, ho ho, Nazi scum has got to go!"

For almost two hours as the march made it way to the Common, we kept up the chants. At the front of our 500-strong contingent was a wall of banners bearing the names of the various socialist groups that had mobilized.

Another 2,000 people or so held a rally on the State House steps. That rally was separately organized to put forward a list of demands, and as people from across the city arrived on their own to add their voices to the protest, they eventually formed a crowd of some 8,000 to 10,000 to defend their city against the fascists.

Police estimates of the overall crowd were even higher, putting the number at 40,000.

THE MASSIVE turnout filled the crowd with energy, despite the withering heat. Amy Gaidis, who made the trip to Boston from Portland, Maine, put it this way on Facebook the day after the march:

Although it's clear now that we outnumbered the fascists by a staggering scale, this wasn't readily apparent early on in the march. We were moving forward to the Common, but we did not know exactly what we would encounter there. Were we marching into an open confrontation with a hardened emboldened right and their heavily armed sympathizers in the police force? Would everyone who started the march in Roxbury want to press on if that's what we found, or would our numbers shrink and leave us vulnerable? Would a far-right extremist take this opportunity to terrorize our movements yet again?

There was confidence in what we were doing, but the violence of Charlottesville and everyday America hung over us still. I know a lot of people hugged their loved ones extra tight before they left to take the streets in Boston yesterday.

Yesterday was a victory for our side not just because we scattered and demoralized the white supremacists, but because tens of thousands of people went through the experience of standing confidently in their convictions in the face of real fear.

To win a better world, one free of white supremacy, oppression and exploitation, we will need to go through experiences like yesterday again and again, on a larger and larger scale. Boston was a victory that drew us a little bit closer. Today I don't feel fear. I feel the pride and hope that comes from solidarity in mass action!

The sense of power and pride among those who marched on the side of justice stood in sharp contrast to the ineffectiveness of the far right. By the time the Roxbury march arrived at the Common, the far right had already been forced to evacuate.

One Boston resident who went to the Common on his own to show his opposition to the fascists reported that he saw about 15 to 20 taking part. Occasionally, he would see pairs of them enter the crowd of counterdemonstrators and try to start conversations, but the crowd wasn't having it. The police would then escort them back within the security perimeter.

After 30 or 40 minutes of speeches, the tiny group did some chanting, which was inaudible over the noise of the counterprotesters.

Those packed into the Common knew when the march from Roxbury was approaching because the helicopters filming the march were also getting closer and louder. Just as the march was about to arrive, the police escorted the far right off the Common and evacuated them from the area in vans.

A third rally, organized clandestinely by anarchist forces, was attacked and pepper-sprayed by riot cops. Activists are circulating a petition calling on the city to drop all charges against those arrested.

THE IMPACT of the sharp shift in the political climate after the murder of Heather Heyer in Charlottesville--and the viral spread of the VICE News documentary about the white supremacists who caused it--can't be overstated.

In recent months, even as the far right and those inspired by them carried out murders at the University of Maryland and in Portland, Oregon, and left a noose at the National Museum of African-American History and Culture, many considered them a threat that could be safely ignored.

Charlottesville changed that.

While it's impossible to predict such sea changes in consciousness, we should be prepared to build on such moments when they occur. The first attempt by the Boston left to oppose the far right back in May was disheartening. But the events of August 19 showed that mass mobilizations are effective and can have a lasting on the confidence and organization of all those who care about social justice.

The coming protests in San Francisco and Berkeley on August 26 and 27 can take heart from what took place in Boston. See you in the streets next weekend!

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