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City Prepares For Competing Boston Common Rallies

Boston officials, including Rep. Dan Cullinane and City Councilor Bill Linehan, joined hands with local clergy to pray for the victims of violence that occurred in Charlottesville Saturday.
Boston officials, including Rep. Dan Cullinane and City Councilor Bill Linehan, joined hands with local clergy to pray for the victims of violence that occurred in Charlottesville Saturday.
Mike Deehan/WGBH News

If plans on both sides hold, Boston will see demonstrations by political groups ideologically opposed to each other on and around Boston Common Saturday morning and afternoon.

The Boston Police Department and City Hall are working to avoid a clash like the one that occurred last Saturday in Charlottesville, VA, where one counter-protester was killed and two state police officers died when their helicopter crashed at a fractious and violent political rally attended by white nationalists, Nazis, and other far-right figures.

The Virginia melee has been characterized by the Southern Poverty Research Center as the nation's largest gathering of white supremacists in over 40 years. Not surprisingly, it has cast a shadow on the Boston demonstration, which was planned before the violence that ripped Charlottesville erupted.

An even bigger shadow has been cast by the political firefight between a defiant President Donald Trump, who has issued statements about the Virginia events that might best be described as oscillating, and a growing chorus of bipartisan critics seeking  an unambiguous denunciation of neo-Nazis and white nationalists.

As roiling as the national political situation is, local officials face a deceptively straightforward task: maintaining public safety while allowing the exercise of constitutionally protected assembly and speech.

Boston police say they will muster a large force, erect security checks and physical barriers to keep the "right-wing" crowd at a self-described "free speech" rally apart from counter-demonstrating marchers identifying themselves as "anti-racists" and "anti-fascist".

Charlottesville had a physical trigger, a rallying point, that is lacking in Boston: a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee that is slated for removal by authorities. It remains to be seen whether Boston will prove to be a right-wing national draw, or whether generally left-leaning local protesters will in the end outnumber their conservative opposites.

"We are a better people than what we're seeing on TV. And I'm asking people, when you come into Boston, respect this city, because we respect your right to come in and speak. So if we're gonna respect your right to come in, we expect you to respect our city, our people, the people that live here," Mayor Marty Walsh said at an event outside City Hall Wednesday with several local religious leaders.

Mayor Marty Walsh and Police Commissioner Bill Evans joined local clergy to pray for the victims at Charlottesville and for the prevention of violence in Boston.
Mayor Marty Walsh and Police Commissioner Bill Evans joined local clergy to pray for the victims at Charlottesville and for the prevention of violence in Boston.
Mike Deehan/WGBH

Police Commissioner William Evans met with the rally organizers and groups including local Black Lives Matter chapters to work out security parameters and restrictions.

"We don't want a repeat of what happened in Charlotteville. Boston is too united. We have a city that doesn't tolerate hatred and bigotry and we wanted to make that clear to both groups," Evans told reporters Wednesday.

The free speech rally begins at noon, but counter protesters plan to march to the Common from the Reggie Lewis Center in Roxbury starting at 10 a.m.

"It's too bad the message here has to be around hatred. Our overall message is we want people to come down and protest, you know, against the hatred, but we don't want anyone hurt," Evans said about the expected crowd of thousands of counter-protesters.

Several of the more controversial speakers scheduled for right-wing "free speech" have dropped out of the event, but organizers say they still plan to meet Saturday on Boston Common. Organizers condemned the violence that occurred in Charlottesville and say their rally will be a peaceful one focused on free speech, not far right-wing beliefs.

"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," the group, The Free Speech Movement, wrote in a press release.

Boston Police Commissioner Bill Evans and other city officials met with the organizers behind the planned rally, which will take place at the Parkman Bandstand on Boston Common. Organizers tweeted an image of the city permit that would allow 100 people to gather at the bandstand to hear speakers from 12 p.m. to 2 p.m.

Police officials said there would be some physical barriers and a large police presence on the common to keep the peace between the rally and what's expected to be a massive counter-demonstration. Evans likened the planned security measures to the city's fourth of July celebration.

Republican U.S. Senate candidate Shiva Ayyadurai is among the speakers scheduled for the rally. 

Thunderstorms are forecast for Saturday morning.

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