Click on the audio player above to listen to Part I of this interview. Part II is included later in this post.
Joe Mathieu: You're listening to WGBH's Morning Edition, I'm Joe Mathieu. The deadly clash between white supremacists and protesters in Charlottesville has put a microscope on a rally planned for Boston Common this Saturday. Mayor Marty Walsh quickly condemned the so-called free speech rally organized by a group accused of sympathizing with white supremacists, but little is still known about the Boston Free Speech Coalition. We're joined today by John Medlar, one of the event’s organizers who, in fact, holds the permit for this event and has surfaced as the unofficial spokesman for the group. Good morning, John, and welcome to WGBH News.
John Medlar: Thank you for having me, it's a pleasure to be here.
Joe Mathieu: You have been talked about a lot. We keep seeing your image around this week, many things have been said about you in the media this week. What do you want us to know about you?
John Medlar: Well, what I would like you to know is that there's been a lot of misinformation out there about what we actually stand for. And if anything, you know, we've ... we were planning this rally long before Charlottesville, and all of those people that we had invited up until that point, we had booked long before Charlottesville. Let me start by telling you more about what specifically this group of people that we've assembled is standing for.
Joe Mathieu: It's a shrinking group, I understand.
John Medlar: Oh it's ... It shrunk briefly. Well at least — I'm talking not about the list of speakers, I'm talking about the core group that's organizing this.
Joe Mathieu: Please do.
John Medlar: Like I said, we call ourselves the Boston Free Speech Coalition, or the New Free Speech Movement. I think the former is more descriptive of what we are. We are located in Boston. We're a bunch of local young people like myself — I'm actually one of the oldest and I'm 23, our youngest is 17 — and it's about a half dozen local students or so that got together and we saw the rising tide of political violence in this country, Charlottesville's just the latest example. And what we thought ... that we wanted to do something that, to us, was fun and interesting but also more broadly important, on a deeper level, that was to try to bring people together around our core constitutional values — particularly the First Amendment, which as, you know, free speech is the mechanism by which, in the words of Dr. Jordan Peterson, is the mechanism by which we keep our society functioning. And our original vision for this was to assemble a broad line of speakers from various different points of views. And what happened was that, you know, as we started looking for speakers and stuff, we got initially a lot of interest particularly from white right-wingers. It seems at this point in history, it seems that the political right is most concerned right now about their free speech rights being taken away.
Joe Mathieu: Before you go on, what do you mean by right-wingers? How else could you describe these people?
John Medlar: I mean people who identify themselves as right-wingers.
Joe Mathieu: There are a lot of subtleties around here.
John Medlar: There are, there are. You know, I'm personally fascinated by different political ideas and different ideologies, so I talked to lots of different sorts of people on the left and the right. And I find, you know, there's a lot of different subgroups, a lot of different ideologies out there. I can, you know, divide the so-called left and right into dozens of different sub factions, many of which are more united by what they perceived to be common enemies than ... like, for example, the alt-right and the alt-light so-called factions don't particularly like each other. The alt-light see themselves as mostly pro-Western but don't have a racial agenda, whereas the alt-right is more of a white identity movement.
Joe Mathieu: Some of us are having trouble keeping up with the labels, you know?
John Medlar: It is, there's labels everywhere. And the problem with all these labels, you see, you know, people throw the label 'Nazi' around everywhere. It used to be you could easily tell the who the Nazis were because, you know, back in World War II, the enemy wore uniforms and it wasn't hard to tell who you were supposed to be fighting. But in this day and age, the word 'Nazi' is thrown out just like candy. I've been called a Nazi for for my involvement in this, mostly just because of internet rumors. I like to try to use the labels that they apply to themselves first and foremost. And, you know, if I see someone walking around you know with — carrying swastikas or giving the Nazi salute, it's pretty clear to me that those people are definitely Nazis. But none of the people that we have invited to our rally identify with the label 'alt-right.'
Joe Mathieu: Did you invite all the speakers? Or, you said, some, as you put it, right-wingers, reached out to you.
John Medlar: We did have a lot of people reach out to us and so we talked with them and ... if, you know, we felt like they would be an interesting person to have at our rally who presented a unique point of view, then we extended the invitation to them.
Joe Mathieu: Would white supremacy be among those points of view?
John Medlar: The problem with white supremacy is that they don't extend the same rights to other people. They're happy to use the First Amendment as a shield to protect themselves, but they ... but because they're supremacists, they don't extend the same rights to people of color. And we believe that, you know, the Constitution applies to everyone.
Joe Mathieu: There was ... A number of speakers have dropped out as we have heard because of the coverage. Are you glad that they have — at least those who have been framed as white supremacists, as white nationalists, as Neo-Nazis, whatever label?
John Medlar: No, because even though there are certainly real white supremacists out there — like some of the groups that were involved in Charlottesville, for example, Identity Europa and Vanguard. Vanguard was the group of who ... a member of whom drove his car into a group of counter protesters and the group pretty much stood ... doubled down and stood by his actions. So, it's pretty clear what the what those particular groups stand for.
Joe Mathieu: Augustus Invictus, for instance, has been mentioned a lot of times, and you spoke about this earlier in the week. This is someone who has called for a second American Civil War, and he will not be speaking Saturday, right? You seem to suggest that you regret that cancellation.
John Medlar: We regret it because our mix up created a impression that we were not dedicated to free speech, it sort of created a breach of trust.
Joe Mathieu: Is that a fair point of view or not? Is it fair to suggest that you're not open to free speech if you're not having white supremacists there?
John Medlar: I think that ... well we defend the free speech of everyone, but with free speech also comes freedom of association.
Joe Mathieu: Will there be any racist speakers on Saturday?
John Medlar: We don't believe that any of our speakers are racist. Again, that's another term that gets thrown around out there. The most ... the most controversial views that ... at least ... as what as far as race is concerned, the most controversial views we've mostly heard from people say, like Kyle Chapman or Augustus Invictus, is that bigotry against white people is also wrong, in addition. And we think that bigotry against anybody is wrong.
Click on the audio player above to listen to Part II.
John Medlar: If people are bringing overtly white supremacist symbols like swastikas or KKK flags or using the Nazi salute, we will disassociate ourselves from them.
Joe Mathieu: How do you do that one?
John Medlar: Well, we physically separate ourselves as a group.
Joe Mathieu: We can talk about a lot of things and argue different positions here, but does it bother you that regular people who live around Boston are afraid of this thing you're putting together?
John Medlar: It it does because we don't think they should be afraid of us. You know, for one thing, we've agreed to comply with the Boston Police Department's conditions of, you know, completely disarming ourselves and, you know, having the physical barriers there to keep us separate from the counter protesters. I think that's a good thing. We don't want violence, you know, and sometimes that means you don't want people to get in each other's faces because, you know, when tempers are really heated and people get in each other's faces, that's when, you know, fights tend to break out and that's exactly what we don't want. We want people to come together around our shared constitutional values, we want people to start exchanging words again instead of exchanging fists and clubs and sticks and things like that.
Joe Mathieu: Have you been threatened this week?
John Medlar: Yes, I have.
Joe Mathieu: Tell me about it.
John Medlar: Well, it's ... most of it just comes from the, you know, the basic internet hate mobs that are like 'Oh, you terrible KKK white supremacist, we're going to shut you down, we're going to hunt you down, and stuff like that. Most of it is just internet hate mob stuff. Some of it has been a bit more serious, like the Boston Police Department told us about communications they had heard about local gangs saying that, talking about, you know, putting aside their differences to try to shoot up our event or something and we're at ... I mean, hey.
Joe Mathieu: Do you believe that?
John Medlar: Well ... I'm glad I'm uniting somebody! Even if it's for ... you know, I joke.
Joe Mathieu: Police told you this in your meeting this week?
John Medlar: That is correct. So we are aware of —
Joe Mathieu: Do you ever stop and think that you're in over your head?
John Medlar: Oh, there was quite a significant period of time, and like right after Charlottesville — you know, like I said, we had been planning this months before Charlottesville — and when that happened and all this hysteria blew up and our event was being, you know, linked to that and everything, there was a serious period of mostly panic, sort of around the following 24 to 48 hours when everything was up in the air, we were very seriously considering canceling the event. We almost canceled the event. But, we did stop and think quite a bit, and what we realized was, is that this thing had taken on a momentum of its own, and even if we canceled it and told people not to go, a lot of people would still go anyway, both to sort of stand their ground in our place or to counter-protest. And we felt like this had to be handled properly, we had to coordinate with the city of Boston and with the police department to make sure that this was handled properly and that everyone stayed safe. What if people had showed up to sort of demonstrate in our place without our coordinating with the police department to protect them? We want everyone to be able to go home completely unharmed. That's our end goal with this.
Joe Mathieu: With that said, John Medlar, fast forward to Saturday. You have two hours for the actual rally and all the set up and break down. At the end of the day Saturday, what scenario would be described as a success?
John Medlar: We want people to show up. We want people to enjoy themselves responsibly. We want people to listen to views, some of which we hope they will agree with, some of which they might, you know, disagree with, but hopefully will think 'Oh, that was an interesting point.' And, you know, that's one of the reasons why I'm fascinated by all these different ideologies out there.
Joe Mathieu: How do you describe yourself politically?
John Medlar: I describe myself as a Libertarian, so I'm very much a small government guy. I think that it's ... I've also had a very Catholic upbringing, so my parents raised me to put a very strongly ... emphasis on personal responsibility and virtues. And I think that you can't have virtue when, you know, the government is compelling you to do things. I think society is better off when individuals take it upon themselves to build themselves up and to be the best possible people that they can be rather than, you know, that and shirking those responsibilities and leaving it to government bureaucrats who are less efficient at everything.
Joe Mathieu: John Medlar, an organizer for the Boston free speech rally set for this Saturday on the Common. WGBH News will be there, John, and we do hope that everyone stays safe. Thank you for talking with us today.
John Medlar: Thank you very much.