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The Boston Free Speech Coalition billed it as a “Free Speech Rally,” but no one could hear the speakers who dared to show up at the August 19 gathering on The Boston Common. Some supporters were reported to have been blocked from attending by counter-protesters. A tiny group of around 50 “rallied” on the Boston Common’s Parkman Bandstand. Or, more appropriately, they huddled there in the face of tens of thousands of counter-demonstrators, whom police kept at such a great distance that the speakers could not be distinguished, let alone heard. Police also blocked journalists from access to the bandstand, preventing them from recording and reporting the speakers’ statements to the public. Scheduled to last two hours, the “Free Speech Rally” petered out in less than an hour. The few attendees, escorted to the Bandstand by police, were, afterwards, escorted safely, again by police, through threatening counter-protesters, some reported as criticizing officers for protecting “Nazis.” Needed is a closer look at what officials lauded as a “peaceful rally.”
The Boston police are to be lauded for preventing a repeat of Charlottesville, where Robert E. Lee statue-defending, torch-carrying, violence-disposed white supremacists, neo-Nazis, and Ku Klux Klan members marched, carrying torches and chanting “blood and soil” and “the Jews will not replace us.” Many of them were armed, some with semi-automatic weapons, which was enough to intimidate Charlottesville police and not just counter-protesters. The latter’s number included anti-fascists, who, engaged in a free-for-all battle with the white supremacists, as the police watched from a distance. The clash was climaxed by a 20-year-old white male, identified as a Nazi sympathizer, plowing his car into peaceful counter-protesters, killing a 32-year old woman and injuring 19. The violence between the white supremacists and counter-protesters was seized on by a duplicitous President Trump to legitimize the white supremacists and neo-Nazis: he condemned the violence “on both sides,” and later said, “You also had some very fine people on both sides.” (“Trump’s remarks about the melee in Charlottesville,” By Meghan Keneally and Katherine Faulders, abcnews.go.com, Aug. 23, 2017)
Fortunately, no one was killed or seriously injured in Boston, thanks to the Boston police and to counter- protesters, most of whom were peaceful and a few of whom intervened and protected “free speech” supporters from being assaulted by other counter-protesters. But a blow was dealt to the First Amendment’s right of free speech.
Charlottesville, coming just a week earlier, led to an overreaction to Boston’s “Free Speech Rally.” Counter-protesters called rally participants “white supremacists,” “Nazi scum,” and other, profanity-laced, names. Mayor Martin Walsh and Police Commissioner William Evans were quoted as implying similar motivation to the participants, both saying that the estimated 40,000 counter-protestors revealed that Boston stood against “hatred and bigotry.” (“In a city with fraught racial past, a day of protest against hatred and bigotry,” By Mark Arsenault, Boston Sunday Globe, Aug. 19, 2017) But the rally organizers were reported as saying that is not who they are. One organizer, John Medlar, was quoted as disavowing white supremacy, and as wanting “people from across the political spectrum” to speak, to “show people that we can listen to each other [and] bring reasonable opinions together without resorting to violence.” (“Tens of thousands march for unity, overwhelming ‘free speech’ rally,” By Globe Staff, The Boston Globe, Aug. 19, 2017)
The speakers that the organizers were reported to have invited included “progressives, conservatives, anti-war activists, and veterans” (Ibid), and representatives of the Black Lives Matter movement. (“Rightwing rally and counter-protest in Boston – in pictures,” Associated Press, The Guardian, Aug. 19, 2017) But, with the media prevented from covering the speakers, how would anyone learn who showed up and spoke, and what they actually believed and said? According to quoted Police Commissioner Evans, “That’s a good thing because their message isn’t what we want to hear.” (“ ‘Free speech’ rally speakers, little heard, end event quickly,” Beth Healy, The Boston Globe, Aug. 19, 2017) This censorship was a disservice to every thoughtful person in Boston and beyond.
The danger is that, rather than the Constitution, those in power may determine who has freedom of speech and who doesn’t, who shall be heard and who shall remain marginalized. Today you may be among the thousands surrounding the tiny group on the bandstand. Tomorrow you could be on the bandstand, espousing political or religious views that may threaten the status quo.
This is not only about freedom of speech, but also about freedom of the press. An authoritarian, self-contradictory President Trump, who hates reporters with good memories, has proposed that the government should jail journalists who publicize classified information. Trump’s attorney general, Jeff Sessions strongly agrees, and is prepared to prosecute those in the press who publish leaks and “put lives at risk.” (“Leak Investigations Triple Under Trump, Sessions Says,” By Charlie Savage and Eileen Sullivan, The New York Times, Aug. 4, 2017) “Put[ting] lives at risk” are code words for an aversion to transparency that could put self-serving political leaders at risk.
Civil liberties attorney Harvey Silverglate’s words need to be repeated. He was quoted about being kept from hearing what was said on the Parkman Bandstand: “I am burning over this. If we repress and suppress unpopular speech, all we’re doing is keeping ourselves ignorant.” Silverglate was joined by lawyer Robert Bertsche, who said, “It would have done greater honor to the First Amendment if the rally organizers’ message – no matter how noxious – could in fact be heard..” (“‘Free speech’ rally speakers, little heard, end event quickly,” Ibid)
The leadership of people of faith is pivotal here. Along with non-violent protests against white supremacists and their ilk, another invaluable service people of faith can provide is opening their houses of worship for dialogue between and with people of various political persuasions. Panels with participants representing diverse political views, held in sanctuaries and halls with engaged audiences, will do much to illuminate democratic values and expose bias, with solidarity trumping division.
Keeping religion out of politics is to separate religion from life; for the political structures greatly determine who shall have life and have it more abundantly and who shall not, who shall be free and who shall be oppressed, who shall live and who shall die. “Loving your neighbor as yourself,” as Jesus taught, depends on understanding, rather than fearing and dehumanizing, one’s neighbor – those nearby or far away.