With Boston police warning rally-goers to “leave the sticks and stones at home,” the city grabbed the day’s cable news coverage for what was a largely peaceful, if uneasy, stand-off between the so-called Free Speech Rally and the vastly larger-in-number anti-racist counter-protesters at Boston Common.
Despite some tense moments of riot-geared police swarming potential clashes – one such incident got simultaneous coverage on CNN, MSNBC and the Fox New Channel – the right-wing Free Speech Rally, hugely outsized and engulfed by the counter-protesters, had itself largely dissipated by early afternoon.
At 1:30 pm ET, Boston police had declared the Free Speech Rally “officially over.”
Unlike last weekend’s gathering in Charlottesville, Virginia, the attendees in Boston – and filling the cable news screens – were not armed with baseball bats, much less the semi-automatic weapons and tiki torches that cast an early and lasting pall over last week’s Unite the Right rally-turned-riot.
“It’s joyful,” described one MSNBC reporter about early, occasionally dancing counter-protesting crowds this morning.
By early afternoon, though, some moments of tense and potentially violent flare-ups had occurred, apparently as the departing Rallygoers, chaperoned by police, came into contact with counter-protesters.
Crowd estimates for the day were hitting about 15,000 at mid-day. One eyewitness told a surprised MSNBC host Alex Witt that as few as 20 people actually attended the Free Speech Rally, with at least some apparent Trump supporters blocked by Silly String-spraying counter-protesters (an image familiar from last Sunday’s rally in Seattle).
By mid-afternoon, Republican pollster Frank Luntz tweeted that “The handful of rally attendees” had left the Boston Common pavilion “concluding their event without the planned speeches.”
According to Associated Press reports, “dozens” of the conservative Free Speech Rally supporters gathered and then left as the event was just getting underway, far outnumbered by the massive counter-protest.
On CNN, Fox News Channel and MSNBC, cameras occasionally caught riot-geared police swarming to prevent clashes – or even meetings – of the two rival protests. A few isolated skirmishes were being reported by the press – an elderly woman stumbled to the ground after a counter-protester grabbed a flag from her hands, and a man wearing a Trump ball cap was chased off – but the march, at least as seen on television earlier in the day, seemed closer in mood to the post-inauguration Women’s March than the violent, chaotic scene in Charlottesville last week.
Despite the Free Speech Rally organizers’ insistence that the event would not be a platform for racism or bigotry, counter-protesters, which included Black Lives Matter, noted that speakers and attendees for the Free Speech Rally reportedly included an Infowars writer, right-wing activists and, according to some media accounts, KKK members.
Prior to the event, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh told people to just stay home: “We recommend everyone stay away from the Boston Common if possible. We believe in tolerance, unity, and equality, and urge everyone to stay safe and respect our City.”