In Boston this weekend, a tiny “Free Speech” rally with a podium lineup of various xenophobes was muffled by some 30,000 counter-protesters. You could hear the crowds, screaming down the likes of white nationalist Kyle “Based Stickman” Chapman, all the way from Beacon Hill to Faneuil Hall. So it’s strange that in the end, their voices didn’t carry.
Just after noon on Saturday, shortly before police in riot gear started to arrest dozens of counter-protesters on the outskirts of Boston Common, Donald Trump took to Twitter to recast the events of the day as a clash between the people and the cops: “Looks like many anti-police agitators in Boston. Police are looking tough and smart! Thank you.”
Minutes later, he delivered another master class in missing the point: “Great job by all law enforcement officers and Boston Mayor @Marty_Walsh.”
The president’s narrative, however myopic, appears to have stuck, and has since shaped both local and national accounts of what happened in Boston. Even while most reports acknowledged that the crowds were largely peaceful, the metaphors of destruction still came thick and fast, with CNN describing a “flood” of counter-protestors, and others emphasizing spontaneous or chaotic aspects of the march.
The thing is, as most sentient Bostonites can tell you, the demonstrations on Saturday were anything but spontaneous. They were a long time coming. The group gathered in front of the Massachusetts State House, which included participants from the Boston Democratic Socialists of America, had been planning its Stand for Solidarity rally for weeks. Their purpose was to “articulate specific local struggles” like youth homelessness, according to one planner. Another group, which marched the more than two miles to Boston Common from Roxbury, one of the city’s historically black neighborhoods, was organized by affiliates of Black Lives Matter, which has taken to the streets of Boston to resist white supremacy many times in the past.
In other words, the counter-protesters didn’t ooze onto the Common like some unruly flood waters. They had leaders, they had grievances, and they had been shouting for a very long time. These counter-protesters weren’t counter-protesters at all; they were simply protesters, and structural racism is what they were protesting.
Around 9 a.m., as thousands filled Malcolm X Boulevard in Roxbury, chanting and preparing for the walk downtown, I asked Tito Jackson, an African American city councilor who is running for mayor against the incumbent Marty Walsh, why he didn’t physically stand by the mayor, Boston Police Department Commissioner William Evans, and Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker at press conferences the previous week.
“I won’t be a prop,” Jackson said. “It is critical that the voices of people of color are heard. . . . We have young people in the streets because of the [closing of shelters] . . . and there [are state and city subsidies] going to General Electric. We are hearing that at Norfolk [state] prison, there are brothers there who are drinking black water. And so we are going to speak to the truth, and there will be things that people don’t want to hear. That is our call, and this is our civil rights movement.”
Thanks to his public profile and candidacy, Jackson managed to get his point across, at reasonable length, to readers and viewers at home. Still, the prevailing image Saturday was that of a faceless and contingent crowd—seething, reactionary, and detached from any preexisting demands.
Origin stories have been flying since last week’s neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville, but the results have been lopsided. After a group of white supremacists turned out in Virginia, met by scores of anti-racism protesters, questions like “Where are they coming from?” seemed primarily reserved for the young men waving torches. A Vice documentary about the racist crusaders drew millions of viewers, while the Washington Post offered up intimate profiles of some of those who chanted “Jews will not replace us” and the Nazi slogan “blood and soil.”
Their motivations, we were told, were complex and evolving. Their history is deep. “For these men,” according to the Post, “it was far from a lark. It was the culmination of something that took months for some, years for others.”
Compared to these hyper-focused close-ups, coverage of the anti-racism protesters has been aerial in scope. In the days leading up to the so-called “Free Speech” rally in Boston, many outlets swooned over Boston Free Speech Coalition organizer John Medlar, even while zooming out on the organizers who were planning a much larger demonstration—three hundred times larger, as it turned out—across town.
If they had spent more time talking to COMBAT, to the Black Lives Matter affiliates, to the ANSWER Coalition, or to any of the other groups involved with organizing the so-called counter-protests, they would have heard something along the lines of what Monica Cannon, a community advocate with the group Violence in Boston, told reporters on Friday:
While it is our intention to send a message to those who would subject marginalized communities to domestic white terrorism, hate speech, and violence, we also stand in opposition to the most insidious and deadly forms of white supremacy. These include, but are not limited to, mass incarceration, income inequality, anti-immigration initiatives, police and local law enforcement, and housing and employment discrimination.
It’s the kind of message that reporters and readers sometimes miss when we obsess over the back stories of white supremacists at the expense of those who are sweating for justice. Organizing may not be as flashy as a brandished torch, but the substance there is rich.
What’s more, when reporters covering anti-racism rallies pass over conversations with established organizers in favor of more sensational fare, they may be tempted to rely solely on tweets from government and police authorities to get the basic facts, forgetting that not so long ago, some of those same authorities sanctioned things like racial segregation, stop-and-frisk, and broken-windows policing.
Just last week, Boston’s mayor and police commissioner boasted that their force has rarely resorted to using militarized riot precautions. But on Saturday, that wasn’t the case. Journalists who filed stories prior to 1 p.m. claiming that cops were on their best behavior would have been accurate; by 2 p.m., however, when the riot gear and batons came out, such descriptions warranted corrections. Meanwhile, the Boston Police Department went viral with a tweet urging calm:
A week ago, Trump was arguing that public officials should stand back and reserve judgment until all the facts are known. On Saturday, he was back to his old ways, tweeting directly into unfolding events. This is Trump’s favorite trick, the oldest in the book—the slippery double standard. It is part of a larger magical-thinking act, one that has managed to keep access to our country’s history in the hands of a few.
From Fox News commentators, we hear that the sons and daughters of the Confederacy are boldly honoring their heritage when they look to the past; meanwhile, the sons and daughters of the enslaved should have gotten over all that pain by now.
But there are subtler forms of this thinking too. How many times since November 9 has some pundit said that white rage has roots that are well worth tracing, if only for the sake of bringing key voters in Michigan or Pennsylvania back to the Dems? Meanwhile, black rage too often gets written off as spontaneous, chaotic, unorganized, and rootless, as when we hear for the thousandth time that groups like Black Lives Matter have no real program or demands.
Toward the end of the afternoon on Saturday, as the police bound zip ties around wrists and worked their way up to 33 arrests, almost all of them counter-protesters, Trump weighed in again, this time to “applaud the many protestors in Boston who are speaking out against bigotry and hate.”
It was too late. By that point, with the president’s blessing or not, there was little hope that those “speaking out against bigotry” would be heard just as clearly as the police who confronted them, the politicians and reporters who ignore them, and the xenophobes whom they wanted to silence.