BPD officers at 2017 counterprotest against the ultra right. Photo by Dan McCarthy. Modified by Jason Pramas.
BPD officers at 2017 counterprotest against the ultra right. Photo by Dan McCarthy. Modified by Jason Pramas.


Some thoughts about last Saturday’s counterprotest

It’s Labor Day as I start this column and I don’t want to labor too much on it, but I think it’s important to reflect upon a particular aspect of Saturday’s counterprotest against an ultra right-wing “parade” that hasn’t gotten nearly as much press attention as it should.

There were too many cops on the streets. Like way too many. Which is a serious problem that could stand much more public discussion than it’s getting so far.

For Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, flooding the streets with police during the dueling political actions was a no-brainer. He’s quite clear about at least one of his largely opaque motivations for calling out his troops. According to the Boston Herald: “What I don’t want is a repeat of what happened in Charlottesville. That’s why we brought in so much security here, to make sure that people are safe. It’s the innocent bystanders that I’m afraid of, it’s people that might be coming to see what was going on and to oppose what this group was spouting, which I completely oppose.”

And to be sure, there was absolutely a reason to be concerned about violence from the “parade” organizers—since they hail from a number of ultra right-wing organizations that spend much of their time outside the gaze of most news media thirsting for the blood of any number of enemies: people of color, women, LGBTQ folks, Muslims, Jews, and anyone to their left.

There was also a reason—less of one, but present nonetheless—to be concerned about violence from left-wing organizations. Not because they’re equivalent to the kinds of Nazis, fascists, and white supremacists at the heart of the “parade.” But because a key strategy of the ultra right is to spark some kind of “Reichstag fire” moment. Some violent act that can be pinned on the broad left in such a way as to bring down state repression on it… a repression that the ultra right very much hopes to lead.

Unfortunately, it’s all too possible that some groups on the left—or at least pretending to be part of the left—might take the hard right’s bait in the form of actions like the “parade” and respond with the use of force.

Walsh and his advisors know that. So they called out police in numbers generally only seen at similar demos or during periods with multiple demos… like the 2004 Democratic National Convention protests, the Occupy movement in fall 2011, the Black Lives Matter movement starting in 2014, and the epic 40,000-person counterprotest against the 2017 rally by some of the same small ultra-right groups. Police from several cities and towns around the Boston area in addition to a major BPD mobilization plus Mass State Police in full storm trooper gear.

Which is just not normal. In any of the cases under discussion. Even in response to situations where there is a good deal of enmity between opposing sides of a debate, and both sides have the ability to turn out crowds of hundreds or thousands.

I know because I helped run dozens of similar political protests large and small over the three decades between 1985 and the present day. Most of them in Boston and its immediate environs. 

The general consensus seems to be that there were (generously) a couple of hundred ultra right-wingers and allies out on Saturday. And over a thousand participating in the counterprotest. 

It just doesn’t take hundreds of heavily armed police officers to handle manifestations of that size. Not under normal circumstances, certainly. 

When I personally ran several 500- to 5,000-person protest events in downtown Boston  prior to 2004—often labor rallies that could get pretty heated—I’d typically see a couple of dozen BPD officers deployed. Depending on where the action was happening, I might also see park rangers or state police or transportation police—usually in smaller numbers. And even if I double those numbers to include the detectives that I couldn’t spot or the police units that were held in reserve nearby, it was still nothing like what we saw on Saturday.

Naturally, actions led by organizers of color around the city—especially ones protesting police brutality and racism like the Black Lives Matter marches did—have often had to deal with more cops than seems reasonable. And a much higher likelihood of police violence than there would generally be at other political actions. Given that the still largely white BPD acts like an occupying army in many neighborhoods of color according to frequent community testimony and is used to operating with much more impunity and greater numbers than they do in the rest of the city.

Regardless, as time goes by, the police presence at roughly equivalent protests that I’ve witnessed or led over the last 30 plus years has been getting stronger and more vicious. So it’s no accident that the five large police deployments I mention above have all happened within the last 15 years—with two of them, including Saturday’s, in the last two years. Putting numbers of cops on the street equivalent to the numbers used at huge (and largely white) celebrations after Boston sports teams win major titles. In response to political actions that are smaller by orders of magnitude. This tracks with a couple of related developments over the same period: the return of the ultra right in American politics and the ongoing militarization of police forces nationwide.

To the first development, the hard right has definitely made inroads in the consciousness of police all over the US who are already more conservative than the society they serve—being more likely to vote Republican than many other occupations, according to Ruy Teixeira of the Center for American Progress. Massachusetts being no exception. As witnessed by the inflammatory statement of Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association leader Michael Leary “calling for full prosecution of three dozen people arrested at the Straight Pride Parade Saturday,” according to the Boston Herald. With WGBH reporting that 34 of the 36 arrestees on Saturday were counterprotestors. While the office of District Attorney Rachel Rollins, to its credit, has stated that it is “reviewing each arrest and will make informed decisions based on the facts of each and the policies of this office.” 

To the second, my colleague Chris Faraone has done a great series of investigative reports on weapons procurement by police around the Bay State, demonstrating—among other things—just how heavily armed the cops facing off with counterprotestors on Saturday were.  

Ultimately, even if Mayor Walsh’s intention in calling out so many police was just exactly what he said it was, there’s an inherent problem with using large numbers of cops to prevent violence at political demonstrations—particularly those involving a lot of left-wing activists: Cops are cops. That is, cops are violent. It’s their job to be violent, yes. But for far too many of them it’s also their inclination to be violent against the political left. And people of color, women, LGBTQ folks, and… boy howdy, a list of groups that are exactly the same as the ones the ultra right is out to get.

So in the service of stopping the ultra right and their antagonists from physically attacking each other, once again, just like in 2017, we have the spectacle of cops provoking people they don’t need to provoke, busting people they don’t need to bust, and hurting people they don’t need to hurt.

Because using cops in huge numbers—especially white suburban cops who are terrified of Boston and its “majority minority” denizens for all the wrong reasons—just sets up completely predictable situations where cops give protestors orders to do this or that thing in the moment. And some people don’t do the “right” thing in the “right” way in the “right” amount of time, and cops just start busting heads… and pepper-spraying people—as counterprotestors “tried to obey requests to make more space,” according to the Guardian.

Then mostly innocent people end up getting arrested. Then cops start putting out questionable stories about being menaced by “antifa”—which is not an organization, but an amalgam of antifascist groups using mainly defensive “black bloc” phalanx tactics adopted by anarchist communities in 1980s Europe during street demonstrations against fascists and fights against cops trying to dislodge them from the abandoned buildings they squatted by the thousands—claiming its activists threw Portland, Oregon-style “milkshakes” at them. As an excuse for their using pepper spray (which is actually fairly unusual for the BPD).

Even after the idea that left-wing counterdemonstrators in that city had poured concrete into milkshakes to throw at fascist demonstrators was shown to be an example of Portland cops telegraphing a far right-wing conspiracy meme with no proof, as reported earlier this summer in Salon and other publications. Then Mayor Walsh says he’s concerned about allegations of “police misconduct.” And it’s almost certainly all nonsense. All theater to justify more “training” and militarization. And all unnecessary.

So, I think that all the organizations justifiably standing out against actual Nazis need to build a political movement capable of stopping Boston and Massachusetts political leaders from calling huge numbers of police against people exercising their First Amendment rights to freedom of speech and expression. And for the record, I absolutely think that actual Nazis should have the right to do the same with minimal police interference. As long as they’re not beating or murdering anyone that particular day—and not preparing to do so on other days. But they should understand that their opponents on the left have every right to stand against them. In the same space at the same time. Because the right to free speech doesn’t include the right to have that speech go unchallenged.

If violence should start at such political actions, even a regular detachment of a couple of dozen BPD street cops is capable of bringing vastly more force to bear to any fight that might erupt in a state that doesn’t allow anyone to carry loaded or concealed firearms, and have the ability to call dozens more heavily armed cops with military grade weapons to the scene within minutes. Plus helicopters, LRADs, armored vehicles, and who knows what else.

And if someone brings along an explosive device, then either local, state, and federal police are going to get wind of that using their swift-growing array of high-tech surveillance and intelligence options (more accurate and pervasive than the worst dictatorships have ever had at their disposal), confiscate it before it goes off, and arrest any conspirators… or it’s going to go off. And no number of cops is going to stop it.

But that’s a discussion for another day.

Apparent Horizon—recipient of 2018 and 2019 Association of Alternative Newsmedia Political Column Awards—is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s executive director, and executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston. Copyright 2019 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.