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Photo by Kori Feener
August 22, 2017
BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS
Despite the “mission accomplished” happy talk in most of the news media, Saturday’s 40,000-strong Boston protests against extremism — and the tiny ultra-right rally that sparked them — were only wins for free speech to the degree their organizers and participants made them so. From a civil liberties perspective, they were highly problematic affairs.
First, Mayor Marty Walsh and various department heads in Boston city government slapped the right-wing rally with ridiculous restrictions on what otherwise would have been a very standard rally permit. Although scheduled for a public park that hosts dozens of similar rallies every year, only 100 people were allowed to attend. On the day of the event, the rally site — Parkman Bandstand on Boston Common — was surrounded by fences and a large number of police. The cops kept virtually everyone out of the arbitrarily-imposed cordon sanitaire — including a number of people who said they were supposed to participate in the rally and, as DigBoston reporter Sarah Betancourt criticized in the Columbia Journalism Review, the entire press corps.
Now, city solons certainly had reason to be concerned. But that doesn’t change the fact that, regardless of their extremist politics, the reactionaries had the right to hold a rally on the Common, and that right was severely and probably illegally curtailed.
Second, Boston Police Department Commissioner Bill Evans stated at a press conference last week that Boston would not use riot police at the outset of the protests and that “we plan on handling this on a very soft approach. You won’t see the helmets and sticks out there.” Yet “helmets and sticks” were very much the order of the day.
Platoons of Boston police and Mass State Police in nearly identical black riot gear were deployed all around the protests. Some were used to escort attendees of the right-wing rally off the Common when it ended and into waiting police wagons. But as Chris Faraone and other DigBoston reporters witnessed, those wagons tried to leave on the Boylston Street side of the Common where huge numbers of protesters were essentially trapped in relatively small spaces. When trying to move the wagons out of the park, the riot cops on hand did what riot cops do — they started shoving people, hitting them, and inevitably arresting those who argued they had nowhere to go. They even pepper-sprayed some people later in the afternoon.
That’s a problem right there — and the early stories we’re hearing from several of the 30 people arrested all around the protests are similar — but it’s not clear why the right-wingers were given a police escort at all. Aside from some black bloc-style antifa groups that typically limit themselves to defensive violence, and maybe a few random tough kids looking for a fight, the overwhelming majority of protest attendees were there to demonstrate peacefully. So the right-wingers were in little danger.
Ultimately, the BPD fielded at least 500 officers — including riot police and an unknown number of undercover cops. The MSP had around 200 troopers available and definitely deployed at least some of them, the MBTA Transit Police had a “substantial presence” including undercovers on duty, and security forces from other agencies were doubtless also on the ground. There’s really no way of knowing the total number of cops at this time. But even assuming the rough numbers we have are in the ballpark, that’s a lot of cops to deploy to a right-wing extremist rally that had already been cowed into submission by serious violations of its organizers’ rights to freedom of speech and assembly, and by the impressive outpouring of nonviolent protesters against it.
All of this is simply unacceptable in a democratic society. It’s perhaps understandable that any city government will have a police presence at such a big political event. But it makes little sense to have hundreds of cops — including militarized “robocops” — from a number of local, state, and, almost certainly, federal agencies on hand. Unless the city, state, and federal governments were more concerned about the protests against the ultra-right extremists than they were about the extremists. Which would absolutely be in keeping with the policies of most levels of American government — in ceaseless and ongoing collusion with the capitalists that own the country — since the founding of the nation. The things this “large-s” State fears most of all have always been democracy and social justice.
Returning to my first point: Why should anyone care about the right-wing extremists having their civil liberties violated Saturday? Because if the government can do that to a motley crew of nazis, fascists, racists, and little weasel shitposters of the type I regularly mock and deride on the interwebs, then they can do it to the broad left wing… and, well, anyone really. Which means that protestors interested in defending democracy won’t succeed by beating back a still-weak ultra-right street sideshow. No. The incipient movement for democracy won’t have won until the rise of what’s looking very much like a corporatist police state is stopped. But it wasn’t even slowed on Saturday. Quite the reverse actually.
Apparent Horizon is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director, and executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston. Copyright 2017 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.
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Photo by Luke O’Neil
May 17, 2017
BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS
Last week’s right-wing Boston Free Speech protest at the Parkman Bandstand on Boston Common did not require a response from the left wing. Let’s get that out of the way up front. The small rally and march of — to be generous — maybe a couple hundred people throughout the course of the day was not newsworthy. Because its political message was incoherent.
By way of proof, check out this rally speech from an older activist I’ll call Scooby Doo:
There’s a reason why these people think the way they do. They are being indoctrinated. They have been indoctrinated since they were very young. Since they were in elementary school that whites are the evil people, that here are the evil white boogeyman. That the white man has his boot on the neck of every minority out there. And that they somehow have to right the wrongs of their ancestors. This is nonsense, people. This is bullshit what they’re trying to do. As if they’re trying to destroy western civilization. And to do that they’re going after whites.
Then compare that to this talk from a younger activist I’ll call Scrappy Doo:
But the shot that was heard was our voices, people. Today we come together united. [Unintelligible] all races, all nationalities, all genders, we don’t discriminate. Contrary to what the left says, if you’re a liberal, you love the constitution, you belong here with we the people. People, this is just the beginning of this movement.
And compare both to these remarks from another younger activist I’ll call Dooby Doo:
This isn’t a Massachusetts thing, this isn’t a white thing, this isn’t a black thing, this is an American thing. And it’s not wrong to say make America great again. It doesn’t mean racist things. Make America great again means let freedom ring. And not it be silenced. We have our veterans to thank for that. So let’s support our veterans to support our rights to freedom of speech, our Second Amendment, and the cops. To all you police, we’re with you.
To review, the speakers platform was shared by an older unreconstructed racist who thinks a decent history education is some kind of communist plot, a younger very accepting guy who thinks the broad left doesn’t like the Constitution, and another younger guy who thinks Trump’s campaign slogan was meant for everyone Black and white — while sending unconditional love to all cops everywhere. Including, by default, racist killer cops. No one was exactly what I’d call “on message.” Because the rally’s message was all over the road … and even the demands its organizers listed in their press release were gonzo: “First, encourage public institutions to reaffirm their commitment to the First Amendment or face cuts to their federal funding; second, label ‘Antifa’ a domestic terrorist organization due to the violence at previous Free Speech events; and third, end the culture of fear surrounding political correctness.”
So, like a hundred small left-wing actions that have been staged at the same location in recent decades — with the same intent of “reaching the public” while suffering from a serious lack of political focus — there was literally no danger at all of rally organizers reaching anyone they weren’t already reaching. Let alone recruiting significant numbers of new people to any hard right organization. Both because it was poorly attended for a regional event and because it was confusing. Like, really confusing. Since the language [e.g. “Kekistan”] and symbols [e.g. the “Kekistan” flag] used by many attendees and speakers are meaningless to anyone who doesn’t spend a large part of their life in online forums shaking their virtual fists of aimless rage at the hated sky.
All in all, if you held a political rally on an island in the middle of a frozen lake in the deepest wilds of the Canadian tundra, you’d likely have more effect on the public discourse than this event would have had.
And how could it be otherwise? The action was run by a mismatched coalition of older right-wing extremists and a larger number of younger hacker types. The main thing that seemed to bring attendees — who were mostly white (with exceptions like three members of a conservative Black family) and male — together was disdain for sectors of the American left that believe it’s important to try to shut down right wingers’ ability to exercise their First Amendment right to free speech. Hence the name of the event.
This was an action, therefore, run in no small part by amateurs. By “noobs” in the parlance of dank corners of the internet — like the 4chan and 8chan imageboard websites where many of the rally organizers found each other. Newbies. People with very little experience in politics, in this case.
That’s great, right? No harm, no foul. A group of people smaller than you’ll find in the average chain restaurant at lunchtime, yelling to each other with megaphones for a couple of hours. Then “taking to the streets” to yell at random passersby. Then calling it a day.
Well, that’s how it would have gone … until some younger inexperienced left-wing activists decided that the event was a manifestation of some kind of new mass fascist organization on our doorstep. And went off on the very “black bloc” trip that pissed off a lot of the hackers enough to have a “free speech” rally in the first place. Given that, as readers may recall, Bay Area black bloc types recently played a role in forcing the cancellation of talks by conservatives Milo Yiannopoulos and Ann Coulter at the University of California, Berkeley. That is, in the absence of forethought, they thought that hiding their faces from the majority of the population who are their natural allies against the confused array of outright reactionary and merely unschooled ideas on offer at the rally was somehow a good plan.
And so it came to pass that an even smaller group of mostly younger people politicized and organized in a different set of internet forums donned a motley assortment of heavy clothing (black being the most prominent color), masks, and in some cases helmets, and stood on Flagstaff Hill looking down on the right wingers around the bandstand from some distance away. Ready to fight if necessary. They were joined by a slightly larger coterie of area left-wing activists — also mostly younger people, but with more political experience overall — who had taken a nonviolence pledge before attending. The Boston police formed a cordon between the right- and left-wing groups. And a shouting war started between the two sides capped by another conservative I’ll call Scooby Dum crossing the skirmish line and belting a left winger after shoving a Pepsi at the person (in an apparently ironic reference to the Kendall Jenner commercial scandal). Both antagonist and victim were arrested. The BPD version of equal justice, one supposes.
This tyro armageddon provided red meat for the press that would otherwise have ignored the event, and resulted in coverage that would not have happened if the counter demonstrators had left well enough alone.
Now it’s true the organizers of the right-wing action fell on each other shortly afterwards in a torrent of mutual social media recriminations involving the absurd neologism “cuck.”
But the critical lesson of the whole sorry affair should not be lost on erstwhile “anti-fascists” on the fringes of the American left: There are indeed times when it’s important to stand up against the right wing in militant and very public ways … but you never want to hold response actions to dysfunctional right-wing events that will result in their learning to become more effective organizers. You don’t want to help them evolve. You don’t want to act like an overdose of old antibiotics on a mutating strain of TB. You need to be smart and LET THEM FAIL. So badly that they’re forced to scurry back under their disconnected individual rocks to lick their wounds and perhaps even rethink their more extreme political positions.
In this situation, the correct thing to do was let the right wingers have their wonky little rally and then faction fight themselves into oblivion over its failure. Instead, the ill-conceived counterdemo got that rally far more attention than it deserved, and taught the fringe right that it’s really easy to bait the more jumped-up sectors of the left to play the part of “bad freedom haters” in their latter-day Old Glory-waving passion play. Helping them organize more disaffected young people … and possibly turning them from a sideshow of a sideshow into a serious threat in the process. Not good.
Here’s hoping that the younger left activists who participated in the counter demonstration now decide to turn their energies toward better educating themselves politically and then focus on reaching out to engage society at large with organizing campaigns to challenge the root causes of racism and racist white reaction. And that the more established left-wing organizations that inexplicably decided to join them on the Common revert to their usual activities along those lines. Helping build the majoritarian movement for democracy that America desperately needs, rather than comporting themselves in ways that could end up bringing ruin down on the heads of the left at large. At the hands of a right wing that will always be better at violence in this period than macho posturing fringe leftists looking for a shortcut to their ill-considered version of “revolution.”
Note: This column was written based on my analysis of news coverage and social media posts about the Boston Free Speech rally from the perspective of a longtime political activist who has run large numbers of left-wing protests. I did not attend the event.
Apparent Horizon is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director and senior editor of DigBoston.
Copyright 2017 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.
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