Photo by Kori Feener

THAT ‘FREE SPEECH’ THING

Mayor Walsh and various police agencies were no friends of civil liberties at Boston’s monster protests against the ultra right

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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Originally published at digboston.com on August 22, 2017.

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