Saturday’s counter-protest felt like it came too soon. I wasn’t ready for more Nazis, and I had trouble getting out of bed. Everyone was still talking about Charlottesville: the terrorism, the tactics. A few nights earlier, one of my exes had literally dreamed of punching fascists. Another ex, whose grandparents had escaped the Holocaust, had started having nightmares.
The morning was cool and gray; the top of the Hancock tower disappeared into fog. The T was nearly empty at 8 AM, and I didn’t see any homemade signs until I changed to the Orange Line at Downtown Crossing. On the train, an older man wearing a camouflage cap looked across the aisle at a protest-bound couple. “I didn’t vote for him,” the man said. The woman across the aisle nodded silently. “I didn’t vote at all,” he continued. “I’m not a voter.” The woman’s voice rose above the sound of the rails: “I’m embarrassed for you.” She drew in a breath, grew louder. “You are responsible for this.” Her sign read Never Again is Now.
I got off the train in Roxbury and walked along Malcolm X Boulevard to Madison Park Technical Vocational High School, the departure point for the “Fight Supremacy” march. Organized by Black Lives Matter and Violence in Boston, the event was to be both a counter-protest and a call to action. We would drive the white supremacists out, but first we would recall the racism of our own city. As the morning’s speakers, mostly black and indigenous women, reminded us, we were standing in a gentrifying neighborhood, in a city that remains deeply segregated, in a metro region where rents are rising, on land stolen centuries ago. Boston is a city where, as of 2010, the black median household income was thirty thousand dollars lower than the white median household income. In 2011, over one fifth of black families in Boston were living in poverty, while only 7.1% of white families shared the same fate. Compared to African Americans and Latinos, white Bostonians are far more likely to be employed, to own a home, and to have retirement accounts. As one local newspaper put it in 2015, the color of wealth in Boston is white.
Still, the crowd swelled with Boston pride. We claimed our territory in call-and-response chants: “Whose city?” “Our city!” Any time a speaker referred, derisively, to those who would dare to bring their hate to Boston, we cheered raucously. We started walking to the Common just as the skies cleared. It was a big crowd, gathered under a big tent: I spotted socialists with bright red banners, clergy in their vestments, antifa in masks, Beacon Hill bros wearing polo shirts, suburban moms with blond hair and backpacks. Black Lives Matter and Refuse Fascism placards dotted the crowd. I saw a few Nevertheless, she persisted shirts and an equal number of Celtics jerseys. There was the usual array of creative signs, some of which called upon the region’s history. We are the daughters of the witches you failed to burn, one read. The scene reminded me a bit of the Women’s March from this past January—colorful and energetic and politically eclectic—except that Sox caps outnumbered pussy hats roughly twenty to one.
I was marching that morning alongside my 63-year-old father. We were on his native turf: he’d been born at a hospital in nearby Mattapan, and he’d spent his early years in an apartment in Roxbury. He’d grown up in a different city, he told me, one more aggressively segregated and more provincial. In his Boston, your neighborhood was your family and intruders were always unwelcome. Though Irish, my father, a Roxbury kid, would never have risked entering Southie or “The Town” alone. I wondered how much of the animus directed at the “Free Speech” rally participants was simply Bostonians’ kneejerk suspicion of outsiders.
In the aftermath of enforced school busing in the 1970s, a notorious episode in the city’s history, the composition of the city changed. White families moved out to the western suburbs, where they tweaked their zoning laws and raised property taxes. They created communities that were effectively gated, and school systems that were effectively private. My father had made the very same move—I was raised in one of the more Stepfordish towns—and he believed that the denizens of the liberal suburbs that lined Route 128 were hypocrites. He questioned their right to criticize overt racists.
This was my father’s first real protest—he’d been too young for Vietnam, and too cautious for the rest—and I spent the day worried about him the way, I imagine, he had worried about me when I was small: was he too hot in the sun? Did he need a snack? This wasn’t his usual scene. A veteran of the state’s gubernatorial campaigns, he was used to working within the system. He hated Trump and the Republican Party, but he was skeptical of the efficacy of protests, and he wasn’t so sure about socialism. As we walked, we had the kinds of debates that all of us left of center have been having for months. I attempted to convince him that the Democratic Party needed to move left; he dismissed my idealism. He looked askance at antifa; I made the case for direct confrontation. I suggested, delicately, that Bernie might, perhaps, have won. As we entered the affluent South End, I tried to guess how many in the crowd would have aligned themselves with him, and how many with me, and whether it would have broken neatly across generational lines.
By 1 PM, we were still several city blocks from the Common. I got the sense that the police had slowed us deliberately, in order to prevent confrontation. Word went out that the forty or so “free speech” advocates had been cleared from the park. We cheered and chanted with renewed energy as we walked down Charles Street. The march over, the opposition defeated, people idled, trying to figure out what move to make next. Groups gathered on the Common to listen to speakers. Counter-protestors wandered off in pairs to sit in the shade. I said goodbye to my father at the edge of the park and watched him walk down Beacon Street, his white hair peeking out from underneath his New England Patriots hat, a son of the city if ever there was one. I lingered long enough to see a few scuffles with Trump-supporting provocateurs, then took myself to North Station, where I boarded a commuter train. I was visiting an old friend who had once lived in the city. After she had children, she left, ambivalently, for a beautiful town by the sea. By the time the clouds returned and the fog descended, I was already in Salem, that haunted town, and Boston was far behind me.
There was a choice between going directly to Boston Common to confront the “free speech” rally or marching there from Roxbury. By Friday night, no one expected very many Nazis to show up, so I chose the march. We had barely begun to make our way down Malcolm X Boulevard, past the largest mosque in Boston, when we were held up by police. The city had announced in advance that sticks (such as those attached to picket signs) would not be allowed in the Common, lest they be turned against fascists. Now the police were saying that sticks weren’t even allowed here, more than two miles away. The protest marshals leading the socialist contingent announced via human microphone that they had asked to see a written court order to this effect; the police commander had responded with “whatever.” One of the marshals, clad in a Red Sox cap and shirt, prompted us to vote on whether to comply with the order, “temporarily bowing to the armed force of the state.” We complied. Bemused cops passed through the crowd collecting picket sticks amid hostile chanting.
The march was led by a contingent from Black Lives Matter, another reminder that even if the police were not the main enemy on Saturday, they were not our friends. The vanguard included a flatbed truck decorated with a Charlottesville-themed poster: ANTIFA SAVED MY LIFE, above photos of Cornel West and Rev. Osagyefo Sekou. Back in the socialist contingent, members of various Boston organizations were joined by representatives from Burlington, Vermont DSA, New York IWW, and (unarmed) members of Maine’s John Brown Gun Club. Among many evergreen slogans—“workers of the world unite / fight fight fight fight”—we chanted a new one: “Heather is a hero.”
When we finally reached the Common, it was almost 2:00 PM. It was announced to great applause that the small group of alt-right protesters had already left. Despite the size of the march, in most parts of the park people picnicked and relaxed like nothing had happened. Probably even without ten thousand people to chase them out, the fascists would have failed to make much of an impact. Crowds of radicals roamed the green, looking for the fights they had anticipated. As I left, I saw two people arrested for, I believe, scuffling with a lone anti-abortion protester, though I’d missed the actual drama. Around the edges of the park, people formed circles, surrounding isolated right-wingers and debating one another. Watching one protester mediate an argument, a man turned to me and said “I voted for Trump, but this kid is great. I would vote for him.”
The relative sizes of protest and counter-protest reminded me of the Women’s March in January, which dwarfed the crowd at Trump’s inauguration and provoked his flacks to invent “alternative facts.” In Boston as in DC, the crowds included many who looked like they did not go to many protests, mobilized in defense of important but relatively uncontroversial ideals such as love not hate makes America great. I appreciated that this time, swastikas and drawings of Klansmen had replaced hammers and sickles and cartoons of Putin as symbols of the enemy. Anti-fascism, unlike zombie anti-communism, lends itself to critical analysis of internal American pathologies of racism and domination. Black veterans returning from Europe after 1945 shook the foundations of Jim Crow. Today’s public alliance of SS logos and rebel flags has made room for the frankest mainstream reckonings with the Lost Cause to occur in my lifetime. On Boston Common, someone had left flowers at the memorial to Robert Gould Shaw and the 54th Massachusetts Volunteers, a monument that Robert Lowell said “sticks like a fishbone in the city’s throat.” The unfinished Civil War still makes it hard for people to breathe, but at least it is becoming easier to complain about it.