Following the events of last week in Charlottesville, Virginia and the upcoming Free Speech rally this weekend in Boston, one cannot help but try and understand better what happened in Charlottesville in the hope of preventing it occurring again in Boston.
The organizers of the Free Speech rally previously held a similar event on the Boston Common in May. Antifa counter-protesters were nearby, but the two groups were separated by police. That event was small with only a few hundred participating from both sides and no violence occurred.
The upcoming Saturday event will draw an unknown number of Free Speech protesters that some estimate will be a few hundred. Counter-protester numbers are expected to be much higher - potentially in the tens of thousands.
The City of Boston has taken many actions to prevent any violence. The Mayor, after consulting with the Southern Poverty Law Center, asked people to stay away and avoid confrontation. The City has experience with both protest and counter-protest groups and has met with them to detail methods to prevent violence. Sticks, bats and other potential weapons have been banned for example.
Despite preparations and warnings - things can go wrong. They did in Charlottesville.
Examining and discussing some of the issues in Charlottesville, and some additional reading on the topics, may help to better understand what is happening in these protests and counter-protests. With a greater understanding and open conversation about these issues a more peaceful path forward is possible:
White Supremacists. Nazis, the KKK, and other white supremacy groups should be rejected by the larger society. The First Amendment to the Constitution allows them to convey their message within the law (see Supreme Court definition of incitement https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Imminent_lawless_action ), but the message should be opposed in all legal ways. In fact, these groups have been in decline since the 1990s and have only a few thousand members. Their membership numbers make them near irrelevant and incapable of achieving any political goal in normal processes. Instead they focus on gaining publicity and provoking violent responses to gain followers. As the Southern Poverty Law Center told Boston Mayor Walsh – “interacting with these groups just gives them a platform to spread their message of hate.” To read more about these groups see https://www.adl.org/sites/default/files/documents/state-of-white-supremacy-united-states-2015.pdf
Confederate Monuments. A robust and respectful debate about Confederate monuments is needed to come to a common understanding of what the difference is between “history” and “memory.” This is a complicated issue that requires debate in order to form a consensus of action - and to take the issue out of the hands of those who would exploit emotions. Anyone seriously interested in this topic should read these two links: https://constitutioncenter.org/blog/the-debate-over-confederate-monuments-and-how-to-remember-the-civil-war https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/politics/wp/2017/08/15/about-one-out-of-every-12-confederate-memorials-in-the-u-s-is-in-a-union-state
Effective Counter-protests. It seems ineffective and probably counterproductive to confront as a method of protest. It inevitably leads to violence and only raises the profile of what are insignificant groups seeking publicity. It may be more effective to shun in a formal manner. For example, counter-protesters might line a white supremacist march route and turn their backs in silence. The vigil held on the University of Virginia campus the night after the events featuring thousands of people in candle light singing seemed a powerful counter to the tiki torch march by white supremacists two nights before. http://www.npr.org/2017/08/17/544081108/glow-from-candlelight-vigil-in-charlottesville-lights-up-uva-campus
Militia Presence at Protests. In a lot of the videos from Charlottesville there are people calling themselves "Militia" carrying assault rifles and other weapons. The right wing Pennsylvania Lightfoot Militia (cammo and flack jackets) and the left wing Redneck Revolt (black apparel and bandanas) militia were the most prominent. The militias say they are there to provide protection. But their presence is not appropriate. Law enforcement should be the barrier to violence in these charged situations. Imagine if some of these groups had used their firearms! Open carry states need to look at this very closely and find a solution that is consistent with the Second Amendment and public safety. http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2017/08/right-to-carry-laws-are-making-violent-protests-like-charlottesville-even-harder-to-defuse/ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Open_carry_in_the_United_States https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/14/us/who-were-the-counterprotesters-in-charlottesville.html
Counter-protest violence. Watching the raw video from Charlottesville there were clearly counter-protest groups looking for trouble. Some are anarchists looking to exploit the situation and incite violence regardless of the name they give themselves. They typically wear all black and bandanas. They diminish the efforts of decent people who just want to exercise their rights and send a message rejecting the supremacists. They fall under the umbrella of a self-organizing group called Antifa. To allow them to continue to violently confront those they oppose is a mistake. Read about Antifa here: https://www.economist.com/blogs/economist-explains/2017/08/economist-explains-11 The New Jersey Office of Homeland Security and Preparedness classifies Antifa as Anarchist Extremists https://www.njhomelandsecurity.gov/analysis/anarchist-extremists-antifa?rq=antifa
These issues are only some that should be part of a broader long-term national discussion. In the meantime, Mayor Marty Walsh of Boston makes a request of Boston's citizens that they stay away from Boston Common on Saturday. People should abide by that request.