BOSTON (CBS) — The city of Boston has approved a permit for a controversial “Free Speech Rally” scheduled to take place on Boston Common Saturday.
After a meeting with Boston Police and city officials Wednesday morning, event organizer and Boston Free Speech Coalition spokesman John Medlar told WBZ-TV the city gave them the green light for the event to take place.
According to Medlar, the two parties agreed in the meeting that the rally will be barricaded by police.
“The police are going to be there in full force,” Medlar told WBZ-TV’s Beth Germano. “They’re going to have physical barriers around the Parkman Bandstand separating the rallygoers from counter-protesters to make sure that everyone stays safe. They’re going to be escorting people in and escorting people out. If things get out of hand, they will evacuate people.”
Medlar said no weapons will be permitted, and anyone can be searched.
“They will not be allowing people to bring weapons of any kind, anything that could be used as a weapon, so blunt instruments like flagpoles,” he said. “They will be allowing people to bring flags, just not attached to any pole or stick.”
At a prayer service outside City Hall Wednesday afternoon, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh addressed the tension surrounding the rally.
“In our city, we’ve been dealing with anticipation of what’s going to happen on Saturday,” Walsh said. “I ask everyone who comes to Boston Common on Saturday, you can have your free speech all day long, but let’s not speak about hate. Let’s not speak about bigotry, racism.”
He stood with faith leaders from around the city and asked protesters and rally-goers to refrain from hateful or violent behavior.
“We are a better people than what we’re seeing on TV,” Walsh said. “And I’m asking people, when you come into Boston, respect this city, because we respect your right to come in and speak. If we’re gonna respect your right to come in, we expect you to respect our city, our people, the people that live here. Don’t pass hate, don’t pass judgement on people, and that’s what we’re asking for.
Boston Police Commissioner William Evans says he won’t judge the group after meeting with Medlar, and is more worried about safety. “They’re claiming free speech,” Evans said. “It’s not my role to determine who they are or what they are. I know I’ve got a job to do to keep people safe in the city.”
Earlier Wednesday, Medlar told WBZ NewsRadio 1030’s Carl Stevens that people have the wrong impression about the event–and that he and his group “absolutely” disavow white supremacy.
“Contrary to a lot of the rumors out there, the purpose of the rally is to denounce the kind of political violence that we have seen, a sort of rising tide throughout the country,” Medlar said. “And particularly most recently in Charlottesville.”
A post on the Boston Free Speech Facebook page Tuesday night disavowed last weekend’s white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, which led to the death of a woman protesting white supremacy and left 19 others injured.
“This Free Speech Movement is dedicated to peaceful rallies and are in no way affiliated with the Charlottesville rally on 8/12/17,” the post read. “While we maintain that every individual is entitled to their freedom of speech and defend that basic human right, we will not be offering our platform to racism or bigotry.”
Medlar said most of those involved are local volunteers and activists who want to “de-escalate” what they see as a “rising tide” of political violence across the country.
“We want to get people talking and listening to each other again, to exchange words rather than to exchange fists on the streets,” Medlar said.
Medlar said his group opposes groups like the KKK and Neo-Nazis because they use free speech and the First Amendment as a shield while rejecting the same rights for the people they disagree with. He said some of those groups were among those inaccurately equating the Boston Free Speech Coalition with the events in Charlottesville.
“In all the confusion out there, there do seem to be legitimate white supremacist groups on social media that are attempting to hijack the rally,” Medlar said. “It is very troublesome to us.”
He said his group “carefully vetted” speakers, and said the list included people with varied backgrounds–including supporters of Bernie Sanders and Jill Stein as well as more right-leaning figures.
Though the Boston Free Speech Coalition is not affiliated with the organizers of the “Unite The Right” rally in Virginia, they did invite at least one of the speakers from that rally in Charlottesville. Listed on a flyer for the event was a speaker going by the name Augustus Invictus who, according to the Orlando Sentinel, had prominent billing in Charlottesville.
Medlar described Invictus as a “fringe figure” and a “very out-there person” but said that “regardless of the other stuff, he’s ultimately a libertarian.”
“There was actually a mistake made,” Medlar said. “In all the confusion that happened, one of our other organizers told Augustus that he was being disinvited.”
He said that mistake created a “breach in trust” that led to other speakers dropping out.
On Tuesday, speaker Brandon Navom told WBZ-TV he was dropping out because he’s been receiving death threats–and thinks the rally should be cancelled.
“The environment has just become so hostile and so toxic that I am completely concerned for the city of Boston,” Navom said.
Medlar said the group considered cancelling the rally after Charlottesville, but decided against it.
“If anything, the events in Charlottesville–which did take us very much by surprise, we were shocked and horrified by the things that went down there–if anything, that only makes the kind of thing that we’re trying to do all the more necessary,” Medlar said.
He added that even if they told people not to go, he’s sure they’d show up anyway.
Last weekend’s violence in Virginia prompted Boston Mayor Marty Walsh and Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker to issue tough statements a week ahead of the Boston rally that hate groups would not be welcome in the city.
“Boston does not welcome you here. Boston does not want you here. Boston rejects your message,” said Walsh. “We reject racism, we reject white supremacy, we reject anti-Semitism, we reject the KKK, we reject neo-Nazis, we reject domestic terrorism, and reject hatred. We will do every single thing in our power to keep hate out of our city.”
Medlar said “my objective is to coordinate with police and with city officials to make sure that logistics are entirely in place and everything is kept orderly, everything is kept safe, and at the end of the day, everyone is able to go home with no trouble.”
Medlar in part echoed the spirit of President Donald Trump’s recent comments, saying that groups on the left as well as the right were responsible for political violence.
“We absolutely denounce violent extremists on both sides of the aisle, like the Antifa movement on the left, and Identity Europa and Vanguard on the right,” he said.
In Roxbury Tuesday night, members of the NAACP and the local faith community planned a peace rally to coincide with the Boston Free Speech Rally Saturday.
“White supremacists who are okay with being public now feel emboldened and protected by the person in the White House,” said the Boston NAACP’s Segun Idowu.
Meanwhile, a group that calls itself Fight Supremacy says they will be organizing a counter-rally Saturday.
In a post on their Facebook page, Fight Supremacy organizers wrote, “On Saturday, August 19th, White Nationalists are converging on Boston Common to reinforce their white supremacist ideology and attempt to intimidate queer and BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, POC) communities.”
That group has not received a permit yet.
Monica Cannon, founder of a group called Violence In Boston that is among the sponsors of the Fight Supremacy event, told WBZ-TV why the counter-protest was being organized.
“Mainly, to stand up and show that Boston is not the city, that you can’t come here with those views, but also to highlight the fact that a lot of those people aren’t visiting Boston,” she said. “They actually live here, and although Boston tries to come across as progressive and liberal, there’s a great deal of racism here.”
But Medlar disagrees with Fight Supremacy’s characterization of his event.
“I’m afraid that they are very much misinformed, and we regret that,” said Medlar. “We’re campaigning for people like them to rally as well. We have no problem with them exercising their freedom of assembly, we just wish they would do it for the right reasons, rather than mistaking us for something we’re not.”
No matter whether or not city officials give the Boston Free Speech Coalition a permit, Cannon says her group will show up Saturday.
“Whether they have their rally or they don’t have their rally, we’re going to be there, because we need to send a message,” she said.
WBZ NewsRadio 1030’s Carl Stevens reports