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The Panic in Boston

Nazis are bad. So’s hysteria.

James Kirchick
August 23, 2017
Getty Images
Getty Images
Getty Images
Getty Images

As a reaction to the recent expression of racist and anti-Semitic hatred at Charlottesville, last weekend’s demonstration in Boston was admirable. Some 40,000 people gathered to express their opposition to racial and religious bigotry, in welcome rebuke to a president who has difficulty calling out these maladies by name. Yet by directing part of their outrage at an unrelated free speech event held on the Boston Common, many of the protestors exemplified the creeping moral hysteria engulfing the American left.

The Boston Free Speech Coalition Rally was announced long before the tragedy that befell Charlottesville. It was planned not by white supremacists, as counter-protestors claim, but by a 23-year-old college libertarian activist named John Medlar. After Charlottesville erupted in violence, and activists in Boston began conflating his imminent rally with the assorted neo-Nazis and white supremacists who had gathered in Virginia, Medlar immediately distanced himself from it. “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,” he said. “We denounce the politics of supremacy and violence.”

Surveying the list of speakers Medlar had compiled, the Anti-Defamation League determined that, “Unlike Charlottesville, the Boston event, as currently planned, is not a white supremacist gathering.” One of the speakers was an Indian-American Republican challenger to Senator Elizabeth Warren. Certainly, controversial people were scheduled to appear, most notably Kyle Chapman, a multiple felon who has earned cult status on the far right for his photogenic beating of left-wing protestors at Berkeley earlier this year. The rest of the invited speakers, many of whom didn’t bother to show up, included a leading “Pizzagate” conspiracy theorist and a self-described “Pro-Bernie [Sanders] 1 A[mendment] lawyer.” Ultimately, the event was more alt light than alt right. According to The New York Times, the only Nazi or fascist insignia to be found in Boston on Saturday were leaflets “which other counterprotestors appeared to have prepared,” to help people “learn to identify these symbols.”

That there were no actual Nazis or fascists or KKK members hovering in Boston last weekend did not impinge upon the imaginations of the protestors gathered on the Common, who screamed and shouted—“No Trump! No KKK! No fascist USA!”—as if there were. “You’re a scourge on humanity, Nazi scum!” a protestor screamed at two men donning pro-Trump paraphernalia trying to make their way to the Parkman Bandstand.

The Boston Globe’s coverage was scarcely more edifying. Neither of the two lead stories in Sunday’s paper mentioned any of the individuals slated to speak at the “free speech” rally (which the paper repeatedly, and dismissively, referred to in scare quotes), instead vaguely describing a “roster of speakers linked to white supremacy” and individuals with “ties to extremist elements.”

As to what these ostensible “Nazis” and “fascists” had to say on Saturday, it’s difficult to know. Police erected a massive cordon around the bandstand, which, in addition to forcing rally attendees to run a gauntlet of screaming counter-protestors, also prevented members of the media from covering the event. In an unintentionally discrediting sentence about the rally’s speakers, the Globe reported that, “If any of them said anything provocative, the massive crowd did not hear it.” Neither did Boston’s paper of record, which couldn’t muster a reporter past the police barricade.

The spectacle of a mob shouting down phantom Nazis resembled nothing so much as the “Two Minutes Hate” from George Orwell’s 1984. Also Orwellian is how, in the minds of Trump’s critics fashioning themselves “The Resistance,” the word “fascism” has come to encompass anything “not desirable.” Saturday’s events offer an object lesson that just because people say they are protesting “Nazis” or claim to be “anti-fascist” does not necessarily make the objects of their ire Nazis and fascists. Indeed, for all the hyperventilating about a Boston Reich, the only violence and hatred spewed Saturday was from left-wing “anti-fascist,” or “antifa,” protestors, who threw bags of urine and punched and spat at police, and dozens of whom were arrested. Meanwhile, the supposedly menacing “fascists” had to be escorted away from the premises in vans due to threats to their physical safety.

As Charlottesville demonstrates, right-wing extremism, white supremacy, and anti-Semitism pose serious threats to America’s social fabric. White nationalists clearly feel emboldened by Donald Trump, who has proven shamefully incapable of distancing himself from them. It’s commendable that Bostonians are alive to these dangers. But what occurred last weekend on the Common was a moral panic the likes of which this region hasn’t seen since the Salem Witch Trials.

James Kirchick is a Tablet columnist and the author of Secret City: The Hidden History of Gay Washington (Henry Holt, 2022). He tweets @jkirchick.