BOSTON — With her 2-year-old son perched on her shoulders, Tomiqua Williams, 30, carefully guided her 5-year-old daughter’s wheelchair to the edge of the sidewalk, making sure she had a good view as thousands of marchers carrying signs denouncing hate and promoting tolerance poured through her Lower Roxbury neighborhood.
“I live down the street and it’s very monumental to see all the people who’s coming out to counter-protest what’s going to happen at the Boston Common today,” Williams said. She wants her children to know how important it is to stand up against hatred and racism.
“I want them to see and enjoy this moment,” she added.
Bayou Cugma, 9, who lives in Belmont, Massachusetts, said he would normally spend the last few days of summer playing soccer or basketball but that he was happy to give up an afternoon of play to help stop hate.
“It makes me feel strong and I hope it makes people stop all the madness,” said Cugma, referring to recent police killings of black men and other acts of racial hatred. He starts fourth grade in a few weeks.
Officials estimate more than 40,000 counter-protesters descended on the Boston Common Saturday to denounce white supremacy and hate speech and to oppose a protest described by organizers as a “free speech” rally. Counter-protesters, as well as city officials, were alarmed by possible connections between organizers of the “free speech” rally and a demonstration held last weekend in Charlottesville, Virginia, when white supremacists and neo-Nazis carrying torches and rifles spread messages of hate. One woman was killed, two state troopers in a helicopter died in a crash and numerous others were injured during the protest.
Organizers of the Boston rally denied being affiliated with the Charlottesville protestors, but counter-protester organizers and marchers were not convinced.
“If this was really about free speech, we would have been invited from day one to speak and have a platform,” said Angelina Camacho, who is the Black Lives Matter co-organizer for the Boston area, at a Friday morning press conference.
“People are using freedom of speech for the gathering on the Common but we all know what is behind it and we’re against it,” said Boston resident Nancy Huang, 22, who was marching with friends from Boston’s Chinatown neighborhood.
Most counter-protesters rallied at the Reggie Lewis Center in the city’s historically black, but rapidly gentrifying, Roxbury neighborhood, then marched through Lower Roxbury and the South End on their way to the Boston Common.
Many said the march gave them an outlet to express their opposition to white supremacy and the political atmosphere that surrounds President Donald Trump, who is under fire for not immediately denouncing events in Charlottesville.
“I don’t think we should be staying silent while something this wrong is happening,” said Jocelyn Antonio, 27, as she marched with a group of young people down Tremont Street toward the Boston Common.
“It’s not like white supremacy hasn’t been happening all along,” Antonio said. “But when it’s so overt and in your face, you have to do something about it and if you don’t you’re just encouraging people and letting them know that it’s OK — and it’s not.”
The Boston organizers may have gotten that message.
Only about three dozen showed up, and the event ended after only about an hour. Those in attendance were escorted out by police shortly before the main group of counter-protesters reached the Common.
Initially, small groups of counter-protesters and police clashed when officers appeared to protect the small group of “free speech” rally-goers and counter-protesters were pushed back by a line of police in riot gear. Later in the afternoon, large crowds pushed their way across Tremont Street toward the city’s downtown area as a small number of Trump supporters confronted counter-protesters.
But in spite of the clashes, the event was overwhelmingly peaceful. Boston Mayor Marty Walsh thanked counter-protesters at a late afternoon press conference.
“I want to thank all the people that came out to share … that message of love, not hate, to fight back on racism, to fight back on anti-Semitism, to fight back on the white supremacists that are coming to our city — on the Nazis that were coming to our city,” he said.
Although 33 people were arrested when scuffles broke out between small groups of counter-protesters and the police, Boston Police Commissioner William Evans also praised attendees.
“Ninety-nine point nine percent of the people here were here for the right reason, and that is to fight bigotry and hate,” said Evans at the press conference.
As the last of the marchers passed her corner, Willams prepared to walk the few blocks back to her apartment. She said she was inspired by the overwhelming number of counter-protesters, but wonders if her kids will still be marching against racism and white supremacy when they have their own children.
“I hope that we don’t have to continue to keep marching,” she said. “We keep having to demonstrate for the same reasons that our grandparents did and we have to show we’re tired of this and move forward.”