BOSTON — Tens of thousands of demonstrators, emboldened and unnerved by the eruption of fatal violence in Virginia last weekend, surged into the nation’s streets and parks Saturday to denounce racism, white supremacy and Nazism.
Demonstrations were boisterous but broadly peaceful, even as tension and worry coursed through protests from Boston Common, the nation’s oldest public park, to Hot Springs, Arkansas, and to the bridges that cross the Willamette River in Portland, Oregon. Other rallies played out in Atlanta, Dallas, Houston, Memphis, Tennessee, and New Orleans, among other cities.
The demonstrations — which drew 40,000 people in Boston alone, according to police estimates — came one week after a 32-year-old woman died amid clashes between white nationalists and counterprotesters in Charlottesville, Virginia, and they unfolded as the nation was again confronting questions about race, violence and the standing of Confederate symbols.
President Donald Trump, who has faced unyielding, and bipartisan, criticism after saying there was “blame on both sides” in Charlottesville, wrote on Twitter on Saturday:
I want to applaud the many protestors in Boston who are speaking out against bigotry and hate. Our country will soon come together as one!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 19, 2017
Our great country has been divided for decades. Sometimes you need protest in order to heal, & we will heal, & be stronger than ever before!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 19, 2017
It was an abrupt shift in tone. The president posted earlier Saturday that it appeared there were “many anti-police agitators in Boston.”
Law enforcement officials were on alert throughout the day, wary of being seen as irresolute and ineffective after the protests in Virginia turned into running street battles and turned fatal when someone drove a car through a crowd. Officers in riot gear sometimes faced off with demonstrators to maintain order. There were scattered scuffles and arrests; in Boston, the largest of the weekend’s protests, police said there had been 33 arrests, mostly involving charges of disorderly conduct.
Boston, where officials had pledged to enforce a policy of zero tolerance for violence, had been facing dueling demonstrations, but a rally to promote “free speech” was brief and unamplified beyond the small bandstand where it was held. The event, whose participants appeared to number only in the dozens, was undercut by police planning and starved by an enormous buffer zone between the handful of protesters and the overwhelming numbers of their opponents.
Organizers of the speech rally had said they were appealing to “libertarians, conservatives, traditionalists, classical liberals, Trump supporters or anyone else who enjoys their right to free speech.”
“All of us here, in many ways, are true patriots because, in spite of that noise out there, we’re here to stand up for something very fundamental, which is called free speech,” Shiva Ayyadurai, an entrepreneur who is running a long-shot Republican Senate campaign, told the rallygoers, according to a video posted on YouTube.
But thousands of others, fearing that the free speech event would be a platform for neo-Nazis and white nationalists, joined a robust counterprotest.
“This city has a history of fighting back against oppression, whether it’s dumping tea in the harbor or a bunch of dudes standing around with bandannas screaming at neo-Nazis,” said a 21-year-old protester who identified himself as “Frosty” and wore an American flag to obscure much of his face.
Some counterprotesters shouted down their opponents — “No Nazis! No KKK! No fascist USA!” — as state troopers used their bikes to keep rival demonstrators apart.
“We didn’t want for what happened in Virginia to happen here,” William B. Evans, Boston’s police commissioner, said at a news conference after Saturday’s protests. “We didn’t want them at each other’s throats.”
The free speech rally, which had been scheduled to run from noon until 2 p.m., concluded by about 12:50 p.m. Evans, who said the event ended early by mutual agreement between authorities and the event’s organizers, said police had helped the demonstrators get into police wagons as part of a prearranged “exit strategy.” It was then, he said, that “we had some kids block the street, it got a little confrontational, but they were given every opportunity to move.”
“We had to do a little pushing and shoving there,” said Evans, whose department reported that some people pelted officers with rocks and that some demonstrators threw bottles of urine at officers.
Rondre Brooks, 36, who said he had traveled from Detroit for the counterdemonstration, said he was pleased to see the early end of the free speech rally amid the large number of counterprotesters. “It’s a very good look for America as a whole,” he said.
But another man, who said he supported the speech rally and gave his name, after some hesitation, as Matt Staley, interjected to ask if those demonstrating in support of free speech were not Americans, too.
“I think it’s awful that people can’t speak out to express opinions,” Staley said.
The counterprotesters descended on the Common hours before the rally and found flyers showing white supremacist and neo-Nazi symbols. The leaflet, which other counterprotesters appeared to have prepared, urged people to “learn to identify these symbols and let anyone displaying them know that they are not welcome in our city!”
“Charlottesville is what forced me out here,” said Rose Fowler, 68, a retired teacher who is black and was among the people who had gathered to march from Roxbury toward the Common, about 2 miles away. “Somebody killed for fighting for me. What is wrong with me if I can’t fight for myself and others?”
Although the protests in Boston were expected to be the weekend’s largest, people gathered on Friday evening in Portland for an “Eclipse Hate” rally. The Oregon protest swelled to more than 1,000 people, and demonstrators swarmed two of Portland’s bridges, halting traffic in both directions and chanting: “Whose bridge? Our bridge!”
In Arkansas, a small demonstration supporting Confederate symbols drew about 50 people in Hot Springs. Opponents walked by occasionally, denouncing Trump and racial hatred. At least three people were arrested.
And along a side street in Charlottesville, the mood was somber about 1:30 p.m., as people marked the time a week earlier when a man drove his car into a crowd, killing Heather D. Heyer.
Heyer’s mother, Susan Bro, stood before a memorial of flowers and candles, weeping as she leaned into her husband, Kim Bro. Hundreds of people gathered around as someone wrote with purple chalk — Heyer’s favorite color — on the pavement, “I miss you baby girl, love mom.”
Susan Bro eventually encouraged people to come closer to her. Some people laid hands on her, and they sang “This Little Light of Mine.”
Susan Bro said she hoped that some good could come out of her daughter’s death. And for those who might take joy in seeing her grieve, she said, “Karma’s a you know what.”
Law enforcement officials made extensive plans for the demonstrations in the wake of the Virginia bloodshed.
In Dallas, where a gunman killed five police officers who were protecting a protest in July 2016, authorities formed a barricade around Saturday’s demonstration site with buses and dump trucks to “lock down” the area and keep any cars from drawing too close. As sunset approached at a Confederate monument in the city, people engaged in shouting matches, but no violence, while state troopers stood guard and helicopters flew overhead. Officers on horseback and in riot gear later watched as post-nightfall shouting intensified between leftist demonstrators and a group supporting Confederate symbols.
Before the Dallas protests began, several men and women armed with high-powered rifles and dressed in military fatigues assembled near a rally site. A representative of the group, called the Texas Elite III%, said they planned to provide security at the rally and were not affiliated with either side.
“With Charlottesville and how things went down there, and what we’ve heard so far intel-wise, we are expecting possible problems,” said the representative, who declined to give her real name and identified herself as Momma Doc.
Boston authorities seemed to face nothing of that sort Saturday, but they cleared the Common of vendors and their carts and shut down the Swan Boats, a nearby tourist attraction.
Marchers were banned from bringing weapons, bats, sticks, flagpoles or anything that might be used as a weapon or a projectile, and backpacks were subject to search.
Tensions here had been rising all week. On Monday night, a teenager threw a rock at the New England Holocaust Memorial, shattering the glass; passers-by quickly tackled the youth before police arrived.
But elsewhere in the country, officials were moving to defuse anger that surrounded the revived debate about Confederate monuments.
Duke University announced early Saturday that it had removed a recently vandalized statue of Gen. Robert E. Lee from the entrance to its campus chapel in Durham, North Carolina.
“I took this course of action to protect Duke Chapel, to ensure the vital safety of students and community members who worship there, and above all to express the deep and abiding values of our university,” Vincent E. Price, the university’s president, said in an email to students, employees and alumni.
Price said the statue would be “preserved so that students can study Duke’s complex past and take part in a more inclusive future.”