We were all there because of Berkeley. Hundreds of people gathered on Boston Common Saturday after word spread for weeks of a free speech rally orchestrated by right-wing groups. But the real draw for protesters and counter-protestors alike seemed to be a shared view of the conflict between Antifas (self described anti-fascists) and Nazis—or anarchists and Americans, depending on who you asked—as a travelling fight club that had come to town.
In Berkeley, you might have been able to glimpse history looming grandly in the background. There, at the birthplace of the country’s free speech movement, protestors, militants, and masked street fighters clashed, sometimes violently, over whether Milo Yiannopoulos should be allowed to speak publicly, what kind of dystopia America is becoming, and who the real fascists are. In Boston, there was little of that pretense. Everyone seemed to be thinking about Berkeley.
A group of several hundred right-wing aligned protesters, who claimed their rally was being held to defend free speech, occupied one piece of ground in the park. The variety of subcultural uniforms and insignia among them, blended paramilitary, biker, and videogame cultures.
About a hundred and fifty yards across from the rally, various left-wing and Antifa counter-protesters assembled on a hill in front of the Soldiers and Sailors Monument. Between the two factions, a dozen or so officers from the Boston Police Department occupied a narrow pedestrian walkway. Curious onlookers took seats on nearby park benches.
To the onlookers, who almost to a person expressed either slack-jawed bemusement or concern over what they were seeing, it must have looked like the Internet, having been brought to life for a day, decided to spend it playing capture the flag in the country’s oldest public park.
It all started when a group of teenagers on 4Chan had an idea and shared it with a former Occupy Wall Street organizer. The rally, “originated on 4Chan’s /pol/,” said Steven Verette, the event’s central organizer.
Verette, still in high school, describes himself as a libertarian who believes in individual freedoms and the free market. He says that after getting the idea from an anonymous post on /pol/ he migrated discussion into a dedicated planning forum on the discord server. He hoped “the rally would turn out to be a big celebration of our rights as Americans, a patriotic event, really.”
But he added that it came about as “sort of a reaction” to Berkeley. “We wouldn’t have planned something like this otherwise,” he said. Verette’s friend and fellow event organizer Kevin Crowley, 18, agreed. “It was partially anti-Antifa,” he told The Daily Beast, “especially because they’ve been threatening people and harming people.”
With the idea for an event in Boston and a private discussion board set up for planning, Verette put up a notice on 4Chan for more planners. That brought in John Rasmussen.
“I had a whole bunch of history with occupy and other activist movements,” Rasmussen said. He took up the job of applying for permits with the city and coordinating with the police department. Of the other organizers, Rasmussen said, “I was the oldest one at 32. By far the oldest one.” The rally only started to gain momentum, Rasmussen claimed, once Antifa paid attention to it.
“We used [Antifa’s] posters to advertise it,” Rasmussen said. Bringing people out by publicizing in online forums like 4Chan and Reddit, “that Antifa was going to be stopping this rally from happening.” Once the antifa threat had been established, Rasmussen said, “then the Oath Keepers came in offering security for it.”
It was a similar story on both sides of the divide: that the other side had assaulted innocent people in Berkeley and they had come out in Boston to prevent something like that from happening here.
“We saw in Berkeley what happened,” said an Antifa protester who identified himself as Puppy and covered his face with a red motorcycle helmet worn over a black mask. In Berkeley, Puppy said, there were “people getting sucker punched and beaten by literal neo-Nazis.”
In the end, not much actually happened during the rally, which was planned for 12-5 but ended early. The opposing sides hurled memes and slogans at each other, expressing both their politics and their self awareness. There were traditional chants like “USA! USA!” and “No Trump, no KKK, no fascist USA!” But a moment later, “Gender studies” would be called out—as if that said it all—with “Go back to 4Chan,” the response.
There was one fight and two arrests when someone from the MAGA side crossed the lines and, after a confrontation, punched an Antifa member. The Boston police identified the two involved as “a 19-year-old California woman and a 28-year-old New York man.”
The man arrested identified himself to reporters as Salvatore Cipolla, a member of the right-wing nationalist and “Western Chauvinist” organization “The Proud Boys,” which has been making itself a presence at events like this as enforcers for the anti-Antifa side.
For the most part, though, violence was averted. A line of oath keepers provided a kind of internal crowd control at the free speech rally pushing their own cohort back when they moved up to confront the other side.
Neither was there the attempt by Antifa to physically disrupt or attack those participating in the rally as they did in Berkley. The line of Boston police between them surely had something to do with this, but it also seemed that Antifa, though highly visible waving red and black flags at the front of the counter protest, was smaller than the various socialist and left-wing groups to their rear who, while coordinating with Antifa, had pledged their own members to non-violence.
There was little of the overt racism and neofascism that featured in the Berkeley clashes. One of the event’s featured speakers Kyle Chapman, known on the internet as Based Stickman, spoke about the left “trying to destroy western civilization by going after whites," but there was little overt white nationalism on display and visibly more minority presence on the free speech side than among its antagonists on the hill.
It’s not that such elements were invisible—there was at least one Holocaust revisionist livestreaming the event—or that they would have been entirely unwelcome. As the organizers told me, it was open to anyone, including neo-Nazis and even Antifa if they wanted to speak.
But the culture of this particular event was weirder and less radical than that. It had adolescent play-acting aspect of 4chan’s culture, wedded, bizarrely, to the military dressup aspect of the Oathkeepers and the frat boy energy of the Proud Boys. On the surface, what held it all together was a libertarian conservatism that would be derided “alt-light” by more radical white nationalists. But the real force behind it was the anti-Antifa sentiment. “Antifa: Ha! Ha! Ha!” went one of the last chants of the day.
Meanwhile, in Virginia, the white nationalist and alt-right figurehead Richard Spencer held an event of his own. There, according to a report in the Charlottesville news outlet “The Daily Progress,” he led dozens of people wielding torches in a march to protest the City Council’s vote to sell a monument to Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. Spencer’s march, according to the report, featured the kind of white nationalist chant, not heard in Boston, of “You will not replace us,” and “Blood and soil!”
In the Internet culture where the Boston rally was birthed, it came in for some harsh criticism compared to what Spencer had pulled off. The fact that Spencer had brought out far fewer people to participate in something IRL was incidental to the power of the imagery—fewer marchers wielding torches through the night and explicitly invoking white nationalism was better than a group of old conservatives and paramilitary aficionados joining video game players to celebrate something as boring and establishment as free speech.
The Boston ralliers were cucks who had sold out to stodgy old establishment conservatives like the Oathkeepers and hadn’t even gotten into any fights with Antifa, which was supposed to be the point.
Some of the people complaining on the boards claimed that they had been present on the Commons on Saturday and saw its lameness up close. It reminded me of one of the last interactions I observed before everyone headed home. I had been talking with the teenage organizers—not one of whom looked old enough to play someone their own age on TV—when an even younger looking boy approached the rally’s 17 year organizer Verette.
“Hey,” he said, “are you Theanadon on discord?” Then followed up, “I’m keksinpep. Good to put a name to the face.” He carried his American flag back over to where his mom and younger sister were waiting. He was fifteen.