BOSTON — When the far right held its first rally in Boston back in May, they showed up with body armor, weaponized flag poles, shields and chants of “commie faggots!” They spoke of a glorious future for the next generation of far right activism, declaring victory over the few anti-fascist counterprotesters who showed up to shout them down across police lines.
But just one week after the massive white nationalist demonstration in Charlottesville, the same contingent of alleged “free speech” protesters tried throwing a second Boston rally. This time, only a couple dozen on the right showed face, and were met with an estimated 40,000 anti-racist protesters. The rally was shut down early, then police escorted the white nationalist groups out of the park as thousands of chanting protesters screamed, “No Nazis, no KKK, no fascist U.S.A.!”
In the week before the rally, Boston mayor Marty Walsh begged the rally organizers to stay away in multiple press conferences throughout the week. In the wake of Charlottesville, the crowd-drawing right wing headliners like Gavin McInnes and Augustus Invictus pulled out, with one lesser-known speaker saying the rally wouldn’t be good for the city.
Without its headline speakers, all that was left was a small crew led by a 17-year-old from the Boston suburbs who spent the the day avoiding the cameras and shrouding his face with a black cap, aviator sunglasses and a face cover.
A once proud, ascendent far right movement is being routed out of public life.
For more than a year, the online far right — encompassing everything from gleeful 4chan trolls to hard-line white nationalists — thrived by using ambiguity as a tool for obfuscating their true views. Through irony, trolling and coded symbolism, far right provocateurs can shroud their views from accusations of holding authentic white supremacist beliefs.
A recent report from Data & Society about the online right and its manipulation of mainstream media describes the effect like this:
A very successful troll plays with ambiguity in such a way that the audience is never quite sure whether or not they are serious. This is a key feature of many subcultural spaces, where racist speech and content is bandied around in such a way that it can be read either as the trolling of political correctness or as genuine racism. Determining intent is often impossible, especially given that participants are most often anonymous.
But the killing of left-wing activist Heather Heyer by one of the white nationalists at the Unite the Right rally appears to have shattered all ambiguity in the eyes of the American public. Now that Charlottesville turned the nation’s eyes on the far right, speakers involved with the white nationalist right have been booted from sites, online web hosting services and social media wherever they’ve been found.
Throughout the week between the Charlottesville and Boston rallies, Twitter purged accounts run by rally speakers Mike Enoch and Pax Dickinson. Web hosting services run by Google and GoDaddy now refuse to host the neo-Nazi news site Daily Stormer. On Thursday, dating site OkCupid banned Unite the Right speaker Chris Cantwell for life, saying that there’s “no room for hate in a place where you’re looking for love.”
Right-wing rallies are still planned for Texas and California in the coming months. But if Boston’s rally is any indication, tacit disapproval is no longer on the menu, and both rallies are already the subject of scrutiny by local authorities and activists.
This isn’t the first Boston rally, but it could be the last
The same group of right-wing demonstrators behind Saturday’s gathering held their first Boston rally in May. Hundreds showed up, including 4channers, members of the neo-masculine fraternity the Proud Boys, militia groups and overt white supremacists.
The rally was a sign of a potential future for a newly invigorated far right, marrying the old guard of militiamen and Southern nationalists with a young stock of neo-traditionalists and 4chan trolls. With only a few dozen antifa, or anti-facist, counterprotesters, speakers gave rumbling sermons about the future of the right.
“What’s happening now is what I call the uniting of the American warrior class,” E. Stewart Rhodes, the founder of the Oath Keepers militia group, said from the bandstand at Boston Commons.
Within weeks, that coalition began to crumble.
The first to go were the militiamen and groups like the Oath Keepers, who are strict constitutionalists and against white nationalists. After a physical confrontation in Houston, white nationalists started calling the Oath Keepers the “boomer antifa.” The next to go were the pro-Trump ratfuckers like Mike Cernovich and Jack Posobiec, right-wing stunt men and social media personalities who white nationalists like Richard Spencer began referring to as the “alt lite.”
In the run-up to the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Proud Boys founder Gavin McInnes swore off the line-up from white nationalist speakers and caught immediate backlash from his constituency. And after the rally, the in-fighting only continued. After Unite the Right’s central organizer Jason Kessler tweeted Heather Heyer was a “fat, disgusting communist,” white nationalist celebrity Richard Spencer swore off Kessler entirely.
The fracturing of the right leaves the more ironic, troll-heavy “alt lite” without much of a constituency, abandoning hard-line white supremacy for lofty talking points about “free speech.”
”We don’t buy this rebranding,” Kimberly Barzola with the anti-war ANSWER Coalition said on Saturday in Boston. “We don’t buy the nice suit and nice collar. The alt right wants to present themselves as well-spoken. But we judge them by their actions, and their actions are giving space for violence against people, and deny them their humanity and existence.”
“It’s not just about today. It’s about the next fight — fighting the actual right.”
But whenever these far-right demonstrations pop up in new cities, there’s always hand-wringing around the question of whether people should pay them any attention at all. In the days before the rally, Tina Fey took to Saturday Night Live to tell viewers to leave these rallies alone, saying, “Don’t show up.”
But the anti-racist coalition of socialists and black liberation activists say that showing up is not only necessary, but an opportunity to draw attention to systemic white supremacy, and to get people off the couch not just to shout at neo-Nazis, but get involved in fixing inequality in government.
“These people are the far right, and they absolutely need to be fought,” Husayn Karimi, an organizer with the Party for Socialism and Liberation, said at the counterprotest in Boston. “But we also need to fight for basic rights like health care, and funding for Boston’s public schools.”
“It’s not just about today,” Karimi said. “It’s about the next fight — fighting the actual right.”