Thousands join anti-racism march in Boston

Thousands join anti-racism march in Boston
Thousands of counter-demonstrators converged on Boston Saturday in protest at a planned 'Free Speech Rally' involving white nationalists

Thousands of anti-racism demonstrators flooded the streets of Boston Saturday, dwarfing a gathering of white nationalists in the city, triggering scuffles with police but avoiding the serious violence that marred a similar event a week earlier in Virginia.

A so-called "free speech" rally by far-right groups had been scheduled to run until 2 pm (1800 GMT), but a half-hour before that police escorted its participants -- whose numbers appeared to be in the dozens -- to safety past the throng of anti-racism protesters.

Aerial photos showed the latter group filling one of Boston's main streets for several blocks, in a huge outpouring of anti-racist sentiment in this strongly Democratic northeastern city. Local media cited police estimates of at least 15,000 protestors, with some reporting that up to 30,000 marched.

The event took place at a time of anguished national debate over racial relations, a debate fanned when President Donald Trump defended some participants in last week's white nationalist and neo-Nazi rally in Virginia as "very fine people."

While Boston saw no repeat of the violence that erupted in Charlottesville, Virginia, there were isolated scuffles between police and protesters, and around 20 arrests were reported -- prompting the US leader to swing his weight behind the city's law enforcement.

"Looks like many anti-police agitators in Boston," Trump tweeted as the march drew to a close. "Police are looking tough and smart! Thank you."

"Great job by all law enforcement officers and Boston Mayor @marty_walsh," he added.

Hundreds of police -- some in helmets and black riot gear, armed with wooden clubs -- were present in the area, helping separate the rival camps.

According to an AFP photographer at the scene, police used anti-riot gear and batons to prevent protesters from reaching the venue of the white nationalist rally -- leading some to accuse police of defending "Nazis."

Crowds booed or harassed "free speech" demonstrators as they walked to or from the venue, while Boston police tweeted that rocks had been thrown at its officers.

Authorities in Boston had protectively ordered a strict ban on weapons in the rally area, and ordered garbage trucks and concrete barriers placed around the venue to prevent vehicles from entering.

- 'Racists out!' -

Thousands of counter-protesters had convened in two groups before the main rally, chanting "No Nazis, no KKK, no fascists in the USA!" One man held a sign that read, "Stop pretending your racism is patriotism," and a woman's sign said, "Muslims welcome, racists out."

"It's time to do something," said Katie Zipps, who travelled from Malden, north of Boston, for the counter-demonstrations, organized by an amalgam of mostly left-leaning groups. "We are out here to add an extra body to add to the numbers of those who resist."

Some local restaurants promised to donate their proceeds from Saturday's business to left-leaning groups, and others refused to serve the white nationalists, with one posting a sign that said, "Hope you Nazis packed a lunch."

Boston Mayor Marty Walsh had warned in a tweet he would "not tolerate violence or property violence of any kind." "I ask everyone to be peaceful today and respect our City. Love, no hate," he added. "We stand together against intolerance."

A young woman was killed last weekend when an avowed white supremacist rammed his car into a group of counter-protesters in Charlottesville -- and President Trump's muted response to the violence has plunged his embattled administration deeper into disarray.

In remarks throughout the week, state and local officials had emphasized that there was no place for hatred and violence in the historic Massachusetts city, but they also were preparing for any eventuality.

"I just think the rhetoric has really brought this to a different level and that's what we're worried about," Boston Police Commissioner William Evans told reporters on Friday.

"I've never seen so many people looking, almost looking for confrontation. You know, we gotta knock it down."