More than 500 police officers, including undercover units, will monitor Saturday’s “Boston Free Speech” rally on the Common and will shut down the event if it turns violent, officials said Friday morning at a City Hall news conference.
“The courts have made it abundantly clear that they have the right to gather, no matter how repugnant their views are,” Mayor Martin J. Walsh said. “They don’t have the right to create unsafe conditions. . . . They must respect our city.”
The “free speech” rally is expected to be small, and organizers have maintained the event is open to all political views and not a forum for hate groups. But authorities fear white supremacists could attend, and two of the rally’s keynote speakers have ties to extremist elements.
Tens of thousands of counterprotesters are expected.
Walsh on Friday rebuffed reports that Ku Klux Klan members might attend the rally.
“There’s been no talk of any Ku Klux Klan members at all,” the mayor said.
He urged the public not to confront members of any hate groups that do show up Saturday and advised residents and tourists to avoid the Common during the rally.
“The children of our city are watching,” Walsh said. “The young people of our city are watching TV. They are following this news. We have to make it clear what we stand for in the city of Boston. We have to stand together.”
Walsh also noted that prior speakers at the bandstand on the Common have included such civil rights icons as Frederick Douglass in 1852 and Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1965. Barack Obama also addressed a crowd there during his first presidential campaign.
“Those are the words we will remember,” Walsh said. “Those are the words we will live by. I urge everyone to be on their best behavior on Saturday. If you decide to come to Boston Common, we ask you to be peaceful. . . . We don’t respond to hate with hate. We respond to hate with peace.”
Walsh and Boston Police Commissioner William B. Evans reiterated during the news conference that items that can be used as weapons, such as sticks and bats, will not be permitted at the rally, and backpacks will be subject to search.
There are no current credible terror threats to the demonstration, they said.
“There will be zero tolerance for any violence,” Evans said, adding that press reports have created the impression that a violent confrontation is imminent. “Everyone thinks they’re going to see this war tomorrow.”
Evans called on residents to show a force of unity against bigotry and “the white supremacists,” citing the solidarity that took hold after the Boston Marathon bombings.
“Tomorrow’s about coming together against the hate and bigotry,” Evans said.
He said several streets around the Common will be closed during the rally, including a large stretch of Tremont Street, and cameras have been installed in and around the bandstand. Some cops will carry cameras as well.
“We’ll have eyes and ears all over that place,” Evans said. “Believe me, we’re not going to let anything happen. Should it start to go a little bit [awry], we’ll go to Plan B, and if we have to end the rally we will.”
The subway system will run a normal schedule on Satuday, MBTA Transit Police Chief Kenneth Green said at the news conferenc.
He said a “full complement” of T police will be patrolling the stations near the Common.
“Any type of violence will not be tolerated,” Green said. “We ask our riders to act responsibly and be respectful to one another.”
The rally comes one week after a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville turned deadly, and Governor Charlie Baker said Friday that officials have been planning for Saturday’s event with the goal of preventing a similar tragedy.
“Boston and Massachusetts are the home of some of the most important moments in the fight for freedom and equality in this nation’s history,” Baker said. “We’re going to do everything we can to make sure tomorrow is about liberty and justice, and about freedom and peace.”
Evans said his department has ample experience with crowd control, ranging from the Occupy Boston encampment to Black Lives Matter marches to sports team championship parades.
During those events, Evans said, participants “really acted responsible,” but the rhetoric he’s heard leading up to Saturday is concerning.
“I’ve never seen so many people almost looking for confrontation,” Evans said. “Tomorrow’s about coming together against the hate and bigotry.”
Two of the keynote speakers scheduled to address the rally are Kyle Chapman and Joe Biggs.
Chapman gained notoriety earlier this year after a video went viral of him smashing a wooden post over the head of an antifascist protester at a march for President Trump in Berkeley, Calif. He later started a group called the Fraternal Order of Alt Knights, which the Southern Poverty Law Center describes as a “New Alt-Right Fight Club ready for street violence.”
Biggs, a former US Army staff sergeant, worked until recently for Infowars, a website founded by Alex Jones, the notorious conspiracy theorist. Biggs was among those pushing the Pizzagate conspiracy theory that claimed a pedophile ring with links to Hillary Clinton was operating out of a Washington, D.C., pizzeria.
Rally organizers have said repeatedly that speakers from across the political spectrum, including leftists, are free to speak at the Common on Saturday.
In a statement Friday, Rinaldo Del Gallo III, a Pittsfield lawyer who ran for office as a self- described “Bernie Sanders Progressive,” said he had been invited to speak. Del Gallo said he is battling health issues and has not decided whether he will go.
“If I attend . . . I will be standing up for free speech,” he said.
Meanwhile, Boston police Thursday released a list of items that will not be allowed at the rally.
The list includes: guns; knives; weapons; sharp objects; shields or fireworks; popup tents or canopies; cans; glass containers; pre-mixed beverages or alcoholic beverages; wagons or pull carts; coolers; drones; pets, except for certified service animals; grills, propane tanks, or open flames; bicycles; flag poles, bats, clubs, and sticks, including signs attached to sticks; and any athletic equipment or other item that could be used as a weapon, the department said in a statement.