Walsh urges 'free speech' ralliers to stay away after Virginia violence

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BOSTON — State and city officials on Monday denounced the racial violence in Charlottesville, Virginia over the weekend and pledged to keep Boston safe during a planned rally this Saturday, while acknowledging they know very little about the event or its organizers.

With an event billed as a "free speech rally" planned for Boston Common on Saturday, Boston Mayor Martin Walsh said he discourages the organizers from coming to the city while the "emotion and the wound and the pain are very fresh" after three people died in Charlottesville.

"Don't hand hatred a megaphone and pretend you can't hear it," Walsh said at a press conference on City Hall plaza surrounded by a diverse group of civic leaders. "Leaders call out hate and reject it before it becomes violence. That's why we're here today. That's why this weekend myself and the governor spent nearly about 10 or 15 different phone calls talking about how do we reject hate in the commonwealth and the city of Boston."

Walsh, Gov. Charlie Baker, public safety officials, state lawmakers, clergy members and others met in City Hall Monday to discuss logistics and safety concerns for the potential rally. Afterward, Walsh told reporters that the event organizers have not requested permits and that city police are still working to determine "who this group is, what they're all about."

"There's no marching yet. There's been no application pulled. All we know is what we're seeing on social media," Walsh said.

A flyer posted to Facebook by the group Boston Free Speech describes Saturday's rally as a gathering of the "New Free Speech Movement" to "reassert their right to the most basic necessity of civil society" and encourages "Libertarians, conservatives, traditionalists, classic liberals" and supporters of President Donald Trump to attend.

The group, Walsh said, is different from an organization with a similar name that has worked with police and obtained permits when they held free speech events on the Common in the past.

Coming on the heels of the violence in Charlottesville, plans for the Boston rally have gained national attention. But the event details remain foggy to local officials five days out. Walsh suggested that the media has been more successful in connecting with the rally leaders than city officials have.

"Maybe what I'd ask you to do is give the contact information you have for the organizers to the police department, so they could track down who's actually organizing this," Walsh said when a reporter asked him about claims made by an organizer.

Boston Police Commissioner William Evans said his department has tried to contact the organizers behind the rally, but have not been successful. If the group does request a city permit, Evans said, the police department will work with them to ensure the event is safe and properly staffed with police, even if the department or its officers disagree with the group's message.

"We're often, as police officers, thrust in the middle of protecting groups that we don't necessarily agree with and I think that very much can be the case on Saturday when this particular group wants to come to the Boston Common," he said.

The commissioner also noted that the possible threats the police must take into account when preparing for a large event have evolved, now to include the possibility of a person using a car as a weapon.

"It's different now with all the demonstrations. Not only do we have to worry about keeping the groups at bay, but we have to worry about what happened in Charlottesville with someone driving into the crowd," Evans said. "So we'll secure the Common very well and we'll secure some of the routes into the Common very well."

Evans said BPD will have a "sufficient number" of police on duty Saturday, but declined to say how many officers could be assigned to work the rally. Boston police and the State Police, Evans said, will have "public order platoons" standing by on buses that can be called in if necessary.

Boston will also have undercover officers "working the crowd anticipating any anarchist type groups who might try to bring the march to a different level," Evans said.

He said he expects very large crowds around the Common on Saturday and said he is confident his department can handle the crowds.

"We've handled major demonstrations in this city -- whether it be Patriots celebrations, parades, Occupy Boston, Black Lives Matter," Evans said. "I am confident that people who do come down and are going to march are going to be safe."

Asked at what point Boston police officers would intervene between the ralliers and the groups expected to stage counter-demonstrations, Walsh said, "I think right off the bat. Our intention is not to let the two groups together."

Evans confirmed that officers will attempt to keep groups with opposing views apart so as to minimize the chance of a violent clash.

"We'll separate them, clearly. We'll have barriers, we'll have our pedal bikes, we'll have plenty of assets to keep them at bay," he said.

The commissioner said that "if things get ugly" police officers would remove ralliers from the situation and "get them out of there as quickly as we can."

"We're not going to tolerate anyone getting hurt or any acts of violence," the commissioner said. "If we see that start to happen, the rally's going to end real quick."

The clashes in Charlottesville grew out of plans for a protest of the city's decision to remove a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. Heather Heyer, a 34-year-old Virginia woman, was killed and 19 people were injured when a car allegedly driven by an Ohio man slammed into a group of people protesting white nationalist groups. Two Virginia state troopers were also killed when the helicopter they were using to monitor the rally crashed.

Baker said he spoke with Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe to express "our concerns and our outrage and our solidarity."

"I want to be clear, what happened in Virginia was a tragedy and an act of terror, a tragedy perpetrated by white supremacists that disturbed, as it should, Americans everywhere," Baker said. "As governor of the commonwealth of Massachusetts, I want to be clear that there is no place here for that type of hatred — period — that we saw in Virginia."

Asked during the press conference if he would commit to attending a counter-protest Saturday, Baker said he would have to check his calendar and noted he preferred to describe it as a "unity rally."

"If I can come, I will come," he said.

A coalition of Boston area community groups — including Violence In Boston, the Black Lives Matter Network, Black Lives Matter Cambridge and Black Lives Matter Boston — is planning a counter-march on Saturday to "send a message to white supremacists that their hateful rhetoric, physical violence, and fear mongering will not go uncontested."

The group is planning to march about two miles from the Reggie Lewis Track and Athletic Center in Roxbury at 10 a.m. to Boston Common to "demand justice and stand in defiance of white supremacy."

House Assistant Majority Leader Byron Rushing, who represents parts of Boston's South End and Back Bay, said there needs to be a response to the rally, but said it must be measured.

"It's a very, very difficult time when the right wing, especially the violent right wing, gets so much publicity and does such dastardly things. So we have to have a reaction to that, but we have to be calm about that reaction. We don't want to act like they do," Rushing said. "People are ready to do that. There are lots of people talking about what kinds of responses there should be, but on the other hand, we want to be ready for them not showing up."

Rushing added, "We don't know if they're coming or not. It won't be a problem if we have a big, fun, pro-diversity, pro-love, pro-what-democracy-should-be demonstration without them."

Earlier in the day, U.S. Sen. Edward Markey said he had "great confidence" in Mayor Walsh and the Boston Police Department to keep the peace this weekend, but said it will be incumbent on U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions to take strong actions to prosecute hate crimes after what he described as a "too late" response from the White House to the violence in Charlottesville.

"Obviously, there are First Amendment rights of speech, but they cannot be used in a way that heightens the likelihood of violence, heightens the likelihood that people will be harmed," Markey said.

The junior senator said President Donald Trump's condemnation of racism and white supremacist groups Monday came "too late" as he blamed the administration for creating "a culture where bigotry is once again permissible."

"The strength of our unity as a nation is our acceptance of diversity as a nation. That is who we are. That is what's in contest. And that is what the city of Boston will ensure is protected every single day," Markey said.

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