On Saturday, an estimated forty-thousand people took to the streets in counter-protest. White nationalists who rallied on Boston Common in the name of "free speech" had twenty-five.
The group I was with hailed from here in Portland. We traveled down in different cars and met up to share the streets. Mostly an introspective group, we observed, taking in our surroundings.
I love protests. Love the energy that the crowd brings. Love knowing that the people I'm marching alongside and rallying with (on the whole) share my beliefs and opinions. Believe that humans have a basic right to live with dignity and respect. I love my aching throat the following day, hoarse from shouting, singing and releasing some of the sorrow and rage on my heart. What I took in at times reaffirmed what I know in my soul to be true — people are beautiful. Powerful. And resilient.
Yet the march felt disjointed. Given the number of people in attendance, it struck me that many different parties were clearly visible within the whole, no two messages the same. Antifa took up a lot of space with Heather Heyer flags and "Amplify Heather" chants. All-white church groups sang black spirituals. Well-meaning white women with bright, watery eyes seemed to ease their conscience by handing flowers to counter-protesters and police alike. POC, clergy, children, and pedicabs showed up in droves.
Which is what we need: for people to come together in spite of different backgrounds, ethnicities, and histories to decry the plague that has been rooted in the heart of this nation since its inception — white supremacy. But it also brought into stark relief the issue with doing just that. We each have a different understanding of the problem facing us. White people seem to favor chanting "love" over naming white supremacy and effectively ignoring the symptoms.
A problem which to most feels too big, too complicated, too painful, and too uncomfortable to face. Instead, neat little labels get pinned onto it — "Nazi," "KKK," "White Supremacist." But what crucial information are we losing in these oversimplifications? Lumping things and folks together has an unfortunate and often deadly effect.
Nazis are a problem. Yes, the KKK is a problem. However, it's important to recognize the overarching theme here is white supremacy and the ways it has poisoned every aspect of society. Infiltrating even the most progressive of spaces with a need to be visible, dominant. This includes counter-protests.
By the time we made our way to the common, we were told that almost all of the white nationalists had been led out by police. The brass band What Cheer? Brigade played in the street outside the Common, people danced and sang their way into the empty streets and flooded the greens as a beach ball bounced above the crowd, twirling in the afternoon sun.
It felt a little anticlimactic. A helicopter circled overhead and I wrestled with my feelings of disappointment and relief at having not seen a Nazi or member of the KKK. My nerves had told me that today was the day to test my response, discover my fortitude, look in the unabashed face of my enemy and see that they are human. But, we were told, they were cowards. They had run away.
Yes, there may have been a laughably small amount of white nationalist protesters, but the police? They showed up. Deploying a reported 500 officers in both uniform and plainclothes, they found a way to make 33 arrests and beat people with billy clubs. We marched by unoccupied buses parked along streets. As we came upon the Common I noticed they became more frequent. On a whim, I peeked into one, and was disturbed but not surprised by what I saw: duffel bags filled with riot gear lined the seats. Vests with POLICE in surreal white letters topped each bag. It hit me that every bus we passed held these.
Saturday's counter-protest proved that we have the numbers, but numbers alone are not enough. We need to come together with a deep and true understanding of white supremacy, the intricate ways it plays itself out in our society, and the urgent need for its extraction.