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National

Boston Prepares For 'Free Speech' Rally

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

People in Boston are heading into this weekend feeling a sense of angst.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

That's right. There's a rally planned for Saturday. The organizers say it's to promote free speech, but some residents there fear it may draw white supremacists and other alt-right elements. Counter-protests are now being planned. And in order to make sure it doesn't become a repeat of Charlottesville, the city has imposed some rules - no backpacks, no bats, no weapons.

GREENE: And let's bring in Bruce Gellerman of member station WBUR in Boston, who's covering this. Bruce, good morning.

BRUCE GELLERMAN, BYLINE: Good morning, David.

GREENE: So if there are fears out there of a repeat of Charlottesville, tell us about the city's decision to let this take place.

GELLERMAN: Well, they didn't have much of a choice. The people who had put on a rally - a small rally back in May, free speech people - you know, they had held one. They applied for a permit, and they got one. You know, they have a right to peacefully assemble. And so the permit was issued.

GREENE: Well, who exactly is organizing this? And are they some of the same groups that we saw in Charlottesville?

GELLERMAN: No. The Facebook page for this group, which calls itself Boston Free Speech, has - calls itself a coalition, a group that is comprised of "libertarians" - and I'm quoting here - "classical conservatives, liberals and Trump supporters." And they say, following the events of Charlottesville, they've disavowed violence. It's right on their Facebook page. They say that we disavow violence, bigotry, racism. And the organizer, John Medlar - he says that, at this point, it's really a good thing that they're holding this rally. Here's Medlar.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHN MEDLAR: Because this has gotten so much momentum behind it, with all the hysteria, people would show up to counter-protest anyway. And if we weren't there to direct things, then we're worried that that would only be all the more dangerous.

GELLERMAN: And he's been meeting with police here in Boston. And he had nothing but good things to say about the police and how they're organizing the rally.

GREENE: So is this supposed to be big? I mean, is it possible that, even though the organizers are saying they are totally against violence and that's not the point of this, could we see a big turnout, you know, with groups on the far right and counter-protesters?

GELLERMAN: Well, back in May, they had about just a handful of demonstrators at the rally and some counter-demonstrators. They're estimating between a hundred - maybe a thousand free speech people. And then there are two groups that are organizing against it, and they say that they may have as many as 20,000 that rally on the Boston Common. So yeah, it could be very big.

GREENE: Oh, so the counter-protest could be much, much bigger than the event itself?

GELLERMAN: This is Boston.

GREENE: Well, the conditions that - you know, that Ailsa was mentioning - no backpacks and bats and weapons - I mean, it sounds like the city is - even though there are some signs that this will remain peaceful as the last one is in the spring that you mentioned, it sounds like the city is really, I mean, just doing all they can to make sure this remains calm.

GELLERMAN: You know, Boston knows how to handle large crowds. We've had the Red Sox and the Patriots, you know, victory rallies. We've learned a lot since the Boston Marathon bombing four years ago. You know, this is Boston smart, not just Boston strong. And so they're putting up barriers to separate the two groups. And they're creating an escape route actually around this bandstand where the rally is taking place with the - and so it should come off, I think, very peacefully, to be honest with you, David.

GREENE: OK. And we'll be watching that - the rally planned - the free speech rally planned in Boston tomorrow. That's WBUR's Bruce Gellerman. Bruce, thanks a lot. We appreciate it.

GELLERMAN: You're welcome, David. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.