BOSTON, Massachusetts — This city was never going to be ready for the straight pride parade.
On Saturday afternoon, a collection of self-described free speech advocates brought the own-the-libs internet into the real world, marching through historic Boston. Purportedly intended as parody of an LGBTQ Pride Parade, the march featured Pepe the Frog cosplayers, members of the far-right street gang the Proud Boys, and alt-right troll Milo Yiannopoulos as grand marshal riding atop a Trump 2020 float. It ended with a confrontation between attendees and counter-protesters and law enforcement armed with batons and pepper spray.
Orchestrated by a group called Super Happy Fun America, the straight pride parade was touted as a playful exercise in free speech and came with all the trappings: far-right rhetoric blasted from megaphones, white nationalist paraphernalia, and signs celebrating Trump’s border wall. This wasn’t political pot stirring, or an orchestrated political confrontation between the left and the right, the group insisted. It was just a parade with floats and costumes. “It’s just making fun of the left and identity politics,” one attendee wearing a Left Shark meme costume said. "No one here is a hater."
But lurking behind the cheery branding was some troubling context. Progressive public advocacy organization and website ThinkProgress recently uncovered ties between Super Happy Fun America and the violent white nationalist group Resist Marxism. SHFA vice president Mark Sahady has been photographed marching with far-right group Patriot Prayer. He also was seen alongside members of the Proud Boys at rally in Providence, Rhode Island, in October 2018. In January, Sahady was filmed attacking a trans woman at the Boston Women’s March. Sahady’s partner Samson Racioppi, who has been working with him since 2017, has also been photographed with Resist Marxism members.
While the straight parade's organizers may have facetiously cast the event as just poking a little fun, it was something more than that — an attempt to push a certain ideology further into the mainstream. And its success could herald more such events. Activists in Modesto, California, held one — albeit a small one — last month.
“We heard the outrage online," said Clayton Cresswell, a grown man who dressed as Pepe the Frog in a clown wig for the event. "We thought this was a good time to stick it to the collectivist, idealist identitarian left.”
Cresswell drove to Boston from Pennsylvania just for the parade, along with his friend Carl Hoover, who sported a Kekistan shirt and a pillow featuring an anime-style drawing of the far-right YouTuber and failed United Kingdom political candidate Carl Benjamin, or Sargon Of Akkad.
“There’s a comment [on Facebook] from my ex-girlfriend saying, ‘Wow were you just a homophobe the entire time we were dating and you just hid it?’ It’s hilarious,” Hoover said. “Half my friend group called me a bigot.”
Cresswell and Hoover were part of a parade crowd of 300 or so that seemed evenly split between pro-Trump baby boomers, some who claimed that they didn’t really understand what all the fuss was about, and extremely online millennials excitedly wondering if they'd come across antifascists.
They did, of course. As the march passed Boston Common, it turned a corner onto a street lined with protesters in face masks and goggles. There were many — enough that they immediately drowned out a marcher in a spandex American flag shirt shouting at them through a megaphone.
By the time parade grand marshal Yiannopoulos moved to address the crowd from a motorcycle on his Trump 2020 float, any chance of a civil discourse — facade or otherwise — was gone. The typically pithy Yiannopoulos quickly petered out and was shouted down by protesters.“I’m here from the bill collection agency, you owe us a lot of money,” one heckler yelled, referring to reports Yiannopoulos is heavily in debt. We were just 40 minutes in and already things were going south.
On Friday, the day before the straight pride parade, the Boston Police Department published a blog post pledging to keep order at the event. “The Department has a comprehensive operational plan in place,” it explained, noting that it had mobilized uniformed and undercover officers and mobile video support teams to keep things under control. A week earlier, local law enforcement were emailed about the personalities involved and the potential for violence.
So when things began to turn nasty on the parade route, tensions were particularly high. The police line between counter-protesters and paradegoers quickly dissolved. Fights broke out. Proud Boy member Kenny Lizardo angrily chased a group of teenage protesters down the street. At one point, Yiannopoulos had to leave his float flanked by private security as counter-protesters swarmed him. Police on bikes and motorcycles had to break up the crowd; there was pepper spray and batons. In the end, about 50 paradegoers made it to City Hall Plaza’s amphitheater. And hundreds of protesters raged at them from outside.
Earlier this month, former Republican congressional candidate and SHFA president John Hugo told BuzzFeed News the straight parade was intended to inspire civil public discourse. “It’s better to talk to people you disagree with,” he said.
As it turned out, there were plenty of them.
There was Presidential candidate and Boston performance artist Vermin Supreme. Supreme showed up early Saturday morning in a tutu and crown, armed with a megaphone and mercilessly heckled the paradegoers. “Welcome to the city, douchebags,” he screamed. “Douchebag pride!” It was Supreme who managed to shut down Yiannopoulos with that quip about being in debt.
There was Ryan Deame, a self-described Satanist wearing VR goggles hooked up to a GoPro, who quietly marched at the front of the parade holding a sign with the URL for The Trevor Project — a nonprofit organization that focuses on suicide prevention for LGBTQ youth. He nearly made it all the way to the end of the parade, but after being hit by an attendee, a police officer had to escort him from the march.
And then there was Matt Shepard. On Saturday morning, well before the march even started, Shepard was the first person to be ejected from the straight pride parade. He made a last minute decision to protest the march, managed to con a parade organizer into giving him a megaphone, and promptly lambasted the crowd for holding such an event.
“I told the leader of the protest in the Captain America shirt that I was a proud straight man, and he told the police to let me through,” Shepard said. “They let me talk and hold a flag, and I improvised.”
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The Modesto Straight Pride rally took place on August 24. An earlier version of this post incorrectly described it as not happening yet.