AUGUSTA — Two rallies were held Saturday at the State House, one with the stated purpose of condemning violence in the political system, and another by counterprotesters who said the actual purpose of the main rally was to promote various forms of hate.

The event remained peaceful, though a group of the counterprotesters went to the main rally at one point and engaged in a tense conversation with its participants.

About 40 people attended the main demonstration, which was called the Maine Rally to Denounce Political Violence and drew a set of speakers who included Richard Light, a Libertarian running for governor, and more controversially, John Rasmussen, a Maine resident who in May organized a “free speech” rally in Boston. That rally was attended by Libertarians, die-hard President Donald Trump supporters and activists in the loosely defined movement known as the alt-right, which is often associated with white nationalism and populism.

Several speakers at the Saturday rally condemned the accusations that they espoused hatred toward minority groups but also defended the right of people to express such views free from physical violence. They also spoke on a range of other topics, including marijuana decriminalization, opioid addiction, the military and the economy.

The other rally, which was organized by progressive groups from around the state and called the Counter Rally Against the Alt-Right, attracted about 75 participants, many of whom held signs denouncing hate groups and supporting causes such as Black Lives Matter and transgender rights.

They held their protest in Capitol Park, but about 45 minutes in, a couple dozen of its members walked to the other side of the State House and held signs in view of the main demonstration.

The closest thing to a confrontation happened after the counterprotesters arrived at the main rally, and one of the man rally’s speakers, Samson Racioppi, approached the row of bushes where they were standing.

“You guys see any Nazis here today?” asked Racioppi, a 36-year-old from Salisbury, Massachusetts, who is running for a seat in U.S. Congress as a Libertarian.

“Not sure yet,” responded one of the counterprotesters.

“Can you let us know if you do?” Racioppo continued. “Honestly, if I saw Nazis out here, I’d be making fun of them. White supremacists, everybody. You’re welcome to come join us. … Calling these people here who are expressing speech, and are using their voice to denounce violence and extremism, calling them Nazis is demeaning to those people who served in World War II and died.”

One of the counterprotesters, Isabella Ohammon, of Bangor, told Racioppo that she served in the U.S. Army “for the right to free speech … for our right to stand here (and peacefully protest).”

The conversation continued, with Racioppo and the counterprotesters disagreeing about the rights that transgender soldiers should have in the U.S. military, and the meaning of the hat worn by one woman involved in the main rally, which featured the image of a green frog. Some alt-right and white nationalist groups have embraced a green frog, called Pepe, as their symbol.

The two sides also debated whether the killing of Heather Heyer, a woman who was demonstrating against white nationalists in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August, could conclusively be linked to hate groups without an explicit announcement from law enforcement.

Similar battle lines persisted for much of the two demonstrations, which were overseen by members of the Capitol Police and Maine State Police and finished by 3:00 p.m.

In the main rally, speakers decried hate groups and said they didn’t think any were present at the event. But some of the speakers said those groups have a right to assemble peaceably, and they expressed concern about groups whose protests lead to violence, including the activists that call themselves anti-fascist, or antifa.

Jim Bouchard, who spoke at the rally and is active in the state’s Libertarian Party, said he didn’t think any of the speakers held white supremacist views.

But, he continued, “If a group of neo-Nazis came and stood along this other group, here, I don’t think you’d find the folks of this mindset putting up much of a fight. They have their right to stand there. They have their right to yell and scream if they want to. When it comes to crossing a line to physical violence, I think we’d take more of an issue with it.”

The counterprotesters, though, argued that such free speech rallies are meant as a provocation for violence. One of them, Erica Hall, encouraged people to join a separate event, the March for Racial Justice beginning at noon Sunday at Colby College in Waterville.

The counterprotesters also said there’s no comparison between hate groups who espouse violence against minorities and those who might use violence to protest those groups. They pointed to a 2016 report from the Anti-Defamation League, a group that resists anti-semitism, that showed 74 percent of murders committed by extremist groups in the previous decade were by those on the far right, while 2 percent were by left-wing extremists.

One of the counterprotesters on Saturday, who gave her name only as Amy because she didn’t want to experience any retribution for her views, compared the goal of the Rally to Denounce Political Violence to Trump’s comments that the Charlottesville rally evoked hatred on “many sides.”

Amy belongs to the Portland branch of the Internationalist Socialist Organization, and members of the national group were in Charlottesville when Heather Heyer was run over by a car and killed, she said.

“We do not conflate the hate of the white supremacist and the terror of the (Ku Klux Klan) with the people brave enough to stand up against them,” she said.

Correction: Because of a reporting error, an earlier version of this article misstated the involvement of Amy, a member of the Portland branch of the Internationalist Socialist Organization, in the events in Charlottesville last summer.  This story was corrected October 1, 2017 at 12:30 p.m.

Morning Sentinel staff writer Madeline St. Amour contributed to this article.

Charles Eichacker — 621-5642

[email protected]

Twitter: @ceichacker



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