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Two parades celebrate a peaceful St. Patrick's Day in South Boston

Posted by Metro Desk  March 20, 2011 06:15 PM

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Two St. Patrick's Day parades went off in South Boston -- the traditional one and, about 45 minutes later, an alternate procession billed as the St. Patrick's Day Peace Parade.

By court order, the second set of marchers was required to remain at least one mile behind the first. But police seemed to wait even longer to give the green light to the antiwar and gay rights marchers, sending them off along the three-mile route from the Broadway Station to Andrew Square at about 3:20 p.m., roughly 45 minutes after the departure of the final marchers and the street sweepers, marking the end of the traditional parade.

By then, much of the usual crowd -- annually estimated at 500,000 or more in good weather -- had dispersed, heading to the T or returning to bars and house parties. Where the first procession was met by a throng six-deep, the second parade greeted scattered onlookers.

And it all went off without major incident, after nearly two decades of litigation and public debate over who gets to march through the streets of South Boston on the Sunday closest to St. Patrick's Day.

In 1992 and again in 1993, gay rights groups that had been excluded by the parade's organizers, the South Boston Allied War Veterans Council, won a court-ordered right to participate that led to contentious parades, marred by snowballs, obscenities, and spittle. The veterans council fought their inclusion all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court and won a unanimous decision in 1995 that the parade was a form of protected free speech; no one could insist on being included.

That ruling was tested eight years ago, in the days before the start of the Iraq war, when a group known as Veterans for Peace unsuccessfully sought permission to march in the parade. When the organizers denied their application, the antiwar demonstrators were instead waved onto the second half of the route by Boston police, to follow the procession. Again, the organizers sued, and again the courts upheld their right to dictate the list of marchers.

But a federal magistrate judge ruled that groups lacking permission from the Allied War Veterans Council could march and follow the same, full parade route, so long as they remained at least a mile apart to distinguish between the two parades. That set the stage for today.

The traditional parade began at 1 p.m., with more than 100 groups and several thousand marchers: VFW posts, pipe-and-drum brigades, school marching bands, teen pageant winners, police on horseback, labor unions, firefighters in dress blues, and local officeholders, the politicians scurrying from one side of the street to the other and back to engage in the customary Southie gladhanding.

In between there were unicyclists and "Star Wars" re-enactors, church groups and pro wrestlers, and a host of businesses draped in green for the day (mostly radio stations, but also tax prep help and Tesla motors, among others) and doling out shamrock necklaces and emerald lollipops to the crowd.

The last of them were waved onto West Broadway at about 2:35 p.m., and their passage signaled the end of the formalities for most who gathered, many of them either unaware or indifferent to the second parade. Eventually, the next group was given the OK -- the Veterans for Peace, with their black-and-white dove-on-helmet flags, joined by other antiwar, pro-labor, and gay rights groups, with about 200 marchers in all.

While the sidewalks had thinned considerably from the first parade, many of the remaining onlookers cheered and made peace signs, while other revelers pumped their fists in what appeared to be mock solidarity with marchers.

Veterans for Peace coordinator Pat Scanlon, who served in Vietnam, said before the parade that his group had "a desire to be in the [traditional] parade, not outside the parade," but because they were barred from the event by organizers, "we had no other recourse."

Ian Struthers, 24, a board member of the gay rights group Join the Impact Massachusetts, said it was important to march in the second parade.

"It's about equality," said Struthers, who carried a sign bearing a rainbow-colored shamrock. "We should be able to go to the same places and participate in the same community events as anyone else."

The response from spectators appeared to be mostly positive as marchers made their way along the route, many of them carrying large Veterans for Peace flags with a picture of a dove with an olive branch in its beak.

However, a Globe reporter who walked most of the parade route heard a smattering of gay slurs and other hostile remarks, including one man in his 20s who approached the procession and launched into a profanity-laced tirade that included the phrase, "[Forget] cuts to military spending!" He was told by a police officer to move along and promptly left.

South Boston resident Cheryl Gander, 51, stood along the parade route and said the marchers deserved a place in the earlier procession. "I'll tell you right now I would like to see peace in the world," Gander said.

Another spectator, Chris Tuttle, 28 of Beacon Hill, also expressed support for the marchers, saying, "I'm totally down with it."

But neighborhood resident Joe Jones, 50, said the marchers had no place in the day's festivities. "It's all [lies]," he said. "Their putting their ideas on us."

Originally published on the blog MetroDesk.

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