Thousands of people took to the streets of Boston on Saturday to protest hate speech a week after a woman was killed at a Virginia white-supremacist demonstration, and their shouts drowned out the "Free Speech" rally that sparked the counter-protest.

Organizers of the rally had invited several far-right speakers, who were confined to a small pen that police set up in the historic Boston Common park to keep the two sides separate.

Police estimate that as many as 40,000 people packed into the streets around Boston Common.

One of the "Free Speech" rally's scheduled speakers said the event "fell apart."

Congressional candidate Samson Racioppi, who was among several slated to speak, told WCVB-TV that he didn't realize "how unplanned of an event it was going to be."

The city largely avoided a repeat of last weekend's violence in Charlottesville, Va., where there were bloody street battles and one woman was killed.

The rally never numbered more than a few dozen people, and its speakers could not be heard over the shouts of those opposed, and due to the wide security cordon between the two sides.

Counter-protesters surrounded people leaving the rally, shouting "shame" at them and occasionally throwing plastic water bottles.

Police escorted several rally participants through the crowds, sometimes struggling against counter-protesters who tried to stop them.

Police arrested 33 people mostly for disorderly conduct, although some were arrested for assault and battery during scuffles between police and protesters in which some protesters threw rocks and bottles of urine at police 
dressed in riot gear, Police Commissioner William Evans said.

"There was a little bit of a confrontation," Police Commissioner William Evans told reporters, adding that "99.9 
per cent of the people who were here were here for the right reasons."

On Saturday, Trump on Twitter praised the Boston protesters.

"I want to applaud the many protestors in Boston who are speaking out against bigotry and hate. Our country will soon come together as one!" Trump tweeted. 

Two male rally participants wearing Trump's red "Make America Great Again" campaign hats attempted to enter a penned-in area. They were swarmed by black-clad protesters, some with their faces covered, as the crowd screamed "go home" and "no hate" at them.

"They heard our message loud and clear: Boston will not tolerate hate," said Owen Toney, a 58-year-old community activist who attended the anti-racism protest. "I think they'll think again about coming here."

Some 500 police officers had placed barricades, including large white dump trucks, to prevent vehicles from entering the park, the nation's oldest.

Last weekend's violent clashes in Charlottesville ratcheted up racial tensions already inflamed by white supremacist groups marching more openly in rallies across the United States.

White nationalists had converged in the Southern university city to defend a statue of Robert E. Lee, who led the pro-slavery Confederacy's army during the Civil War, which ended in 1865.

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Police stand by as thousands of protesters prepare to march in Boston against a planned 'Free Speech Rally,' a week after the violent 'Unite the Right' rally in Charlottesville, Va. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Controversy over statues

A growing number of U.S. political leaders have called for the removal of statues honouring the Confederacy, with civil rights activists charging that they promote racism. Advocates of the statues contend they are a reminder of their heritage. Duke University removed a Lee statue from the entrance of a chapel on its Durham, NC., campus, officials said on Saturday.

Organizers of Saturday's rally in Boston have denounced the white supremacist message and violence of Charlottesville and said their event would be peaceful.

"The point of this is to have political speech from across the spectrum, conservative, libertarian, centrist," said Chris Hood, an 18-year-old Boston resident who stood among a crowd of a few dozen people who planned to join the Free Speech rally.

"This is not about Nazis. If there were Nazis here, I'd be protesting against them."

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Here, a woman protesting against the 'Free Speech Rally' holds up a sign in Boston. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Last weekend's violence sparked the biggest domestic crisis yet for U.S. President Donald Trump, who provoked ire across the political spectrum for not immediately condemning white nationalists and for praising "very fine people" on both sides of the fight.

Beyond the Boston rally and counter-march, protests are also expected on Saturday in Texas, with the Houston chapter of Black Lives Matter holding a rally to remove a "Spirit of the Confederacy" monument from a park and civil rights activists in Dallas planning a rally against white supremacy.

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Counter-protesters hold signs before conservative organizers begin their rally on Boston Common. (Michael Dwyer/Associated Press)

Boston authorities also planned to put roadblocks in place to avert car attacks like the deadly one carried out in Charlottesville by a man said to have neo-Nazi sympathies against counter-protesters and a similar spate of attacks by Islamist extremists in Europe, most recently Barcelona.

Counter-protesters reject plea

Boston Mayor Marty Walsh had asked counter-protesters to avoid Boston Common, saying their presence would draw more attention to the far-right activists. He joined the crowd of thousands of counter-protesters assembling in Boston's historically black Roxbury neighbourhood early on Saturday.

"These signs and the message so far this morning is all about love and peace," Walsh told reporters. "That's a good message."

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Police say roughly 40,000 people were on the streets around Boston Common on Saturday. (Stephanie Keith/Reuters)

Monica Cannon, an organizer of the "Fight White Supremacy" march, said it was a necessary move.

"Ignoring a problem has never solved it," Cannon said in a phone interview. "We cannot continue to ignore racism."

The Free Speech rally's scheduled speakers include Kyle Chapman, a California activist who was arrested at a Berkeley rally earlier this year that turned violent, and Joe Biggs, formerly of the right-wing conspiracy site Infowars.

Ron Villareale, a 71-year-old military veteran, stood by on the Boston Common wearing a tricornered hat and other garb common in 18th-century colonial times.

"We have too many extremists in this country," Villareale said. "If you don't agree with someone, ignore them." 

With files from The Associated Press