DANIEL ZWERDLING, HOST:
And in Brussels today, a peaceful rally turned ugly. A large crowd had gathered in a central square to honor the victims of Tuesday's terrorist attacks. Then suddenly, hundreds of thugs dressed in black descended on the scene. NPR's Melissa Block was there and has this report.
MELISSA BLOCK, BYLINE: It started with rainbow flags and a bubble maker wafting iridescent globes above the crowd. People held signs reading solidarity against terrorism and hate. A young girl cried out...
UNIDENTFIED CHILD: (Shouting in French).
BLOCK: ...Long live Belgium. People who gathered around the makeshift shrine of tulips and candles joined hands and lifted them high in the air. Two young boys walked through the crowd offering free cookies - sharing them, they told me, to pay homage to the victims. And out of nowhere, a lone voice rang forth.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (Singing in foreign language).
BLOCK: Then suddenly, with a red flare hoisted to announce their arrival, a stream of shouting white men poured into the square.
UNIDENTIFIED MEN: (Chanting in French).
BLOCK: A group of marchers who appear to be extremists dressed in black have just descended on the peaceful protest here in the center of Brussels. We're hearing people say, down with the fascists, down with hate.
Whether right-wing extremists or soccer hooligans or both, the men in black hijacked the vigil. They tromped through the makeshift memorial and stormed onto the steps of the stock exchange. Many had shaved heads. They pumped their fists in the air and gave stiff-arm salutes.
They unfurled a banner with an obscene suggestion for ISIS. Punches were thrown. One thug yelled, pointing to the peaceful crowd, it's your fault. And someone called out in response...
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: (Speaking French).
BLOCK: ...Fascists, racists. I talked with one of the men in black, Gaetan Alexandre, who told me, we're not fascists. We're just against Islamism.
GAETAN ALEXANDRE: (Speaking French).
BLOCK: "It's clear that in Belgium, we've let Islam take root too strongly," he said. "We don't have a problem with Muslims, but we let people radicalize themselves too easily." The ugly confrontation left medical student Maria Bandiera in tears.
MARIA BANDIERA: Why am I crying? Because I feel shameful of where the future going to lead, because I think it's not racism that solves the issue. It's too easy to blame on a group.
BLOCK: And the peaceful demonstrators had a chant of their own.
UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTORS: (Chanting in French).
BLOCK: "We are all children of immigrants," they chanted. "First, second, third generation."
Eventually a swarm of riot police moved in, armed with plastic shields and batons and dogs, to form a cordon encircling the thugs. Huge police trucks mounted with water cannons rolled into the square.
The water cannons are going off. They are trying to disperse this crowd of men in black who've come from all over Belgium today. Riot police are leading the way in force.
The men in black were forced back the way they came. And just like that, it was over. Cafe workers put their chairs and tables back outside. Street sweepers immediately started cleaning up the crushed beer cans left behind. And back in the square, the rainbow flag and the bubbles floated again against the blue sky. Melissa Block, NPR News, Brussels. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.