Marching through downtown Boston, the hundred or so men wore the same style navy shirts, khaki pants, and baseball caps. White masks obscured their faces. But during their demonstration of intolerance on July 2, the group performed more than theatrics: Some members allegedly harmed a man named Charles Murrell, a Boston-area Black artist and activist during an alleged altercation. Murrell suffered injuries to his head and hand, but no arrests have been made yet in relation to the alleged altercation, according to multiple reports.
The march by the group Patriot Front shows even deep blue Massachusetts is not immune to such shows of hate, as incidents of hate crimes against minorities — including Asians — increase nationwide.
According to the Anti-Defamation League, Massachusetts had the fourth highest rate of white supremacist propaganda dissemination nationwide in 2021, with 388 incidents of reported hate, extremism, antisemitism and terror activity. Patriot Front, posted the most amount of propaganda from 2019 to 2021. The organization was responsible for 82% of all white supremacist hate group activity nationwide last year, but has been more active in New England. The Southern Poverty Law Center describes Patriot Front as an “image-obsessed organization” that focuses on theatrical rhetoric and activism” to spread their white-supremacist ideology.
Mayor Michelle Wu said that law enforcement “did not have intelligence ahead of time” to forecast this demonstration and that “investigations are still ongoing,” including looking into the identities of national Patriot Front leaders who were a part of this effort.
Boston City Councilor Ricardo Arroyo has criticized law enforcement’s lack of prior knowledge in relation to this event, stating in an interview with WBUR that the Boston Police Department’s response to both the group’s march through Boston and the alleged assault of Murrell was “insufficient.”
Arroyo has also called for a public hearing questioning why the Boston Regional Intelligence Center, which was established in the wake of 9/11 in order to reduce crime and prevent acts of terrorism, in conjunction with the BPD has not taken a more proactive approach to stemming hate group activity.
FBI Special Agent in Charge Joseph Bonavolonta stated at a press conference held on July 5th that unless domestic hate groups explicitly indicate a plan to commit a federal crime or threaten the use of violence in further their social or political agenda, the FBI cannot legally track these organizations. Generic racist language, such as chanting at a political rally, is considered free speech and therefore protected by the Constitution.
White supremacist groups are believed to often use generic language in their communications in order to be palatable to a wider audience and recruit new members. In an article for WGBH, Boston College Professor of Philosophy and specialist on authoritarianism, Greg Fried, said that extremist groups often use mainstream language to draw in potential members. The group NSC-131, for example, distributed flyers that read “We stand for the security and prosperity of white New Englanders” at Boston’s recent St. Patrick’s Day Parade on March 20, where they also held a banner that said, “Keep Boston Irish.”
The Anti-Defamation League has also recorded the Patriot Front group’s concerted efforts to avoid “using traditional or explicit white supremacist language and symbols in their propaganda,” noting that the group now opts for “more palatable red, white and blue aesthetics of ‘Patriot Nationalism’ to promote its white supremacist ideology.”
The growing presence of hate groups is not isolated to the New England area. The whole nation is seeing a rise in hate group activity in all regions and cities. The number of public propaganda displays has grown from 1,294 in 2018 to 5,680 displays in 2021. White supremacist groups used to operate on the fringes of society, but in recent years their extremist sentiments have overlapped with mainstream conservative talking points. Issues such as teaching critical race theory in schools, the increased acceptance of the LGBTQ+ community, and COVID-19 vaccines have created a space where white supremacist ideologies can exist and prosper in broad daylight.
There has been a marked increase in the presence of white supremacist groups since Donald Trump was elected into office, with the SPLC reporting that the number of white nationalist groups that exist in the country has grown 55% since 2017. The Capitol insurrection that occurred on Jan. 6 2021 has also caused an escalation of hate group activity, with 20% of the 800 people arrested in connection to the Capitol storming having been found to be affiliated with white supremacist groups.
The Center for Strategic and International Studies found that 90% of the attacks and plots that occurred in the United Stated between Jan. 1st and May 8 of 2020 were perpetuated by right-wing extremists. Violence against the Asian American and Pacific Islander population has grown especially significantly in recent years due to the racist sentiments surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic. There were 1,773 hate crimes committed against Asians in 2020, a 145% increase from 2019. Anti-Semitic messaging increased by 27% nationally and anti-LGBTQ hate crimes have also been on the rise.
Mayor Wu has called on Boston to be prepared for future white supremacist demonstrations. “We will continue to work in partnership with community members as we strategize and plan and coordinate to respond to not one-off incidents, but this growing rise and trend in white supremacy and hate.”
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