Elected officials and organizers of South Boston’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade are decrying the attendance of roughly 20 people wearing neo-Nazi insignia who lined up along the route Sunday, unfurling a banner that read, “Keep Boston Irish.”
The South Boston Allied Veterans Council, which organizes the parade, said the group — whose presence was noted by people on social media during the event — was “neither invited, nor welcome.”
“As a Jewish American, it hits especially close to home for me,” Dave Falvey, commander of the council, said in an e-mail Monday. “Unfortunately, we only have control over who can participate in the parade and cannot control who attends. Such groups will never be welcome in any capacity at the South Boston St. Patrick’s Day / Evacuation Day Parade.”
The group were among the spectators standing along West Broadway Sunday, most with their faces covered. They wore the logo of the Nationalist Social Club, described as a neo-Nazi group by both the Counter Extremism Project and the Anti-Defamation League.
“We were aware that they were present and we will conduct follow-up investigations,” Boston police spokesman Sergeant Detective John Boyle said Tuesday.
Reports of white supremacist propaganda — racist, antisemitic, and anti-LGBTQ messaging by hate groups — have risen sharply in the last five years, according to the Anti-Defamation League, which tracks such reports. The organization’s researcher found 4,851 reported cases in 2021, down about 5 percent from 2020 but way up from 294 cases in 2017.
Local elected officials reacted to the group’s appearance with harsh words.
“It was deeply disturbing to see this display at a local celebration of culture and heritage, as we work to heal and build community through our recovery,” Mayor Michelle Wu of Boston, who walked in the parade, said in a statement. “With the growing intensity of white supremacist groups nationally, we are working closely with law enforcement at all levels — Boston will not tolerate hate crimes, and we will not be intimidated in our work to build a city for everyone.”
A delegation of elected officials from South Boston issued a joint statement condemning the group’s presence.
“We are disgusted by reports of outside hate groups descending into Boston for the St. Patrick’s Day Parade yesterday,” City Council President Ed Flynn, Councilor Michael Flaherty, state Senator Nick Collins, state Representative David Biele, US Representative Stephen Lynch, and Suffolk County clerk of civil courts Michael Donovan wrote in the Monday statement. “Their ideology is repugnant and contrary to an event that celebrates our proud immigrant history and is enjoyed by children, families, and people of all ethnicities and backgrounds. Their message is repulsive to the South Boston community and Gold Star Families who were at the parade to commend our veterans and honor their service to our nation.”
“As a city and Commonwealth we must confront and stop hate, racism and discrimination everywhere it exists,” the delegation declared.
Cal Farley, an investigative researcher with the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism who has studied the Nationalist Social Club, said its members typically focus on spreading white supremacist messaging. That means their actions fall under constitutionally protected free speech, not illegal incitements of violence.
In other words, their actions are hateful but usually within the bounds of the law, Farley said.
“They’re very much concerned with optics,” Farley said. “I’m not trying to say they’re harmless, obviously. But they don’t have the same violent rhetoric that maybe other extremist groups do.”
It can help if members of the public are able to identify hate symbols, so they can then make others in their communities aware of a hate group’s presence, he said.
In this case, members of the group wore masks with the number 131, which for members of the Nationalist Social Club is alphanumeric code for ACA, or Anti Communist Action. A member of the group also was carrying a black flag with a white plus sign inside a circle. The symbol, sometimes called a sun cross or incorrectly called a Celtic cross, is a commonly used white supremacist symbol, according to the Anti-Defamation League.
The actual Celtic cross, a symbol of Christianity in Ireland, is not a hate symbol. The version of it used Sunday, in which the cross is squared off instead of tapered in ornately within the circle, is one white supremacist groups sometimes co-opt, Farley said.
The owners of Sully’s Brand, a Beverly sports apparel company, said they were horrified to see a member of the group waving a flag they created: A play on the Irish flag, with green and orange fields and a large white shamrock in the middle.
“Sully’s Brand emphatically denounces this group and their cause,” the owners said in a statement. “Irish immigrants were not met with compassion and acceptance when they first came here in the 18th century and the notion that we should repeat that prejudiced behavior is ridiculous and disgusting.”
Sunday’s parade was not the first time the group’s insignia appeared in the area. Similar displays have been held outside Brigham and Women’s Hospital, outside a nonprofit library in Providence, and at a theater hosting a drag story hour for children in Portsmouth, N.H.
“There seems to be some intention in selecting the event,” said Peggy Shukur, deputy regional director of ADL New England.
Past demonstrations have sometimes prompted powerful community displays against the neo-Nazi group, she said. In Portsmouth, for instance, the Seacoast Repertory Theatre received an outpouring of support after the neo-Nazi group showed up outside with homophobic and antisemitic messages, she said.
“I think it does send a message that there’s strength in the community against that kind of hate,” Shukur said. “And it also sends a message to the hate group that the community isn’t afraid.”
Ben Lorber, a research analyst with Boston think tank Political Research Associates, said the group seems to have formed in 2020 as opposition to antiracist protests that spread across the country in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. The groups tries to tap into a moral panic they can use to spread their racist, antisemitic, and homophobic messaging.
“Even though this group is relatively small in numbers, they tap into the broader sentiment felt by millions of white Americans,” Lorber said. “While it’s important to recognize that they’re small, they’re not coming from nowhere.”
In the last year, their numbers have grown slightly, from about 10 people at most demonstrations to about 20, he said.
Watching social media posts from Sunday’s parade, Lorber said he was heartened by a small number of people who stood up to the group. But he also wondered how many people walked past them, read their sign, understood their message, and said nothing.
“It would be a mistake to reason that if we just ignore a group like this, they would just go away,” Lorber said. “It’s important to be safe and to practice situational awareness. But it is also important to let groups like this know that they aren’t welcome in our communities.”
Correspondent Nick Stoico contributed to this report.
Gal Tziperman Lotan is a former Globe staff member.