Law enforcement officials said Tuesday that they did not have any advance knowledge of a march over the July Fourth weekend by a white nationalist group that disrupted downtown Boston and led to an alleged assault of a Black activist.
And, given civil liberties protections, police had few options in responding to the event, Mayor Michelle Wu said Tuesday. But Acting Police Commissioner Gregory Long said the perpetrators of the alleged assault will be charged, if police can identify them.
Many of the roughly 100 marchers gathered in Malden where they boarded an Orange Line train to Back Bay Station. There, they took shields and flagpoles from a U-Haul truck and began marching between points on the Freedom Trail, waving American flags with 13 stars for the original colonies. Nearly all of them covered their faces with white neck gaiters.
Activist Charles Morrell III told police he was knocked to the ground and kicked by members of the group outside Back Bay Station, according to a police report. A photo by a Boston Herald photographer that circulated on social media shows a marcher pushing Morrell against a telephone pole with a shield. The police report said Morrell was treated for injuries to his right ring finger, head, and left eyebrow at Tufts Medical Center.
Police spokesperson Andre Watson said the group did not have permits, which he said is not uncommon for protests.
The march was organized by the Patriot Front, an extremist group with ties to neo-Nazis. US Attorney Rachael Rollins tied the march to other white supremacist demonstrations this year, at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and the South Boston St. Patrick’s Day Parade.
Although First Amendment considerations constrain law enforcement’s ability to head off such events, Rollins said her office will “be thinking strategically about how we’re going to combat this, so that communities feel safe.”
During the holiday weekend, community leaders, including Wu, condemned the demonstration. “To the white supremacists who ran through downtown today: When we march, we don’t hide our faces. Your hate is as cowardly as it is disgusting, and it goes against all that Boston stands for,” Wu wrote on Twitter.
A national group with a chapter in New England, the Patriot Front has its roots in the 2017 white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Va., which left one woman dead and introduced much of the public to the right-wing extremist movement that had spread online.
After the Virginia rally, the group that would become the Patriot Front split from Vanguard America, a neo-Nazi group, and tried to cultivate an image that could appeal to a broader range of the populace, said Morgan Moon, a researcher at the Anti-Defamation League who focuses on the group.
According to leaked internal messages published by the activist group Unicorn Riot, and public interviews given by the Patriot Front’s leaders, the group believes that the United States belongs — or should belong — to whites and that Black people, gay people, and Jews are the nation’s enemies.
Its public-facing propaganda lightly disguises those views. “They tame their racist and antisemitic rhetoric and act under the guise of patriotism and patriotic nationalism,” Moon said. “This is strategic. It is for recruitment purposes and to appeal to a wider audience.”
The Patriot Front did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Tuesday.
Public demonstrations are a key component of its strategy. The Patriot Front organized a similar march in Philadelphia on July 3 last year. Its leader, Thomas Rousseau of Texas, has said that events around Independence Day are important for the group and has insisted that members attend, according to researchers.
The turnout on Saturday represented a significant proportion of the Patriot Front’s total membership, researchers said, and likely drew members from other regions. According to the leaked records, which Moon said are authentic, around a dozen members live in Massachusetts.
The group often calls in members from various regions for high-profile demonstrations. Last month, when police in Idaho arrested 31 Patriot Front members planning to disrupt a Pride event, only two were locals, Moon said. (Rousseau was arrested in Idaho and attended the Boston march.)
“Part of their strategy is they inflate their numbers, they inflate their presence by Thomas Rousseau requiring that people drive halfway across the country to attend a flash mob,” said one researcher with ties to antifa groups who requested anonymity for fear of retaliation from white nationalists. Activists recorded video of Rousseau and another Patriot Front leader from Texas at the Boston march.
Carla Hill, director of investigative research at the Anti-Defamation League, estimated the Patriot Front had a total of around 250 members nationally. “In New England, they have to pull from a large geographic area to get the numbers to show up,” she said.
The numbers may be relatively small, but some observers worry that the group has become better organized in recent years.
“They are showing that they could be an effective paramilitary force,” said one independent researcher who focuses on extremist groups and requested anonymity to discuss groups he considers dangerous. “We just saw in the January 6 hearings that [Donald] Trump was trying to use the Proud Boys in a coup.”
He acknowledged that his interpretation of the march’s significance could be seen as “extreme,” but worried about the group’s ability to plan the Boston event undetected and escape without consequence.
“These guys came in here with a celebrity leader [Rousseau], carrying shields” and other materials transported in a rental truck, he said. “Then they assaulted someone on the sidewalk and got away with it.”
On Saturday afternoon, people called 911 to report the march to law enforcement. It was not clear exactly when police first learned of it, but Wu said “we did not have intelligence ahead of time.”
In Idaho, law enforcement officials detected the Patriot Front’s plans in advance, which helped them to intercept the group and led to charges of conspiracy to start a riot.
Rollins declined to label the lack of advance detection here a failure of law enforcement, but added, “We don’t want that to happen again.”
Local law enforcement has intelligence-gathering capabilities. The Boston Regional Intelligence Center, for example, is a Boston police operation that collaborates with federal law enforcement agencies. Among other activities, it tracks extremist groups.
At a news conference Tuesday, Governor Charlie Baker said the state is constantly in touch with federal and local agencies about such groups, adding, “We take this stuff very seriously.”
The head of the Boston FBI office, Joseph Bonavolonta, described the challenges that hamper intelligence operations.
“We cannot track or monitor domestic groups or police ideology,” he said at the press conference. “There has to be certain elements that are met for us to even open up an active investigation and that is the existence of a potential federal crime, [or] the threat or use of force or violence in conjunction with some sort of a social or political agenda.”
Michael Cox, executive director of prison abolition group Black and Pink Massachusetts, said that whenever a group such as the Patriot Front shows up in Boston, it puts “everyone on pins and needles.”
“It’s disgusting, it’s scary,” he said.
Globe correspondent Simon Levien contributed to this report.