Last month, police in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, arrested 31 members of the Patriot Front, a national white supremacist group, and charged them with conspiracy to riot. Authorities there said the men had riot gear, one smoke grenade, shin guards, and shields, and planned to disrupt a Pride event at a park.
According to the Department of Homeland Security, white supremacist violence is the nation’s “most persistent and lethal threat.” So when credible allegations from Idaho emerged that a well-known group like Patriot Front had crossed the line from protected First Amendment activity into criminality, it should have triggered more monitoring of the group from the FBI and other law enforcement agencies in Boston.
Should have — but apparently didn’t, or at least not enough to make a difference.
On Saturday, about 100 members of the same group hopped on the Orange Line, descended on Boston, and marched around downtown and the Freedom Trail. Local police were caught off guard. Marchers are accused of beating up a 34-year-old Black man near Back Bay station, something that might have been avoided if federal law enforcement had given local police warning so they could have added more uniformed officers in the area.
As Mayor Michelle Wu and Joseph R. Bonavolonta, the Special Agent in Charge of the Boston FBI, noted at a press conference on Tuesday, law enforcement can’t monitor hate groups just because their views are repugnant. Bonavolonta did not explicitly say that Patriot Front had not been under investigation previously, but emphasized that “we cannot track or monitor groups or police ideology.” Indeed, it is appropriately difficult for the government to spy on American citizens; authorities must demonstrate that they’ve cleared a threshold of illegal behavior.
But Patriot Front clearly seems to have crossed that line in Idaho. And in the wake of the weekend’s events, it’s hard not to wonder whether law enforcement has really gotten the message that combating white supremacist violence must be a top priority.
“We rely on our partners at other levels for any intelligence on other groups and where they may be moving,” Wu said. Recent crimes like the massacre of 10 Black shoppers at a supermarket in Buffalo — by a self-described white supremacist — only reinforce the seriousness of the threat.
Of course, the FBI isn’t omnipotent, and they might have missed signs of what was clearly a long-planned event that likely drew marchers from multiple states. And even if the city had caught wind of Patriot Front’s plans, that’s not to say it could or should have prevented the group from marching — which is protected under the First Amendment. Patriot Front embraces a mix of white nationalist, antisemitic, and anti-immigrant views; according to the Anti-Defamation League, it is “responsible for the vast majority of white supremacist propaganda distributed in the United States.” Its members typically wear khaki pants and a blue or white polo shirt, and according to the ADL, the group specializes in flash-mob style events like the Saturday march in Boston.
In addition to the Idaho incident, its members have been accused of less serious crimes, like vandalizing signs related to the Black Lives Matter movement and gay rights.
Monitoring any domestic group involves tricky tradeoffs between privacy of its members and public safety. But as US Attorney Rachael Rollins asked on Tuesday, “If this were a Black Lives Matter protest, would the response have been different?” The fact that public officials still have to ask that question underscores how much work law enforcement must do, at every level, to demonstrate that it’s treating the white supremacist threat with the urgency it requires.
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