White nationalist groups are sneakier than ever. So, it’s troubling, but not totally surprising, that law enforcement officials had no advance knowledge of a march through downtown Boston by one such group over the Fourth of July weekend, which led to the alleged assault of a Black activist.
What is surprising, said former Boston police commissioner Ed Davis, is that “police were not able to rally forces to the march after they received 911 calls. I don’t know what happened there.”
Not knowing about the march ahead of time is a failure of law enforcement intelligence. Not responding afterward is another kind of failure. As US Attorney Rachael Rollins asked at a Tuesday press conference: “If this were a Black Lives Matter protest, would the response have been different?”
Put another way: If 100 Black Lives Matter protesters hopped aboard an Orange Line train in Malden, rode it to Back Bay station where they took shields and flagpoles from a U-Haul truck, and then marched with gaiter-covered faces on the Freedom Trail — how long would it take for Boston police to want to know what they were up to?
On Saturday, some 100 marchers associated with the white nationalist group Patriot Front did just that. Black artist and activist Charles Morrell III also told police he was knocked to the ground and kicked by members of this group outside Back Bay Station. Specifics about arrival time, and what police did have not been publicly disclosed. At the Tuesday press conference, acting police commissioner Gregory Long said Boston police did not witness the alleged assault and law enforcement officials are now reviewing video recordings from the scene to try to identify anyone involved in it.
According to one law enforcement source, BPD officials told city and other law enforcement officials at a pre-press conference briefing “they were onto the group early into the march, called in units from other parts of the city, didn’t put foot officers with marchers because they have learned that doing so heightens tensions, and also didn’t want to be seen as “escorting” marchers. When the assault occurred there were officers nearby, but they didn’t see which marchers made physical contact and the victim could not ID who assaulted him.”
Boston police were exceedingly busy over the holiday weekend, as a spate of shootings in several neighborhoods injured at least 10 people. The concentration of gun violence in some city neighborhoods is another kind of terrorism that should be recognized and confronted by city leaders. But the presence of groups like Patriot Front on Boston streets can’t be dismissed or ignored. Not after recent violence, like the massacre of 10 Black shoppers in Buffalo by a self-described white supremacist. Not after members of Patriot Front were stopped last month in Idaho with riot gear, one smoke grenade, shin guards, shields, and a plan to disrupt a Pride event.
Because of the Boston Marathon bombing of 2013, Boston has firsthand experience with terrorism. Vigilance also would seem to be in order, given the return of Fourth of July festivities to the Esplanade after COVID-19 cancellations. In fact, this is the third time this year Boston has been targeted by white nationalists. On Jan. 22, a group of neo-Nazis staged a protest outside Brigham and Women’s hospital, carrying a bedsheet that said “B and W Hospital Kills Whites.” During the St. Patrick’s Day parade, a group wearing neo-Nazi insignia held a sign that said, “Keep Boston Irish.” Again, they have their First Amendment rights. But as a spokesman for District Attorney Kevin Hayden said, via email: “These groups have [Massachusetts] on their maps and all agencies must be hyper-vigilant.”
White nationalist groups have become increasingly more sophisticated and covert, and with that, better able to surprise. There was no surprise in Boston back in August 2017. After a rally staged by white nationalists in Charlottesville, Va., erupted in deadly violence, far-right sympathizers kept their plans for a “free speech” rally on Boston Common. All the advance publicity gave counter-protesters time to organize an alternative march to the Common. The greatly out-numbered, far-right rally-goers were confined to a small area around the Parkman Bandstand and drowned out by the shouts of thousands of counter-protesters. A well-executed police presence kept order.
Over the holiday weekend, Patriot Front demonstrated the new “flash mob” approach: A bunch of menacing dudes in gaiters and sunglasses walked Boston’s Freedom Trail. It was a small act that got attention and included an alleged assault.
Meanwhile, the question from Rollins stands: Would police respond differently to another group doing the same thing?
Joan Vennochi is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @joan_vennochi.