PROVIDENCE — Andrew Irby saw the jagged symbol on the leaflets blowing across his mother-in-law’s lawn on Rockwood Avenue in Cranston, and immediately understood what it was about.
The Nationalist Social Club 131, which describes itself as a “pro-white, street-oriented fraternity,” was seeking to recruit “white New Englanders” who are “dedicated to defending their lands and their people,” the leaflets said.
Irby, who is Black, picked up the small flyers before any of his three children saw them. He’s seen vehicles with Confederate flags buzz by his home in rural Connecticut; at 40, he’s endured plenty of casually racist remarks. His children didn’t need to see these flyers.
“I’ve noticed it more because of the political climate in the country,” Irby told the Globe.
Since late June, every state in New England has seen an increase in white supremacist activity, from flyer distribution in small towns and cities by NSC-131, to a march by the Texas-based Patriot Front in downtown Boston and the presence of members of the California-based Goyim Defense League. The week of July 4th was especially active.
“All these groups try to mask antisemitism and racism behind patriotism, so they purposely pick a patriotic holiday,” said Robert Trestan, the executive director of the Anti-Defamation League’s Boston office. “And they view the United States as in a state of distress, so they are using the platform to advertise.”
He noted that members of New England white supremacist groups participated in the attack on the US Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, and said the uptick in activity in New England could be a precursor to violence.
“Law enforcement should take it seriously... Domestic terrorism coming from white supremacists is a reality,” he said. “There have been some violent incidents in New England, and the more that this hatred is inserted into mainstream, the greater danger that someone will be inspired and commit an act of violence.”
In late June, East Providence police stopped a group of men affiliated with NSC-131 who were stapling their flyers on utility poles and trespassing on the grounds of the Gordon School, a private elementary school where the enrollment is 43 percent students of color. Police said they did not believe the school itself was a target.
Police arrested two men at the scene who had refused to identify themselves, but were eventually found to be Stephen Thomas Farrea, 32, of Portsmouth, R.I., and Austin Conti, 26, of Warwick, according to police records. Both have been identified by multiple sources as neo-Nazis. The men were stone-faced as they pleaded not guilty during their arraignment on Tuesday before District Court Judge Melissa DuBose, who is Black, and brushed off a Globe reporter’s questions as they left. They were released on personal recognizance and are scheduled for a pre-trial conference on Aug. 10.
While hate groups have been recruiting and organizing in New England, NSC-131, which is led by former Patriot Front member Chris Hood, has been particularly focused on the region, Trestan said.
Last year, the Southern Poverty Law Center listed NSC-131 as a neo-Nazi group, with chapters in Massachusetts, Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Rhode Island, where it also goes by “Ocean State 131.”
NSC-131 was formed in 2019 by neo-Nazis in Worcester, where it was known as the New England Nationalists Club, with members who covered up anarchist and gang graffiti with their own symbols in and around Worcester, Boston, and other Massachusetts cities. They’ve since expanded throughout New England, unfurling hate banners in public, painting graffiti, distributing propaganda, and demonstrating at events and protests, according to Hannah Gais, senior research analyst with the SPLC’s Intelligence Project.
The increase in activity isn’t limited to New England. Since 2018, SPLC’s Intelligence Project has documented a nearly 340 percent rise in public propaganda displays by hate groups in the United States, from 1,294 displays in 2018 to 5,680 in 2021.
From January 2020 through March of this year, Rhode Island has had 194 incidents from hate groups, according to the ADL’s Hate, Extremism, Anti-Semitism, and Terrorism (HEAT) Map.
Most have been propaganda drops from NSC-131 and Patriot Front, as well as racist and antisemitic graffiti in public areas. Dropping flyers — and getting publicity — is a low-effort, low-risk way to get their bigoted messages out, intimidate communities, and try to attract new members, Gais said.
NSC-131′s efforts in Rhode Island have become more visible. They joined a protest against COVID-19 restrictions in Warwick last summer and demonstrated outside the Black Lives Matter offices in downtown Pawtucket in the fall. About 20 members showed up at Red Ink, a nonprofit community library on Providence’s East Side, in February to disrupt a reading of “The Communist Manifesto.” Wearing masks and shouting slurs, the group pounded on the windows, shoved one of the people in the library, and hoisted a Nazi flag.
The Providence police arrived as the group left and didn’t make any arrests. Afterward, a member of NSC-131 shared video of the incident on social media.
In April, NSC-131 showed up in Pawtucket wearing masks and sweatshirts, some with their insignia, black ballcaps, sunglasses, and tan khakis, police said.
“They were not entirely forthcoming about what they were doing,” Detective Sergeant Theodore Georgitsis told the Globe. But, after speaking with the group, the officers left, Georgitsis said, “because they weren’t really doing anything wrong.”
Soon after, NSC-131 flyers began appearing in different communities. On June 21, the East Providence police responded to a tip that men were stapling white supremacist propaganda to utility poles at the Gordon School.
The men initially refused to identify themselves, police spokesman Lt. Michael Rapoza told the Globe. Police must have a legal basis to ask individuals to identify themselves. Because of strong free speech protections in the Constitution, there is often little basis on which to bring charges against white supremacists. So the officers, who had all participated in training addressing hate crimes, used a variation of the civil/municipal violations for posting the leaflets, and the fact that they had entered Gordon School property, to require each suspect to identify themselves, Rapoza said.
Farrea and Conti refused, so they were charged with obstructing police, a misdemeanor. The officers made all of the men sign documents acknowledging that they were trespassing, which allowed them to identify all five members of NSC-131 involved in the incident.
None of the men — four Rhode Islanders, and one from Massachusetts — responded to requests for comment from the Globe.
Farrea was a corporal in the Selected Marine Corps until his chatter on Discord with fellow members of the Identity Evropa hate group was leaked by activists Unicorn Riot and publicized by Huffington Post in 2019. Posting as SuperTomPerry on Discord, using the name of his late grandfather, he wrote about how much he loved the “identitarian community” and how he planned to raise his baby daughter in the same philosophy. He was eager “to drop its okay to be white flyers in Rhode Island,” he wrote.
“Portsmouth my town 95% white very nice,” he wrote in 2018. Of Newport, he wrote: “the subsidized low income housing and overwhelming darkness made the school system and certain areas just... Not nice.”
In the chats, Farrea said he became interested in white nationalism after reading about nationalist James Allsup and Iraq war veteran Nathan Damigo, who founded Identity Evropa and helped plan the deadly 2017 Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville.
Conti, who has lived in West Warwick and Yuma, Arizona, appeared in Providence District Court Tuesday displaying a large sonnenrad tattoo on his right elbow. The ADL says the sonnenrad is an ancient European symbol appropriated by the Nazis “in their attempt to invent an idealized ‘Aryan/Norse’ heritage.”
Open sources found social-media postings by Conti, since deleted, of violent racist and antisemitic content, under the pseudonyms “Steel Pete” and “Pete SS.” He appeared in photographs at NSC-131′s St. Patrick’s Day demonstration in South Boston in March and at other neo-Nazi banner drops. He has also appeared in photos wearing a “security” fluorescent vest.
Tyler L. Moody, 28, of Pawtucket, was also identified during the incident. The house in Fairlawn where he lives was just listed for sale with a hate symbol prominently displayed in photos of one of the bedrooms. The green flag with a dark St. Michael’s Cross — also known as an Iron Guard, a hashmark-type design by a Romanian right-wing extremist that symbolizes fascism, nationalism, Eastern Orthodox Christianity and antisemitism, according to the ADL — hangs on the wall near a crucifix. Anti-fascist sources have documented photos of Moody at several NSC events in Massachusetts including the White Lives Matter Rally in Wakefield and a rally at the Boston Holocaust Memorial, and photos of him with firearms.
Jason Lowe, 38, of Warwick, who used his real name as his user name and whose social media posts were captured by anti-fascist activists who tied him to the deadly Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville and involvement with neo-Nazis, and Cody Baker, 22, of Fall River, also signed trespass orders in East Providence.
Cranston Police Chief Michael Winquist said that a vehicle with Massachusetts plates seen in East Providence was also seen in Cranston where NSC-131 leaflets were found.
“There’s a lot of open source information on this group,” Winquist said. “We are looking into the ideology and … it’s concerning to say the least.”
All of the police departments in towns where leaflets have been found are working together and with the Rhode Island Police Fusion Center, as well as the FBI. State Police Major Laurie Ludovici, the spokeswoman for the state police, did not respond to requests for comment.
“Our Civil Rights Prosecution Unit has been made aware of these flyers posted in communities throughout the state and we are working with local police departments to continue to monitor the situation,” Brian Hodge, spokesman for Attorney General Peter F. Neronha, wrote in an email to the Globe. “While we find the content of these flyers reprehensible, the First Amendment generally protects speech, even if racist. If and when there is illegal conduct beyond speech, the Office remains ready to take action.”
Those who’ve found the flyers wonder what’s next.
Elizabeth Fussell, a sociology professor at Brown University, found one of the NSC-131 flyers near the Mount Hope Community Baptist Church in Providence, which has a predominantly Black congregation. She called the police and state Senator Samuel Zurier, then stopped by the Red Ink library, where a volunteer filled her in about the white supremacist group.
“It all indicates that they feel emboldened to have a more visible presence, and that’s disturbing,” Fussell said. “The people I’ve talked to are alarmed and offended by the hate that’s clearly being conveyed in the flyer.”
Irby, though, said he’s thought about reaching out to NSC-131. Would they be surprised to know that he’s a family man, educated, and a business owner? Or that he also voted for Donald Trump? How would they react to being met with kindness, instead of anger?
“If you are a human with an actual heart, you care about thy neighbor, you care about your community,” Irby said. “If you’re hurting, maybe I can help you.”
Maybe they would come to an understanding about one another, Irby said. But, while he’s open to having a conversation, he said, he probably won’t reach out.
“In a perfect world, it would be great if it would happen,” Irby said. “But it’s sad that we’re here at all.”
Amanda Milkovits can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMilkovits.