Groups of masked men displayed racist and antisemitic banners over highways in Saugus and Danvers on evening Saturday, according to local officials and photos captured by passersby, drawing widespread condemnation.
National Social Club 131, or NSC-131, described by the Anti-Defamation League as a New England-based neo-Nazi group, claimed responsibility for the banner drops on their Telegram channel and Gab social media account on Saturday.
The banners displayed from the Walnut Street bridge over Route 1 in Saugus read “JEWS DID 9/11″ and “DEFEND WHITE COMMUNITIES.” The antisemitic banner was also held over a railway bridge above Andover Street in Danvers.
Saugus police received multiple calls about the banners around 6 p.m. Saturday, the department said in a statement Monday.
The department determined the men were not breaking any laws.
“While the First Amendment protects one’s legal right to speech, the Saugus Police Department condemns the hateful messages displayed in our community and we condemn antisemitism and hate in all its forms,” the statement said.
The department alerted the Anti-Defamation League of New England.
At around 7 p.m. on Saturday, ten members of the same group that displayed the banners in Saugus displayed the antisemitic banner from the Rail Trail bridge over Route 114, Danvers officials said in a letter to the community on Tuesday morning.
“We want to be clear that we reject this hateful, anti-Semitic and discriminatory behavior,” town officials, including the town manager, police chief, and select board chair said in the letter. “Not only does this incident spread hate, but it perpetuates misinformation regarding 9/11.”
The town leaders said they stand in solidarity with the Jewish community and encouraged residents to reject “toxic and deceitful messaging.”
The letter also acknowledged the series of antisemitic incidents that have occurred in Danvers over the last year. There have been repeated instances of antisemitic and racist graffiti discovered in Danvers Public Schools since last fall.
Robert O. Trestan, the executive director of the ADL of New England, called the men “cowardly masked extremists” in a statement Monday afternoon.
“The scapegoating of the Jewish community is an age-old but exceedingly harmful antisemitic trope that must be called out and condemned whenever and wherever it occurs,” Trestan said. “Using this tragedy to spread false, destructive and divisive narratives harms our communities and sense of security and disgraces the memory of the victims from that day.”
The banner drops come amid a rising number of acts of hate in Massachusetts and are the latest in a string of provocations by NSC-131. Antisemitic incidents rose by 48 percent in 2021 over 2020, according to an ADL report released in April.
Meanwhile, NSC-131 has disrupted drag queen story hours in Boston over the summer, held a banner that read “Keep Boston Irish” at the city’s St. Patrick’s Day parade, and stepped up recruitment efforts.
NSC-131 was formed in 2019 in Worcester and has since expanded throughout New England, unfurling hate banners in public, painting graffiti, distributing propaganda, and demonstrating at events and protests, the Globe has previously reported.
Christopher R. Hood Jr., the group’s 23-year-old founder, currently faces charges in West Roxbury District Court for allegedly brawling with a counter-protester at a drag queen story hour in Jamaica Plain in July.
NSC-131 has played a role in the rise in hate, especially in its home base of New England, Trestan said in a phone interview Monday evening.
“It is an insertion of antisemitic conspiracy theories into the mainstream, and [a] great way to get it into the mainstream is you do a banner drop above the highway,” he said. Hate groups use the 9/11 anniversary as an opportunity to amplify the antisemitic conspiracies they’ve developed around the event, Trestan said.
Jeremy Burton, the CEO of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston, said he was “both disgusted and not at all surprised” when he learned of the banners on Sunday afternoon.
The incidents have raised concerns in the Jewish community, coming as “part of a wave of toxic, dangerous behavior,” he said.
“I appreciate that there’s a sense that criticizing this, calling it out, is giving it attention beyond its number,” Burton said. However, he said, not doing so allows the general public to become “inured” to the hate that is going on in their communities.
Additionally, “whether or not [an act of hate] is perceived as being deeply in the public discourse, it is very much in the conversion of the community,” so calling it out shows the targeted community they are supported, he said.
The banners have drawn bipartisan criticism.
“Anti-Semitism seemingly has no end in our society,” Republican nominee for state auditor Anthony Amore said in a Monday tweet condemning the banner drops. “We shouldn’t tolerate this and I hope you’ll join me in condemning this repugnant bigotry.”
Democratic Boston City Councilor Tania Fernandes Anderson called for unity in the face of rising acts of hate in a tweet about the banners on Sunday.
“Yet another example of the despicable fascism that is becoming all too prevalent in our communities,” she said. “We all must stand together against such horrific displays of bigotry.”
These conveniently masked cowards were seen yesterday on Route 1 in Saugus. Anti-Semitism seemingly has no end in our society.— Anthony Amore For Auditor (@AnthonyAmore22) September 12, 2022
We shouldn’t tolerate this and I hope you’ll join me in condemning this repugnant bigotry. pic.twitter.com/LfRQbkX6O3