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A city in a state of dread and unease

From bomb threats to neo-Nazis, Boston is enduring a wave of far-right extremism.

A Boston Police bomb squad officer, left, and a K-9 unit officer, right, on the campus of Northeastern University on Wednesday.Rodrique Ngowi/Associated Press

On Tuesday evening, the alarms started wailing at Northeastern University.

After reports of a bomb on campus, security personnel evacuated students from several buildings. As word of a possible explosion at Northeastern spread, other local colleges and universities urged their “community members to report anything suspicious.”

Federal and local authorities now say there was no explosive device at Northeastern’s Holmes Hall. A university employee, the only person injured, is being investigated, but he denies any involvement.

But even as it became apparent the threat may have been a hoax, the fear was real.

“It was definitely very scary, because there were so many rumors going around. I heard there were as many as eight devices,” Connor Martin, a Northeastern student, told WCVB. “Obviously, that wasn’t true, but you don’t know what’s real and what’s not.”


This is what it means to live with a perpetual sense of dread. And especially during these past few months, Boston is a city in a state of unease.

Recent events have heightened the city’s anxiety, perhaps spurring the response at Northeastern. Boston Children’s Hospital has been inundated with threats and harassment. It established the nation’s first pediatric and adolescent transgender health program in 2007, and the hospital is now being targeted with false accusations fostered by the far right on social media.

Boston Children’s does not perform genital surgery on people under age 18. But truth has never been a deterrent to hate. At least twice in the past month, the hospital has received bomb threats from unknown callers, causing the medical facility to contact authorities and go into lockdown.

Imagine how vile someone has to be to target a building filled with ailing children, concerned families, and medical professionals devoted to taking care of kids. These are the depths we’re contending with. In a statement after an August bomb scare, hospital officials said, “We remain vigilant in our efforts to battle the spread of false information about the hospital and our caregivers.”


On Thursday, the US Attorney for Massachusetts, Rachael Rollins, announced the arrest of Catherine Leavy, of Westfield, in connection with an Aug. 30 bomb threat against the hospital.

Of course, the point is to intimidate and demonize. That’s also the motivation behind white supremacist groups marching on Boston’s streets. Last month, they invaded the Seaport district and targeted a drag queen story hour for children. It was the second time Patty Bourrée, a Boston drag performer, was singled out. Her July appearance in Jamaica Plain was also protested by a local neo-Nazi group, NSC-131.

When the hatefest turned up in the Seaport, Bourrée, fearing an escalation, abruptly canceled. In a tweet, Bourrée said, “I can’t put myself (and the kids!) in a potentially violent situation, especially when I don’t trust that the [Boston Police Department] will protect me in a worst case scenario.”

A banner displayed from the Walnut Street Bridge over Route 1 in Saugus last weekend.Raquel Alvarez-Segee

The same neo-Nazis harassing kids and drag performers recently draped antisemitic banners from highway overpasses in Saugus and Danvers. And they did so in broad daylight to provoke even greater fear. (But, of course, the cowards covered their faces.)

When I was growing up, there were occasional bomb drills in my school. In Cold War America, we were instructed to sit on the floor near our classrooms, remain quiet, and follow our teacher’s instructions. Never did any of us think something horrible could happen. If anything, we were more concerned about getting our school clothes dirty from sitting on those hard, dusty floors than about any real danger.


Not anymore. Nor do the fears thrive only within city limits. On Wednesday, Acton-Boxborough Regional High School had a brief shelter-in-place order after an anonymous tip about a possibly armed student. Teachers immediately stopped classes to lock and barricade doors. Families were informed of a “potentially concerning situation” at the school. Students rushed to call their parents.

“It was awful because I couldn’t contact her and I didn’t know if something was going to happen to me,” Djeana Timas, a senior, told WCVB.

These past two and half years have tried us like no others. But instead of emerging with more wisdom and compassion, many have retreated into silos of conspiracy and discontent and found Republican politicians willing to stoke their hatreds. That’s having a devastating impact.

Divisions have festered in this nation since its origins. But something rabid has been unleashed. Every threat and intrusion feels a breath away from grief in a country with a voracious appetite for destruction. And even when the threat is a cruel hoax, we’re left shaken and wondering what may come next.

Renée Graham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at Follow her @reneeygraham.