Massachusetts leaders expressed surprise and outrage when about 100 white supremacists marched through downtown Boston over the Independence Day weekend. Yet this was no isolated incident. Massachusetts, like much of the rest of the United States, has seen a spike in white supremacist and other extremist group activities. State government and civil society leaders must act now to reverse this trend, especially ahead of the 2024 presidential election.
Just one white supremacist group — the Patriot Front — accounts for more than 290 incidents in Massachusetts this year, with the most occurring in Boston, Worcester, and Brockton. In September, reports emerged that two Massachusetts state legislators appeared on the membership lists of the extremist group the Oath Keepers, signaling the growing political influence of these groups as well. Evidence is also emerging of infiltration of our military and local police by white supremacists. Massachusetts was fourth on the 2021 list of states with hate group propaganda, according to a report by the Anti-Defamation League.
The majority of extremist group actions have been marches, vandalism, and hate propaganda events, but the level of violence accompanying them is increasing. According to data from the FBI, hate crimes, from destruction of property to aggravated assault, are perpetrated largely against Black, Jewish, and LGBTQ communities. The white supremacist goals of many of these groups have also resulted in several mass shootings, including the May 2022 shooting in Buffalo, N.Y.
Massachusetts also has a homegrown neo-Nazi group. The Nationalist Social Club (NSC-131) formed in the state in 2019 and engages in armed and unarmed combat training to wage an “underground resistance.” Some NSC-131 members are seasoned neo-Nazis from right-wing hate groups like the League of the South, Patriot Front, Aryan Strike Force, and the National Socialist Movement — all of which have histories of involvement in extremist activities, including armed attacks. NSC-131 activities involve mostly propaganda so far, but they are also increasingly engaged in altercations, harassments, and physical assaults.
The most active group in Massachusetts is the Patriot Front, a white supremacist organization that has organized more than 3,400 events across the United States in 2022, including marches in Massachusetts. Some analysts have branded the group the “children of the Ku Klux Klan,” given their political ideologies and purported goals. In 2019 in East Boston, three armed members of the Patriot Front were arrested in an altercation with the Boston Police Department. Patriot Front leader Thomas Rousseau was the head of the Virginia chapter of neo-Nazi group Vanguard America in 2017, when one of its members killed civil rights activist Heather Heyer at the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville.
Far-right militant activity outnumbers far-left activity in recent years by five to one, but Massachusetts is also a target for the anarchist prochoice group Jane’s Revenge, which vandalized pregnancy crisis centers in Worcester in July. The group formed in response to the overturning of Roe v. Wade and has allegedly firebombed and/or vandalized pregnancy crisis centers in at least 13 other states since May. The group also warned it would “adopt the minimum military requirements for a political struggle.”
These organizations and other extremist groups across the state create an alarming picture of growing white supremacist and leftist violence in Massachusetts that is escalating as elections approach next month and is likely to increase in the run up to the 2024 presidential contest. Our Conflict Early Warning Analytics Program at UMass Boston has been working closely with the nonpartisan TRUST Network, a national coalition of early warning programs, to track such activities across the United States, and we have identified 26 hot spot cities with increasing hate crimes that form a “Corridor of Violent Hate” that includes Boston.
Precious little time remains to reverse these trends, and they require much more than just the actions of law enforcement agencies. It requires a coordinated, multifaceted response from state and local officials, civil society groups, schools and universities, religious institutions, media outlets, and others. Unfortunately, few of these important responders are yet treating the threat in Massachusetts with sufficient urgency.
We encourage Governor Charlie Baker or the next governor to organize a working group of these key civic stakeholders to assess the rise of extremists in the state and to develop a counterstrategy to implement well before the 2024 election season — which is certain to be a focal point for extremist activity. If these sectors unite and act now in a comprehensive fashion, there is a much better chance to undermine the roots of extremism in Massachusetts and prevent further violence before it becomes endemic.
Madhawa Palihapitiya is associate director of Massachusetts Office of Public Collaboration at the McCormack Graduate School at UMass Boston. Darren Kew is executive director of the Center for Peace, Democracy, and Development at UMass Boston.