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NH CRIME

NH officials, community members condemn white supremacist graffiti found at former Laconia State School

At least one of the images spray-painted on the abandoned property was signed by Nationalist Socialist Club 131, a neo-Nazi organization. The incident comes as white supremacist propaganda activity has surged in New Hampshire.

LACONIA, N.H. – Laconia officials and residents are denouncing graffiti found at the former Laconia State School depicting swastikas and anti-Jewish, anti-Black, and anti-LGBTQ messages.

At least one of the images was signed by Nationalist Socialist Club 131, a neo-Nazi group. The incident comes as white supremacist propaganda activity has surged in New Hampshire, according to a recent report by the Anti-Defamation League.

The Laconia Police Department is investigating the graffiti, which also has been referred to the attorney general and the FBI’s agent for civil rights in New Hampshire.

The school, which closed in 1991, was once used as an institution for people who were developmentally disabled. The graffiti was found at the abandoned property between July 2022 and December 2022, but is only now coming under public scrutiny, with community members urging officials and leaders to condemn the graffiti and take it seriously.

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Lois Kessin has been leading the charge. Kessin, who is Jewish, grew up in Laconia. She recalled experiencing some antisemitism — not being able to join the Yacht Club, not being able to live in certain places — but said she felt those experiences weren’t unique to Laconia at the time. She heard about the graffiti from a friend who walked her dog at the abandoned property. Kessin then went to see the graffiti for herself and became determined to do something about it.

Graffiti found spray painted on buildings at the Laconia State School in late 2022.Courtesy of Tristan Chase

Images shared with the Globe show swastikas, crosses, crosshairs, and the words “White Unity” and “Keep NH White” drawn in black spray paint on white surfaces.

“It’s wrong to let it go, so I took a stand,” Kessin said. “I just want the community to say ‘no.’ We have to get to know each other. We have to be kind to each other. We can’t have this happening.”

Kessin said she reported the graffiti to the police in February, but told the Globe that the police chief wasn’t notified at the time.

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On March 7, she contacted David Stamps, chair of Laconia’s Human Relations Committee.

“After Lois talked to me and I reviewed the photos, I realized this was a big deal,” said Stamps. He realized Kessin’s report had not reached the police chief, and so he wrote to both the chief and the attorney general about the graffiti and received prompt replies from both.

The graffiti has “been occurring regularly since last summer but nobody was noticing,” said Stamps. “We’ve put the police on notice that the community cares about this.”

Stamps e-mailed Assistant Attorney General Sean Locke about the vandalism on March 8. “The local police say they are aware of the images but have said that the property is (the state of) NH’s concern and not theirs,” wrote Stamps in an e-mail he later shared with the Globe. “Portsmouth certainly seems to have received a lot of attention; why not this?”

In February, at least 15 sites in Portsmouth were vandalized with anti-Jewish, anti-Black, and anti-LGBTQ messages. The graffiti was denounced by city leaders, and Attorney General John Formella said his office would find and prosecute whoever is responsible for the hateful messages. The attorney general also is pursuing civil charges against NSC-131 for a separate incident in which the group displayed a banner that read “Keep New England White” over a Portsmouth bridge. Members of the neo-Nazi group have struggled to find a lawyer willing to defend them in the case.

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Locke told Stamps that the e-mail was the first he had heard about the troubling graffiti in Laconia.

“The only way to address these instances is if they are reported to law enforcement,” he replied to Stamps. “This office will work with the Laconia Police Department and the FBI as the graffiti is investigated and is prepared to take action should the investigation enable us to do so.”

The Laconia State School is a 250-acre property that belongs to the state, but the facility has fallen into disuse in recent years. It’s still used by some residents for outdoor recreation, like walking.

The facility’s groundskeeper, Tristan Chase, photographed the graffiti as it appeared last year. He covered up some of the graffiti with paint after documenting it but did not report it. He told the Globe he did not want to comment on the graffiti because he was worried about jeopardizing his job.

Laconia Police Chief Matt Canfield told the Globe the graffiti was brought to his attention several weeks ago. “It is a bit dated which obviously complicates the investigation a bit,” he said. He said the department initiated an investigation as soon as it received a report. The investigation is currently active.

“We certainly take these types of cases very seriously,” Canfield said. “It’s not OK and we will investigate it to the fullest extent we possibly can.”

Canfield confirmed that he has been in touch with the civil rights unit of the attorney general’s office and the FBI, and said that both have offered assistance.

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A local political action committee, Citizens for Belknap County, has denounced the graffiti. The group successfully opposed the reelection of former State Representative Dawn Johnson, a Republican from Laconia, after she posted an antisemitic image from a neo-Nazi website in 2020. Johnson apologized for the post but did not resign over it. Last November, she lost her bid for reelection to the New Hampshire House.

The Human Relations Committee of Laconia has drafted a statement condemning the graffiti. Matt Soza, who is a member of the committee, said the community needs to take the vandalism seriously.

“Someone is very determined,” he said. “Somebody’s been going up repeatedly and making a lot of these. They know what they’re doing. There’s a lot of neo-Nazi and fascist insignia.”

Soza said visiting the site was disturbing, but he’s glad he went because the issue needs to be brought to light. “I would like to say this is not indicative of this community in my experience,” he said. “It’s not the Laconia I know.”

In September, vandals spray-painted trees and picnic booths at the city’s Opechee Park with white supremacist graffiti, including images of swastikas. At the time, the community held a vigil to decry the hateful messages.

Now, with more hateful messages found at the old school, Laconia Mayor Andrew Hosmer told the Globe he condemns the vandalism in the strongest possible terms.

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“This graffiti is dehumanizing. It’s an attempt to intimidate and divide communities and we have a zero tolerance policy for it here,” he said. “The community has rallied and taken a stand against this as we did last fall.”


Amanda Gokee can be reached at amanda.gokee@globe.com. Follow her @amanda_gokee.