NEW BEDFORD — Not long after the propaganda leaflets plunked onto porches, weighed down with pebbles inside plastic bags, the quiet neighborhood near Buttonwood Park responded with a swift, vigorous rebuttal.
Residents removed as many of the white supremacist flyers as they could, coordinating by text message while the sun rose so that no local kids would find hate on their porch before school. By noon, they had heard their city councilor and mayor’s forceful denouncement of the responsible group, and even learned later that the FBI was contacted.
But soon after, the neo-Nazi group NSC-131, which had left the flyers, was popping up elsewhere. That weekend, the self-described “pro-white” fraternity gathered outside Gov. Maura Healey’s home, chanting: “New England is ours — the rest must go,” according to news reports. Two days later, police in Westfield said residents awoke to find the same baggies and flyers outside their homes.
Massachusetts has witnessed 175 instances of white supremacist propaganda this year alone, including distributing flyers, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. Last year, the commonwealth recorded more white supremacist propaganda than any other state besides Texas, according to the Anti-Defamation League.
White supremacist propaganda from hate groups such as NSC-131 and Patriot Front led a surge in hate incidents across Massachusetts. In total, the state has more than three times as many hate incidents as five years ago.
While the increase mirrors national trends, there’s a symbolic reason why Massachusetts has risen near the top, according to experts. Some hate groups, including the state’s leader in white-supremacist propaganda incidents, Patriot Front, have focused on Massachusetts’ connection to the country’s founding.
“Members maintain that their ancestors conquered America and bequeathed it to them, and no one else,” according to the Anti-Defamation League. That sentiment has led Patriot Front, a Texas-based organization, to march through Boston and distribute more propaganda materials across Massachusetts than any other hate group.
Human Rights Commission at New Bedford Library
Thursday at 5 p.m., the Human Rights Commission and the Anti-Defamation League will host an event at the downtown branch of the New Bedford Public Library, to discuss the rise in extremism and hate.
Other organizations, like the white-supremacist and antisemitic NSC-131, were founded in New England and are increasing their activity. Today, the Southern Poverty Law Center tracks 11 active hate groups in the state.
As a result, Massachusetts now ranks among the top three states for incidents of white supremacist propaganda over the last five years.
No major increase in hate crimes
Despite becoming a hotbed for organizing, Massachusetts has not yet seen the number of hate crimes increase significantly. Still, law enforcement is tracking these groups closely.
“Addressing hate in all its forms is a priority for my office,” said Attorney General Andrea Campbell in a statement to The Light. She added that her office is following the recent increases, “especially as it relates to white supremacy.”
The rise in propaganda and recruitment efforts concerns experts because it can often precipitate action, including hate crimes. Peggy Shukur, the Anti-Defamation League’s deputy director for New England, said: “This sort of behavior — while most of the time it’s free speech, albeit hateful speech — can embolden others to act on the hate they’re hearing.”
These groups have also started training with firearms, according to a Boston Globe investigation, which found that military veterans composed a significant portion of NSC-131’s membership and were leading some of its combat training.
The FBI’s Boston office said it is working to prevent any escalation in hate crimes through investigative activity, coordination with local law enforcement, and community outreach.
“Hate crimes are not only an attack on the victim, but they are also meant to threaten and intimidate an entire community,” Kristen Setera, an FBI Boston spokesperson, told The Light. “Because of their wide-ranging impact, investigating hate crimes is a high priority for the FBI.”
However, the FBI noted that the rise in white supremacist propaganda itself is not criminal activity. “We are keenly aware that expressing views is not a crime by itself, no matter how offensive those views might be, and that the protections afforded under the Constitution cannot be compromised,” Setera said.
Current events influence hate propaganda
Shukur, of the ADL, said that a confluence of high-profile state, national, and international crises could be sparking even more activity from hate groups in recent weeks. These include a migrant crisis that’s straining the commonwealth’s capacity for providing migrants with shelter and the conflict between Israel and Hamas in the Middle East.
“There has been an uptick in incidents reported to us at ADL since October 7,” said Shukur, referring to the date of a Hamas terrorist attack in Israel that has since led to an Israeli invasion of the Gaza Strip.
Locally, NSC-131 spread its flyers in New Bedford on Oct. 11 under the cover of darkness and less than a mile from a synagogue. It was the city’s only incident of hate this year so far, according to the ADL.
But for local leaders, the incident represented a long-increasing trend finally hitting home.
“There has been an ominous trend in hate speech across America,” said Mayor Jon Mitchell. “Although we have seen relatively little of it here in Greater New Bedford, we must be prepared to stand up to it wherever it materializes. Bigotry has no place in our area, and those who espouse it are not welcome here.”
Marcelina Pina-Christian, executive director of New Bedford’s Human Rights Commission, said, “This was already happening throughout our state.” But she added that recent hate activity feels more urgent than anything she’s dealt with over the last 15 years on the commission.
Pina-Christian said the state’s migrant crisis is helping xenophobic comments reach the mainstream. Migrant groups sheltering in the greater New Bedford area sparked both protesters and supporters in Fairhaven, Pina-Christian said. While there’s no evidence that a small anti-immigrant protest on Oct. 7 outside the Seaport Inn involved a hate group, NSC-131 has staged demonstrations outside other hotels hosting migrants.
“You should not be silent about this. The way to stop something is first knowing that it exists,” Pina-Christian said.
The Human Rights Commission and the Anti-Defamation League will host an event this Thursday, Nov. 2, at the downtown branch of the New Bedford Public Library, to discuss the rise in extremism and hate.
“It’s about educating our community, but also showing vulnerable members of our community that there’s strength in numbers — that you are not alone,” said Pina-Christian.
Email Colin Hogan at firstname.lastname@example.org