Jul 6, 2022 - News

Boston authorities hadn't surveilled Patriot Front

Mayor Michelle Wu speaks at a podium outside the entrance of Boston Police Department headquarters in Boston.
Boston Mayor Michelle Wu urged residents to share information about white supremacist activity with public safety officials. Photo: Steph Solis/Axios

Local and federal officials are investigating the white supremacist march that took place in Boston this weekend, but they stopped short of saying the group's activity met the threshold for a federal domestic terrorism probe.

  • Patriot Front members have been in Massachusetts for years, spreading white supremacist propaganda, but the FBI did not surveil them locally because the group's activity was protected under the First Amendment, FBI special agent in charge Joseph Bonavolonta said during a press conference Tuesday.

Driving the news: FBI officials met with Boston Mayor Michelle Wu, U.S. Attorney Rachael Rollins and local police leaders Tuesday for a briefing on white supremacist activity in New England.

  • The march of 100-plus masked people turned violent after participants allegedly assaulted Charles Murrell, a Black man and activist, the Boston Globe reported. Wu vowed to prosecute Murrell's attackers.
  • Boston police superintendent Gregory Long said multiple detectives are assigned, but they have not yet identified who participated in the march.
  • The march came weeks after Patriot Front members were arrested in Idaho on charges of conspiracy to riot, after law enforcement found the group had plans to riot in several parts of Coeur d’Alene.

Why it matters: The march outraged community leaders, who raised concerns about the safety of people of color, LGBTQ+ people and others targeted by white supremacists.

  • Tuesday's briefing and the announcement of a joint investigation is the first public step law enforcement officials are taking.
  • Rollins said some have questioned whether the response to the march would have been different if it had been a Black Lives Matter demonstration. "As they should," she added.
  • The investigation also raises questions about when free speech by white supremacists, including propaganda, escalates into domestic terrorism.

Context: The Anti-Defamation League's Center on Extremism, which tracks white supremacist propaganda, has traced thousands of such actions to the Texas-based group.

  • In 2020, Patriot Front distributed propaganda in every state but Hawaii and Kansas.
  • They were most active in Massachusetts, California, Washington, Texas, New York and Virginia that year.

Robert Trestan, executive director of the ADL's Boston office, said there were rumblings about Patriot Front taking action on the Fourth of July, but no one knew they would choose Boston.

  • "The fact that 100-plus people could all assemble from different parts of the country and come to Boston and nobody actually knew about it, that speaks to their ability to organize." Trestan told reporters. "There are no other white supremacist groups in the country right now that could assemble that many people without anyone knowing."

What they're saying: "In many cases, even ignorant, vile or repugnant hate speech can be, at times, covered by the First Amendment," Bonavolonta said, adding that an investigation can start if there was a "threat for use of force or violence."

  • Asked if the Patriot Front's local activity has crossed that threshold, Bonavolonta said "as the facts of the evidence come to bear, we'll see where we are with it and what decisions are made at that time."

What's next: Rollins cautioned against treading on First Amendment rights, and instead urged residents, particularly white people, to share information about potential threats.

  • "We need to empower people, mostly in the white community, to say when you see somebody that you love that is starting to become radicalized, that is talking about using language that makes you uncomfortable, you should hopefully be able to go to local law enforcement and say, 'I'm worried about my brother or my sister or my uncle,'" Rollins said.
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