Updated at 8:30 a.m. July 9
Members of Boston’s City Council and some terrorism experts are declaring last weekend’s white nationalist march through Boston an “intelligence failure” because local leaders had no idea the hate group with a history of violence was coming to town.
Councilman Ricardo Arroyo has called for a public hearing questioning why the Boston Regional Intelligence Center seemed to have no knowledge of the cross-country organizing by the Patriot Front to assemble its members in Boston July 2. Patriot Front is a white supremacist group formed in the aftermath of the violent 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, during which a supporter drove his car into a crowd of demonstrators, killing one person.
Arroyo, who is running for Suffolk County district attorney this year, said “white nationalist hate groups are domestic terrorists. And so when we are talking about a group like that coming to Boston with no alleged intelligence of their arrival — even though it required them traveling across state lines, even though it required them coordinating in a way that clearly involved communications and diligence — is striking to me.”
Acting DA Kevin Hayden, Arroyo’s opponent, in a statement said his office is working closely with the Boston Police Department’s Civil Rights Unit on the investigation of the white supremacist march.
“The presence of such organized hatred in Boston on Independence Day weekend was repugnant,” Hayden said. “[Investigators] are poring over surveillance video to help identify Patriot Front marchers and pursue possible criminal charges. If and when arrests are made we will prosecute to the fullest extent allowed by Massachusetts law.”
Hayden’s office did not address the allegations of poor intelligence.
Thomas Nolan, a former Boston Police lieutenant and Homeland Security official, shared Arroyo’s amazement that there was no intelligence warning in advance of the July 2 demonstration. Nolan was responsible for training analysts and police assigned to “fusion centers” nationwide, including the BRIC, which were established in the aftermath of 9/11 to promote information sharing between federal and state, local and tribal law enforcement.
The BRIC did not live up to its responsibilities in pre-empting the Patriot Front gathering, Nolan said. “I think it's fair to characterize it as an intelligence failure of significant proportions.”
“The Patriot Front has been involved in vandalism, arson, theft, destruction of property, including an arrest of 30-something of them in Idaho some several weeks ago,” Nolan told GBH News. “This group can reasonably be suspected of involvement in criminal activity.”
Nolan said fusion centers were created specifically “to collect information, analyze the information, prepare what are called intelligence products in order to disseminate those to law enforcement officials who are in the field so that they can take informed and appropriate action. And that didn't happen here.”
As documented by the GBH News Center for Investigative Reporting, over the past two years, Patriot Front and other white supremacist groups have been advertising their presence in New England with leaflet distributions over a wide area, banner drops over freeway overpasses, and recruitment efforts on college campuses, as well as a stepped up online presence on the social media sites Telegram and Discord.
Salem’s new police chief, Lucis Miller, told GBH News that in his initial briefings with the FBI he was told that the Patriot Front and other groups like the explicitly neo-Nazi NSC-131 were priority concerns to law enforcement. Two Patriot Front members were charged with defacing public property for spray painting slogans around Salem last summer.
That makes BRIC’s “failure” to closely monitor these groups and Patriot Front’s descent on Boston all the more surprising, said Arroyo.
A researcher who closely tracks white nationalist groups on social media channels — who asked not to be named out of concern for their personal safety — said it was surprising that those channels provided no advance signal of the Boston rally, which appears to have been “well organized and conceived.”
When the group arrived in the Boston area last week, they parked their cars near the Oak Grove Orange Line station in Malden.
A video recorded by Rod Webber, a local anti-fascist filmmaker, showed those vehicles bore license plates from Texas, Ohio and Pennsylvania, among other states.
Uniformed, white-masked members of the group took the subway to another location where they were given heavy shields unloaded from the back of a rented U-Haul van.
They paraded through downtown Boston and Copley Square, where they assembled in front of the main public library. Charles Murrell III, a local artist who is Black, says he was on Dartmouth Street when he saw the procession of white supremacists. Murrell said he was then assaulted by several of the group’s members.
Boston Police Superintendent-in-Chief Gregory Long at a press conference Tuesday said police officers did not witness the alleged attack.
But Jim Cyr, an architect and resident of the South End, said he saw the assault on Murrell. Cyr told GBH News he was shocked over the lack of a police presence, but also by the response he said he received from Boston Police when he reported the attack on Murrell.
“I called 911, and when I got the operator, she asked me where I was and I said, ‘I'm on the corner of Dartmouth and I think it's Saint James.’ And she hung up.” Cyr said. Eventually “at least two police cars came up and I tried to talk to a couple of the officers, and they didn't even acknowledge my existence.”
Videos of the march show very little or no police presence, but two members of the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force are visible, dressed in plain clothes. The FBI has not responded to a request for an explanation of their presence.
At Tuesday’s press conference FBI Special Agent in Charge Joseph Bonavolonta, a part of the JTTF, said the FBI cannot legally track domestic groups such as the Patriot Front unless there is “the existence of a potential federal crime, the threat or use of force or violence in conjunction with some sort of a social or political agenda.”
Authorities are working to identify the masked white supremacists involved by piecing together videos of the incident, but at least one well-known member of the group Brian Harwood, 25, formerly of Barnstable, paraded unmasked.
Boston City Council has previously debated the value of the regional intelligence center and last year initially rejected an $850,000 state grant for the BRIC. The BPD said in a statement at the time that the grant would have been used to “hire six analysts that would enhance our ability to increase and provide public safety to the people of Boston.”
Councilors cited BRIC’s “racially discriminatory” uses of a gang database for their decision. The funding for BRIC was ultimately awarded.
Councilor Julia Mejia was among those who at first opposed funding for the agency unless it addressed issues of “unfair treatment” on the streets. She supports Arroyo’s call for a hearing on BRIC.
“I believe that during this hearing, we'll be able to uncover what happened and what are the levers of accountability,” she said. “We've heard from folks out here, if, let's say for instance this was a Black Lives Matter rally, that the intel would have surfaced up to the top a lot sooner. So I believe this public hearing is an opportunity to really lean in to what went wrong and how it was that these white nationalist group was able to sneak in here without notice.”
U.S. Attorney Rachael Rollins in recent interviews with GBH News has called on the city to classify white supremacist groups like the Patriot Front and NSC-131 as gangs on par with MS-13, the Columbia Dawgs and other violent groups.
Arroyo said he will make a formal request for a hearing into BRIC’s “intelligence failure” at a regularly scheduled Boston City Council meeting next Wednesday.
Correction: This story was updated to correct the spelling of Rod Webber's name.