It is happening here: Massachusetts has a growing neo-Nazi movement
It was a rare look inside the strategic planning of an upstart neo-Nazi movement.
In a video posted last summer on social media, Chris Hood, 23, the founder of the Nationalist Social Club – 131, a New England white nationalist collective, gave instructions to a 22-year-old UMass Lowell student named Liam MacNeil.
“If you’re in college you should be getting together with all the other guys on campus that think like you, circling all the frat parties and bullying the chicks that race mix and start dominating the party and take over the campus,” Hood said. “Same policy as out here [the street] but just do it on campus.”
“We can do that,” MacNeil responded. “Everyone knows where I am now, but they’re going to have to physically remove me. You know, they’re going to have to kick me out.”
Hood and MacNeil, now 23, are part of a tiny but growing group of white nationalists who have begun publicly announcing their presence across New England through a rising wave of racist and antisemitic demonstrations, attacks and vandalism. The groups appear to have escalated their activities in the wake of the Jan. 6, 2021, attempted insurrection in the U.S. Capitol, where members of these groups were present. It’s a rise that worries local law enforcement and community members, spurring them to respond.
In the wake of this weekend’s racially motivated murders in Buffalo — the latest among a series of hate-inspired mass shootings — experts on extremism say there is good reason to be concerned about the spread of neo-Nazism, racism and white ethnonationalism in New England.
Hate sprouts locally
In Massachusetts, the Anti-Defamation League counted 388 reported hate, extremism, antisemitism and terror incidents in 2021. Five years earlier, it tallied only 123 reported incidents. Much of this activity is graffiti or leafleting or other acts of racist propaganda. But some of it is violence.
Investigators last summer found antisemitic and racist writings taken from the internet in the home of Nathan Allen after he murdered two Black people in Winthrop.
In April 2020, John Michael Rathbun, now 38, was charged in federal court in Springfield with trying to blow up a Jewish assisted-living residence with a five-gallon gas canister. The federal government connected Rathbun to an unspecified white supremacist organization, and said that a user posted a message on one of the group’s social media channels suggesting an attack on “that jew nursing home in longmeadow massachusetts.” Rathbun of East Longmeadow was convicted on two federal arson charges and sentenced to five years in prison.
And there has been a wave of racist incidents in communities around the state, including antisemitic, homophobic and racist taunts by fans at a Franklin High School baseball game in May and a Westford Academy basketball game in January.
Dr. Alice LoCicero, a psychologist and faculty member at the Wright Institute in Berkeley, Calif., and a former faculty member at Boston Medical Center, said these incidents suggest there is fertile ground for white nationalism to spread in Massachusetts.
“It seems likely that anyone looking to recruit or seduce young folks into white supremacy and similar groups would find kids who are already engaged in such speech to be likely candidates,” she said.
NSC-131 is one of those groups looking to recruit.
The Nationalist Social Club is a locally grown hate group that has been stepping out of the shadows and into the streets in and around Boston in recent months. 131 is alphanumeric code for ACA, or Anti Communist Action.
“It’s a small neo-Nazi group,” said Oren Segal, vice president of the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism, but he said it is still dangerous. “Those who identify with this group view themselves as soldiers, essentially, who are at war with the Jewish-controlled system that is plotting the extinction of the white race.”
The group operates essentially as a street gang, posting racist graffiti, defacing Black Lives Matter signs and anti-racism symbols and unfurling banners on highway overpasses in Boston, Hartford, Providence and elsewhere.
In its annual Year in Hate Report released in March, the Southern Poverty Law Center identified more than a dozen hate groups in Massachusetts as well as others with additional chapters across New England, including the Proud Boys, the American Nazi Party and the Base, a white nationalist group that has carefully cultivated a reputation for violence.
NSC-131 and the Patriot Front, another white supremacist group, have been the most active, according to anti-extremist researchers. The organizations compete with each other for attention across the region. Members of NSC-131 and the Patriot Front also took part in the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C.
NSC-131 first showed up on local researchers’ radar in the immediate aftermath of the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests set off by the murder of George Floyd and subsequent street demonstrations throughout the Northeast. NSC-131 members on social media channels spoke openly about exploiting white anxiety over the anti-racism protests that summer in order to recruit new members.
Salem Police Chief Lucas Miller said that, when he took office last year, “I got a briefing from the FBI about various hate groups that were active in the area, and the two principal ones were Patriot Front and NSC-131.”
While support for these groups is limited, they are fueled by once-“fringe” issues that have become mainstream conservative grievances: progressive content in library books; COVID-19 precautions like masks and vaccines; teaching the role of race and slavery in American history; racial equity in medicine; gay and transgender rights; and Donald Trump’s lie that he won the 2020 election.
“Back in the day when I first started doing this work, the conspiracies that I would see would be on some fringe platform and a handful of people, including some extremists, would have access to it,” said Segal with the Anti-Defamation League. “Today, those same conspiracies are being amplified in public spaces, on cable news and the mouths of our elected officials and extremists of all kinds.”
The convergence of mainstream conservative white grievances and white ethnonationalism was demonstrated last July when NSC-131 members joined conservative parents at local Board of Education meetings in Nashua, N.H., to shout down proposals for masking and vaccines.
Last summer the group threatened a New Hampshire Democratic state representative after he complained to police about racist and anti-Semitic graffiti that NSC-131 members scrawled on walls in Nashua. “Keep New England White” was one of the phrases the group left behind. N.H. Attorney General John Formella investigated the threats but concluded that there was insufficient evidence to charge the group with a crime.
In December, NSC-131 members clad in black and shouting homophobic insults protested in front of the Sea Coast Theater in Portsmouth, N.H., where a drag show was being performed. In January the group rallied in front of Brigham and Women’s Hospital with a banner and fliers equating the hospital’s pursuit of medical equity with anti-white animus.
Boston City Councilman Ed Flynn — who represents South Boston, where NSC-131 members showed up in March at the St. Patrick’s Day Parade — said it would be a mistake to underestimate the dangers posed by what he called “neo-Nazi foot soldiers.”
“During this era of division in our country, we’ve seen a lot of assaults on the AAPI [Asian American Pacific Islander] community, we’ve seen a lot of assaults on the immigrant community,” Flynn said. “They’re growing in our state. So it’s important that we don’t dismiss this as just a bunch of people expressing their point of view.”
The nurturing of a neo-Nazi
Liam MacNeil grew up in a house located on a quiet road in Waltham, where he still lives with his parents. He graduated from Waltham High School in 2018, where he was a star wrestler and boxer. In the video posted on the social media channel Telegram, he said he would use those skills “to train fascists.”
MacNeil’s presence in the community has not gone unnoticed. Stickers have gone up on light poles and mailboxes alerting residents about MacNeil’s NSC-131 activities.
“I tell you, if I catch these sons of bitches …” said MacNeil’s father, Darren, reached by phone. They’re “putting our address on telephone poles. They started taping and now they’re gluing it with Elmer’s glue.”
Darren MacNeil said he doesn’t agree with everything his son does but said he understands where it comes from. “The whole critical race theory that they’re pushing down everyone’s throat,” MacNeil lamented. He told GBH News that liberal politics are the reason why he “pulled his daughter out of public school.”
“That’s probably where it all started. We went to the Trump rally back in 2016 and I don’t know if that’s when he started getting on a kick.”DARREN MACNEIL, ON HIS SON LIAM MACNEIL GETTING INVOLVED IN NSC-131
Darren MacNeil traces his son’s radical politics back to former President Trump. “I’m a diehard Trump supporter,” he said. “That’s what I am. And that’s probably where it all started. We went to the Trump rally back in 2016 and I don’t know if that’s when he started getting on a kick.”
Liam, he said, wants to have a family and kids one day, but the older MacNeil complained about what he described as the state of the world today. “Who the hell wants their kids to be subjected to transgenders, telling story times to little children? Give me a break. It’s disgusting.” MacNeil added that he has worked with gay and transgender people and has nothing against them or anyone else. “If they want to transgender that’s fine,” he said, but they shouldn’t be around children.
NSC-131, the group Liam MacNeil joined, was started in December 2019 by Hood, a former resident of Malden and Dorchester who now is believed to live in Pepperell. He graduated in 2017 from Henry Owen School in Chelsea. That same year he was photographed by a group that monitors right-wing extremists at a Patriot Front “free speech” rally in Harvard Square.
Hood ventured out on his own after flirting with an assortment of neo-fascist street gangs in New England, including the Patriot Front, the Proud Boys and the Base.
GBH News reached out to Hood and MacNeil for comment, but neither responded.
Rod Webber, an anti-fascist film maker who has documented NSC-131’s activities over the past two years, says the group’s ranks have been thinned by arrests and prison. NSC-131 members in legal trouble include long-time right-wing provocateur Anthony Petruccelli, 47, from Lynn, Mass., who was convicted of assault and battery with a dangerous weapon in Lynn District Court.
Michael Robert Moura, a member of NSC-131, was charged last year at age 27 and put in prison for using counterfeit currency and for a weapons violation; purchasing an AR-15 from a seller who turned out to be an FBI agent, according to the charging documents.
Another person affiliated with the group, Andrew Hazelton, the son of a Westford selectman, is serving time in federal prison on child pornography charges. Like Liam MacNeil, Hazelton was enrolled at UMass Lowell. According to federal court records, he came to the attention of authorities after taking part in the Jan. 6 insurrection. Co-workers at his job in Portland, Maine, became concerned that Hazelton might carry out a mass shooting based on comments he made in the aftermath of the violent assault, as first reported by the Portland Herald. They contacted the FBI, which discovered child pornography on his computer in the course of its investigation. Hazelton’s federal public defender in Portland told GBH News that he would not make his client available for comment on this story.
None of these developments seems to have dampened new NSC-131 recruitment. “They’ve drawn more racists and white supremacists and antisemites into their ranks,” said Robert Trestan, director of the Anti-Defamation League New England, pointing to recent demonstrations of 25 or more neo-Nazis in front of Brigham and Women’s Hospital in January compared to no more than a half dozen protestors at past events.
The right-wing posse that rallied outside the hospital and Harvard Medical School falsely accused the institution and two doctors who worked there of being anti-white because of their stated goals to establish equity in medical treatment and outcomes.
While NSC-131 has Massachusetts roots, its members are not bound by the borders of the state.
On Feb. 21, two dozen or so uniformed NSC-131 members brandished a swastika flag outside The Red Ink Community Library in the Mount Hope section of Providence, R.I., where a reading of Karl Marx’s “Communist Manifesto” was scheduled on the anniversary of its publication.
Near the completion of the reading, the neo-Nazis began pounding on the windows of the library and chanting slogans, a scene captured on video and uploaded to social media.
If the purpose of the disruption was to instill fear, they succeeded, said library manager David Raileanu. “They very much would qualify as a terrorist organization.”
Satya Mohapatra, a library member, said the event host was assaulted by the neo-Nazis after he walked out of the bookstore to ask them to leave. “He went out and got punched in the face. Then I saw the swastika,” he said.
Police arrived as the group was dispersing, and no arrests were made. R.I. Governor Dan McKee and Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza quickly condemned the NSC-131 protest. But Republican R.I. House Minority Leader Blake Filippi questioned why the group inside the library reading the Communist Manifesto wasn’t equally condemned. Fillipi told WJAR-NBC 10, “I think all the people out there just condemning the Nazis and not condemning the communists do a disservice.”
The Patriot Front
Last summer, commuters passing by the MBTA train station on Bridge Street in Salem saw freshly painted graffiti on the wall that read “STRONG FAMILIES MAKE STRONG NATIONS PATRIOT FRONT.US”
What some may have viewed as an innocuous message stenciled on the wall, Salem Police Chief Miller said it was anything but. “This is a hate group, pure and simple,” he said. “Salem has been the victim of fairly regular Patriot Front tagging — a graffiti slap tagging, which involves stickers with hate messages on them.” Churches, Black Lives Matter murals and stores have been defaced across the state, including sites in Canton, Dover and Haverhill.
According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Patriot Front was formed in the aftermath of the August 12, 2017, “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Va., after breaking off from the explictly neo-Nazi group Vanguard America.
Kyle Morelli of Salem, and Alex Beilman of Meriden, Conn., were arrested for the Salem graffiti, both age 27 at the time. Each was charged with one count of vandalizing property and one count of tagging.
Southern Poverty Law Center researchers say the Patriot Front has worked hard to make itself palatable to conservatives. While its main competitor for recruitment in New England, NSC-131, is unaplogetically racist, homophobic and antisemitic in its jargon, the Patriot Front prefers to use dog whistles to appeal to recruits, tempering language that would turn off people who might otherwise agree with their agenda.
But in January, a leftist media organization called Unicorn Riot published a massive trove of messages from Patriot Front social media channels, revealing a worldview that imagines a white ethnic state in America and praises fascist historical figures such as Benito Mussolini.
The hacked messages revealed that far-right extremists believe they are on the same page as “Make America Great Again” Republicans. Though they differ in tactics, members pointed out in various direct messages that they share some of the same beliefs as Republican politicians, notably Donald Trump’s lie that he won the last presidential election.
The messages also revealed that Massachusetts and the Northeast have become major centers for recruitment for the Patriot Front. The group is led locally by Brian Harwood, 25, of Barnstable, who was appointed as a “quartermaster” by the group’s leader Thomas Rousseau.
Photos from the leaked Patriot Front data trove show Harwood and another man defacing a Black Lives Matter mural painted on the Champion Ice Cream Shop in downtown Brockton last year. “I’m thinking a simple ‘Reclaim America’ should do the trick,” a user with the handle ‘Phillip MA’ wrote in a text message exchange with Harwood in planning out the act of vandalism.
Boston College Professor of Philosophy Greg Fried, a specialist on authoritarianism, said it is not uncommon for extremist groups to cloak their views under mainstream language. “These far-right movements, they can’t use much more direct language, at least up front,” he said. “Otherwise, they may scare away potential recruits.”
And Fried points out that increasing numbers of Republican politicians — including U.S. House members Paul Gosar of Arizona, Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, Louie Gohmert of Texas and Lauren Boebert of Colorado — have openly aligned themselves with white supremacists with no substantive pushback from the Republican Party leadership, and have mainstreamed some of the extremist views.
Right-wing extremist ideas on immigration, crime and education are now sprinkled generously into the talking points of the Republican Party and into broadcasts on Fox News and other conservative networks.
“Things like ‘the great replacement’ theory are a way of sugarcoating an effectively racist language to play to the anxieties of a target population,” Fried said.
The philosophy of hate
Online conversations reveal that both NSC-131 and Patriot Front take inspiration from various right-wing theorists, including French novelist Jean Renaud Gabriel Camus, whose “great replacement theory” posits that a global Jewish elite is conspiring to replace white people with non-whites.
Experts say that neo-Nazis and other white supremacists in New England have benefited from Camus’ nativist writings. The acceleration of extremism is also tied to the rise of Tucker Carlson, whose cable ratings surge has been propelled by ethnonationalist themes that have become a central feature of the MAGA movement. More than 4.3 million viewers tuned into “Tucker Carlson Tonight” in the second quarter of 2020, making it the top program in all cable news.
Carlson frequently promotes the tenets of the great replacement theory. A recent New York Times deep dive found that his audience responds strongly to his promoting the idea that white Americans are victims of a conspiracy to reduce their numbers and privilege.
The Fox News ideologue is quoted admiringly by NSC-131 and Patriot Front members in online forums.
Massachusetts-based extremists share the belief with Carlson that the Jan. 6 attempt to overturn a U.S. election was “legitimate political discourse,” as the Republican National Committee put it.
This is also a view shared by fully one third of Republicans, according to a Morning Consult poll that has been backed up by other surveys.
“Carlson is celebrated by a wide range of white supremacists and anti-government extremists and others,” said Segal with the Anti-Defamation League. “Because they view it as, finally, their ideas are reaching a broader audience.”
Segal says the Jan. 6 riot represents the nexus between mainstream but extremely conservative Americans and white supremacist groups like NSC-131, the Patriot Front, Oath Keepers and the Proud Boys.
“Carlson is celebrated by a wide range of white supremacists and anti-government extremists and others. Because they view it as, finally, their ideas are reaching a broader audience.”OREN SEGAL, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE ANTI-DEFAMATION LEAGUE’S CENTER ON EXTREMISM
Segal says of the roughly 800 people arrested so far by the FBI in connection with the insurrection — including 15 from New England — about 20 percent were affiliated with white supremacist groups. “I can’t think of anything else that demonstrates the normalization of hate more than that number,” he said. And even if “80 percent of those who were arrested weren’t card-carrying members of any extremist group,” they were motivated by some of the same grievances and narratives that brought the extremists there in the first place, he said.
Boston College’s Fried says this is what makes grassroots far-right extremists in Massachusetts and elsewhere dangerous.
“If you look at a group like NSC-131 or the Patriot Front, the numbers are quite small in comparison to the general population. But I think we should use January 6 as a reality check,” he said. “Those were the shock troops of an attempted coup on the American political system.”
In social media posts, the groups frequently celebrate that they face no opposition when they parade in the streets. Some anti-racists are taking this as a mandate to confront the groups directly.
A fight for South Boston
Two dozen NSC-131 members showed up at Boston’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade in March, wearing green hoodies, khaki pants and masks and holding a banner that read “Keep Boston Irish.” They also held aloft a version of the Celtic cross that has long been associated with fascism. They distributed recruitment flyers reading “we stand for the security and prosperity of white New Englanders.”
Nearly two hours into the parade, some in the crowd turned on the neo-Nazis when documentarian Webber and his wife, activist filmmaker Lauren Pespisa, showed up holding a homemade sign with an arrow pointing toward the far-right cluster. The crowd “started flipping the bird to the Nazis,” Webber said.
NSC-131 turned their St. Patrick’s Day outing into a video accompanied with a music track from the Dropkick Murphys, a South Boston band with an international following. The band’s leader, Ken Casey, demanded that they cease and desist and followed up with a letter from their lawyer.
On Twitter, NSC-131 taunted band members and demanded that they “stop having your Jew lawyer sending us letters.” They also hinted that they were itching for a street fight, at which point Casey suggested a time and place they could meet.
At the appointed time, a week later, Casey and a crowd of dozens waited in the park in hopes of confronting NSC-131 members, but the nationalists were not there.
“I think they’re getting more and more brave,” said Ernst Jean-Jacques Jr, a 33-year-old Black Boston antiracism organizer also known as Shimmy who joined Casey in the park. “I think people need to do more and more to make them feel uncomfortable.”
He applauded the local show of force against Nazism but questioned why it had not happened a week earlier. “Like, the fact that they were here on St. Patrick’s Day in South Boston for God knows how long — long enough to parade around and take pictures and get videos with people. There clearly there wasn’t enough people here that were doing their job,” Jean-Jaques said.
“This neighborhood is still recovering from an ugly history of racism. And these people aren’t from here. These people aren’t part of my community. And they’re not welcome.”WILLIAM GOODE, SOUTH BOSTON RESIDENT
Life-long resident WIlliam Goode, visibly angry, said people in the area came out in force because “organized racists” had assumed they would find support in his neighborhood.
“These people aren’t welcome in my neighborhood where I grew up,” Goode said. “This neighborhood is still recovering from an ugly history of racism. And these people aren’t from here. These people aren’t part of my community. And they’re not welcome.”
Also hoping for a confrontation was a contingent of antifa activists — anti-fascists — who have a reputation for physically engaging far-right protesters in the streets.
“That’s how we like it,” said a woman clad head-to-toe in the familiar all-black garb of antifa who identified herself only as a long-time activist. “We all know what we stand for. We all know who each other is. So we show up when we’re needed.”
She said the pro-fascist contingent has clearly grown.
“The first time they started showing up in Boston during the Trump era, there was maybe four or five of them. And then antifa would show up and they’d just disappear,” she said. But over time, “they started getting people from other states and they feel like they have the permission to come out of their septic tanks all of a sudden.”
Webber complained that law enforcement officials seem to focus more on antifa activists than the growing white supremacist presence in the area. But Rachael Rollins, the new U.S. Attorney for Massachusetts said nothing could be further from the truth.
Law enforcement keeping tabs on neo-Nazis
Rollins told the GBH News Center for Investigative Reporting that far-right hate groups are a priority concern for the federal government, especially in the aftermath of the Jan. 6 insurrection. She said her colleagues across the region are equally concerned about the growing presence of fascist and other ethnonationalist groups.
“What is really good is that, all of the U.S. attorneys in New England, we’ve been discussing this,” Rollins said. “Not just with guns running through our various states or human trafficking running through our various states. There’s also hate running through our various states.”
Rollins said that realization has prompted a coordinated response among officials in New Hampshire, Maine, Rhode Island, Connecticut and Massachusetts, which includes stepped-up investigations by the FBI and the Joint Terrorism Task Force as well as information sharing with local communities.
“We are looking at all of the ties and ways that we can try to educate our different states about the types of groups that are forming, but also educate the communities about what it is that we’re seeing and encourage them to bring information to our attention,” Rollins said.
She said her office welcomes assistance from online and social media sleuths which track NSC-131, Patriot Front and other extremists. “Remember, there are individuals that might be on websites that I’m not on as the U.S. attorney or that the FBI isn’t looking into or watching.” she said. “But we promise you, we will look into every claim that is brought to our attention.”
NSC-131 and the Patriot Front have posted videos on social media sites of themselves conducting martial arts and firearms training in the forests of New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Rhode Island. Some residents have raised concerns about what could happen if interracial couples, people of color or people wearing Jewish or Muslim clothes or symbols were to encounter white supremacists in the woods during a hike. Rollins says this scenario is not far fetched, and that it concerns her, too.
Anybody who encounters threatening behavior should notify law enforcement immediately, she said. “You have allies and people that are aware of civil rights violations and hate-crime law in all 11 of your DAs in the commonwealth,” Rollins said. “I know all of them, and I used to be one of them. No matter what their political ideology is, they prosecute crimes.”
Rollins suggests treating NSC-131, the Patriot Front and others as street gangs, an idea she first raised in an interview on GBH’s Boston Public Radio in February. “I want to make sure that the same zeal that we bring after some of these violent street gangs, that we come with that same zeal at racially motivated violent extremists,” she said.
City Councilor Flynn said he would like to make Rollins’ wish come true in Boston.
“We need to track people that are involved in this activity,” he said. “I support the U.S. attorney on this. I think she’s right on the mark and she understands how dangerous these people are. I’m going to meet with city officials about it.”
A neo-Nazi on campus
On a recent spring day students darted in and out of classes across the sprawling 142-acre campus of UMass Lowell as the school year ground toward completion.
Several students interviewed by GBH News said they had seen the video stream last year with Liam MacNeil bragging about using his position as a student to recruit others into the ranks of NSC-131.
“It makes me wildly uncomfortable, and I think it poses a safety risk for the other students here,” said Mary, a sophomore studying political science. Like most of the students interviewed, she declined to give her surname over concerns about NSC-131. “This is a really diverse campus with a lot of diverse ethnic groups here. I’m a white woman. I’m a little more privileged than other races and cultures. And it makes me really concerned for other people here that would have to deal with the ramifications of the ideology that he is spreading.”
But Awa, a member of the Black Student Union, said that a white extremist’s presence on campus was par for the course. “It’s just not surprising anymore. Once Trump became president, a lot of people got the courage to come out and show their true colors and show what they truly believe.”
Last June, dozens of students and faculty protested MacNeil’s presence on this campus. One sophomore said his expulsion would be one way of countering the wave of extremism sweeping across the country.
But UMass Lowell administrators cited academic freedom as the reason why they would not move to expel him.
“While we cannot ban hate from the hearts and minds of every individual, we will continue to speak out strongly against it and to overwhelm messages of hate with messages of respect, equity, justice and inclusion,” the university said in a statement.
But Liam MacNeil is gone anyway. His father Darren said the demonstrations and protests at UMass Lowell against him and NSC-131 took their toll on his son, and he is no longer enrolled at the university.
This story was originally published by GBH News, a partner of the New England News Collaborative.