NH AG’s pursuit of hate group marks a turning point in officials’ response to extremism

A maintenance worker at Temple Israel in Portsmouth works to remove a spray painted swastika. (Todd Bookman / NHPR)

Dan Hastie, a maintenance worker at Temple Israel in Portsmouth, N.H., spent part of last Thursday trying to scrape away the last remnants of a red swastika from the synagogue’s back entranceway.

“It’s just frustrating, you know,” Hastie said, as he tried to wash away the spray paint with acetone and a scrub brush. “Stuff like this should never happen.”

In the early hours of Feb. 21, the temple and nearly a dozen other local businesses were vandalized with similar hate messages. Surveillance footage shows a lone masked individual that police are still working to identify and arrest.

Sitting inside her office at Temple Israel, surrounded by bouquets of flowers sent as a show of support following the incident, Rabbi Kaya Stern-Kaufman said it’s been a challenging week.

“I was of course very upset, I was pained deeply that this was happening here,” Stern-Kaufman said. “At the same time, I wasn’t surprised.”

Not surprised, because hate and bias incidents are on the rise in New Hampshire, according to the state’s Department of Justice. Last year, Nazi imagery was found in Hopkinton, and a church sign was defaced in Westmoreland. In Franklin, the Jewish owner of a restaurant was deluged with online threats and negative reviews last summer after she spoke out against white supremacists.

But along with those isolated incidents, officials are also tracking a newer, more coordinated presence in the region.

“We are now seeing groups come into the state and organize more widespread attempts to target people based on their background,” New Hampshire Attorney General John Formella said in a recent interview. “And that’s what’s different than before.”

In at least one instance, Formella’s office is responding to this coordinated extremist activity with a more coordinated legal response. In what’s believed to be a first of its kind case in New Hampshire, the Attorney General’s office is pursuing a civil action against the Nationalist Social Club, or NSC-131, a Neo-Nazi group whose presence is on the rise in New England.

The case revolves around a 2022 incident in which members of NSC-131 allegedly hung a banner that said “Keep New England White” from an overpass in Portsmouth. In its civil petition, state authorities claim that the group trespassed onto city-owned property, hung the banner without permission and were motivated to do so by racial animus, violating New Hampshire’s civil rights statute. Preliminary arguments are scheduled to begin Wednesday in Rockingham Superior Court.

This effort to prosecute NSC-131 in New Hampshire comes as law enforcement — and community members — are grappling with the best way to respond to extremism. Meanwhile, the case itself is raising some questions among free speech advocates, while others say it’s a necessary step toward holding people who commit acts of hate accountable.

A landmark case with risks

The civil petition filed by the state in January doesn’t come with criminal charges, but could result in fines of up to $5,000 for NSC-131, as well as two of its members, who are named as defendants.

As the case proceeds, it’s being closely watched by free speech champions who question whether the legal claims at the heart of the state’s action against NSC-131 run counter to First Amendment protections.

“I haven’t seen anything like this before,” said Aaron Terr, director of public advocacy for FIRE, a national group that advocates for free speech rights.

The case doesn’t appear to have any legal precedent, according to Terr, and also could pose a risk: Hate speech, as distasteful as it may be, has long been protected under federal law. Attempts to police that speech by the government, Terr warned, is a slippery slope.

Attorney General John Formella announced a civil complaint had been filed against NSC-131 during a press conference in Portsmouth in January. (Todd Bookman / NHPR)

“I think it does raise some concerns about whether the government is using the trespass rationale as a pretext to go after views that they don’t want expressed, and that’s something that the government shouldn’t be in the business of doing,” he said.

Terr also cautioned that the case and corresponding media coverage could give NSC-131 an avenue to amplify their message.

“The best thing might be to just not give them the attention that they’re craving,” he said.

That’s already true in one regard: NSC-131 has fundraised on social media around the case, generating more than $8,000 in donations.

But shutting one’s eyes to white supremacist activity comes with its own risks, argues Dr. Stanislav Vysotsky, a researcher at the University of the Fraser Valley who’s written about fascist groups and anti-fascist movements.

“Ignoring them usually gives them space to organize, to build, and then to publicly mobilize,” he said.

Countering those mobilization efforts has traditionally come in multiple forms, and not always from government or law enforcement authorities, according to Vysotsky’s research. Grassroots activists have waged counterprotests against hate groups, sometimes resulting in clashes, while others have worked to identify and doxx members of extremist movements, as a way to shame them or make their daily lives harder to lead.

Following a spate of vandalism, Portsmouth organized ‘Love Blooms Here,’ an event where flowers were left with impacted businesses and Temple Israel. (Dan Tuohy / NHPR)

“What you’re trying to do is you’re trying to leverage the social stigma against being an overt and explicit bigot for the purposes of demobilizing,” Vysotsky said of those tactics.

That is happening, to some extent, with NSC-131. Anti-fascist activists across New England have worked to identify members of the group and publicize their names. Some people have also attempted to confront the group in public — including in Lewiston, Maine last fall, where a video shared online shows an unnamed person belittling members of the hate group while they posed in a public square.

“Why the masks? Why the shame? You guys are ashamed because it is shameful,” said a voice from behind the camera. “131 is shameful.”

‘Root it out before it grows’

While citizens, either through organizing or more combative tactics, are playing a role in challenging extremists, law enforcement still sees its efforts as central to combatting acts of bias.

That belief was on full display earlier in February when top members of law enforcement, community leaders and the public filled a youth center in Manchester for a forum on hate crimes.

Organized by the offices of the U.S. Attorney for New Hampshire and the New Hampshire Attorney General the event included a series of panels about the legal threshold for prosecuting hate speech, the experiences of those who have been targeted and the need to report suspected acts of bias to authorities.

“So when we see it, we can attempt to root it out before it grows and rips apart our community,” U.S. Attorney Jane Young told the crowd.

Ali Sekou, with the Islamic Society of Greater Concord, was among those who shared his experience as a panelist at the event. He said he’s been targeted for his faith, and those in positions of power in the state may not be able to fully grasp the impact.

“Because they will never be either Black or immigrant or Muslim, or whatever other hats, because you have to be one of these people to understand how we feel inside and outside,” he said after the event.

Still, Sekou applauded the government for taking action, not just in forums but also in courtrooms.

“And that’s my relief for now,” he said, “until we see what comes out of it.”

This story was originally published by New Hampshire Public Radio, a partner of the New England News Collaborative.