Communities wrestle with rise in white supremacist propaganda
By Elizabeth Hewitt
Aug 9 2019 | 11 reader footnotes
On an electric box outside the Shaw’s in Williston, a poster — propaganda for the white nationalist group the Patriot Front — featured an eagle crest and the slogan “Keep America American.”
The poster, plastered over a “Bernie for U.S. Senate 2018” sticker, encourages people to report “any and all illegal aliens,” sharing the tip line number for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). In navy and red print, the design appears fairly innocuous; the only indication of its origin is the group’s website url at the bottom.
The poster went up less than a mile from where calls to the ICE tip line would be answered, at a U.S. Department of Homeland Security facility. Last month, hundreds marched through Williston’s streets nearby, protesting immigration policies and the treatment of migrants on the U.S. southern border.
To the Williston Police Department’s knowledge, the poster is the first Patriot Front has put up in town. The organization, categorized as a white nationalist hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, has placed similar posters around Chittenden County.
The spate of postings in Vermont comes at a time when white nationalist organizations have increased propaganda efforts across the country, according to watchdog groups. That’s left communities and local leaders navigating how best to respond.
In Billings, Montana, where white supremacist groups have spread pamphlets, Mayor Bill Cole said it’s important for leaders to swiftly denounce it as “deplorable.”
“That’s an easy call,” he said in an interview Thursday.
But, he said, it is worth considering the specifics of the situation. If only a few people are aware of a poster, it might be better to avoid publicizing it and potentially encouraging the group, he said.
“In that situation, I think a good case could be made that we should not give racists a megaphone,” he said.
Instances aren’t common in Billings — he attributes activity to one or two “bad apples” — but he said the community has come together to show unity. After swastikas were painted on a school last year, he wrote an op-ed in the paper condemning the actions and the community held public meetings. No one was apprehended, he said, but it stopped.
“This is a problem that exists everywhere,” he said. “It’s just a matter of degree.”
White supremacist propaganda has sharply increased in recent years, according to the Anti-Defamation League. The group recorded 1,187 incidents of racist, anti-Semitic and Islamophobic posters, stickers, fliers and banners being distributed nationwide in 2018 – more than twice the 421 cases reported in 2017.
In Vermont, 35 instances of Patriot Front propaganda have been recorded so far this year, a steep increase from a total of five last year, according to Nora Cohen of the Anti-Defamation League in New England.
“I think it’s a result of the polarized world that we’re living in today,” Cohen said, pointing to a broader social and political climate in which some people feel more free to speak their minds.
Cohen said many people may not be aware of what the Patriot Front is. One of the group’s tactics is to appear patriotic and attempt to appeal to young audiences. Meanwhile, members try to avoid the public eye and their material is not always easy to peg to the group, she said.
“If you don’t know what the Patriot Front is, you would suppose that this is something else, not necessarily a white supremacist group,” she said.
In Williston, it was unclear when the poster was put up. But someone had made an effort to ensure it was affiliated with the Patriot Front. A corner appeared to have been torn from it, swastikas drawn on it with marker, and the DHS number scribbled out, with an arrow pointing to “1-IMA-NEO-NAZI.” (ICE did not return a request for comment on the inclusion of the tip line number in the Patriot Front poster.)
The Williston Police Department first learned of the poster on the electric box from a reporter.
“I have to go see what you’re reporting before I can say what we can and cannot do with it,” Officer Matthew Cohen said.
Cohen said it was the first sign of activity by the white supremacist group in Williston. He alerted Green Mountain Power, the owner of the electric box, and a company employee told him someone would be sent out to remove it immediately. He encouraged anybody who witnesses vandalism of any sort to report it to the property owner or the police department in the future.
Williston Town Selectboard Chair Terry Macaig condemned the Patriot Front poster.
“This is really incredibly stupid, uncalled for anywhere, but especially in Williston where we have a very big diverse population,” Macaig said.
Similar posters have appeared in the Burlington area in recent months. Last month, several were put up on signs for activist groups in the city, Seven Days reported. Posters have been put up at park-and-ride in Richmond, and in February, they were posted near Ohavi Zedek Synagogue and the Pride Center of Vermont.
The poster went up less than a mile from where about 750 people protested outside the Immigration and Customs Enforcement facility in Williston last month. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger
Burlington Police detective Tom Chenette has been fielding calls about the Patriot Front around the city and Chittenden County for about two years, since the group had planned a demonstration on Church Street in early 2018. After a dormant period of about a year, there was a spree when several stickers were put up overnight in February. Since then, he said, “they’ve been kind of continuing sporadically.”
Police passed along information about the group to the Chittenden County State’s Attorney, which declined to prosecute the case because nothing rose to the level of criminality, he said. The group uses stickers, which don’t damage the surfaces they’re placed on, Chenette said.
“Our stance as of now is to track things, document things so that when they do eventually cross the line and do something criminal, we could show this pattern of behavior over a long period of time,” Chenette said.
Meanwhile, the activity has prompted sharp condemnation from city leaders. Mayor Miro Weinberger, who was unavailable for comment this week, said in February that “White supremacist groups like Patriot Front have no place in Burlington.”
In other communities around the country, public leaders have also been swift to make public statements decrying Patriot Front activity and labeling it racist.
After neo-Nazi signs went up in Leominster, Massachusetts, last month, the mayor encouraged residents to pull down any posters they saw. When Lansing, Michigan, residents reported removing more than 25 Patriot Front posters in February, the mayor issued a warning that anybody caught posting the stickers on public property would be ticketed for violating ordinance.
“There is a clear distinction between free speech and behavior that is intended to harass, intimidate, and precipitate hate crimes,” Lansing public officials said in a statement.
Lecia Brooks of the Southern Poverty Law Center said the best way for communities to respond is to raise awareness of the activity and the underlying message of the group. She recommends building coalitions — reach out to law enforcement, media, youth groups, faith-based communities, colleges and others, and “make a big stand,” she said.