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Officials say they had no advance notice of a hate group's weekend march in Boston

Law enforcement agencies did not have intelligence ahead of time about a white supremacist organization’s plans to march through downtown Boston over the holiday weekend, Boston Mayor Michelle Wu said Tuesday as local, state and federal officials urged residents to remain vigilant about radicalization in their communities.

Three days after dozens of individuals apparently affiliated with the hate group Patriot Front strode through the city with their faces hidden by white coverings, police said they continue to investigate an alleged assault linked to the march but stressed that even some hateful rhetoric is protected as free speech.

Local, state and federal authorities huddled with community leaders Tuesday to discuss the specter of white supremacist organization and action. Wu told reporters afterward that the meeting focused partly on how much law enforcement knew about the group’s plans and when they knew it.

Unlike the June 11 arrest of more than two dozen people affiliated with Patriot Front who allegedly planned to riot at a Pride event in Idaho, Wu said authorities did not have “advance notice or information about this group’s plans” in Boston.

“In Idaho, there was information ahead of time, intelligence that was received that the intent of this group was to go disrupt and possibly incite violence at a scheduled event that was taking place, a Pride event in their community,” Wu said. “Here, we did not have intelligence ahead of time and did not, unfortunately, know that they were planning to come here and disrupt our festivities. There was also not a specific bit of information that they were intending to incite violence.”

Facing a question about how much BPD’s Boston Regional Intelligence Center and the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Forces knew about plans for the march and when they knew it, U.S. Attorney Rachael Rollins said some information will not yet be made public. She acknowledged some in the public might wonder how police did not better anticipate the day’s events.

“We are gathering information as the minutes tick on about this specific incident and what we knew there,” Rollins said. “We are looking at and we had a lot of pointed questions, and we should, as to: if this were a Black Lives Matter protest, would the response have been different than this white supremacist group?”

Rollins, who served as Suffolk County’s district attorney before President Joe Biden selected her for the top federal prosecutor role in Massachusetts, said she believes BPD officials addressed those questions “internally.” She later declined to deem the law enforcement response to the march a “failure.”

“I’m going to be looking into with the mayor to see what we could’ve done better, what we need to continue doing moving forward, but right now, this is not vilifying the police,” Rollins said. “This is making sure that people in our communities know that hate has no place here in Boston or Massachusetts.”

Police continue to investigate the alleged assault of a Black man, identified in media reports as activist and artist Charles Murrell, who spoke out about the violence on Monday.

Boston Police Department Superintendent-in-Chief Greg Long said his officers “did not witness” the alleged assault but are reviewing video recovered.

”There’s a lot of detectives assigned to that in an effort to identify those individuals involved in this assault. If we’re able to make identifications, if people’s faces are visible — we have mechanisms to try to identify those people,” Long said. “Whether they’re out of state or local people, there will be charges brought.”

Wu, who said individuals involved in the altercation “need to be prosecuted to the full extent of the law,” said the “intentionality” of marchers covering their faces to shield their identities poses a hurdle for law enforcement.

The Southern Poverty Law Center describes Patriot Front as a “white nationalist hate group” that splintered off from Vanguard America following the violent “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Va. nearly five years ago.

Rollins said law enforcement has observed Patriot Front “leafleting” in Rhode Island, New Hampshire, Maine and Boston, and she said it’s not yet clear how many of Saturday’s marchers live in Massachusetts.

In Rollins’s count, the march marked the third high-profile instance in 2022 of a “hate group” active in the public sphere in Boston. White nationalist protesters stood outside Brigham and Women’s Hospital in January holding signs declaring that the hospital “kills whites.” During the South Boston St. Patrick’s Day parade in March, a masked group clad in neo-Nazi insignias unfurled a “Keep Boston Irish” sign.

Wu described the events as “not one-off incidents” but instead “a growing rise and trend in white supremacy and hate.”

Officials said Tuesday that law enforcement surveillance of domestic terrorist groups is limited by the First Amendment. Those boundaries were an item “we spent quite a bit of time talking about in the meeting today,” said Joseph Bonavolonta, special agent in charge of the FBI’s Boston office.

“Two of the main elements are that (federal law enforcement) cannot track or monitor domestic groups or police ideology,” Bonavolonta said. “There have to be certain elements that are met for us to even open up an active investigation, and that is the existence of a potential federal crime (and) the threat or use of force or violence in conjunction with some sort of a social or political agenda.”

Limits exist on how federal authorities can respond to a hate group spreading propaganda, too, depending on specifically what the materials entail.

”In many cases, even ignorant, vile or repugnant hate speech can be, at times, covered by the First Amendment,” Bonavolonta said. “If it rises to a level where there is a threat or use of force or violence, that is where we can and have gotten involved in and initiated investigations.”

Asked if Patriot Front had crossed that threshold, Bonavolonta said the investigation is “active and ongoing.”

”As the facts and the evidence come to bear, we’ll see where we are with it and what decisions are made at that time,” Bonavolonta said.

Both Wu and Rollins urged Bay Staters to assist law enforcement by reporting anything they hear about potential hate group activity. Wu said residents should “err on the side of reaching out.”

Rollins also referenced Monday’s mass shooting in Highland Park, Illinois, where a gunman killed at least seven people and injured 46 others.

“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 or my loved one,’” Rollins said. “We would rather you do that and be wrong than be the parent of somebody, you know, in Illinois, the young man that just took all these lives there or had some of these ideologies as well.”

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