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A New England neo-Nazi group is attracting members using Republican talking points

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

A nascent neo-Nazi group in New England is attempting to recruit new members. It's doing this by raising its public profile and latching on to Republican talking points that were once considered fringe. From member station WGBH in Boston, here's senior investigative reporter Phillip Martin.

PHILLIP MARTIN, BYLINE: A video posted last summer on social media provided a rare look inside the strategic planning of an upstart neo-Nazi movement. In the video, Chris Hood, the 23-year-old founder of the Nationalist Socialist Club, or NSC-131, gave instructions to a University of Massachusetts Lowell student named Liam McNeil.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CHRIS HOOD: Well, if you're in college, you should be getting together with all the other guys on campus that think like you, start going to all the frat parties and bullying the troops that race mix and just start dominating the parties, take over the campus.

LIAM MCNEIL: We could do that.

MARTIN: Hood and 23-year-old McNeil are part of a tiny but growing clique of white nationalists who have begun loudly announcing their presence across New England.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HOOD: I mean, we're pretty much like a frat but racist.

MARTIN: Oren Segal describes Massachusetts-based NSC-131 differently.

OREN SEGAL: It's a small neo-Nazi group.

MARTIN: Segal is president of the Anti-Defamation League's Center on Extremism.

SEGAL: 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.

MARTIN: Segal says the group appears to have escalated its activities in the wake of last year's attempted insurrection in the U.S. Capitol, where members of NSC-131 were present. This greatly concerns Gregory Fried, professor of philosophy at Boston College and an expert on authoritarianism.

GREGORY FRIED: We should use January 6 as a reality check. Those were the shock troops of an attempted coup on the American political system.

MARTIN: In New England, NSC-131 have hung racist banners from highway overpasses, rallied in front of hospitals and joined mainstream conservatives to protest vaccine mandates and anti-racist education. The group has conducted martial arts and firearms training in state forests.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: White power, white power.

MARTIN: Law enforcement officials have taken notice, including U.S. attorney for Massachusetts Rachael Rollins, who is coordinating with colleagues in the region.

RACHAEL ROLLINS: All of the U.S. attorneys in New England, we've been discussing this 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.

MARTIN: Rollins has suggested that NSC-131 and other far-right extremists should be classified as street gangs. In January, 30 neo-Nazis rallied near Boston's Brigham and Women's Hospital, protesting programs to establish racial equity in medicine. The rhetoric of the far-right demonstrators was identical to a patently false assertion made days earlier by former President Donald Trump at a rally in Arizona.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DONALD TRUMP: The left is now rationing lifesaving therapeutics based on race, discriminating against and denigrating - just denigrating white people to determine who lives and who dies.

MARTIN: Robert Treston, director of the Anti-Defamation League of New England, fears that Trump's amplification of white grievances has helped NSC-131 boost its membership.

ROBERT TRESTAN: And we know this because their demonstration in front of Brigham and Women's Hospital actually drew more people than we've seen at previous protests.

MARTIN: In March, as floats passed by at the St. Patrick's Day parade in South Boston, two dozen NSC members unfurled a banner reading keep Boston Irish. Some in the crowd reacted with bafflement and curiosity. Others, like lifelong resident William Goode, who is white, were outraged that the group had assumed they would find support in this neighborhood, once a bastion of violent white resistance to school desegregation.

WILLIAM GOODE: I don't like Nazis. This neighborhood's still recovering from an ugly history of racism. And these people aren't part of my community, and they're not welcome.

MARTIN: NSC-131 received a similarly frosty reception on the campus of UMass Lowell, where Liam McNeil hoped to recruit. A sophomore who would only give her first name, Mary, who was white said she's not interested.

MARY: It makes me wildly uncomfortable, and I think it poses a safety risk for the other students here.

MARTIN: But Awa, a member of the Black Student Union who also gave only her first name, said that a white extremist presence on campus was par for the course.

AWA: Once Trump became president, a lot of people got that courage to come out and show their true colors.

MARTIN: The ADL reported that incidents of white supremacist propaganda more than doubled on campuses from 2018 to 2019 to an historic high of more than 600 incidents nationwide that year. Over the past year, dozens of students have protested McNeil's presence on this campus, saying he should be expelled. But the administration said it could not kick him out because of the principle of academic freedom. Still, the pressure seems to have taken a toll. In a recent phone call, McNeil's father told me that the protest had an impact and Liam McNeil is no longer enrolled at the university. For NPR News, I'm Phillip Martin in Boston. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Since joining WGBH in the spring of 2010, Phillip Martin has reported on human trafficking in southern New England, carbon offset schemes, police training and race, the Occupy movement and the fishing industry in New England, among other topics.