25 Investigates: Tracking rising extremism in Massachusetts

25 Investigates: Tracking rising extremism in Massachusetts

BOSTON — The riots at the Capitol on Jan. 6 brought discussion of extremism and domestic terrorism back into the forefront.

Experts and law enforcement agencies tell 25 Investigates the riots were just one manifestation of a threat that’s been growing in recent years. Anchor and investigative reporter Kerry Kavanaugh spoke with researchers who say extremists are organizing right here in New England, though they might not always be easy to spot.

The Capitol Under Seige

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Among those protesting in Washington that day were white nationalists as evidenced by the many indicators of extremism, according to Joan Donovan of the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy of the Harvard Kennedy School.

“During the Capitol event, people were wearing patches that said, RWDS, that’s “Right Wing Death Squad” you know, so that shows a reference to you know, almost genocidal intent,” Donovan said. “So, there was one around RWN, which means ‘race war’. Now, there were symbols related to ‘6 million were not enough’. So that is a reference to the Holocaust.”

Donovan has been studying far-right activity on social media platforms and she’s been documenting a rise of white nationalism on social media in the U.S., some of which she says is originating here in New England.

“So another example that we’ve seen of white supremacists hiding their true intentions is the use of Facebook groups. But instead of saying exactly what it is that they’re about, they’ll hide behind different descriptions or titles. For instance, “Super Happy Fun America,” she said.

Super Happy Fun America is based in Massachusetts.

On its website, the group says, “Patriots who dare to speak against the madness engulfing our nation are brutally suppressed and targeted for harassment. Freedom-loving Americans have had enough.”

You may recall, Super Happy Fun America’s first big public event was the straight pride parade in Boston in 2019.

“‘Super Happy Fun America’ is a right of center, a civil rights group focusing on the American Constitution and fighting ‘gender madness’ and fighting ‘cultural Marxism’,” said John Hugo, president of the group.

Hugo tells 25 Investigates he believes the threat of extremism is exaggerated.

“White nationalism is not a problem in this country. It’s a creation of far-left media,” Hugo told Kavanaugh. “I think if anyone is a Nazi, nowadays, it’s just a clown. And then I don’t think anyone takes them seriously.”

Hugo says his group supports the unsubstantiated claim the 2020 presidential campaign was stolen from former President Donald Trump. Super Happy Fun America members were among the Capitol rioters in January, according to federal prosecutors.

The group’s vice president, Mark Sahady of Malden, and another member Suzanne Ianni of Natick are now facing federal charges.

In court documents, prosecutors included photos they say show Sahady and Ianni inside the Capitol building that day.

An attorney for Mark Sahady told 25 Investigates he didn’t want to comment at this time. Calls to Suzanne Ianni and her attorney were not returned as of this writing.

The Local Events

“Anyone can hold whatever view they want. But we also need to be aware that sometimes those views may inspire or incite people, to violence to the targeting of other people,” said Robert Trestan, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League of New England.

He says Super Happy Fun America is a provocative group that attracts the attention of extremists, even if they say that is not their intention.

Donavan, at the Shorenstein Center says it’s important to look at who is attending the locally organized events.

“When you look at who’s there, you look at the symbols of, of, you know, the flags that they bring the T-shirts that they were, there were a lot of dog whistles back to well known white supremacist groups, including National Socialist Club, which is neo-Nazis,” she said.

25 Investigates contacted the NSC for comment and did not hear back as of this writing.

The Anti-Defamation League says the NSC originated in Worcester and that the NSC “...espouses racism, antisemitism and intolerance via the Internet, propaganda distributions and the use of graffiti.”

Social media photos from January 6 suggest that NSC members were also in Washington D.C. that day.

Christian Exoo is an antifascist researcher who exposes neo-Nazis on social media using the Twitter handle @AntiFashGordon and the website DePlatform Hate.

“Essentially, I investigate the far right and tell people about it,” Exoo said.

Exoo says by examining social media posts and photos, he’s connected NSC members and other white nationalists to multiple Super Happy Fun America events.

“The role that Super Happy Fun America has played in the far-right ecosystem is to serve as an umbrella group that other far-right groups can come can coalesce around, essentially. And the purpose of this is to provide sort of an optical mask for their actual ideology,” he said.

John Hugo says his group has no ties to any neo-Nazis and he sent 25 Investigates a video in which he says his members denounced Nazis who showed up at one of their events in June 2020, which they billed as a pro-police rally. We included a portion of that video in our segment that aired on Boston 25 News.

“Our group is diverse and we despise that type of thing {referring to neo-Nazis},” Hugo said.

Trestan says communities need to be aware with provocative groups comes the possibility of violence.

“Our message is, don’t ignore it,” he told Kavanaugh. “We don’t want to become a society where we’re numb to messages of hate, and we just walk by it on the ‘T’ and just say, Oh, that’s just part of the fabric.”

It’s not just researchers who are concerned with the threat of extremism.

In a statement, the FBI Boston Field Office told 25 Investigates “racially or ethnically motivated violent extremism are responsible for the most lethal and violent domestic terrorism activity since 2000.” Adding “The FBI views the threat from domestic terrorism extremists as steady and persistent over the last few years. In fact, there have been more arrests of--and deaths caused by--domestic terrorists than international terrorists in recent years.”

The Biden administration has asked law enforcement and intelligence officials for a full assessment of potential domestic terrorism and extremism.

Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey told us “The attack on the U.S. Capitol exposed deep-rooted and widespread extremism in our country. We know that this wasn’t an isolated incident and our response cannot be momentary either. We must put a stop to hate whenever it shows up. To end white supremacy in this country, we need leaders on both sides of the aisle to demand accountability.”

Her office has also established a hotline to report hate crimes at 1-800-994-3228.