February 11 – A banner hanging from a motorway overpass in Portsmouth sent calls to 911 services from passing motorists and waves of fear among many on the coast last summer.
“Keep New England White,” it read.
The white nationalists who hung that banner are due in Rockingham County Superior Court on March 1, in what many see as a test of the state’s Civil Rights Act. At issue is the balance between the First Amendment right to free speech and the right of New Hampshire residents to live free from fear and intimidation.
Last month, senior state and local officials gathered at a press conference in Portsmouth to announce that the Attorney General’s Office had launched civil law enforcement actions, accusing Nationalist Social Club 131 and two of its members of violating the Civil State Rights Act.
“The banner’s simple language references race and is designed to send the message that people of color are not welcome and make targeted individuals in New Hampshire feel insecure,” the complaint said.
NSC 131 also distributed recruiting flyers in the state last year, describing itself as “a street-oriented, pro-white fraternity dedicated to raising genuine resistance to the enemies of our people in the New England area.”
The case comes at a time when reports of hate-motivated incidents are increasing in the Granite State.
“Hate has no place in New Hampshire,” Attorney General John Formella said at a hate crimes forum his office hosted last week in Manchester with the US Attorney’s Office. “But we’ve seen an increase in hate-motivated complaints over the past two years.”
The FBI reported 34 hate crimes in New Hampshire in 2021, up from 19 the previous year. This included assaults, intimidation and vandalism.
But not everything reaches the level of a criminal act, and that’s where New Hampshire’s Civil Rights Act comes into play.
That law, which went into effect in 2000, makes it illegal to threaten or commit physical violence, assault, trespassing, or property damage when such act is “motivated by race, color, religion, national origin, ancestry, sexual orientation, gender, identity gender or disability.” Incurs civil penalties including fines and court orders.
Reports of bias continue to rise in New Hampshire, according to Sean Locke, an assistant attorney general who heads the AG office’s Civil Rights Unit, formed in late 2017.
In 2018, the unit received 40 complaints; the following year, 81 arrived. In 2020, 156 complaints arrived, followed by 155 in 2021 and 187 last year.
Locke said his office can bring civil actions against those who violate the Civil Rights Act. But if someone is hate-motivated to commit a crime, that person may be subject to enhanced sentences under state criminal law.
“Any crime can become a hate crime in the state of New Hampshire,” he said.
It is difficult to know whether the increase in reporting reflects an actual increase in hate incidents or an increase in reporting as a result of increased awareness.
Officials say they hope it’s increased awareness.
At last week’s forum in Manchester, state and city leaders urged community members to reach out to them when hate-motivated incidents occur. In the room were state and federal prosecutors, law enforcement officers, and leaders of the Muslim, Jewish, and Christian communities, as well as the president of the NAACP, a victim/witness attorney from the Department of Justice, and the head of the state commission on civil rights. humans.
US Attorney Jane Young said she hopes these types of community gatherings will foster both awareness and prevention of incidents of prejudice and hate. “So when we see it, we can try to eradicate it before it grows and tears our community apart,” she said.
“As a community we have the opportunity to really make a difference, to build relationships so that in the event of an accident, we know each other, trust each other and rely on each other to get through that event and become stronger and better,” Young said.
Assistant US Attorney Seth Aframe, who teaches a course on the First Amendment at the University of New Hampshire’s Franklin Pierce School of Law, said that constitutional law is based on the idea of tolerance: “that we are a society better if we tolerate that speech we hate”.
But when the talk turns into a threat or an intimidation, “that’s where line drawing comes in,” Aframe said.
Manchester Police Chief Allen Aldenberg said reporting such incidents quickly gave detectives the best chance of finding evidence or witnesses. “No matter how big or small, we need to know immediately if someone is the victim of a suspected hate crime,” he said.
Aframe said that even if it is not possible to bring charges, reporting an incident to law enforcement can offer greater protection to a community that has been targeted. He said he saw it happen in his synagogue in Concord.
Law enforcement experts have acknowledged a lack of trust in the police among some members of the community.
But Ali Sekou, president of the Islamic Society of Concord, said it’s not necessarily mistrust that keeps some from reporting, but frustration at the lack of follow-up in such cases. “A lot of us feel like it’s not even important to report something because it’s not going anywhere,” he said.
Sekou said her community has been heartened by the strong statements made by state and local officials following the Portsmouth incident last summer. “It was very comforting to see the Attorney General say there is no place for hate speech in this state and in our community,” she said.
Alyson Guertin, director of the Jewish Federation of New Hampshire, said she too was gratified by the response to anti-Semitic incidents in Cornwall and Laconia. “It really feels like the greater New Hampshire community really supports us,” she said.
A panel at the forum focused on the resources available to individuals and communities who feel targeted by hate. Lynda Ruel, a victim/witness attorney with the Attorney General’s Office, said her agency can provide help to victims of hate even if the case cannot be prosecuted.
But a Franklin restaurant owner whose business was targeted by fake negative online reviews after speaking out against NSC flyers said the experience and lack of official action left her feeling insecure.
Even if resources are available, Miriam Kovacs said, it can be nearly impossible for a victim of a hate incident to ask for them. “You are delivering a raft to someone who is actively drowning,” she said. “You are in survival mode.”
An unwelcome message
Locke said his office has seen a recent shift in the type of incidents reported and investigated. “We are seeing more incidents targeting communities designed to send a message to those communities that make them feel unwelcome or insecure,” she said.
What happened on July 30 in Portsmouth was a case in point, he said.
People driving on the Route 1 bypass that day were faced with a message discouraging them from living or visiting here, Locke said. Even without an explicit threat, he said, it generated fear: “I don’t feel safe or welcome; I don’t know if anything is going to happen to me.”
“That’s bad,” Locke said.
The AG office filed civil rights complaints against NSC 131 and two of its members: Leo A. Cullinan, 34, of Manchester, and Christopher Hood, 23, of Newburyport, Mass. Hood was charged with violating the Civil Rights Act for trespassing on state and city property, and Hood and Cullinan were charged with conspiracy.
Ten men were on the bridge that day, according to court documents. Hood, described as the leader of the group, was the only person not wearing a face covering and spoke to the four Portsmouth officers who responded to 911 calls on the banner.
After police told the group they could not hang banners without permission because doing so violates a city ordinance, Hood ordered others to remove the banners from the overpass fence. While the officers were talking to Hood, the complaint alleges, Cullinan pulled up in a pickup truck and “angrily” told them, “You are not interfering with my friends and you are not interfering with our rights.”
Portsmouth Police Chief Mark Newton said police knew of NSC 131 prior to the incident with the banner. The members had previously been to Portsmouth, handing out recruitment flyers and protesting a drag show at the Seacoast Repertory Theatre. When the group threatened to do the same at another show and a counter-protest was called, police closed off the entire street in front of the theater to keep the groups apart. The second protest never materialized.
Newton said the trespassing violation did not stem from the group being on the public sidewalk, but from tacking up the banner to the bridge without permission. He said no one was arrested that day and that the men dispersed when police told them to. “They didn’t go happy, but they went,” he said.
An email sent to NSC 131 about the court case has not been answered.
But in its flyers, NSC 131 denies being a hate group: “Above all, we support the safety and prosperity of white New Englanders. Our motivations for carrying out this mission come not from a place of hate, but from a love of our our people. No one else will protect us!”
From civil to criminal
As the Portsmouth Banner case is a civil rather than a criminal one, there is no prison sentence. But if found guilty, the defendants could face a $5,000 fine for each violation.
The AG office is also asking the court to issue a restraining order and a permanent injunction prohibiting defendants from “engaging or threatening physical force or violence, property damage or trespass against any person motivated by race, colour, religion, national origin, ancestry, sexual orientation, sex, gender identity or disability”.
These are the real teeth behind such law enforcement actions, Locke said: the ability for a judge to ban any similar act in the future. “Of course there are civil fines, but the heart is limiting future conduct, saying you can’t do it again,” he said.
If someone violates it, it becomes a criminal case, Locke said.
This was not lost on NSC 131 in the Portsmouth case.
A day after the Portsmouth press conference, the group posted online what it called “the latest attempts by our busy government to discourage NSC 131 activity in New England.”
On Gab.com – which describes itself as “the home of free speech and the parallel economy” – the group wrote: “They are also trying to pass an injunction against NSC 131 itself, trying to push for illegal organizational restrictions intended to lower our presence in New England.”
“This is for hanging a banner with a First Amendment protected slogan on public property,” they wrote. “We will never let ourselves down, and whether it’s in court or on the field, WE WILL WIN!”
This prompted one supporter to post: “Good luck and Heil Hitler.”