BAY RIDGE — More than 250 people stood hand in hand on Sunday to denounce the appearance of a white nationalist group in Brooklyn.
A massive handmade banner promoting a white nationalist group’s website was discovered on Saturday hanging over a Belt Parkway overpass. The banner, tied to the 80th Street pedestrian overpass in Bay Ridge, was spotted days after posters for the same organization were found nearby, and as the city confronts a surge of anti-Semitic attacks.
The banner seen Saturday didn’t carry an explicit message of hate, reading only “Defend American Labor.” But it did display the web address for the nationalist group known as Patriot Front, one of a new crop of hate groups that relies on less overt messaging around heritage and patriotism in their recruitment efforts.
“They are trying to present themselves as more button-down: ‘Hey, we’re not skinheads, we’re not people with swastikas carved into our foreheads,’” Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at Cal State San Bernardino, told LAist. “However, the bottom line is that for many of these groups, in private, that is exactly the lingo, exactly the kind of imagery they enjoy.”
The Anti-Defamation League has found the same, describing the Patriot Front on its website as an organization that “falls into the alt-right segment of the white supremacist movement but presents itself as a ‘patriotic’ nationalist group.”
“Although they’ve repackaged their message and sugarcoated their hateful ideology, there’s no difference between them and those before, those who wore Klan robes, and who would be heavily tatted with swastikas and white supremacist imagery,” the ADL’s Joanna Mendelsontold LAist. “Same people, same ideology.”
The Southern Poverty Law Center, a legal advocacy organization that monitors hate groups and other extremists in the United States, has identified the Patriot Front as a white nationalist hate group that broke off from a larger organization, Vanguard America, following the deadly “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017.
Sunday’s rally, organized by 11 neighborhood grassroots organizations, took place at the corner of Third Avenue and 86th Street, near where one of the posters was found. There, opponents of the recruitment campaign joined in chants and formed a human chain, which organizers said was meant to demonstrate attendees’ willingness to protect their neighbors. Protesters stretched nearly two city blocks.
The banner’s appearance has generated outrage on both sides of the aisle. By Sunday, Councilmember Justin Brannan, State Sen. Andrew Gounardes, U.S. Rep. Max Rose and Assemblymembers Nicole Malliotakis and Mathylde Frontus had all spoken out against them.
Frontus and Gounardes also attended the rally.
Frontus, a Democrat whose district includes parts of Bay Ridge, Dyker Heights and Coney Island, told the Brooklyn Eagle that the showing Sunday both encouraged and sobered her.
“I’m sort of of two minds on this one. I see so many people here and I’m encouraged that people are out on a cold day to say enough is enough,” she said. “But, there’s also a sense of chagrin. There’s a sort of sobering moment for me that it’s the beginning of 2020 and, when I look at the crowd, I see people of all ages — children, people in their 50s, 60′, 70s and even 80s — and it makes me realize that many of us will spend our lifetime fighting against hate and discrimination.”
Frontus said she hopes that those who have been putting up the flyers see that they are the minority. “Their voices do not speak for us,” she said. “We’re not going backwards, we’re going forward.”
“I think that this sends a message loud and clear that this will not be tolerated, this is not welcome and that we will do everything we can to combat this feeling of otherness that’s being created by openly recruiting neo-Nazis in our neighborhood,” he told the Eagle.
Patriot Front has since taken credit for the placement of ads around the borough, as well as in areas like Bridgeport, Connecticut and Boise, Idaho. Since the New Year, the group has plastered ads across at least 30 cities, according to its Telegram account.
Demonstrators on Sunday said they were hopeful that the hate group won’t find itself a home in their diverse southern Brooklyn neighborhood.
“These groups are trying to intimidate minorities throughout the country. We will not be intimidated, and we will continue to organize. Even more, we will turn out in great numbers to vote,” said Rabyaah Althaibani, a Bay Ridge resident who helped start the group Arab Women’s Voice.
The rally was organized by Fight Back Bay Ridge with help from the Arab American Association of New York, Arab Women’s Voice, Bay Ridge for Social Justice, NYC Democratic Socialists of America, Gravesend Brooklyn Progressives, Indivisible Nation BK, Mexican-American Movement, South Brooklyn Progressive Network, South Brooklyn Progressive Resistance and Take on Hate.
The appearance of an active white nationalist group in Brooklyn comes as anti-Semitic incidents in New York City are up 21 percent as of last Sunday, according to NYPD Commissioner Dermot Shea.
The NYPD did not immediately respond to a request for information, but as of Monday, Brannan said his office has been in contact with the NYPD about the signs.
Additional reporting by Paula Katinas.