Was the Patriot Front March in Boston a Sign of the New KKK?
Was the Patriot Front March in Boston a Sign of the New KKK?
CAS historian on how the hate group’s July 2 pop-up protest does—and does not—resemble the Klan of the past
Nobody saw it coming. On Saturday, July 2, around 100 members of a white nationalist hate group called the Patriot Front, with chapters in some 40 states, including Massachusetts, showed up unannounced in downtown Boston and marched along parts of the Freedom Trail. They wore white masks, navy blue shirts, and khaki pants. Some of them carried flags, some shields. And before law enforcement could react, the surprise demonstration was over and they were gone.
It didn’t take long for references to the Ku Klux Klan to start popping up on social media. But is that a fair comparison—are groups like the Patriot Front the new KKK, or something unique to this generation?
BU Today spoke with Katie Lennard, College of Arts & Sciences American & New England Studies Program inaugural Abbott Lowell Cummings Postdoctoral Fellow in American Material Culture. Lennard, whose PhD dissertation is titled Manufacturing the Ku Klux Klan’s Visible Empire, 1866-1931, has studied the history of the Klan. She is working on a book titled Manufacturing the Ku Klux Klan: Robes, Race, and the Birth of an Icon.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
With Katie Lennard
BU Today: This was basically a pop-up protest, with Patriot Front members showing up unannounced, catching everyone by surprise, then disappearing before anyone could react. Is that how the KKK operated? Did people know where they would march and when?
Katie Lennard: So there’s a couple different versions. The most important thing is to think about the Klan as this ongoing cultural idea that’s circulated since 1866. There is this floating cultural idea of the Klan that anybody can take up and use and claim. The actual social organizations that have taken up the name and the image of white robes and hoods, these are separate and distinct entities
The first Klan was really a terrorist organization. It was a grassroots militant movement working at correcting what they saw as an overreach of federal authority and disruption of the social and economic order in the South. But they did this by going up against members of their own communities, particularly Black Americans. Then you have the second Klan, the 1920s Klan, which was both a social organization and a terrorist organization. Some participants saw it as a fraternity. And then others saw it as a way to do corrective violence, to challenge changing social dynamics of the country.
BU Today: So do you see this Patriot Front group as more similar to the old Klan or a newer version?
Katie Lennard: The first Klan was more focused on violent attacks than parades. The second Klan more frequently staged public displays of power that were not necessarily physically violent, but still threatening. The kind of public display we saw in Boston feels more like the second Klan, showing up unannounced. Parading. A visual threat. But without actually committing an attack.
But then you have what happened in Idaho, [in June] with a planned riot at a Pride parade. That’s a little of what we’re seeing here. There is a central organization, something is going on in multiple parts of the country, and they want to be seen as present, to let people know that they can show up anytime, anywhere. The kind of patriotic motive they are claiming is also in line with the second Klan.
BU Today: Isn’t it true that the old Klan was largely focused on attacking Black Americans? How is that different from what we are seeing today?
Katie Lennard: So, the 19th-century Klan was very white versus Black, and also anti-republican. Challenging Black citizenship and increased federal power in the South after the Civil War. The second Klan, in the 1920s, that’s when they got into anti-Catholicism, anti-Semitism, anti-immigration politics. They claimed to be supportive of Prohibition even though many Klan leaders were also drinking a lot. It was a deeply hypocritical organization, that goes without saying. The way the Patriot Front describes themselves is that they are protecting and upholding the American republic from all of these incursions. This language is really reminiscent of the second Klan.
BU Today: So when people refer to what we are seeing as “the new Klan,” would you say that’s an accurate depiction of this movement?
Katie Lennard: Kathleen Belew has written the best book on these white nationalist groups, called Bring the War Home [Harvard University Press, 2018]. We go from a Klan in the 1920s that has members in every state in the country to the 1960s, when it’s a much more underground movement, and you start to have all these splintered groups taking up the name.
The second Klan’s power was in their performance of uniformity. This idea that any white-robed Klansman was a sign that there were a million others like them. Just ready to go. That’s how Klan leaders would phrase it. One Klansman represented the others waiting at any moment.
I think what’s happening that feels different to me is that we see a loose coalition of white nationalist groups, but they are not centrally organized. They are not pretending to be or trying to be uniform. That said, all of these organizations are benefiting from the visual recognition, the name recognition with one another and with earlier Klans, in the same way the 20th-century Klan benefited from association with the 19th-century Klan.
It’s not coincidental that the Patriot Front guys are marching in similar outfits wearing masks, but winkingly saying it’s because of the pandemic.
BU Today: Can we talk about that? Why do they wear masks? We know it’s not because of the pandemic. Is it just about hiding their identity or is it deeper than that?
I saw one interview where a marcher said he was wearing a mask because there’s a pandemic going on. We know that is an ironic statement, but they are trying to play a plausible deniability. ‘We’re patriotic.’
Although many marched unmasked in Charlottesville [in 2017], that was an event that had such big numbers. At an event like this [Boston], the masking is about protecting themselves from identification. But there is also a representational work that’s happening. It becomes less about the individual members, and more about the identity of the group as a whole.
From all the images I saw, they were wearing khakis and blue shirts, a sort of uniform. They are wearing very similar masks, those balaclavas. That’s not just an attempt to evade identification. That’s about power and presenting themselves as an organization rather than individuals.
BU Today: Why do they want to evade identification?
We saw in Charlottesville some were publicly delighted to get press. But we also saw real consequences for some of the marchers who were identified. I think remaining masked provides a real feeling of power. Of representing this organization. They are trying to give themselves authenticity, collective power. Not being identified is one of the many vectors and a lot of it is about performance of the identity they are trying to display.
BU Today: Public officials have expressed real concern about what happened in Boston, with Mayor Michelle Wu saying the city needs to respond to “this growing rise and trend in white supremacy and hate.” Is there anything officials can do when faced with these pop-up demonstrations?
The way this was fought in the 1920s was through enacting anti-mask legislation. There were a lot of state-level rules and laws about not being able to wear masks in public. They had funny carve-outs, where children could wear masks on Halloween, or adults couldn’t if they were engaged in certain behaviors. These came into being specifically to curb Klan activity.
But what happened is the Klan started marching unmasked. In 1925 an estimated 40,000 to 60,000 Klansmen marched down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C., all unmasked, but they were also wearing robes and in such great numbers that the lack of masks didn’t have the effect of diminishing the performance of uniformity. Still, the Klan did start to collapse shortly after that. Was that because people didn’t want to be associated with it because of public scandals?
I think these questions about how to respond—do you want to promote the visibility of marches like this and make sure people know this is happening, or do you want to not give them air and not publicize it—are important. That’s an open set of questions I have myself.
BU Today: In the wake of the July 2 Boston march, what worries you the most?
What feels really alarming to me about this particular group is that they are becoming emboldened by broader cultural currents. When you have them gathering in Idaho with weapons to go to a Pride parade, that feels like an escalation of planned terrorism.
I am incredibly surprised and happy that BU is not only keeping an eye on these situations, but also reporting on them for the students, staff, and everyone else. I hope that we are continuously able to keep this communal awareness going for the purpose of keeping each other safe.
Meanwhile, 85 blacks are killed every week in Chi. 25 in Philly and 29 in Balt. Yeah, so glad BU is keeping an eye on this, seems so important,
This was a really great article. I think one way to avoid people joining alt right groups is to ban Greek Life. They are a feeder for alt right groups. I wonder what President Robert Brown has to say.
In my experience, Greek Life isn’t the alt-right feeder you think it is. These organizations recruit from disaffected and marginalized white men who lack a sense of community; fraternities have numerous problems but what they do do well is give students a strong “place to belong”. Think less “typical frat guy” and more “social outcast”.
Dr. Lennard is quoted above as stating that the Patriot Front group in Boston was “A visual threat. But without actually committing an attack.” This does not appear to be correct, as the Boston Globe and other news media have reported that a black man, Charles Murrell, was attacked by members of the group that day: “On the way to the hospital, the victim told police that he was walking down Dartmouth Street while using his phone when he “found himself being shoved around and in the middle of a group of individuals with shields and masks,” the report says. The victim told police that he yelled at the group to stop pushing him and go away. The victim said he eventually “shoved back/swung his arms to separate himself when a larger majority of the group then joined in knocking him to the ground and continuing to hit and kick him,” the report says.” ……..Source: https://www.bostonglobe.com/2022/07/06/metro/man-who-alleges-he-was-assaulted-by-white-nationalist-group-boston-calls-investigation-into-police-response/?p1=BGSearch_Overlay_Results
I’m sorry but this is a joke, folks. You do realize that the KKK was once the most powerful political force in America, right? A force with hundreds of thousands of members, and with hordes of politicians, mostly Democrats, in their pockets, not to mention deep threads into law enforcement. This Patriot Front group has, by left wing sources no less, a few hundred members, nationwide. These people don’t even qualify as a side show, nor does this whole “white supremacy” bogeyman, that we keep being told about. This is propaganda nonsense, folks. That’s the hard truth. I’ve read Patriot Front’s manifesto, and yes, it’s not hard to see that race is a big issue for them. I’ve no doubt they’re racists, but again…few hundred members. The whole white nationalist movement only has several thousand, and those people wield zero political power or influence. The only way to make it appear that they do is to dishonestly conflate many different things. That’s a far cry from the heyday of the Klan. Modern white supremacists are a joke, truly. They’re a bunch of backwoods idiots, who go in the woods and play Rambo on the weekends, and wield no influence at all. Trump isn’t one. MAGA Republicans are them. The real monsters are the ones who put this propaganda out there, to keep people in fear. It’s the only way they stay in power., and then losing power does not mean that Patriot Front takes over. Open your eyes, folks. You’re being lied to, on a massive scale.