CHATHAM – Stickers promoting a right-wing hate group found affixed to downtown signs are being investigated by police as both vandalism and possible hate speech.
On Monday, stickers for the group Patriot Front could be seen on the back of parking signs and on telephone poles. There were several versions of the sticker; one read “One Nation Against Invasion,” another “Revolution Is Tradition.” All contained iconography associated with the extremist group.
The Patriot Front, founded in 2017 and based in Texas, is listed as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. The organization is described as “a white nationalist hate group” that “focuses on theatrical rhetoric and activism that can be easily distributed as propaganda” such as flyers, posters and stickers. Its motto is “Reclaim America.” The Anti-Defamation League says the group “espouses racism, anti-Semitism and intolerance under the guise of preserving the 'ethnic and cultural origins' of their European ancestors.”
The group is known to distribute material in other towns in southeastern Massachusetts. State Senator Julian Cyr said the group's stickers have been reported in Yarmouth, Dennis and other Cape towns.
“Regrettably, these groups are active on Cape Cod,” he said. “Whether they are home-grown or just people infiltrating our community, I can't say.”
Placement of stickers on town street signs is a violation of a town bylaw punishable by a fine of up to $300. Town Manager Jill Goldsmith said department of public works staff will be working to remove the stickers.
Chief of Police Mark Pawlina said the department is investigating whether the stickers can be considered hate speech. He was not familiar with the Patriot Front, and said the department's detective was reaching out to other law enforcement agencies to learn more about it. The department will also ask downtown businesses to review surveillance recordings that may have captured someone putting up the stickers.
Pawlina said it was “upsetting to see this in our town,” but added the investigation at this point hasn't indicated that the group is associated with violence.
“This could happen anywhere, and obviously has been,” he added, noting that stickers and posters have been distributed by the Patriot Front in other Massachusetts communities. “It's something we're going to have to pay more attention to.”
A local business owner said after spotting the stickers last week he removed several from along Main Street, including some that contained a QR code that pointed to the Patriot Front website when scanned with a smartphone. He also reported the stickers to police. He asked that he not be identified out of concern for reprisal.
Similar stickers and posters were reportedly seen around Harwich at the time of a Black Lives Matter demonstration earlier this month, and a number were removed from along the Cape Cod Rail Trail last year.
Local officials condemned the stickers and the Patriot Front.
“Any promotion of a group that spreads propaganda that vilifies and demonizes African Americans, Latinos, Muslims, Jews, LGBT people and any other group group is incendiary and has no place in the heart of our community,” said Chair of Selectmen Shareen Davis. “Chatham is a place that respects and supports all walks of life as indicated by the message on a sign at the foothill of downtown that promotes diversity and love over hate for one another.”
Representative Sarah Peake, D-Provincetown, said while she hasn't heard of Patriot Front stickers being posted in other towns she represents, it doesn't mean it's not happening.
“I condemn this in the strongest possible way,” Peake said in an email. “It is awful that this hate speech has found its way to Chatham. This is wrong, unlawful, and seeks to sow seeds of division at a time when we as Cape Codders and as Americans need to all come together to support our friends and neighbors during this global pandemic. We are better than this.”
She said she was confident that police would bring to justice “the cowards who have defaced public property with their hate speech.”
Cyr called the Patriot Front a terrorist group and white nationalist groups are the biggest domestic threat the country faces.
“Every Cape Codder I know is disgusted by this kind of hate speech,” he said. “This should be a poignant reminder that our communities are not immune from hate, that we have urgent work to do on the Lower Cape and across the region to dismantle white supremacy, to truly address structural racism and say no to hate.”
Rev. Brian McGurk of St. Christopher's Church said the stickers were “deeply troubling on many levels. Hate hitting this close to home is disturbing.” It's important to speak up against racist acts, which “have no place on Main Street, or anywhere else,” he said.
“Everyone thinks we're in this bubble, this womb. Even with COVID going on there's a sense we're impervious, but we're not, obviously,” McGurk said.
“I think this is horrible,” said Susan Dimm, president of the Chatham Merchants Association. “My stepson is African American and Hispanic and grew up here in Chatham. He just left yesterday and I am so glad he never saw this. It breaks my heart.” She advised business owners to contact police if they see anyone posting similar stickers.
A Shore Road resident also reported the theft of Black Lives Matter and rainbow flags the night of July 12. Donna Naughton, a summer resident who teaches social work at a college in the Bronx, said she flew the flags at her home near Claflin Landing because it was “politically and socially the right thing to make this statement at this time.” She added that she's ordered new flags to replace the stolen ones.
A Harwich resident also reported the defacement of a Black Lives Matter sign last week.