Just two years after the massacre at the Tree of Life building, white supremacist groups remain active in Pittsburgh.
In the past several weeks, a white supremacist group held a march downtown. About 100 people attended a white supremacist music festival in the area. A vocal white supremacist who had posted a call online to murder local Jews was released from prison. And flyers with white nationalist slogans have papered the city.
“We have, since 2018, seen a dramatic increase in white supremacist-related violent incidents and in the overall presence of white supremacists within our [area],” John Pulcastro, an FBI supervisory intelligence analyst, said at a symposium last week at Duquesne University’s Wecht Institute of Forensic Science and Law. His comments were first reported by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
Shawn Brokos, director of community security for the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, confirmed there have been some new anti-Semitic incidents in the area, but said she has not seen a “dramatic rise in anti-Semitism.”
“I think the distinction is that the FBI openly talked about it, and created this new awareness,” said Brokos, a former supervisory special agent for the FBI. “This is not a new story. White supremacy and anti-Semitism have existed in Western Pennsylvania. I think this symposium just brought it to the forefront. My hope is that it prompts our community to come forward with any incident or threat that they come across.”
According to the Anti-Defamation League’s Center for Extremism, which tracks the growth of hate crimes across the nation, there is continued and steady growth of hate crimes in Pittsburgh, but they are not necessarily more prevalent here than in other cities.
“I don’t want to be alarmist about it, but whenever there is a growth of hate and a growth of white supremacist activity, we need to pay particularly close attention and we need to root it out,” said James Pasch, Anti-Defamation League regional director for Ohio, West Virginia, Kentucky and Western Pennsylvania.
Hate crimes have risen to the highest level in more than a decade, according to the FBI’s 2019 Hate Crime Statistics, released on Nov. 16. Hate-motivated killings also reached their highest levels since the bureau began collecting that data in the early 1990s. Religion-based crimes rose 7% overall in 2019, according to the report, while crimes against the Jewish community rose from 835 reported crimes to 953, a near 14% increase. Anti-Semitic crimes were the highest number of hate crimes relating to religious bias, making up 60.3% of incidents.
Based on this report, and the recent Post-Gazette article, the Federation will be hosting a hate crime webinar in January, with speakers from the Pittsburgh FBI office to further discuss the findings and trends, according to Brokos.
Analysts cited the recent white supremacist demonstration as particularly concerning. A Texas-based extremist group called Patriot Front brought more than 100 members to march down the city’s Boulevard of the Allies on Nov. 7, according to the FBI, blasting a smoke machine and carrying a banner reading “Two parties, one tyranny” in capital letters. The crowd, largely if not entirely men, wore military-style gear and sunglasses.
The group has a relatively small presence in Pittsburgh, said the ADL’s Pasch, which means they brought in members from across the country.
Patriot Front, which espouses violent white nationalism and evolved from a group that was active at the 2017 far-right Charlottesville rally, has also embarked on a flyers campaign in Pittsburgh. Its red, white and blue propaganda bears slogans like “America first” and a map of the United States alongside the words “Not stolen, conquered.” The Ku Klux Klan has also posted flyers across the city that tend to be densely typed pages of racist invective.
The flyers and anti-Semitic graffiti have been seen in Squirrel Hill and elsewhere. In early September, Brokos also received multiple reports of someone yelling anti-Semitic profanity at Jews in Squirrel Hill.
“Propaganda and flyering have increased because it’s a way to increase their presence and their message without identifying themselves,” Pasch said. “It’s a way to remain anonymous while spreading hate.”
Pasch said the flyering isn’t limited to Pittsburgh. In neighboring Ohio, he said it increased more than fivefold from 2018 to 2019. Pasch also said that Patriot Front is responsible for about two-thirds of the white supremacist flyers in the country.
“They’re marking their territory, just like old gangs used to,” Pulcastro said at the symposium. “They’re recruiting. They’re trying to push for individuals to come to the fold who also find this material and ideology appealing.”
The Patriot Front demonstration happened about a month after a white supremacist concert called “Won’t Say Sorry: A night for the white working class.” Days earlier, a white supremacist who had posted a call online to murder Jews in Squirrel Hill was released from prison.
Pasch said the heightened activity in and around Pittsburgh mirrors a rise in white supremacist activity nationwide — and on extremist websites.
“My largest concern remains the growth of white supremacist ideology and hate online,” he said. “It knows no geographic boundaries and people can cross state lines to commit acts of hate.”
Brad Orsini, Brokos’ predecessor, said that even as Pittsburgh Jews continue to processes their trauma from the 2018 shooting, the community has remained prepared for hate to strike again.
“I think there is a higher level [of risk] in Pittsburgh because of what happened,” said Orsini, the senior national security advisor of the Secure Community Network, which coordinates security for Jewish institutions nationwide. “However, I do see the Pittsburgh Jewish communal program doing everything they can to keep that community safe.”
Jewish Pittsburgh has responded by “protecting our community, our places of worship, through training, building hardening, security coordination,” said Laura Cherner, director of the Community Relations Council for the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh. “The reality is anti-Semitism in the United States is older than the country itself and I feel like Pittsburgh is a similar story. The Jewish community is often used as scapegoats.”
While the Jewish community is the largest religious group victimized by hate crimes, it isn’t the only group that should be concerned with the growth of white supremacy or the rise of hate, Cherner said.
“I think it’s incredibly important that we support other marginalized communities in solidarity, because they’re also vulnerable to acts of discrimination or violence,” she said. “Something that we saw after the shooting on Oct. 27, was the huge outpouring of the broader community, and diverse communities really embraced us. It’s critical that we show them the support by sharing our resources and by building coalitions.”
Brokos and her department — which catalogs hate incidents and reports them to local law enforcement and the FBI — are available to the community at large. She urges anyone who has been a victim of hate or notices an incident, including graffiti, flyers or hate speech, to report it.
“I have seen so many times where people are hesitant to come forward with their concerns or with threats,” Brokos said. “I’m working very hard to try and change that mindset. I am trying to encourage people that reporting to the Federation is a safe place. I will coordinate with law enforcement for the appropriate response. The other mindset I am working so hard to change is that we’ve always been threatened, so this is nothing new.” PJC
David Rullo can be reached at email@example.com