Was the Patriot Front March in Boston a Sign of the New KKK? – Boston University

Posted By on July 8, 2022

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 didnt take long for references to the Ku Klux Klan to start popping up on social media. But is that a fair comparisonare 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 Klans 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.

Q&AWith Katie Lennard

Katie Lennard: So theres a couple different versions. The most important thing is to think about the Klan as this ongoing cultural idea thats 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.

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. Thats a little of what were 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.

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, thats 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.

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 its a much more underground movement, and you start to have all these splintered groups taking up the name.

The second Klans 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. Thats how Klan leaders would phrase it. One Klansman represented the others waiting at any moment.I think whats 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.Its not coincidental that the Patriot Front guys are marching in similar outfits wearing masks, but winkingly saying its because of the pandemic.

I saw one interview where a marcher said he was wearing a mask because theres a pandemic going on. We know that is an ironic statement, but they are trying to play a plausible deniability. Were 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 thats 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. Thats not just an attempt to evade identification. Thats about power and presenting themselves as an organization rather than individuals.

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.

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 couldnt 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 didnt have the effect of diminishing the performance of uniformity. Still, the Klan did start to collapse shortly after that. Was that because people didnt want to be associated with it because of public scandals?I think these questions about how to responddo 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 itare important. Thats an open set of questions I have myself.

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.

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Was the Patriot Front March in Boston a Sign of the New KKK? - Boston University

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