Pittsburgh now a hub for white supremacists
(JTA) In the days after the deadliest antisemitic attack in American history, Pittsburgh became a symbol of the enduring dangers of hatred as well as the Jewish communal solidarity that followed the synagogue shooting.
Two years later, the city has become a symbol and pilgrimage site of a far more insidious sort: for white supremacists who see the Tree of Life gunman as an inspiration.
In just the past several weeks, a white supremacist group held a march down a main boulevard there. 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, a supervisory intelligence analyst at the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), said at a symposium last week at Duquesne University’s Wecht Institute of Forensic Science and Law.
“Having worked this for more than 20 years, I can tell you this area is worse than any that I have seen throughout the entire country,” he said.
Mass shooters have long aspired to imitate previous high-profile attackers. The “Columbine effect”, in which school shooters seek to follow the example of the two teens who opened fire on a Colorado high school in 1999, has been observed more than 100 times, according to Mother Jones, a progressive magazine that documented the phenomenon.
White supremacists follow the same pattern. In their manifestos, the shooters in the attacks in El Paso, Christchurch, and Poway, California, all referenced previous far-right attacks and the ideas that motivated them.
Security specialists in the Pittsburgh Jewish community say white supremacists have come to the western Pennsylvania city in part because of the synagogue shooting, which killed 11 people. The far-right, they say, views the shooter as a role model — something that has already been apparent in white supremacist forums online, where they refer to the gunman by name as a “saint”.
And he’s not alone. A T-shirt celebrating the Boogaloo anti-government extremist movement features a picture of the Poway synagogue assailant.
“The shooter is typically revered in some of these white supremacist neo-Nazi organisations,” said Shawn Brokos, the local Jewish federation’s director of community security. “So for that very reason, Pittsburgh was placed on the map and became synonymous in many ways with white supremacy, solely based on the events of 27 October,” the date of the attack.
Analysts all 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 7 November, according to the FBI, blasting a smoke machine and carrying a banner reading, “Two parties, one tyranny” in capital letters.
The group has a relatively small presence in Pittsburgh, said James Pasch, the region’s director for the Anti-Defamation League, 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” (a slogan also favoured by President Donald Trump) 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 antisemitic graffiti have been seen in the Jewish neighbourhood of Squirrel Hill, where the synagogue shooting occurred, and elsewhere. In early September, Brokos also received multiple reports of someone yelling antisemitic profanity at Jews in Squirrel Hill.
Pasch said the flyers weren’t limited to Pittsburgh. In neighbouring Ohio, they increased more than fivefold from 2018 to 2019.
“[The Patriotic Front] is marking its 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.
Day to day, hate doesn’t feel like it’s in the atmosphere in Squirrel Hill, said Ellen Surloff, who was president of one of the congregations in the Tree of Life building, the Reconstructionist Dor Hadash, at the time of the shooting. But she’s worried about white supremacist violence — especially amid the current political tension.
“My reaction is that in this political climate, this is like a tinderbox. You’re just waiting for the match to strike,” she said.
Pasch said the heightened activity in and around Pittsburgh mirrored 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 continued to processes their trauma from the 2018 shooting, the community had remained prepared for hate to strike again.
“I think there’s a higher level [of risk] in Pittsburgh because of what happened,” said Orsini, the senior national security advisor of the Secure Community Network, which co-ordinates security for Jewish institutions nationwide. “However, I do see the Pittsburgh Jewish communal programme doing everything it can to keep that community safe.”