Pennsylvania has seen a significant increase in white supremacist stickers, fliers, and other literature promoting hate, according to a new report from the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism.
In 2021, 473 incidents of this type of messaging were reported to the ADL — almost double the number from the year prior and the highest total in the nation. In 2019, there were 81 incidents reported in Pennsylvania. Each incident represents a cluster of fliers or stickers spreading white supremacist messaging.
The trend is alarming because leafleting can be a precursor to other extremist behaviors, said Andrew Goretsky, regional director for ADL Philadelphia.
“Hate starts with white supremacist propaganda and hate propaganda, but it then escalates from there into more criminal behavior,” said Goretsky.
According to the ADL, groups distributing these messages may avoid using clearly racist and bigoted language in efforts to recruit new members, opting instead for ambiguous phrases like “United We Stand.”
One group that uses this tactic is the Texas-based Patriot Front, which the ADL says is responsible for 82% of white supremacist propaganda nationally and has two large chapters in Pennsylvania.
In September, the group was reported distributing material in Philadelphia, as well as Laureldale in Berks County and Pike County in the northeastern part of the state.
The ADL couldn’t definitively say why Pennsylvania saw such a jump while New Jersey saw a significant decline in reported incidents. In 2020, more than 300 incidents of white supremacist messaging were reported in the Garden State, ranking it fourth in the country. That number dropped to 179 in 2021, despite being the home base for another active white supremacist group called the New Jersey European Heritage Association.
Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University-San Bernardino, which tracks hate crimes in the United States and abroad, offered some possibilities.
“Wherever there’s active leadership, we see this,” he said of hate groups. “And it’s oftentimes done by a small number of people to get the kind of publicity that they crave.”
Levin said groups will often travel in a region to make it seem as though they have more members and encompass a larger geographic area than they do.
But while a history with hate groups can be an indicator of future spread of propaganda, Levin said investigating these incidents can be a deterrent to perpetrators, possibly explaining New Jersey’s drop.
He pointed to then-New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal releasing data in April 2021, showing 1,400 bias incidents in the state from the previous year. The FBI would label fewer than 400 of those incidents as hate crimes, saying others lacked evidence or didn’t rise to “intimidation.”
Still, officials had already sounded the alarm.
“Why go speeding when the radar guns are out?” said Levin. “You can just go next door. And Pennsylvania is a less densely populated state, so there are more places to do it.”
Levin cautioned against focusing on one state or one method of tracking hate incidents because there’s usually an ebb and flow to the ways these groups operate.
Instead, both Goretsky and Levin urged people to look at the overall levels of hate activity. While the ADL found a 5% drop in incidents of propaganda in 2021 nationwide, it remained the second-highest year for this type of messaging since the organization began tracking this information in 2017. Nationally, there was also a 27% increase in anti-Semitic messaging.
Separately, the ADL recorded a record 108 white supremacist rallies in 2021, and double the number in 2020. A July Patriot Front demonstration in Philadelphia, which ended in members of the group being chased away by bystanders, was included in the count.
One bright spot in the ADL’s report was college campuses, which saw the lowest number of propaganda distribution incidents since 2017, possibly due to the pandemic keeping students off-campus.