There were 13 cases of harassment and vandalism inspired by antisemitism in Maine last year, up from six in 2021.
A bus makes its way down Portland's Congress Street on Nov. 8, 2021. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

Except for a group of men wearing black hoodies, khaki pants and masks that covered their faces, Monument Square in Portland was almost completely empty on the afternoon of April 1. Most pedestrians avoided the area as approximately 20 white supremacists gathered to chant, yell and display the Nazi salute to cars and people walking by.

The group held a banner that said “Defend White Communities.” While most onlookers were surprised, taking pictures of the group and whispering uncomfortably to friends, the protest demonstrates a concerning pattern in the rise of antisemitic incidents in Maine and nationwide.

The Anti-Defamation League’s audit of antisemitic cases in 2022 reported a 36 percent increase, or 3,697 antisemitic cases, in the United States. It was the highest number since the nonprofit began tracking antisemitism in 1979, and the highest in New England.

Last year, there were 204 cases of antisemitic assault, harassment and vandalism in New England alone. There were 13 antisemitic cases in Maine last year — six involved harassment and seven were vandalism. In 2021, there were three instances of harassment and three of vandalism in the state.

Peggy Shukur, the interim regional director of the ADL office in New England, confirmed that the group had a couple of reports of the antisemitic protest in Portland.

“We are based in Boston so we really rely on people to report these incidents to the ADL,” she told The Maine Monitor. “When we get this information we obviously record it because we do track these incidents, but we also reach out to the communities affected to offer support.”

The neo-Nazis in Monument Square were members of NSC-131, also known as the Nationalist Social Club, according to News Center Maine. NSC-131 is a neo-Nazi group with small chapters in New England that “espouses racism, antisemitism and intolerance via the internet, propaganda distributions and the use of graffiti,” according to the ADL.

News Center Maine reported that the group moved from Monument Square to Portland City Hall, where there was a scuffle between the neo-Nazis and counterprotesters.

According to the Portland Police Department, “some minor skirmishes broke out, but there were no official complaints filed with the Portland Police Department and no reports of any serious injuries.” No arrests were made.

The Portland Press Herald reported Saturday that city officials and the police chief were examining the police response. Cumberland County District Attorney Jacqueline Sartoris said in retrospect the authorities should have made a disorderly conduct charge.

In the aftermath, the ADL of New England reached out to a number of synagogues in the Portland area, though it was hard to connect because most were preparing to celebrate Passover, Shukur said.

“We tend to let people know that when these incidents happen it’s very typical to feel isolated and feel fearful, and that’s really the intention of these groups,” she said. “What we generally say to these [synagogues] is we explain the tactics used by groups like NSC-131. We tell people that together as a community they should feel strong and empowered, and call on allies.”

Shukur also noted the increase in antisemitic activity in the New England region.

“NSC-131 has really stepped up its activities throughout New England in the last two years,” she said. “We used to see a group of six people once a month, now we see much larger groups convening in places where their activities can really become dramatic stunts. It is a very intentional act intended to send a message of fear and intimidation to the Jewish community.”

Four white supremacist organizations, including NSC-131, have strong presences in the state — Patriot Front, the Proud Boys, and the Colchester Collection, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, a nonprofit that tracks and surveys hate groups.

Shukur said those groups tend to target more liberal areas like New England in an attempt to send messages that their antisemitic messages are becoming more widespread.

U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, a Democrat who represents Maine’s 1st District, where Portland is located, denounced the protests in a statement to The Maine Monitor.

“Racism is alive and well in this country, and unfortunately, Maine is no exception,” she wrote. “People like Donald Trump and Kanye West have normalized hate with their dangerous rhetoric — emboldening racists and antisemites. The threat they pose is real, and we must stand up against this hate whenever we see it exposed.”

This story was originally published by The Maine Monitor, a nonprofit and nonpartisan news organization. To get regular coverage from the Monitor, sign up for a free Monitor newsletter here.