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U.S. Attorney Rachael Rollins stressed Friday the importance of calling out acts of white supremacy, hate, and bigotry, saying those engaged in such activities are doing so because they feel “emboldened.”
The comments from the U.S. Attorney for the District of Massachusetts came during a discussion on embracing equity and safety and her priorities for standing up to intolerance and hate with Anica Butler, deputy managing editor for local news for the Boston Globe, during the final day of the virtual 2022 Globe Summit.
“We need to be really strong and firm about calling things what they are. … These things are real and we need to speak about them because when we pretend that it isn’t true, we allow people to continue engaging in the behavior without being held accountable,” Rollins said.
Below, are three takeaways from the discussion, which touched on a range of issues — from what comes next legally after migrants were sent to Martha’s Vineyard to the importance of law enforcement examining how it responds to different groups.
Rollins said she has reached out to the Department of Justice for guidance on how her office might move forward after Venezuelan migrants were sent, and reportedly misled in the process, to Martha’s Vineyard this week by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.
The U.S. Attorney said she wants to know what other members of law enforcement in other jurisdictions that have also seen migrants sent to them — like New York, Chicago, and California — are doing.
She said she wants to see if there can be uniformity in the approaches being taken.
“It is sad that we are in a state of affairs where political stunts are being utilized and human beings are being taken advantage of, quite frankly, for political purposes, I would argue,” she said. “And we are going to be looking long and hard, as the federal government in the commonwealth of Massachusetts, to see any and all legal action that we might be able to take.”
Rollins said she’s proud of the way the migrants were welcomed with open arms in the Bay State.
And as she waits for guidance, which she hopes to get soon, she plans to be a “force multiplier” for other entities and groups investigating the situation, including the Lawyers for Civil Rights, by drawing attention to the work they are doing.
“If there are crimes that were commited, if there are ways that we can look at that, that is certainly something that we’d be speaking with the Department of Justice about,” she said.
During the portion of the discussion focused on white supremacist activity in Massachusetts, Butler asked Rollins about her role in defining when free speech crosses over into threatening behavior and is considered criminal activity, pointing to the march by a hate group through Boston over the July 4th weekend.
“There are hate incidents and there are hate crimes,” Rollins said. “And the FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s office, as well as the Boston police or the state police and the Attorney General’s Office or the DA’s — we are the experts in determining what that line is. You do have a First Amendment right, but when it crosses over into a threat, or certainly when it enters into actual violence, the First Amendment does not protect that.”
The U.S. Attorney for Massachusetts gave examples of two different incidents over recent months: when a LGBTQ senior housing project in Boston was vandalized with hate speech and when masked neo-Nazis held an antisemitic banner over an overpass.
The vandalism used language related to killing, not leaving “anything to the imagination,” Rollins said.
“People can have repugnant ideologies, but when it moves to the level of essentially threatening harm and using that language — and sometimes people are very overt and other times people are a little more nuanced,” she said.
The banners used in the other incident, meanwhile, though “false” and “repugnant” didn’t contain a threat, Rollins noted.
“It is harmful, it is not accurate, but it does not rise to the level of a crime,” she said. “I do believe we still need to acknowledge that. So that for example the [Anti-Defamation League] and other organizations can be aware of what’s happening in our community. But it is a nuanced piece with respect to language and then when you cross the line.”
That nuance is also why the attorney said it is important to have different people in law enforcement roles.
“As the chief federal law enforcement officer, my understanding or definition of a threat may be different than others who have had the role prior to me,” she said. “Because I’ve experienced things differently. I have a different lived experience and I am willing, quite frankly, to say we are going to do what is going to protect this community, and we are going to speak out against racist, bigoted, and potentially violent behavior.”
Law enforcement and the federal government have to be better at recognizing that even if something doesn’t rise to the level of a crime, hate incidents still hurt people, Rollins said.
She stressed the trauma that is caused when language or symbols are used to make clear to people that they are not wanted, valued, or safe.
“There might be people who look at something horrific as a swastika and say, well that’s an act of speech,” Rollins said. “There are members of the Jewish community that look at that and say, and others, frankly, allies, and say that is a threat. That, in and of itself, is a threat. Now it might not be a legal threat, but it certainly feels like that. And I think we have to be better as law enforcement at acknowledging that harm.”
Acknowledging that activity and harm, even when it isn’t a chargeable threat, is essential to knowing where the community is at that moment, the U.S. Attorney said.
“We need to be aware in Massachusetts,” Rollins said. “I think we have this belief that because we’re above the Mason-Dixon Line and we are in Massachusetts and New England, we don’t have problems like that here. There isn’t racism or hate here. And that simply isn’t true.”
After white supremacists marched through Boston in July, concerns were raised by some officials about the way area law enforcement responded, questioning whether police would have responded differently if it were a different group, like Black Lives Matter.
“Those are very important questions and ones that I have posed to law enforcement and also inquired myself,” Rollins said when asked by Butler about whether groups are seen equally by law enforcement. “When we look at January 6th and what the response was by law enforcement there, when we see law enforcement gently escorting people down the stairs out of Congress after they breached the hallowed walls of our Congress, would that have been the same response had it been a Black Lives Matter protest there? And we have to be honest about those things.
“The reaction was not the same and likely that was what a lot of people in the Boston community said when it came to … whatever entity was on July 4,” she continued. “Would it have been the same had it been a different organization?”
Law enforcement needs to pay attention to the differing positions of groups, she said.
“Theirs is a mindset of exclusion or supremacy in the sense that, ‘We are better than everyone else and you don’t deserve to be here,’” Rollins said of white supremacist groups. “Whereas other groups, and I take no position on whether I agree or disagree with them, but when we talk about Black Lives Matter or other organizations, they are not about, ‘We’re better than people.’ They are about, ‘We simply want to be treated like everyone else. Please give us equal treatment. We’re not asking for better treatment.’ And those are different positions that we need to make sure we are focusing on, quite frankly.”
The prosecutor said that she thinks Boston Mayor Michelle Wu as well as herself and other law enforcement have done a good job of being honest “about some of those things.”
But she said that leaders and law enforcement need to be better about recognizing that “things like the First Amendment and the Second Amendment, they apply to Black people, too.”
“You think about Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman and George Zimmerman’s right to stand his ground,” she said. “Did Trayvon have a right to stand his ground? There’s always this juxtaposition.”
Rollins said it is important to be able to talk about those questions without people feeling like they are being attacked and to point to the facts for why certain communities have a hard time trusting law enforcement.
“If we don’t work on that trust, we are never going to get better,” Rollins said. “We’re not going to solve our unsolved homicides. We aren’t going to have people come forward and say, ‘I know about a murder or a rape or a kidnapping that happened,’ however many years ago.”
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