It was a crisp evening in late November, and downtown Princeton, dressed in white lights and festive sprays of evergreen, was thronged with holiday shoppers strolling Nassau Street.
Not a likely scene for a race-hate confrontation. But there it was, right at the Palmer Square kiosk, where a trio of masked white men trying to post “White lives matter” stickers were squaring off with a Black man.
“So what brings you guys here today? Huh? I’m asking you to state your business?” said the Black man.
Two of the masked men turned quickly and took off with their heads down. With pedestrians gaping, the third masked man pocketed his stickers and headed off, looking embarrassed and more than a little frightened.
The Black man was Daryle Lamont Jenkins, an Air Force veteran who has spent the past 20 years sniffing out and exposing white supremacists across the nation, but especially here in New Jersey. Jenkins, head of the New Brunswick based One People’s Project, posted the entire November 2021 Princeton confrontation on YouTube and his popular website, Idavox.
A week later, the three white-lives-matter guys whom Jenkins chased out of Princeton were arrested and charged with criminal mischief after trying to post stickers in Somerville. (Charges were later dropped against one of the men.)
“If we don’t defend ourselves against these guys, this great country could become a fascist nation,’’ Jenkins said during an interview in October. “The white supremacists that used to be in the closet are now out in the street. They’re spreading lies and hate in elected offices. They’re all around us, even in places like Princeton.’’
Experts who track hate crimes say New Jersey, among the most diverse and progressive states in America, has become a case study for the rapid rise of bias attacks and race-based hate crimes, fueled mostly by anti-Semitic and white-supremacist groups.
Today, hate-mongers in New Jersey do not come in the guise of the hooded Klansmen who marched in towns like Lakewood, Perth Amboy and Long Branch in the 1920s, or the American Nazi Bundists who rallied by the hundreds in Sussex County and elsewhere in the 1930s. They are—as tracked by law enforcement and hate-watch organizations such as the Anti-Defamation League (ADL)—children of social media who embrace political and conspiratorial violence. Instead of burning crosses, they harass school board officials, transgender people and election workers. They threaten abortion providers and march on mosques, statehouses and the United States Capitol.
“What we’re seeing in New Jersey, and across the nation, is the mainstreaming of white supremacy,’’ says Susan Corke, a human rights activist with the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC). Corke, director of the Intelligence Project, testified before the House Committee on Homeland Security on October 3 during a field hearing on countering violent extremism, terrorism and anti-Semitic threats in New Jersey. She noted a 25 percent rise in anti-Semitic incidents in the state over the previous year (see chart below). That was the highest number of cases reported by the ADL since 1979.
“The hard right in America is steeped in white supremacy and sees [the country’s] increasing diversity as a threat that must be countered in politics, in law, in court, in the media—and with violence,’’ Corke testified.
In 2019, when Corke was living in Jersey City with her Black Muslim husband and her child, the city was shaken by an attack on a Jewish supermarket by a pair of racist extremists who shot three residents and a police detective to death.
“Jersey City has some of the most diverse and vibrant neighborhoods anywhere—that’s why people like to live there,’’ Corke says. “After the killings…people were afraid on the street. This kind of violence has become part of our lives now.’’
Former New Jersey attorney general Gurbir Grewl, a Sikh American who was once himself derided as “turban man” by a conservative radio host, labeled the Jersey City murders domestic terrorism and promised to redouble efforts to stem the rising tide of hate.
Only 18 days later, in Ramapo, New York, just three miles north of the New Jersey state line, a man wielding a machete attacked Hasidic Jews attending a Hanukkah party. Five people were injured, one fatally.
“Whatever you want to call it, hate is rising all over this state,” says Matthew J. Platkin, the current state attorney general. “Anti-Semitic, anti-white, anti-gay, anti-trans—you name it.’’
Platkin’s office reported last April that the number of officially recognized bias-related incidents in New Jersey reached 1,871 in 2021. That is the most recorded since 1994 and a 400 percent increase since 2015. Public officials and prosecutors have tracked a mounting wave of hate.
In February 2020, 10 members of New Jersey’s congressional delegation asked the FBI to beef up protections against unlawful militias and private paramilitary organizations that spread race hate. “We are…alarmed by reports that Proud Boys members have appeared at various sites throughout New Jersey in recent months, including in Fair Lawn, Wayne and Lake Hopatcong,’’ they wrote in a letter released by U.S. Congressman Josh Gottheimer.
In April 2022, U.S. attorney for New Jersey Philip R. Sellinger filed hate-crime charges against a man allegedly responsible for a spree of violent assaults against Orthodox Jews in Lakewood and other New Jersey locales. Dion Marsh, who was accused of carjacking, bias intimidation, attempted kidnapping and attempted murder, while federal authorities have charged him with hate crimes, told investigators “it had to be done” because the Jews “are the real devils,’’ Selinger’s office says.
Last September, masked members of a hate group identified by police as the New Jersey European Heritage Association (NJEHA) attempted to insert itself into South Plainfield’s 63rd annual Labor Day parade. “None of us condone this group, believe in what they believe in, or welcomed them to this parade or the community,’’ says Mayor Matt Anesh.
The ADL says the NJEHA “espouses racism, anti-Semitism and intolerance under the guise of saving white European people from purported imminent extinction.” The same group has created disturbances by passing out racist leaflets in Maplewood and Trenton, where police reported finding flyers outside a local McDonald’s reading, “America is under occupation,” emblazoned over the star of David.
In Rutherford, police successfully urged a venue not to proceed with a scheduled November 2022 appearance of Proud Boys founder Gavin McInnes after residents expressed concern. Mayor Frank Nunziato says police were worried about a confrontation between McInnes’s supporters and protest groups. “The event had potential for confrontation,’’ the mayor said in a statement.
New Jersey attorney general Platkin, in an interview with New Jersey Monthly about a week before the 2022 midterm elections, said the epidemic of white supremacy and race hate has reached crisis proportions in this state.
Platkin says social media companies have helped fuel the epidemic by failing to follow through with promises to remove hate-speech from their platforms. For the better part of a year, Platkin and the state Division of Civil Rights pushed Facebook to remove a page operated by Rise Up Ocean County.
Rise Up says its mission is to raise awareness about overdevelopment in Lakewood, a town with a booming Orthodox population. But Platkin’s office and Jewish leaders say the site traffics in anti-Semitic hatred.
“We have too many people living in this state who are afraid simply because of who they are, where they worship, or who they love,’’ Platkin says. “You’ve got poll workers, health-care workers dispensing vaccines, teachers and school board members under threat.’’
Representatives of New Jersey’s Jewish community say confronting anti-Semitic threats has become an everyday task. Working with the FBI, state lawmakers and local police is now part of the job description for rabbis, they say.
The Jewish Federation of Greater Metro West, which represents 90 congregations and 150,000 Jewish members in Central and North Jersey, has set up an emergency-alert network and hired a former police chief to help secure synagogues.
“These days, there is a feeling in the air that things are different—people feel the change, they feel a sense of threat out there,’’ says Linda Scherzer, the Federation’s director of community relations. “Every day we ask, ‘What can we do to improve things, how can we counter this stuff?’’’
Archie Gottesman, a Summit resident who is cofounder of the nonprofit group Jewbelong, says anti-Semitism has become normalized over the past two years. Young Jews especially, she says, find themselves increasingly confronted with hate messages online and on college campuses.
In an effort to support Jews on campus and elsewhere, Gottesman’s group has mounted a provocative billboard campaign, #EndJewHate, designed to remind everyone of historic attacks on the faith. “Does your church need security cameras? ’Cause our synagogue does,’’ says one message.
“Anti-Semitism should be taken as seriously as any other hate crime,’’ Gottesman told New Jersey Monthly. “Most people don’t hate Jews. They don’t know how bad the problem is, either.’’
At the age of 18, Richard Tobin was already a Boy Scout of America “Fire Service Explorer,” had completed the junior firefighting course at Camden County Community College, and was a volunteer in the Brooklawn Fire Department.
When he wasn’t fighting fires, Tobin was helping to organize a hate attack on American Jews.
State prosecutors say Tobin was also a member of the Base, a paramilitary neo-Nazi group that sprung up in 2018 in the western United States and quickly spread to Europe and Australia.
From his suburban New Jersey home, prosecutors say, Tobin conspired with Midwest group members to create Operation Kristallnacht, a modern-day restaging of the November 1938 pogrom when German Nazis burned down synagogues, vandalized Jewish homes and killed more than 100 Jews.
“Tag the shit” out of the synagogues, Tobin told his coconspirators, according to a criminal complaint. “If there’s a window that wants to be broken, don’t be shy.” Tobin pleaded guilty to threatening African Americans and Jewish Americans and, in November 2021, was sentenced to a year and a day in prison.
Hate-watch groups say Tobin is emblematic of today’s white supremacy movement, which has evolved from the days of hooded night riders to a network of extremist cells ranging from neo-Nazis, neo-Confederates and racist skinheads to antigovernment militias and Christian identity groups.
The SPLC, which has tracked domestic extremism since 1971, now lists 733 groups on its hate map of the United States. While all are not considered right-wing hate groups—various groups on the left have a documented history of violence—the great majority embrace violence against non-white ethnic groups, Jews and immigrants.
The SPLC tracked 26 hate and anti-government groups in New Jersey in 2021. Listed among the hate groups are the AC Skins, a racist skinhead group in Atlantic City; the Patriotic Dissent Books, a statewide neo-Nazi group; the Vinlanders Social Club, more racist skinheads; and the Patriot Front, a statewide white nationalist group.
Then there are the Proud Boys, a collection of self-described Western chauvinists, who deny having any racist roots and claim they are merely a fraternal organization promoting an “anti-white guilt” and “anti-political correctness’’ agenda.
Federal prosecutors say about a dozen New Jersey Proud Boys traveled to Washington, D.C., to take part in the deadly January 6 attacks on the U.S. Capitol. In October, New Jersey Proud Boys member Shawn Price of Rockaway Township in Morris County pleaded guilty to federal charges related to his role in the assault. He faces up to five years in prison.
New Jersey Monthly’s messages to a half-dozen New Jersey Proud Boys leaders listed on the group’s website were not returned, nor were messages to Proud Boys founder Gavin McInnes.
Other hate groups operating in New Jersey, like the para-military Oath Keepers, claim their mission is not racial, but constitutional. They say they’re duty bound to disobey an overreaching U.S. government. In many places, they have worked to infiltrate local school boards and police departments.
Hate-watch groups say New Jersey has spawned multiple chapters of Oath Keepers, including active cells in communities from Morristown, Northvale and Newton to Manville, Southampton Township and Cape May. Leaked lists of Oath Keeper’s New Jersey membership published by several media outlets in 2021 show the group had enrolled almost 600 people. The membership rolls included 12 law enforcement officers, current and former military men, and at least one elected official.
Federal prosecutors say the Oath Keepers played a key role in organizing and carrying out the January 6 attacks, even hatching plans to bring a boatload of heavy weapons across the Potomac River. Many dressed in full tactical gear with helmets, firearms and body armor. In late November, Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes and another leader of the right-wing group were found guilty of seditious conspiracy for the attack on the U.S. Capitol.
Among the Oath Keepers from Jersey who made the trip to Washington was Edward Durfee Jr. of Northvale, a retired ex-Marine who, in 2021, won the Republican nomination for Assembly in New Jersey’s 37th district. Durfee’s nomination alarmed politicians from both parties. They were stunned to see Durfee actually get 16,193 votes in the general election, finishing a distant third.
Durfee did not respond to calls and messages for this story. During his campaign, he said he condemned all violence and called the January 6 attacks “shameful.’’ He claimed that New Jersey Oath Keepers traveled to Washington, D.C., merely “as eyes” trained on the U.S. government.
Gary Schaer, a Democratic state assemblyman from Passaic County, says Durfee’s candidacy came as a body blow.
“The Oath Keepers have embraced violence, they’ve embraced hate, they are anti-Semitic, they deal in lies and conspiracy theories,’’ Schaer says. “And this is the only guy the Republicans can find to run for a seat in the state Legislature? God help us.’’
Schaer, a leading member of the state’s Jewish community, has pioneered legislation to improve the reporting and prosecution of hate crimes. He’s fearful for Jews in Jersey and elsewhere as they increasingly come under threat.
“I wish I could say things are going to get better soon,’’ Schaer says.“But there’s always something new coming out.’’
On the weekend before the 2022 midterm elections, many synagogues in New Jersey were forced to close or beef up security after the FBI announced they had uncovered a credible threat against New Jersey Jewish communities. Bergen County deployed a SWAT team to patrol the streets. An 18-year-old Middlesex County man was arrested and charged in November.
That same weekend, members of the Proud Boys threatened to break up a Planned Parenthood benefit and LGBTQ-friendly concert in Sussex County organized by two Democrats running for the county commission. The Proud Boys failed to show after an anti-fascist group promised to counterprotest.
Damaris Lira, one of the Democratic candidates, says she organized the benefit concert to celebrate women and members of the LGBTQ community. Proud Boys groups online labeled it a drag show and vowed to turn up and protest.
“We’re living in a time when a benefit concert actually can become a focus of hate,’’ says Lira, who lost her election bid. “You have to ask yourself how it all got so bad.’’
Jeff Pillets is an award-winning investigative reporter.Click here to leave a comment