Thirty-one members of the national white supremacist group Patriot Front were arrested Saturday in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, and charged with conspiracy to riot, a misdemeanor, according to police.
In a news conference Saturday, Police Chief Lee White said a concerned citizen reported “a little army” of about 20 people wearing masks and holding shields loading into a U-Haul truck. Police pulled over the truck about 10 minutes later, White said.
Police received reports that groups planned to disrupt LGBTQ Pride activities planned for the weekend, White said, leading to a heavy police presence in downtown Coeur d’Alene, about 30 miles east of Spokane, Washington.
Experts on extremism identified the suspects as members of Patriot Front, which often engages in propaganda efforts, such as putting up posters and making videos, and “flash mob” events, where identically dressed members march around shouting slogans and waving flags.
Here’s what we know:
Who was arrested in Idaho?
Within hours of the arrests, the Kootenai County Sheriff’s Office released booking photos and names for 31 men from Texas, Wyoming, South Dakota, Washington, Colorado, Arkansas and other states. Most of them appeared to be white men in their 20s and 30s.
Each man was charged with one count of conspiracy to riot, White said, stressing more charges could come.
“They came to riot downtown,” White said at the news conference.
The founder of Patriot Front, Thomas Rousseau, 23, of Texas, was among the 31 arrested.
All of the suspects bonded out of jail and were scheduled to be arraigned in the coming weeks, Kootenai County 1st District Trial Court Administrator Karlene Behringer told USA TODAY.
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What is Patriot Front?
According to the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism, Patriot Front is responsible for approximately 80% of white supremacist propaganda across the USA. Members put up flyers and hang banners.
“Patriot Front espouses racism, antisemitism and intolerance under the guise of preserving the ethnic and cultural origins of their European ancestors,” ADL Vice President Oren Segal said. “They essentially believe that this is their country and they need to fight for the perception of what it was.”
The group, founded in 2017 by Rousseau, regularly produces videos with a distinctive red-white-and-blue aesthetic that are posted to its various social media platforms. The videos often feature men marching, training, putting up stickers and hanging flags.
When the group appears in public, members wear identical uniforms of khaki slacks and baseball caps, blue jackets and white face masks.
In January, the journalism collective Unicorn Riot published archives of hundreds of pages of Patriot Front’s private chats. The leak revealed the group has a rigorous recruitment process, said Megan Squire, a research fellow with the Southern Poverty Law Center.
In February, Squire and other researchers with the SPLC reported that one in five applicants to Patriot Front claimed to hold current or former military status.
“They want to appear as strong and organized and orderly in their appearance,” Squire said. “But they’re fine as coming across as white nationalists and fascists, they just want to be more disciplined about it.”
She said, “They want to come across more like the Hitler Youth.”
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Was Patriot Front ramping up?
Experts on extremism noted that it would be fairly unusual for Patriot Front to deliberately get involved in a violent confrontation. Usually, the group tends toward “flash mob” events, where they suddenly appear in a public space, march for a short time, chanting and waving flags, then get in a U-Haul and disappear.
The group received media attention when it held a rally in December in Washington.
Squire said it’s hard to tell whether Saturday’s arrests resulted from a propaganda stunt that turned sour, or if the group planned to violently confront people perceived as their enemies who were attending Pride events.
“They were either continuing what they have already been doing, or they were ramping up. I can see either of those being the case,” Squire said. “We’ll have to see some chats or testimony from informants to know.”
How embarrassing is this for Patriot Front?
The arrests are an embarrassment for Patriot Front, experts told USA TODAY.
The group prides itself on discipline, secrecy and, above all, carefully curating its public image, Squire said. Social media teemed with videos of Patriot Front members kneeling on the ground with their hands zip-tied behind their backs. Onlookers jeered as Rousseau was arrested.
“They looked very weak, kneeling on the ground instead of putting on this show of strength,” Squire said.
Squire noted that for a group that is very careful about not revealing members’ identities or being “doxxed,” Saturday’s arrests and the subsequent release of their names represented a misstep.
“Thomas (Rousseau) is obsessed with them not being doxxed, and now 31 of them have been doxxed,” she said. “He’s basically exposed all of them.”
Contributing: N’Dea Yancey-Bragg