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 press conference Saturday, Coeur D’Alene 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 had 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 immediately identified the arrestees as members of Patriot Front, which often engages in propaganda efforts like putting up posters and making videos, and that has also participated in recent “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 Department released booking photos and names for 31 men. The arrestees were from around the country, including Texas, Wyoming, South Dakota, Washington, Colorado, Arkansas and several other states. Most of the arrestees appeared to be white men in their 20s and 30s.
Each man was charged with one count of conspiracy to riot, White said, but he stressed more charges could be forthcoming.
“They came to riot downtown,” White told reporters at the news conference.
The founder of Patriot Front, 23-year-old Thomas Rousseau of Texas, was among the 31 who were arrested.
All of the arrestees bonded out of jail and were scheduled to be arraigned in the coming weeks, Kootenai County First District Trial Court Administrator Karlene Behringer told USA TODAY.
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What is Patriot Front?
Patriot Front is a secretive white supremacist organization primarily known for creating slick propaganda videos showing members putting up flyers and hanging banners around the country.
Oren Segal, vice president of the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism, said the group is most known for spreading white supremacist propaganda. According to ADL data, Patriot Front is responsible for approximately 80% of such propaganda across the U.S.
“Patriot Front espouses racism, antisemitism and intolerance under the guise of preserving the ethnic and cultural origins of their European ancestors,” 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 imagery of 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 added, “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 significant media attention when it held such a rally in December in Washington, D.C.
But Patriot Front has largely steered clear of violent confrontations, Squire said. And she said it’s hard to tell whether Saturday’s arrests resulted from another propaganda stunt that turned sour, or if they had 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 unquestionably an embarrassment for Patriot Front, experts told USA TODAY.
This is a group that prides itself on discipline, secrecy and, above all, carefully curating its public image, Squire said. But social media was teeming with videos of Patriot Front members kneeling on the ground with their hands zip-tied behind their backs. One video showed Rousseau being arrested while onlookers jeered.
“They looked very weak kneeling on the ground instead of putting on this show of strength,” Squire said.
Squire also noted that for a group that is very careful about not revealing their identities or being “doxxed,” Saturday’s arrests and the subsequent release of their names represented a significant 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, USA TODAY.