After the arrest of more than two dozen members of a white supremacist group near a northern Idaho Pride event, including its founder, LGBTQ advocates said polarization and a fraught political climate are putting their community increasingly at risk, the Associated Press reports. The 31 Patriot Front members were arrested with riot gear after a tipster reported seeing people loading up into a U-Haul like “a little army” at a hotel parking lot in Coeur d’Alene, Id. Among those booked into jail on misdemeanor charges of conspiracy to riot was Thomas Ryan Rousseau, 23, of Grapevine, Tx., who the Southern Poverty Law Center said founded the group after the deadly “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Va., in 2017. Also among the arrestees was Mitchell Wagner, 24, of Florissant, Mo., who was charged with defacing a mural of famous Black Americans on a St. Louis college campus last year. Michael Kielty, Wagner’s attorney, said Patriot Front did not have a reputation for violence and that the case raises First Amendment issues. “Even if you don’t like the speech, they have the right to make it,” he said.
Patriot Front is a white supremacist neo-Nazi group whose members perceive Black Americans, Jews and LGBTQ people as enemies, said Jon Lewis, a George Washington University researcher. Their playbook, Lewis said, involves identifying local grievances to exploit, organizing on platforms like the messaging app Telegram and showing up to events marching in neat columns, in blue- or white-collared-shirt uniforms, in a display of strength. Though Pride celebrations have long been picketed by counterprotesters citing religious objections, they haven’t historically been a focus of armed extremist groups. Still, it isn’t surprising, given how anti-LGBTQ rhetoric has become a potent rallying cry in the far-right online ecosystem, Lewis said. “That set of grievances fits into their broader narratives and shows their ability to mobilize the same folks against ‘the enemy’ over and over and over again,” he said. The arrests come amid a surge of charged rhetoric around LGBTQ issues and a wave of state legislation aimed at transgender youth, said John McCrostie, the first openly gay man elected to the Idaho Legislature. In Boise, dozens of Pride flags were stolen from city streets.