After the arrest of more than two dozen members of a white supremacist group near a northern Idaho pride event, including one identified as its founder, LGBTQ advocates said Sunday that polarization and a fraught political climate are putting their community increasingly at risk.
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, Idaho, police said.
Among those booked into jail on misdemeanor charges of conspiracy to riot was Thomas Rousseau of Grapevine, Texas, who has been identified by the Southern Poverty Law Center as the 23-year-old who founded the group after the deadly “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017. No attorney was immediately listed for him and phone numbers associated with him went unanswered Sunday.
Also among the arrestees was Mitchell F. Wagner, 24, of Florissant, Missouri, who was previously charged with defacing a mural of famous Black Americans on a college campus in St. Louis last year.
Michael Kielty, Wagner’s attorney, said Sunday that he had not been provided information about the charges. He said Patriot Front did not have a reputation for violence and that the case could be a First Amendment issue. “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 who specializes in homegrown violent extremism.
Their playbook, Lewis said, involves identifying local grievances to exploit, organizing on platforms like the messaging app Telegram and ultimately 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 major focus for armed extremist groups. Still, it isn’t surprising, given how anti-LGBTQ rhetoric has increasingly 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 this week, dozens of Pride flags were stolen from city streets.
“Whenever we are confronted with attacks of hate, we must respond with the message from the community that we embrace all people with all of our differences,” McCrostie said in a text message.
Sunday also marked six years since the mass shooting that killed 49 people at the Orlando LGBTQ club Pulse, said Troy Williams with Equality Utah in Salt Lake City.
“Our nation is growing increasingly polarized, and the result has been tragic and deadly,” he said.
In Coeur d’Alene on Saturday, police found riot gear, one smoke grenade, shin guards and shields inside the van after pulling it over near a park where the North Idaho Pride Alliance was holding a Pride in the Park event, Coeur d’Alene Police Chief Lee White said.
The group came to riot around the small northern Idaho city wearing Patriot Front patches and logos on their hats and some T-shirts reading “Reclaim America” according to police and videos of the arrests posted on social media.
Those arrested came from at least 11 states, including Washington, Oregon, Texas, Utah, Colorado, South Dakota, Illinois, Wyoming, Virginia, and Arkansas.
Though there is a history of far-right extremism dating back decades in northern Idaho, White said only one of those arrested Saturday was from the state.
The six-hour Pride event generally went on as scheduled, including booths, food, live music, a drag show and a march of more than 50 people, the Idaho Statesman reported.
The group is scheduled to be arraigned on Monday.
Whitehurst and Metz reported from Salt Lake City. Associated Press writer Martha Bellisle contributed to this report.