Patriot Front planned to disrupt a Pride event in Idaho. One year later, members are on trial

Court appearances for members of the neo-fascist group follow a year of anti-LGBT+ threats across the country, but communities are standing up against them, Alex Woodward reports

Monday 17 July 2023 18:23 BST

A call to 911 alerted police to the “little army” crowded inside a box truck.

Moments later, police in an Idaho resort town pulled 31 men out of a U-haul parked near an annual Pride event.

The men, members of the neo-fascist group Patriot Front, wore white masks, sunglasses and hats obstructing their faces. They carried shields, metal flag poles, shin guards and at least one smoke grenade. Paperwork inside the truck appeared to show plans for a riot.

The men traveled from at least a dozen states, with some coming as far as Colorado and Texas, with alleged plans to violently riot during the city’s LGBT+ Pride celebrations.

More than one year later after their arrest on 11 June, 2022 – a disruption that prevented possible violent chaos on the last day of Coeur d’Alene’s annual Pride in the Park – several members of the group will face trial on charges of conspiracy to riot.

The six men who face a jury trial on 17 July – Devin W Center, James Johnson, Cameron Pruitt, Forrest Rankin, Derek Smith and Robert Whitted – have pleaded not guilty to conspiracy to riot, a misdemeanor.

Their arrests and other acts of far-right violence in communities across the US in recent years have tested the strength of new or renewed connections between Pride organizers’ and LGBT+ advocacy groups with city and state officials faced with evolving trends in anti-LGBT+ campaigns.

Despite the mass arrests of its members in Idaho, Patriot Front’s presence across the US has not diminished.

The group, which first emerged from the splintering of another white nationalist group in the aftermath of the lethal rally in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017, was responsible for the vast majority of “hateful propaganda” efforts in the years that followed, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, which designates Patriot Front as a hate group.

Over the last few years, Patriot Front have made their physical presence known at demonstrations and rallies across the country.

A month after the arrests in Coeur d’Alene, a Black artist was attacked during a Patriot Front march in Boston. This year, members have marched in Indianapolis, protested a drag brunch in Tennessee, and, in a grim display in the nation’s capital, marched in Washington DC.

A report from the Anti-Defamation League and GLAAD discovered more than 350 targeted threats against LGBT+ people within the last year from a wide array of anti-LGBT+ groups, including online harassment as well as armed protests at drag performances, bomb scares against hospitals that provide gender-affirming healthcare, and other acts of violence, including a mass shooting inside a Colorado Springs LGBT+ nightclub.

Incidents targeting drag performers and the people and venues that host them have accelerated across the US, with similar threats surfacing in the UK, according to a separate recent report from the Institute for Strategic Dialogue.

The group collected 203 on- and offline threatening incidents specifically targeting drag events within the last year.

Court records indicate that all 31 men arrested during last year’s Pride in the Park event posted $300 bond on the same weekend of their arrest.

At least five members were issued arrest warrants, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.

All but three of the 31 members are scheduled for a jury trial except for several members who have failed to appear in court for their pre-trial appearances.

Only one man has been sentenced: 27-year-old Alexander Sisenstein was sentenced to a two-year unsupervised probation with one day credit for time served after entering a plea on a misdemeanor offense of disturbing the peace.

“It’s really been no secret” that white nationalist groups, paramilitary groups and other far-right groups have increasingly mobilised against LGBT+ communities within the last year, according to Stephen Piggott, a program director and researcher with Western States Center, a Pacific Northwest-based civil rights watchdog.

Organizing typically is “not very public facing,” largely confined to private forums and private messaging groups and connected by a network of social “active” clubs, among others, he told The Independent in a briefing analyzing threats to this year’s Pride events.

“From a community organizing perspective, you constantly see antidemocratic groups changing up their strategies,” added Kate Bitz, a program manager and organizer with Western States Center.

“It’s really important to be quick on your feet,” she said. “The network is already strong and still strengthening … We’re not going to be intimidated.”

The broader antidemocratic movement, including neo-fascist groups threatening drag events, have sought to build on the momentum of shutting them down, fuelled by legislation in state capitols against transition healthcare and public drag performance, Mr Piggott said.

“The broader antidemocratic movement feels like they’re winning on this issue so they’re going to stick with something they’re winning on,” he added.

Members of Patriot Front are pictured marching in Washington DC in December 2021 (Getty Images)

As organizers tracked the escalation of online rhetoric targeting Coeur d’Alene’s Pride event last spring, “we quickly decided that we needed to do something about it,” North Idaho Pride organizer Sarah Lynch told The Independent.

Lynch, a US Air Force veteran with a PhD in public safety, helped form a safety committee with a safety plan alongside public safety officials within the weeks leading up to Pride. The groups have maintained and grown those relationships, so “leading up to this year’s Pride in the Park, I felt like we were well ahead of the game with our planning,” she said.

Western States Center also worked with Pride organizers and businesses that faced threats for supporting LGBT+ people, and Coeur d’Alene Mayor Jim Hammond issued a proclamation formally designating June as Pride Month, an act of visibility that was critical for showing public support to rebuff anti-Pride protests.

“What we saw from anti-democracy groups in response to that was that if they were going to try to disrupt Pride, they were going to disrupt the entire community,” Ms Bitz said. [It’s] always an option for city governments to have that clarity in their values and honor Pride Month [and] LGBT+ people’s right to exist and to celebrate.”

Pride in the Park in 2023 saw more vendors, more sponsorships, and community support coming from “everywhere,” Ms Lynch said.

“For me it said that this is a community that really wants and needs Pride. And so that was kind of a driver for us, to make sure that we did it again this year, and we did it well,” she said.

Hundreds of organizers, supporters and officials joined Pride in the Park in 2023, the first of several Pride events through the state the month, with regional events throughout the summer.

“A lot of people kept asking me, ‘What is Pride? Why does it matter?’ And I think at the end of the day, for me, Pride really saves lives,” Ms Lynch told The Independent. “It’s a time to celebrate for folks that are able to be authentic, but there’s a lot of people that aren’t safe to do that. And so Pride is a time for them to be able to access resources, a place for them to come and feel safe and supported, and for maybe that one or two or three hours that they’re there, they can be authentic about who they love.”

Pride is a “manifestation of what could be,” she added. “We definitely have our work cut out for us, but we’re up to the task.”

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