Patriot Front leader among those arrested near Idaho Pride event

After 31 members of a white supremacist group were arrested while possessing riot gear near a northern Idaho Pride event, LGBTQ advocates have said that polarisation and a fraught political climate are putting their community at risk. The Patriot Front members were arrested after officers received a tip that people were loading up into a U-Haul vehicle like “a little army” at a hotel car park in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, police said. Among those being held on misdemeanour charges of conspiracy to riot was Thomas Ryan Rousseau of Grapevine, Texas, who has been identified by the Southern Poverty Law Centre as the 23-year-old who founded the group after the deadly “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017.

Also among those held 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.

The 31 arrested menThe 31 members of the white supremacist group Patriot Front who were arrested after they were found packed into the back of a U-Haul truck with riot gear near an LGBTQ pride event in Idaho (Kootenai County Sheriff’s Office via AP)

Michael Kielty, Wagner’s lawyer, said 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, according to Jon Lewis, a George Washington University researcher who specialises in homegrown violent extremism. Mr Lewis said the group’s tactics involves identifying local grievances to exploit, organising 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.

Patriot Front arrestsThe men were found packed into the back of a U-Haul truck with riot gear (Georji Brown via AP)

Though Pride celebrations have long been picketed by counter-protesters citing religious objections, they have not historically been a major focus for armed extremist groups. Mr Lewis said anti-LGBTQ rhetoric has increasingly become a potent rallying cry in the far-right online ecosystem.

“That set of grievances fits into their broader narratives and shows their ability to mobilise 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.

Thomas Rousseau Thomas Rousseau (Kootenai County Sheriff’s Office, via AP)

“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,” Mr 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 of Equality Utah in Salt Lake City. “Our nation is growing increasingly polarised, and the result has been tragic and deadly,” he said. Authorities in the San Francisco Bay Area are investigating a possible hate crime after a group of men allegedly shouted homophobic and anti-LGBTQ slurs during a weekend Drag Queen Story Hour at the San Lorenzo Library on Saturday.

No arrests have been made, no-one was physically harmed, and authorities are investigating the incident as possible harassment of children.

Patriot Front members arrestedThe group were arrested on Saturday (AP)

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.

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.