Saturday brought some rare news in the world of racist extremism: A U-Haul box truck full of white nationalists was pulled over by police in Idaho, and its passengers were arrested on misdemeanor charges of conspiracy to riot. The men — members of the well-known neo-fascist group Patriot Front — were allegedly on their way to a pride event in Coeur d’Alene, where police say they planned to riot.
Here’s what we know about what happened.
Dozens of white supremacists were arrested for conspiracy to riot at a pride event.
According to police, a concerned citizen tipped off law enforcement when they saw a group of men that “looked like a little army” loading into a U-Haul box truck at a hotel parking lot. Police pulled the vehicle over a few blocks away from Coeur d’Alene City Park, where there was a “Pride in the Park” event Saturday.
Police raised the truck’s back door to find 31 men — all dressed in Patriot Front’s characteristic khaki pants and white masks — with their hands up. Coeur d’Alene Police Chief Lee White said at a press conference Saturday that police recovered riot shields, shin guards and at least one smoke grenade from the vehicle. Among the arrested: Thomas Rosseau, the group’s national leader, as well as Patriot Front members from states across the country including Washington, Texas and Virginia.
“It is clear to us based on the gear that the individuals had with them — the stuff they had in their possession in the U-Haul with them, along with paperwork that was seized from them — that they came to riot downtown,” White said, adding of the document he mentioned: “It appeared to be very similar to an operations plan that a police or military group would put together for an event.”
(White later read from the document to The New York Times: “a column forming on the outside of the park, proceeding inward, until barriers to approach are met” and “once an appropriate amount of confrontational dynamic has been established the column will disengage and head to Sherman.” Sherman Avenue runs through the center of Coeur d’Alene, the paper noted.)
They’re members of Patriot Front, which formed in the aftermath of Charlottesville.
Patriot Front has been a national presence on the racist right for years, ever since the aftermath of the deadly 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. Rousseau, the group’s leader, was previously involved in the neo-Nazi group Vanguard America, including at the time of the Charlottesville rally. James Fields, who murdered counter-protester Heather Heyer that day, was spotted carrying a Vanguard America shield before the attack.
Patriot Front formed out of the splintered remains of Vanguard America. It’s openly fascist, proclaiming that “democracy has failed in this once great nation,” and “a corrupt rootless, global, and tyrannical elite has usurped your democracy and turned it into a weapon, first to enslave and then to replace you.” In late 2019, ProPublica called Patriot Front “perhaps the most active white supremacist group in the nation.”
The group is known for its public displays of force — and for its use of U-Hauls.
Patriot Front’s public activities primarily consist of the type of formation we saw Saturday: A group of white men dressed like alt-right Dwight Schrutes loads into a U-Haul with shields and other accouterment, drives to a location where they intend to rally, and then spills out onto the street in unison, sometimes with police escort. The effect is striking: A bunch of organized racists showing up in force to a given location — such as the National Mall in Washinton, D.C. — to make their presence and their ideology known.
Sometimes, as was the case in Philadelphia last July, locals push back, yelling and in some cases attacking the men.
They’re usually careful to protect their identities. But they were unmasked Saturday.
Though there have been revealing leaks of Patriot Front’s chat servers and meeting audio this year, the group’s adherents are usually careful to shield their faces in public. Their white face masks have become a signature of the Patriot Front uniform.
That’s part of the reason why Saturday’s spectacle was so incredible: Bystanders and journalists who happened to come across the mass arrest took video as Patriot Front members were literally unmasked by police. Their names, pictures and hometowns were subsequently released as part of jail booking data. For extremism researchers and anti-fascist activists, that’s invaluable information.
Anti-fascists are already having a field day with the new identity information.
There were signs Monday that researchers and activists were lining up the arrest records with existing information about Patriot Front members. Regional anti-fascist groups announced on Twitter that they’d matched up arrest records to their knowledge of local far-right activists in their area, and journalists worked to connect the arrestees to previous Patriot Front incidents.
There’s likely another player taking in the new information: Federal law enforcement. “We were in contact with the FBI all day,” White, the Coeur d’Alene police chief, said Saturday.