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Calls grow for a tougher legal approach to white nationalist group Patriot Front

A police officer holds one of a group of men, among 31 arrested for conspiracy to riot and affiliated with the white nationalist group Patriot Front, after they were found in the rear of a U-Haul van in the vicinity of a North Idaho Pride Alliance LGBTQ+ event in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, on June 11, 2022.
John Rudoff/Reuters
A police officer holds one of a group of men, among 31 arrested for conspiracy to riot and affiliated with the white nationalist group Patriot Front, after they were found in the rear of a U-Haul van in the vicinity of a North Idaho Pride Alliance LGBTQ+ event in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, on June 11, 2022.

Jury trials are getting underway for members of a white nationalist groupaccused of the misdemeanor count of conspiring to riot at an LGBTQ gathering and in downtown Coeur d'Alene in June.

Police stopped the 31 affiliates of Patriot Front after a caller tipped them off to seeing approximately 20 masked men load into a U-Haul truck at a hotel parking lot, looking "like a little army."

In the vehicle, police also found metal shields, reinforced baseball caps, a smoke grenade and paperwork that appeared to show a master plan to riot.

But researchers say that in spite of the national attention that the arrests drew, Patriot Front has escalated its activities.

According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, the group posted more than 1,000 pieces of racist propaganda between June and the end of August. Members of Patriot Front also marched in Indianapolis. And in perhaps their most brazen public display, they swarmed in Boston in July, where they are accused of assaulting a Black man with shields.

"They are not afraid of the police," said Kristofer Goldsmith, founder of a volunteer veterans organization called the Task Force Butler Institute, which researches far-right groups. "They're not afraid of the justice system because in their entire history, when they act as an organization, they feel that they have overwhelmed law enforcement."

Goldsmith's group is one of a growing chorus calling on prosecutors to mount a more substantive case against Patriot Front. These voices say that piecemeal local cases have been ineffective in curtailing the group's activities, which they say are meant to intimidate and harm historically marginalized people.

Pressing for federal charges

They're calling on federal law enforcement to go after the Patriot Front for civil rights violations, and they're urging state and local prosecutors to recognize the pattern and escalation of Patriot Front's activities across the country.

"What I'm trying to encourage law enforcement to do at the local level is look nationally, recognize that this is a nationwide neo-Nazi gang that is coming to their neighborhood to terrorize their civilians, their citizens, the people that these police are supposed to protect," Goldsmith said.

He recently sent a document totaling more than 200 pages to state and local prosecutors in Idaho, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania, detailing the extremist group's activities and suggesting criminal and civil statutes that may be actionable. Goldsmith also sent it to the Department of Justice.

"The stakes are incredibly high," said Lindsay Schubiner, a program director at the Western States Center, a progressive, pro-democracy organization. The Center, in partnership with the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, has separately sent a letter to U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland to urge the DOJ to consider federal action against Patriot Front.

"We've seen from other cases and from the history of white nationalism in the U.S. that significant legal action, including civil suits, can be really effective in diminishing the threats that white nationalist groups pose," said Schubiner.

Schubiner, Goldsmith and others said the failure as yet to take Patriot Front's activities seriously echoes law enforcement's handling of the Proud Boys.

For years, that extremist group engaged in local political violence in Portland and Washington state with relative impunity. Extremism and counterterrorism experts say this gave the Proud Boys confidence and leeway to plan their involvement in the riot at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6th of last year, for which several former leaders now face trial.

Founded five years ago

For some local law enforcement agencies, there may still be limited understanding of what Patriot Front is. The group was founded in 2017, after that year's Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville. Its founder, Thomas Rousseau, was a former leader of the neo-Nazi group Vanguard America, which last year was found civilly liable for the deadly gathering of white supremacists. According to the SPLC, at any given time Patriot Front has 150 to 180 members.

The Justice Department declined to comment for this story. But former federal prosecutors point out a number of factors that the department might weigh when considering involvement.

"If you have a federal case, you'd be able to have a much more streamlined approach [than with state cases]," said Gregory Nolan, a former U.S. prosecutor who now works with the nonpartisan States United Democracy Center. "You've got one law. You've got the federal law of the United States."

Nolan said among the criminal statutes that he's seen groups suggest in relation to a possible case against Patriot Front, the most promising may be a federal a conspiracy statute for civil rights violations.

In the past, it has been used to prosecute the Ku Klux Klan for cross burnings. Schubiner and others say that the carefully curated optics of Patriot Front's activities, in which they wear matching colors, march in military formation and wear face masks, are similarly meant to send a visual signal to intimidate minorities.

But there could be risks to pursuing a federal case against the group.

"What you don't want to do is bring a case and lose it, making bad law and emboldening groups to go out and do more," said Mary McCord, executive director of the Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection and visiting professor at Georgetown Law.

McCord said that unless the DOJ feels confident that it can bring a solid case, it may better play a role in helping local and state prosecutors understand the full scope of Patriot Front's activities across the country.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Odette Yousef
Odette Yousef is a National Security correspondent focusing on extremism.