BOISE, Idaho — There are still many unanswered questioned about the events that led to 31 members of a white nationalism group being arrested near a pride event in North Idaho. The group ‘Patriot Front’ is the primary organization associated with the events on Saturday. Experts on the topic of growing political and religious extremism said there should be no surprise that the group showed up with alleged plans to sabotage a pride event with a planned riot.
One group, The Western States Center, observes and researches inclusive democratic movements and societies rooted in justice and equity.
Part of that is tracking extremist groups, like those that planned on harming the pride event in Coeur d'Alene.
KTVB spoke with Kate Bitz, Program Manager with Western States Center.
Bitz spends time working with communities to organize against white nationalism and other bigoted ideologies, like Patriot Front.
“We had certainly been watching some of the chatter around Coeur d’Alene Pride in the park leading up to this event for about the past month. Certainly, it was interesting that Patriot Front in particular decided to show up. This is a white nationalist group that formed following the deadly Unite the Right rally in 2017 in Charlottesville. And they, in order to do that, they broke off from the neo-Nazi organization Vanguard America. So one of Saturday's arrests is Patriot Front's founder, Thomas Russo. He's someone who led Vanguard America members during the Unite the Right, including James Alex Steele Jr, who's the young man who was convicted of murdering the anti-racist protester, Heather Heyer,” Bitz said.
Bitz says Patriot Front and groups like it have a history of organizing actions that turned violent.
“I think it was a big relief to everyone to see that in this case, they were quickly arrested. Apparently, according to the Coeur d’Alene Police, on the tip of an ordinary citizen who saw 30 guys getting into the back of that U-Haul and realized that something was very wrong. So great quick action by the community and by local law enforcement in this instance to forestall something that I don't think we quite know how it could have turned out,” Bitz said.
The attempt at disrupting a pride month event, possibly with violence, is part of a growing trend of LGBTQ hate that is not just trolling online.
“Certainly we are seeing a rise in homophobia and transphobia as one of the excuses for organizing, I guess you might say, on the part of bigoted groups. And we should point out that Panhandle Patriot is not Patriot Front, these are separate groups. One is locally based, whereas Patriot Front it very much appears that only some of those 31 arrestees was actually from our region,” Bitz said. “We do see an institutional environment that kind of enables and encourages this view of the LGBTQ community as somehow dangerous. You know, instead of just people living our lives and treating our community as something of an outlet of outside influence,” Bitz said.
In the span of about one week, Idaho saw pride flags, that are very famously placed in downtown Boise, ripped down and destroyed, clips went viral of a Boise church leader basically calling for the extermination of the LGBTQ community, and an out-of-state group showed up in Coeur d’Alene to ‘take on’ a pride festival. Bitz says the pattern is telling in Idaho, but so is the actual pride event hosted on Saturday.
“Idaho, we do see as a bellwether state. Idaho often tells us where the rest of the country may be headed in terms of how anti-democracy groups are going to try to build power, but also in terms of how effectively communities are able to push back and to blunt this kind of bigoted organizing. So, I mean, the excellent work of North Idaho Pride Alliance in putting together a really broad coalition, working with local government, with law enforcement, with civil society and North Idaho to successfully put on an event that, from everything I've heard from people in Coeur d'Alene, was fun, joyful, positive. That also shows us that Idaho is a state of standing up to this kind of bigotry,” Bitz said.
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