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Long before Patriot Front came, Idaho political figures targeted Pride event

Authorities arrest members of the white supremacist group Patriot Front near an Idaho pride event Saturday, June 11, 2022, after they were found packed into the back of a U-Haul truck with riot gear.
Georji Brown
/
AP
Authorities arrest members of the white supremacist group Patriot Front near an Idaho pride event Saturday, June 11, 2022, after they were found packed into the back of a U-Haul truck with riot gear.

Editor’s note: A derogatory term is reported in this piece and could be offensive or disturbing to some readers.

The arrest of 31 members of a white supremacist group allegedly on their way to riot at a North Idaho gay Pride celebration shocked people across the country. But it didn’t come out of nowhere.

Political figures in Idaho and Washington had been demonizing the event for months; and that vitriol had gone viral, gaining the attention of far-right politicians and prominent bigots across the country. It’s a prime example of how wild conspiracy theories are rocketing from the fringes to the mainstream and potentially upping the chances for violent reactions.

Long before the white supremacist group Patriot Front showed up in Coeur d’Alene, state Rep. Heather Scott (R-Blanchard) helped spread vitriol against a planned gay Pride event. Scott did not respond to interview requests.

Back in April, Scott organized an event during which she called the leaders of a far-right motorcycle group – Panhandle Patriots Riding Club – to the stage.

In a video posted to YouTube, Jeff White, the so-called “sergeant at arms” of the Panhandle Patriots, took the mic and mentioned a family day in a Coeur d’Alene Park in June, before pivoting abruptly to Pride in the Park.

“They are having gay Pride day in the very same park, the very next day, where they will be allowed to parade through all of Coeur d’Alene, drag queen dancers, education hour, making all this material available for all the kids in a park that is designed for kids,” he said.

Then, his language took a turn toward the violent.

“Good people need to stand up,” White said. “We say, ‘Damn the repercussions, stand up, take it to the head. Go to the fight, if you can possibly.’”

It turns out, people were listening.

On the day of Pride in the Park, Coeur d’Alene police pulled over a U-Haul moving truck. Inside were 31 members of the white supremacist group Patriot Front. Police said they had shin guards, shields, a smoke grenade and a seven-page blueprint for sparking chaos at the Pride celebration. Coeur d’Alene Police Chief Lee White said a concerned resident alerted authorities.

“And as a result, we likely stopped a riot from happening downtown,” he said.

Officers arrested the Patriot Front members and charged them with conspiracy to start a riot, a misdemeanor. All but two were from out of state, and they’re all awaiting trial.

But let’s back up, because controversy around Pride in the Park started way before Patriot Front showed up in Idaho.

Back to Heather Scott, the Idaho state representative who introduced the bikers. She’s represented a corner of North Idaho for three terms and is running unopposed for a fourth. Scott continued to attack Pride in the Park after posting her event video in April.

“Churches, Satanists, Libraries, Idaho State Police, Anti-gun groups, the Museum, Tomlinson Sothebys International Realty, US Bank, a clown, and I'm sure a lot of sex offenders and pedophiles join in (Couer d’Alene) Idaho this weekend to meet your children at the Pride in the Park event,” she wrote on her Facebook page June 7.

Former Washington State Rep. Matt Shea, who until 2021 represented a district on the Idaho border, also attacked the event. A member of his church was among the Patriot Front members arrested, according to The Spokesman-Review.

There is, of course, no evidence of any sex offenders or pedophiles at the event. Instead, this is a reference to “grooming,” a wild conspiracy theory born of another wild conspiracy theory, QAnon.

Adherents of QAnon believe there’s a satanic cabal of powerful people preying on children. That has morphed into a theory that more and more political figures, like Scott, are parroting as “grooming,” a term meaning making children more susceptible to pedophilic advances. This term is almost always leveled at members of the LGBTQ+ community, and especially transgender Americans.

Recently, “grooming” has been mentioned by U.S. Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene, Fox News host Laura Ingraham and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ press secretary.

“There’s been a little bit of an increase in this rhetoric around LGBTQ folks in this country and attempting to connect these folks in some way to pedophilia to grooming of children, etc.,” said Stephen Piggott, an analyst with the progressive anti-extremism group, Western States Center.

“There's been a concerted effort by not just white nationalist groups, not just anti-LGBT groups, kind of across the board to kind of try to make this connection, you know, using really demonizing rhetoric, using dehumanizing rhetoric.”

There’s no evidence Scott or the biker group is connected to the Patriot Front, but Piggott said mainstreaming these conspiracy theories can embolden more extreme groups and could lead to violence.

“When you have elected officials promoting these conspiracy theories, and bringing those into a wider audience; it's troubling to see,” he said.

Despite the lack of evidence, this unsubstantiated idea about the Coeur d’Alene Pride event went viral. Telegram chat rooms of far-right movements and out hate groups picked it up and ran with it. Holocaust denier Nick Fuentes shared it with his more than 44,000 followers, as did chapters of the neo-fascist Proud Boys and plenty of Idaho-specific far-right figures.

The popular Libs of Tik Tok account touted the event ahead of time as did Paul Joseph Watson, who used to work for Alex Jones’ conspiracy show “Infowars” and has more than 1 million Twitter followers.

So, while it’s not clear how Patriot Front members became aware of Pride in the Park, given how it pinged around social media, they would have had many opportunities.

State Rep. John McCrostie (D-Garden City) said his fellow lawmakers laid the groundwork for this kind of anti-LGBTQ+ action well before the controversy around the Coeur d’Alene event.

“Take it back one step further and we've seen a rise in anti LGBTQ+, and in particular anti-trans legislation, in Idaho and across our country,” he said.

McCrostie is the only openly gay lawmaker currently serving in the Idaho legislature.

“And so, as you have that kind of legislation out there, you as leaders, as state leaders as community leaders, part of a message that is sent out when those bills are supported or even introduced is that there are folks within our community that are not welcome,” he said.

As concerning as the run-up to the Pride event was to many, the reaction to the arrests of Patriot Front members was also chilling. In Idaho and across the country, many conservatives immediately claimed a conspiracy theory. The idea, based on no evidence, is that the federal government or leftists staged the plot to make conservatives look bad, a so-called “false flag.”

In Idaho, the vice president of the influential far-right group, the Idaho Freedom Foundation, tweeted “Patriot Front = fed bois, don’t be fooled.” Matt Shea, the former Washington state lawmaker, claimed it was Antifa.

An Idaho regional GOP chairman, Bjorn Handeen, rejected the conspiracy, but used an anti-trans slur when describing the event. Handeen called Pride in the Park “Tranny Day,” in a Telegram post claiming the Patriot Front members’ rights were violated by the arrests.

Those reactions reverberated way beyond Idaho. The co-founder of the prominent conservative magazine, The Federalist, tweeted, “It’s nice of the Feds to film their weekend intramural scrimmages.”

The Gateway Pundit, a popular far-right news site, posted a similar reaction.

All of this echoed themes seen on white supremacist feeds on mobile messaging platforms like Telegram.

Donald Williamson, executive director for the Boise Pride Festival, which will take place in September, said the promotion of these ideas by political figures is “infuriating” and potentially dangerous.

“It’s definitely playing with fire,” he said. “Hateful rhetoric can be loud, and it can be hurtful, and we just have to band together as a community to stand up and say that that's not right and be louder.”

As for Boise’s Pride festival, Williamson said they’ll be taking the normal security precautions they typically do. He said, sadly, these threats are nothing new for the LGBTQ+ community.

“The community always has for decades been a target,” he said. “So they always have to be mindful of their surroundings, you know, especially if they are living in a conservative area.”

Heath Druzin was Boise State Public Radio’s Guns & America fellow from 2018-2020, during which he focused on extremist movements, suicide prevention and gun culture.