Comment: Patriot Front arrests in Idaho a reminder of threat

The West has past experience with right-wing extremists. A van full of white men looking to riot should surprise no one.

By Leah Sottile / Special To The Washington Post

On a recent sunny Saturday in the lake resort city of Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, police pulled over a U-Haul truck and rolled up the back door. Thirty-one members of the white supremacist group Patriot Front stared back at them.

The men wore matching dark blue shirts and khaki pants, and covered the lower part of their faces with white balaclavas; according to police, they’d brought metal shields and riot gear, a smoke grenade and a detailed plan to carry out confrontation at the local Pride in the Park festival. The targets of Patriot Front’s hatred extend beyond race.

The men were arrested for conspiracy to riot — a misdemeanor — and were freed after posting bond before the weekend was done.

Police said they came from Idaho, Washington, Oregon, Texas, Michigan, Alabama, Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, South Dakota, Illinois, Missouri and Arkansas. As police peeled down the balaclavas, the reality of right-wing extremism in the United States was revealed: White supremacists can be found anywhere.

Two months earlier, and 2,248 miles away, 10 Black people were slaughtered at a supermarket in Buffalo, N.Y. Law enforcement officials said they were killed by an 18-year-old man who subscribes to racist false claims that white Americans are being intentionally supplanted by people of color. The accused gunman has pleaded not guilty to charges related to the shootings.

The “great replacement theory” is commonplace in white supremacist circles: Patriot Front leader Thomas Ryan Rousseau of Grapevine, Texas, was among those arrested in Coeur d’Alene. He was also a prominent member of Vanguard America, the white supremacist group behind the deadly 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Va., where demonstrators chanted “You will not replace us.”

The fact Rousseau turned up in Idaho would not have been a shock to many people in the northwestern United States. For years, the region has been a de facto testing ground for the far right to see what it can get away with.

Consider the 2016 occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, when men with weapons and anti-government views seized a federal property for 41 days, transforming it into a hive buzzing with militant group members, racists and plenty of characters who’d give the so-called QAnon Shaman a run for his money.

The man who led the occupation, Ammon Bundy, grew up on a farm in Nevada hearing anti-government views and fringe religious beliefs from his father, Cliven, who pursued his own grievances with the federal government for decades, before leading an armed standoff in 2014. Following that confrontation, Cliven Bundy mused to reporters about “the Negro,” government “subsidy” and the possibility that Black people were “better off as slaves.”

At both Bundy standoffs, the family summoned help from unofficial militia groups that would, years later, be among those who stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. Long before they hit Washington, the Oath Keepers and the Three Percenters pointed guns at federal agents in the West. Stewart Rhodes, a Montana man who founded the Oath Keepers, now faces seditious conspiracy charges for the Jan. 6 attack. He has pleaded not guilty; three other Oath Keepers have pleaded guilty to the charges.

In 2018 and 2019, I reported a podcast and story series called “Bundyville” for Longreads and Oregon Public Broadcasting. In one episode, listeners hear an extremist group leader from Utah say exactly what the far right intended: If Donald Trump lost the 2020 election, “All bets are off.”

Those episodes came out in July 2019; a year and a half before Jan. 6. When the attack on the Capitol happened, I shook my head as I watched. It felt like warnings about this sort of thing had been coming out of the West for years, but no one seemed to have heard them.

I can’t shake the feeling that people still don’t get it, still don’t take the threat seriously enough, even as the Jan. 6 hearings continue in Congress.

And I can’t stop thinking about Coeur d’Alene: Two years ago, in June 2020, the town’s streets were lined by heavily armed vigilantes, agitated by false rumors on social media, patrolling the town for vans full of anti-fascist protesters supposedly bent on violence. The threat was imaginary, but a self-appointed militia turned out to repulse it.

Yet earlier this month, when a truck full of what appears to have been actual fascists came to town, with an alleged plan coordinating the movement of participants from 13 states that presumably would have been easily tracked by law enforcement, no one saw it coming. No one except a local resident who happened to notice the strange group of men loading into a U-Haul and called police.

Law enforcement also said they didn’t see the Jan. 6 attack coming. The right-wing extremist threat in the United States is real, and relying on luck to stop it isn’t a strategy.

Leah Sottile is an Oregon-based freelance journalist and the author of “When the Moon Turns to Blood.”

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