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‘A white nationalist pyramid scheme’: how Patriot Front recruits young members | US news

In June, police in Idaho arrested 31 members of the white nationalist group Patriot Front packed into the back of a U-Haul near a Coeur d’Alene Pride event. The group had planned to riot during the LGBTQ+ celebrations, authorities said, and carried riot gear, a smoke grenade, shin guards and shields.

The mass arrest not only revealed the names of members of an extremist group that had long worked to keep those hidden, it provided extremist experts with new insight into how the group is meticulously planning, financing, organizing and publicizing armed demonstrations at public events that celebrate diversity.

Patriot Front’s fundraising and mobilizing efforts, those experts say, reveal a corporate-style organization that more resembles a media production company with satellite offices than a classic neo-Nazi group.

“No other white supremacist group operating in the US today is able to match Patriot Front’s ability to produce media, ability to mobilize across the country, and ability to finance,” says Morgan Moon, investigative researcher with the ADL Center on Extremism. “That’s what makes them a particular concern.”

Patriot Front was founded after the 2017 Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville by Thomas Rousseau, a former member of the small, neo-Nazi group Vanguard America.

Disaffected members of Vanguard America left to join Rousseau’s organization, and for two years, primarily stickered college campuses and dropped banners with slogans like “Reclaim America” over highway overpasses.

A man with a beard and long brown hair wearing a cowboy hat surrounded by members of the Patriot Front
Thomas Rousseau founded Patriot Front after the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville. Photograph: Bryan Dozier/Rex/Shutterstock

In the 18 months after the January 6 insurrection at the Capitol, many anti-government extremist groups, like the Proud Boys, Oathkeepers and Three Percenters, have lain low. But Patriot Front has geared up. The group has made unpermitted demonstrations its “bread and butter”, says Moon, making sure each event is heavily publicized on social media.

Since last December, the group has organized five such flash demonstrations. Two of them – the event in Idaho and a contentious march along Boston’s Freedom Trail on the Fourth of July holiday – resulted in national media attention.

At the rallies, Rousseau typically addresses the crowd, urging onlookers to rise up physically and “reclaim your country”.

To capture different angles of a rally, several camera operators circulate and shoot video while members wear body-worn cameras, according to Jeff Tischauser, senior research analyst at the Southern Poverty Law Center. Then, the media team edits the footage and circulates a video package on alt-tech platforms like Gab, Odyssey and Telegram.

Afterward, Patriot Front’s social media team monitors the group’s mentions, shares news coverage on private servers, and tells members which social media accounts to harass, Tischauser says.

The video packages are specifically designed toward attracting a younger audience, says Stephen Piggott, program analyst with Western States Center, a Portland-based non-profit that promotes inclusive democracy. And while other far-right and white nationalist groups are engaging in meme culture and recruiting people online, the group has been effective at attracting young radicals and getting them off their laptops and into the streets, he adds.

Throughout its propaganda, the group is careful to craft an image that will appeal to younger users, promoting the “idea of a young warrior” and becoming the “warrior elite”, says Moon, the ADL researcher. The group emphasizes fitness, diet and training and often holds paramilitary drills before demonstrations.

Group of men wearing balaclavas covering their faces and khaki colored caps stand in front of a row of US flags
The young recruits find the anonymity Patriot Front provides attractive. Photograph: Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times/Rex/Shutterstock

Also attractive to young recruits is the premium the group puts on anonymity. Banner drops and mural defacing typically happen after dark, and members keep their faces covered. Internal chats show members using code names. At protests, Rousseau is typically the only person whose face is shown.

‘A white nationalist pyramid scheme’

Undergirding Patriot Front’s activities is a rigid, top-down hierarchy, researchers say.

Rousseau is at the head. Lieutenants run departments of the group, including media production, recruitment and online security. Fifteen regional network directors organize local and national activities, and supervise members.

Once recruits become members, they are required to attend monthly roundups, hit a weekly activism quota, and show up to demonstrations, according to Moon. If they don’t, Rousseau expels them from Patriot Front.

Internal chats obtained by extremist experts show members complaining about the ongoing expenses they incur paying for stickers, stencils and other mandatory propaganda materials, which Rousseau charges them for.

Group of men wearing blue shirts, khaki pants and balaclavas carrying the US flag
Members of Patriot Front gather for an unpermitted rally in December 2021 in Washington DC. Photograph: Win McNamee/Getty Images

Rousseau charges members a premium for Patriot Front propaganda material, Tischauser said, adding that network directors are expected to push members to purchase flyers to go on several flyering runs a month. “In this sense, Patriot Front is close to a white nationalist pyramid scheme,” Tischauser notes.

The tightly organized structure enables Patriot Front to be responsible for up to 14 hate incidents a day, according to the ADL. Under the direction of network directors, Patriot Front members defaced 29 murals honoring Black history, LGBTQ+ pride, migrant history and police shooting victims, said Tischauser.

Patriot Front did not respond to a request for comment.

‘It lifted the veil a bit’

Recent events have somewhat disrupted the group’s carefully constructed image. Earlier this year, the leftwing non-profit Unicorn Riot leaked the group’s internal audio and chats, which helped investigators discover the identity of the national team, regional directors and many other members. And following the arrest in Coeur d’Alene, all 31 names of arrested members were broadcasted and published in local media outlets, along with their mugshots.

“They got kind of the opposite of what they wanted: they weren’t able to disrupt the LGBTQ Pride events, and they got a whole lot of mainstream media attention,” Piggott said.

The Idaho arrests also exposed that their members flew into the state from different parts of the country, Piggott added. “It lifted the veil a bit. They may not have the numbers they say they have.”

Men in handcuffs kneeling on the grass
Members of the white supremacist group Patriot Front arrested near an Idaho pride event in June 2022. Photograph: Georji Brown/AP

Still, civil rights groups are increasingly concerned about violence breaking out at flash demonstrations. During Patriot Front’s unpermitted rally in Boston this July, for example, members of the group allegedly assaulted a Black artist and activist, Charles Murrell.

Murrell did not respond to an interview request.

The ADL, the Western States Center and other civil rights groups have urged the Department of Justice to launch a comprehensive investigation into the group, arguing that some of its activities could violate federal legislation.

“More must be done to hold the group accountable and ensure they do not continue to intimidate historically marginalized communities,” the organizations wrote in a letter to the US attorney general, Merrick Garland.

“This is particularly true at a time when Patriot Front is becoming increasingly emboldened and coordinating its activity at a national level, targeting specific locations across the country,” they added. “The Department of Justice may indeed be the only entity able to address these concerns effectively.”

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