COEUR D’ALENE, Idaho (AP) — Six of the 31 members of a white supremacist group who were arrested near a northern Idaho pride event last month pleaded not guilty Monday to misdemeanor charges of conspiracy to riot.
The Patriot Front members were arrested June 11 with riot gear after a tipster reported seeing people loading up into a U-Haul at a hotel parking lot in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, police said.
Appearing via Zoom for Monday’s brief court proceeding were Josiah Buster and his brother Mishael Buster and Connor Moran, all of Watauga, Texas; Derek Smith of Sioux Falls, South Dakota; Dakota Tabler of West Valley City, Utah; and Justin O’Leary, of Des Moines, Washington.
Each had posted $300 bail and been released after their arrest.
First District Judge Robert Caldwell read the same charge against each defendant, which is punishable by up to a year in prison and/or a fine of $5,000.
The defendants all said they intended to hire a defense attorney.
None of the defendants made any statement other than answering the judge’s questions.
The remaining defendants will be arraigned later.
Among those arrested in June was Thomas Ryan Rousseau of Grapevine, Texas, who has been identified by the Southern Poverty Law Center as the 23-year-old who founded the group after the deadly “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017.
Also among the arrestees was Mitchell F. Wagner, 24, of Florissant, Missouri, who was previously charged with defacing a mural of famous Black Americans on a college campus in St. Louis last year.
Michael Kielty, Wagner’s attorney, has said Patriot Front did not have a reputation for violence and that the case could be a First Amendment issue.
“Even if you don’t like the speech, they have the right to make it,” Kielty said after the arrests.
Patriot Front is a white supremacist neo-Nazi group whose members perceive Black Americans, Jews and LGBTQ people as enemies, said Jon Lewis, a George Washington University researcher who specializes in homegrown violent extremism.
Their playbook, Lewis said, involves identifying local grievances to exploit, organizing on platforms like the messaging app Telegram and ultimately showing up to events marching in neat columns, in blue- or white-collared-shirt uniforms, in a display of strength.
Though Pride celebrations have long been picketed by counter-protesters citing religious objections, they haven’t historically been a major focus for armed extremist groups. Still, it isn’t surprising, given how anti-LGBTQ rhetoric has increasingly become a potent rallying cry in the far-right online ecosystem, Lewis said.
The arrests come amid a surge of charged rhetoric around LGBTQ issues and a wave of state legislation aimed at transgender youth, said John McCrostie, the first openly gay man elected to the Idaho Legislature.
In Coeur d’Alene, police found riot gear, one smoke grenade, shin guards and shields inside the van after pulling it over near a park where the North Idaho Pride Alliance was holding a Pride in the Park event, Coeur d’Alene Police Chief Lee White said.
The group arrived at the scenic lakeside resort city wearing Patriot Front patches and logos on their hats and some T-shirts reading “Reclaim America” according to police and videos of the arrests posted on social media.
Those arrested came from at least 11 states, including Washington, Oregon, Texas, Utah, Colorado, South Dakota, Illinois, Wyoming, Virginia, and Arkansas.
Though there is a history of far-right extremism dating back decades in northern Idaho, once home to the Aryan Nations group, White said only one of those arrested was from the state.
The six-hour Pride event generally went on as scheduled.