Law enforcement arrested 31 members of a white nationalist organization known as the Patriot Front near a Pride event in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, on Saturday, on a charge of conspiracy to riot. The men were packed into a U-Haul truck and detained a short distance away from the gathering, which was being held at public park.
The men, who traveled from at least 10 outside states, are expected to be arraigned Monday on the misdemeanor count.
"It is clear to us based on the gear that the individuals had with them, the stuff they had in their possession and in the U-Haul with them, along with paperwork that was seized from them, that they came to riot downtown," said Coeur d'Alene Police Chief Lee White.
Authorities said they were alerted to the group by a concerned citizen who called to report seeing approximately 20 men jump into a U-Haul truck at a hotel parking lot wearing masks, carrying shields and that they "looked like a little army," said White.
Police found at least one smoke grenade in the truck, White said, and paperwork that appeared to show a master plan to riot both at the Pride event and along the main commercial strip of downtown Coeur d'Alene. He credited the Coeur d'Alene Police Department, Kootenai County Sheriff's Department, Idaho State Police and FBI with assisting in the operation.
Opposition to the Pride event was visibly present
The developments capped a day of high tension around competing events along the Coeur d'Alene lakefront. Pride in the Park, a gathering that drew LGBTQ community members and supporters from across North Idaho, was celebrating its first and largest in-person event since the beginning of the pandemic.
Meanwhile, less than a mile away, an anti-LGBTQ group gathered to pray the Catholic rosary, led by a self-identifying Christian nationalist and attended by affiliates of the white nationalist America First movement. Also nearby, a motorcycle riding club event encouraged its members and allies to gather with firearms and take a stand against the Pride gathering. Idaho does not require a permit or license to open carry firearms.
During the Pride event — where children blew bubbles and drew colorful chalk art under a sheltered picnic pavilion and an enthusiastic crowd cheered drag queen performers on stage — opposition was visibly present. Several men carrying long guns and handguns walked around and throughout the crowd. A conservative Christian group assembled at a picnic table nearby and sang religious songs. At one point, several men, including one with a long gun and pistol, unfurled a banner that propagated a false narrative about harming children that has recently united far right groups and movements against LGBTQ people.
"I love Idaho. I never wanted to leave but they're making me question it," said Shanell Huggins, 32. Huggins and her husband attended the Pride gathering as supporters, but she said the intense and, at times, frightening pressure campaign that the LGBTQ community experienced in the weeks leading up to the event was deeply troubling.
Despite this volatile brew, people's worst fears largely did not materialize. Prior to the Patriot Front sweep, police had arrested just two individuals. Both had brought sound amplification devices to protest the Pride activities; one was arrested for disorderly conduct and the other for trespassing. White said both were from Oregon.
"Law enforcement really came through today, and I think this is a really important message and also a healing message that's needed in this country," said Jessica Mahuron, outreach director at the North Idaho Pride Alliance, which organized the event. "I know that a lot of law enforcement members actually had to delay their vacations and this was stressful on all throughout the city."
The men arrested came from across the U.S.
White said that based on the evidence collected, authorities found that the group was planning to riot in several areas of downtown, not just the park.
Police found riot gear, one smoke grenade, shin guards and shields inside the van, according to White. They wore arm patches and logos on their hats that identified them as members of Patriot Front, he said.
Those arrested came to Idaho from at least 10 states, including Arkansas, Colorado, Illinois, Oregon, South Dakota, Texas, Utah, Washington, Wyoming and Virginia, White said. Only one was from Idaho.
The Patriot Front formed in the wake of Charlottesville
Patriot Front is described by the Southern Poverty Law Center as "a white nationalist hate group" that formed after the deadly "Unite the Right" rally in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017.
"Patriot Front focuses on theatrical rhetoric and activism that can be easily distributed as propaganda for its chapters across the country," the Southern Poverty Law Center said of the group.
The group's manifesto calls for the formation of a white ethnostate in the United States, the Southern Poverty Law Center said.
This story includes reporting from the Associated Press