Far right groups shift focus to LBGTQ events. Their hateful aim hasn't changed
Two incidents in which far-right extremists targeted LGBTQ events earlier this month marked what appeared to be a shift in focus for white supremacist activists.
A group of men with ties to the white nationalist Patriot Front was arrested outside a Pride event in Coeur D'Alene, Idaho. The same day, alleged members of the far-right Proud Boys crashed a children's drag queen storytelling event and shouted homophobic and transphobic slurs, in what Alameda, Calif., sheriffs are now investigating as a possible hate crime.
Earlier iterations of Patriot Front and the Proud Boys were among the neo-Nazi factions who sought to intimidate the Charlottesville, Va., community at the "Unite the Right" rally in 2017.
So, why would members of a white supremacist group — many of whom, in the case of the Idaho event, had traveled from other states — choose to target a local Pride event?
Extremism researchers say the far-right activists are seizing on an opportunity of heightened attention around cultures that they have always seen as a threat to their hateful interests. And the particular events the extremists chose to target that Saturday had in recent weeks drawn negative attention among the far-right online networks that fuel their hate activism.
"Groups like Patriot Front and the Proud Boys have relied on misogyny and homophobia as a core of their brands," said Devin Burghart, president of the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights. "So it's not surprising to see them step out front in the current moment."
The far-right's latest target fits the same old, hateful agenda
What might appear as disparate targets by white supremacists and other far-right extremists, hate group trackers say, are all part of one aim: dismantling democracy in order to establish a white ethnostate.
"These groups are very, very willing and eager to change their targeting," Kathleen Belew, a history professor at Northwestern University and author of Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement And Paramilitary America, told NPR's Ayesha Rascoe in an interview with Weekend Edition. "But it is all for the same common purpose."
That purpose, she said, stems from a shared racist rationale.
"They see gay rights, immigration, interracial contact — and especially the birth of interracial children, feminism and several other social movements — as all being a problem because they believe that those things will undermine the white birthrate," she said. "They see those as apocalyptic threats that are somewhat interchangeable in a larger project of protecting and preserving whiteness itself."
Timing also played a key role in the extremists' plans in Idaho and California.
"All of this was taking place in the context of declining movement interest in COVID denial and anti-CRT racism to mobilize members," Burghart said.
The recent far-right disruptions have prompted LGBTQ event organizers and law enforcement to stay on high alert during Pride Month.
The far-right incidents are not isolated events, according to a study released last week by the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project. As conservative politicians and media have ramped up anti-LGBTQ rhetoric and anti-trans legislation in recent months, anti-LGBTQ demonstrations have increased — and grown more violent, ACLED data shows.
Right-wing influencers online had targeted the Idaho Pride event for weeks
Patriot Front is not known to have members who are from Coeur d'Alene, but does have ties to far-right activists in the area, Burghart said.
The Pride in the Park event in Coeur d'Alene was singled out by the far-right as early as April 13, he said. That's when he said a national leader of the white nationalist "Groypers" group, Vincent James Foxx, a relatively new North Idaho resident, targeted the parade on Telegram.
"From there, thanks to the extensive networking Foxx has done in area far-right circles, the counter-demonstration was taken up by several other groups, from the North Idaho Anti-Groomers to the Panhandle Patriots," said Burghart, the IREHR president. "It spread like wildfire through area far-right social networks."
The Patriot Front men likely saw the event as a soft target, Burghart added.
"It's pretty clear that Patriot Front saw what leaders viewed as a relatively safe opportunity to garner visibility, which is the oxygen of organization."
Although white supremacists have long villainized a range of groups, including Black people, Jews and LGBTQ people, white nationalist groups like Patriot Front historically haven't made Pride events a focus, according to Jon Lewis, a violent extremism researcher at George Washington University.
Far-right targets have shifted "based on what local events get picked up and gain traction in the national right-wing network of mainstream media voices," that they feed off of, he said, like "like Fox News, members of Congress like Marjorie Taylor Greene, and the right-wing influencers."
Earlier this month, Rep. Greene said "it should be illegal" to take children to drag shows, words echoed by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who suggested he's considering punishing families who take their children to drag shows. In Idaho itself, a pastor in Boise told his congregation last month that LGBTQ people are "worthy of death." This month, authorities said Pride flags in the city were vandalized for the second year in a row.
And far-right influencers and publications have used their platforms heavily in recent weeks to agitate against LGBTQ culture, reported the hate group watch dog Southern Poverty Law Center.
In the days leading up to the incidents in Idaho and California, Libs of TikTok, a social media account that aggregates and ridicules LGBTQ causes, had repeatedly posted about both the Coeur D'Alene event and drag queen storytelling events, including the one in Alameda.
Libs of TikTok, which has more than 1 million Twitter followers and whose content is frequently promoted by right-wing influencers, is run by a woman from Brooklyn, The Washington Post reported in April.
"We are living in hell," Libs of TikTok wrote, criticizing a since-deleted tweet promoting a "family friendly drag dance party."
Less than a week earlier, Dave Reilly, who SPLC identified as a white supremacist, tried to get Libs of TikTok to call attention to the event.
It's not clear whether Libs of TikTok knew about white supremacist interest in Pride in the Park, noted the Center's Hatewatch blog. The person who runs the account did not immediately respond to NPR's questions about how they learned about the planned event.
A hate group's bid to refresh its brand
As for the Proud Boys, the disruption at the Alameda County story hour was a return to the group's violent street activism from a year ago, IREHR's Burghart said, when they engaged in a wave of similar anti-LGBTQ disruption efforts.
After a series of high-profile arrests of the group's members, he said, the latest disruption is the Proud Boy's attempt to change its optics after its role in the Jan. 6 insurrection.
Historian Belew said it's easy to get caught up in the discrete missions and messages various far-right groups have espoused.
"Academics and journalists have spent too much time on the differences between these groups ... when actually all of these groups are part of the same social movement, the same groundswell of activity on the far right," she said.