AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:
Police arrested 31 members of a white nationalist group known as the Patriot Front yesterday in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho. The charge - conspiracy to riot. They were believed to be headed to a Pride event. The arrest capped what had been months of false rumors, growing tensions and rising concern that the event could turn violent.
NPR's domestic extremism correspondent Odette Yousef is in Coeur d'Alene and joins us now. Good morning.
ODETTE YOUSEF, BYLINE: Good morning.
RASCOE: Odette, let's start with the arrests. So first, who are the Patriot Front and what do we know about what they were planning?
YOUSEF: Patriot Front is considered a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. Their interest is the establishment of a white ethnostate. Yesterday, police stopped them a very short distance from a city park that was hosting an event called Pride in the Park. The department chief said they had been alerted by a concerned citizen who'd seen the men load into a truck wearing masks, carrying shields, and that they, quote, "looked like a small army." And inside the truck, Ayesha, police found shields, shin guards and other riot gear, including at least one smoke grenade. Additionally, police chief Lee White said they found paperwork appearing to show an operational plan to riot both at the Pride event and along the main commercial strip of downtown Coeur d'Alene.
RASCOE: So how significant was this?
YOUSEF: Well, the only charge so far - conspiracy to riot - is a misdemeanor charge, so we'll see if, legally speaking, you know, this amounts to much. But it was notable as a large-scale arrest of a far-right group under the charge of conspiracy to riot. And it's possible that if they hadn't been arrested, Ayesha, things might have really gotten out of hand yesterday. You know, the whole day leading up to these arrests was incredibly tense. People affiliated with the Pride event had for weeks been at the receiving end of an intense pressure campaign to cancel it. An anti-LGBTQ group was assembling nearby and encouraging its members to bring guns. And there were many other people unaffiliated with that group just, you know, walking around and through the gathering openly carrying long rifles and handguns, which is legal in Idaho. But with the recent mass shootings, this was unnerving to some people at the Pride event, even if they were pro-gun Idahoans. Here's Shanell Huggins.
SHANELL HUGGINS: I was just walking up to watch and listen to the speaker, and someone came walking through with an AR with a long barrel, and it smacked me on the shoulder, and I just had a panic attack. But thankfully, they had mental health professionals that helped me do a breathing exercise.
YOUSEF: So Ayesha, you know, given the high emotions around LGBTQ issues and the amount of guns that were in the vicinity, you know, yesterday was a success for Coeur d'Alene that nothing went wrong.
RASCOE: So what you saw in northern Idaho - this anti-, you know, LGBTQ rhetoric - it's showing up in other places around the country, right?
YOUSEF: It is, yeah. The rhetoric was very representative of myths and disinformation that's really, you know, taken hold on the right recently. Also, the groups and the movements that were protesting the event yesterday really showed how opposition to LGBTQ people has become a strongly unifying cause in this moment on the far right. You know, Ayesha, aside from Patriot Front, there were self-identified Christian nationalists, people affiliated with the white nationalist America First movement and more.
But there also was something going on that's really particular to north Idaho. You know, this region has for a long time captured the imagination of the far right, who associate it with ideals of freedom, conservativism and, depending on who you talk to, whiteness and Christianity. And increasingly, people are moving here for that reason. One of them identified himself to me as Ben. He said he refused to share his last name with a national news outlet.
BEN: I moved up here about three years ago, and there's a lot of conservative right-wing refugees who moved up here because the rest of the country is just becoming, you know, not only left, but communist and fundamentally degenerate.
YOUSEF: So Ayesha, you know, yesterday, much of the tensions playing out in open air were quite literally about who should be allowed to physically and publicly exist in north Idaho.
RASCOE: That's NPR's domestic extremism correspondent Odette Yousef. Odette, thank you.
YOUSEF: Sure thing.
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