Police pulled 31 members of a neofascist group called Patriot Front from a U-Haul truck last weekend, arresting them on charges of conspiring to riot at a local LGBTQ event in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho.
The incident is the most high-profile example of a growing online trend: militant far-right groups targeting community Pride gatherings to stage aggressive, even violent confrontations.
Far-right extremist groups, particularly Patriot Front and the Proud Boys, have increasingly turned their attention and efforts on smaller communities. They appear to target these events for confrontation, harassment and worse, often in the hopes of generating viral online content, experts told Grid.
“People with giant audiences are aware of, and need to take responsibility for, the fact that their audience is listening,” said Ari Drennen, LGBTQ program director for Media Matters for America, a left-leaning media watchdog group. “And if they’re going to give the location of Pride events while saying falsely, ‘Hey, this is where the pedophilia is happening,’ that’s basically exactly what happened with Pizzagate.”
Pizzagate was an alt-right conspiracy theory, spread by Alex Jones and other right-wing influencers through social media, which alleged that Hillary Clinton and others operated a child sex trafficking ring out of a D.C. pizza restaurant. The false narrative, pushed by right-wing influencers, prompted hundreds of threats against the parlor and its employees. In 2016, a North Carolina man attempted to raid the restaurant armed with a handgun and an AR-15-style rifle, and fired multiple rounds inside.
“I would be worried about something way, way more deadly and dangerous unfolding,” Michael Edison Hayden, spokesperson for the Southern Poverty Law Center, told Grid.
From Instagram to Coeur d’Alene
Organized, premeditated confrontations are growing and bringing the threat — and sometimes reality — of violence along. It’s a result of opportunism and an evolving right-wing media landscape, said extremism and hate crimes trackers. The incidents can create viral videos for the groups who conduct them, and the spread of those videos can help grow online followings, attract recruits and generate donations.
The events the groups target range from local Pride parades to drag queen story hours at libraries. In one instance, a controversy involving a trans student at a Wisconsin high school led to bomb threats that closed the school after the story was elevated by the far-right influencers.
Many politicians aligned with the Trump wing of the Republican Party have made inflammatory comments calling gay, lesbian and transgender Americans a danger to children, repeating old, homophobic tropes. A network of far-right online influencers, including Libs of TikTok, run by Brooklyn real estate agent Chaya Raichik, searches for and promotes announcements of LGBTQ events.
Raichik’s activities are known to major platform operators like Instagram and Twitter, who have suspended her at least three times over the past several weeks for violating “Community Guidelines” and engaging in “hateful conduct” and “targeted harassment.” In each case, Raichik’s accounts were eventually restored. Neither Twitter nor Meta, Instagram’s parent company, immediately responded to a request for comment.
A month before the Pride event in Coeur d’Alene, organizers and local business sponsors found themselves awash with threats from fundamentalist Christians, fascist groups and a far-right motorcycle club called the Panhandle Patriots. The motorcycle club publicly threatened to “confront” attendees of the event and released a flyer ahead of time that read “FULL 2A ENCOURAGED,” a reference to bearing arms in the Second Amendment. “If they want to have a war, let it begin here,” it said.
Another flyer, like other online postings, used a smear long hurled at the LGBTQ community, calling them a threat to children.
Organizers reacted a week in advance. “These actions were in response to well-publicized threats made and ongoing harassment, hate speech, and disinformation campaigns by a small minority targeting the event, and supporting local businesses and sponsors,” said a news release from North Idaho Pride Alliance released a week before the event.
“We’re not going back”
Coeur d’Alene organizers looked forward to having their Pride gathering for the first time in two years, since covid-19 disrupted the tradition. But the country had changed in those two years.
“This year we’ve experienced an unprecedented amount of their negativity,” Sam Koester, president of the North Idaho Pride Alliance’s board, told the Spokesman-Review. “That’s always a super scary thing to think about, especially with all the mass shootings happening in the country. Safety is very important for us.”
Thirty years ago, a crowd like the one gathered last week might have been expected. The headquarters of the Aryan Nations for years was just outside Coeur d’Alene, providing a home for several Ku Klux Klan, neo-Nazi and Christian nationalist organizations. In the 1980s, the group held international gatherings of white supremacists and advocated for the Pacific Northwest to be a white homeland, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.
But the city, like most of the world, had changed since then. “We’re not going back to the days of the Aryan Nations,” said Coeur d’Alene Mayor Jim Hammond in a press conference on Tuesday, a few days after his town had captured international attention. “We are past that, and we will do everything we can do stay past those kinds of problems.”
It wasn’t a local movement from the past bringing hate to Coeur d’Alene. Of the members of Patriot Front arrested that day, just two were from Idaho. It was a global phenomenon from the internet, drawing in far-right extremists from around the country.
From online hype to a potential riot
The chronology of how plans for a small Idaho community’s Pride Month event were amplified to an international audience of millions, first reported by the Southern Poverty Law Center, shows how a network of far-right influencers is increasingly shaping dangerous real-world events.
On June 5, a Twitter account with just over 1,000 followers tweeted an image promoting the upcoming “Pride in the Park” event in Coeur d’Alene. The next day, the Idaho Tribune, a conservative online media organization, published an item about the event.
On June 7, Libs of TikTok retweeted the posting to its 1.2 million followers, adding: “‘Family friendly drag dance party’ being promoted by the Satanic Temple in Idaho. We are living in hell.” Hours later, far-right influencer Paul Joseph Watson, an Alex Jones protégé, also tweeted about the event to more than 1 million followers.
The flurry of online actors using “conspiratorial framing for what is essentially a nonissue,” is nothing new, said Hayden.
Hayden drew a parallel between the threats to the LGBTQ events and past far-right social media activity around an alleged “caravan” of migrants “invading” the United States around the time of the 2018 midterm elections that was amplified by Fox News and then-President Donald Trump. That same language about a migrant caravan “invasion” was reportedly echoed in writings by perpetrators of mass shootings in Pittsburgh and El Paso, Texas.
While the topics that far-right online actors have converged upon in recent years have varied, what they have in common is an ability to capture attention online.
“They’ve hit something that they’re getting good traffic on,” Hayden said of the far right’s recent focus on LGBTQ events. And not just in Idaho.
That same weekend in Arlington, Texas, a 21-plus drag brunch was targeted by a group of around 15 far-right activists, including some in Proud Boys and InfoWars shirts. The disruption was sponsored by Protect Texas Kids, an anti-trans group. On the group’s website, it claims to be fighting back against “leftist curricula, and personal agendas of aligned teachers, [who] indoctrinate them with Critical Race Theory (CRT), anti-American sentiments, and much more.” A confrontation between a trans activist and the group was caught on video.
In late May, Libs of TikTok posted a tweet noting the date, time and location of a Drag Queen Story Hour event at the San Lorenzo Library in Alameda County, California.
When the event was held June 11, the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office said in a statement, members of the Proud Boys extremist group disrupted it by shouting homophobic and transphobic slurs in a “violent demeanor.”
Videos of the event show one man wearing a shirt with an AR-15 and text that reads “KILL YOUR LOCAL PEDOPHILE,” in the signature yellow and black color scheme of the Proud Boys. The incident is being investigated as a hate crime, the Associated Press reported.
On Wednesday, Libs of TikTok retweeted a video showing the men shouting slurs at the San Lorenzo Library. “It’s really hard to read any other way than her tacit approval for that kind of response to her content,” Drennen said.
Raichik did not respond to a request for comment.
“People should go out”
Experts warn that the viral, culture-war-outrage-machine could be contributing to horrific mass shootings. Following the panic over “migrant caravans” in 2018, several events of mass violence followed, with shooters leaving screeds that reference “Great Replacement Theory,” something often referenced in right-wing media.
“This is the first time that Patriot Front has targeted a Pride event,” said Morgan Moon, an investigative researcher at the Anti-Defamation League. The group usually assembles at monuments in flash mob-style gatherings on patriotic holidays, but has long included anti-LGBTQ elements in its messaging.
In 2018, Patriot Front reportedly placed white supremacist flyers reading “America: Revolution is Tradition” on the lawn of openly gay Ohio congressional candidate Rick Neal and glued flyers to the main entrance of an LGBTQ resource center in Tacoma, Washington, that read “Keep America American.”
In May 2020, the group reportedly placed a sticker that said “For the nation against the state” at the center of a mural on the wall of an LGBTQ resource center in Orlando, Florida, that serves as a memorial to the 49 victims killed in the Pulse nightclub shooting. That same month, according to Anti-Defamation League data, the group distributed more propaganda at an LGBTQ center in Reading, Pennsylvania.
In January, 400 gigabytes of the group’s private data were leaked to leftist news website Unicorn Riot. In the data, researchers found videos of Patriot Front members burning transgender pride flags, while a member reads from a manifesto. “To those who destroy our nation, we will destroy your symbols and all that you worship.”
In the face of threats and hate, SPLC’s Hayden counseled presence and vigilance. “I think it’s bad to internalize this and say, ‘I’m not going to go to Pride events’ and things like that, I’m not going to express myself publicly,” he told Grid. “That’s what they want. They’re trying to intimidate people. People should go out, and they shouldn’t be afraid to confront anti-LGBTQ people.”
Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.