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Trials begin for Patriot Front members, but some say local prosecutions aren't enough

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Jury trials are beginning in Idaho for 31 members of a white nationalist group called Patriot Front. They're charged with the misdemeanor of conspiring to riot at an LGBTQ event this past June. It was a local event in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho. But some are calling on federal law enforcement to get involved. NPR's Odette Yousef reports.

ODETTE YOUSEF, BYLINE: Patriot Front has largely been written off as just a bunch of 20-somethings who dress in costumes, mask their faces and march in clownish military formation, then run away when confronted by police or opposition. But Kristofer Goldsmith says the group is actually dangerous and goes so far as to call it the modern KKK.

KRISTOFER GOLDSMITH: Their goal is to achieve a white ethnostate. The only way that you can achieve white ethnostate is through violence.

YOUSEF: Goldsmith heads a veterans' organization called the Task Force Butler Institute, which researches far-right extremist groups. He says the arrests in Idaho have shown that he's right. The group is about violence. Along with the 31 members crammed into the U-Haul en route to the gathering, police found metal shields, reinforced baseball caps and a smoke grenade. And since then, the group has escalated its activities. It posted more racist flyers across the country, marched in downtown Indianapolis and, in perhaps the most brazen incident, allegedly assaulted a Black man when it marched in Boston in July.

GOLDSMITH: Police in this country have unfortunately viewed these events as one-off events because they're focused on the local.

YOUSEF: All of this feels disturbingly familiar to Arusha Gordon. Gordon's with the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. She sees similarities to how the Proud Boys engaged in localized political violence in Portland in Washington state for years before January 6. They largely got away with it. And now the group's leaders face serious charges for their involvement in the attack at the Capitol, including seditious conspiracy.

ARUSHA GORDON: I think that's just indicative of the failure to take these groups seriously until there's really serious damage.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: What's that? What's Patriot Front? What is that?

YOUSEF: And as evidenced in a police body cam video, sometimes local law enforcement doesn't even know who these groups are. The video was recently shared by the leftist media group Unicorn Riot. In it, police in Prince George's County, Md., appeared baffled when they stopped a pickup truck with four members of the group late last year. It was on a night that Patriot Front marched in Washington, D.C. Police noted that the men all wore matching clothes, and one had a Patriot Front badge on his jacket sleeve. They end up Googling the group.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: That's a hate, nationalist group.

YOUSEF: So now both Gordon and Goldsmith's organizations are among those calling on federal law enforcement to get involved. From the outside, it's difficult to know what would be best. Gregory Nolan is a former federal prosecutor who now works with the nonpartisan States United Democracy Center.

GREGORY NOLAN: The possibility of actual violence would be the most compelling thing I would look to as a prosecutor.

YOUSEF: Nolan says there may be potential around a federal criminal statute that's been used to prosecute the KKK for cross burnings. If successful, it could yield a penalty of up to 10 years in prison, much longer than what Patriot Front members face in the Coeur d'Alene trials. But Mary McCord of Georgetown University warns that there could be risks to undertaking a federal case.

MARY MCCORD: What you don't want to do is bring a case and lose it, making bad law and emboldening groups to go out and do more.

YOUSEF: The DOJ declined to comment to NPR for this story. But McCord says the department could still support local or state prosecutors in cases against the group. And with the Biden administration's increasingly vocal condemnation of white supremacism, some believe that the current moment may be as good as any to draw federal interest in a case. Odette Yousef, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF KURT VILE'S "BAD OMENS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Odette Yousef
Odette Yousef is a National Security correspondent focusing on extremism.
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