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Police in Idaho arrested dozens of Patriot Front members near a Pride event

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Authorities in northern Idaho are leaving open the possibility for more criminal charges against 31 white nationalists accused of planning to riot at a weekend Pride festival. Members of a group known as Patriot Front face misdemeanor charges of conspiracy to start a riot. The region has a long history of domestic extremism. And NPR's Kirk Siegler reports many people are on edge.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: The arrests were made a short distance from Coeur d'Alene's Pride celebration after police got a tip that men were seen loading into a U-Haul truck wearing masks, carrying shields and other riot gear. Police later found at least one smoke grenade. Most of the men came from out of state. And it's not clear if any had any connection to local far-right groups who were protesting the Pride festival. At a news conference yesterday, after all the Patriot Front men were released on bail, Coeur d'Alene Police Chief Lee White said his department has since been getting death threats for doing its job. Lee also had to beat back conspiracy theories that have been stoked online and on the streets of North Idaho as it's known locally, where far-right politics are widely embraced.

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LEE WHITE: Let me be very clear here. These were not law enforcement officers that we arrested. These were members of the hate group Patriot Front. These were not antifa in disguise, nor were they FBI members in disguise.

SIEGLER: And yet others in Coeur d'Alene see the arrests as a milestone. Alicia Abbott, with the progressive Idaho 97 Project, says her community is used to armed paramilitary activists showing up at local meetings and events to intimidate crowds.

ALICIA ABBOTT: To be honest, what was really surprising for Idahoans was the actual arrests themselves. It is very rare we see law enforcement take action against white supremacy that has openly threatened violence.

SIEGLER: Two years ago, when armed so-called patriot groups descended on Coeur d'Alene's downtown during the nationwide George Floyd protests for several nights, police were criticized for doing nothing. This is the Idaho panhandle, after all, home to the Ruby Ridge standoff in the 1990s, a time when neo-Nazis would parade down Coeur d'Alene's Sherman Avenue every Fourth of July. Now the region is a beacon for white conservative activists moving from liberal cities. Several so-called Christian nationalists hold elected office and openly tout their affiliation with anti-government militias. Gay rights activists, meanwhile, see history repeating itself here. But they're pledging to not go back underground.

JOHN MCCROSTIE: I think that these celebrations need to continue.

SIEGLER: State Representative John McCrostie is the first openly gay man elected to the Idaho legislature.

MCCROSTIE: There are economic impacts to promoting hate-filled messages, you know? What kind of communities do we want to have in Idaho?

SIEGLER: You could see this economic anxiety playing out at yesterday's news conference in Coeur d'Alene, a lakeside resort town. Mayor Jim Hammond took to the podium and insisted that his city respects and welcomes everyone.

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JIM HAMMOND: We're not going back to the days of the Aryan Nations. We are past that. And we will do everything we can to make sure that we continue to stay past those kinds of problems.

SIEGLER: Police and city leaders say the arrests of the Patriot Front men successfully prevented a riot or worse. It's unclear whether there will be further charges in the ongoing investigation.

Kirk Siegler, NPR News, Boise.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.