BOISE, Idaho (AP) — A few weeks before 31 members of a white supremacist group were arrested for allegedly planning to riot at a northern Idaho LGBTQ pride event, a fundamentalist Idaho pastor told his Boise congregation that gay, lesbian and transgender people should be executed by the government.
Around the same time, a lawmaker from the northernmost region of the state, Republican Rep. Heather Scott, told an audience that drag queens and other LGBTQ supporters are waging “a war of perversion against our children.”
A toxic brew of hateful rhetoric has been percolating in Idaho and elsewhere around the U.S., well ahead of the arrests of the Patriot Front members at the pride event Saturday in Coeur d’Alene.
Police say dozens of men from the white supremacist group piled into a U-Haul truck wearing balaclavas and bearing riot gear, with plans to instigate a riot at the park where families, children and supporters were gathered to celebrate the LGBTQ community.
Those arrested came from at least 11 states, including Illinois, Arkansas and Virginia. The defendants were booked on misdemeanor charges of conspiracy to riot and released on bail. As of Monday afternoon, online court records did not show if the men had retained defense attorneys.
Thomas Rousseau, a 23-year-old from Grapevine, Texas, who has been identified by the Southern Poverty Law Center as the Patriot Front founder and was among those arrested, did not immediately respond to an email requesting comment.
Jon Lewis, a George Washington University researcher who specializes in homegrown violent extremism, said outrage directed at LGBTQ people had been growing for months online, often in chat rooms frequented by members of groups like the Patriot Front.
In the same way that it mobilized against Black Lives Matter in the nation’s capital in December, the Patriot Front harnesses what’s in the news cycle — in this case, drag queen story hours, disputes about transgender people in schools, and LGBTQ visibility more broadly.
A “massive right-wing media ecosystem” has been promoting the notion that “there are people who are trying to take your kids to drag shows, there are trans people trying to ‘groom’ your children,” Lewis said.
The rhetoric has been amplified by right-wing social media accounts that use photos and videos of LGBTQ individuals to drive outrage among their followers.
Several posts have falsely sought to label teachers and librarians who accept the LGBTQ community as abusers or groomers of children. Others have lambasted pride events or drag performances as “depraved.”
One photo shared widely on social media this week falsely claimed a “Drag Queen Story Hour” performer flashed their genitals to children while reading aloud. But the photograph, from a suburban Minneapolis library in 2019, clearly shows the performer was wearing tan undergarments.
A spokesman for Hennepin County Library confirmed to The Associated Press that the performer did not expose themselves to children.
Northern Idaho has long been associated with extremist groups, most prominently the Aryan Nations, which was often in the news in the 1990s. The area drew disaffected people after white supremacist Richard Butler moved there in 1973 from California.
After the Aryan Nations’ heyday, many local officials tried to disassociate the region from extremism. But in recent years, some politicians, civic leaders and real estate agents have boasted about northern Idaho’s conservatism to draw like-minded people.
At a news conference Monday, Coeur d’Alene Mayor Jim Hammond said the city is no longer a locus of hate.
“We are not going back to the days of the Aryan Nations. We are past that,” he declared.
Scott, the northern Idaho lawmaker, did not immediately respond to an email request for comment.
At her public appearance weeks ago, she introduced two members of the Panhandle Patriots motorcycle club, who urged watchers to join them in “the fight” against LGBTQ people at the Coeur d’Alene pride celebration. They dubbed their counter-protest “Gun d’Alene.”
“Stand up, take it to the head, go to the fight. … We say, ‘Damn the repercussions,’” the motorcycle club members said. “They are trying to take your children.”
The Panhandle Patriots later changed their event to a prayer rally, saying they are “a Christian group that stands against violence in all its forms.”
Elsewhere around the country, authorities in the San Francisco Bay Area are investigating a possible hate crime after a group of men allegedly shouted anti-LGBTQ slurs during Drag Queen Story Hour at the San Lorenzo Library over the weekend.
Associated Press journalists Ali Swenson in New York City and Sam Metz in Salt Lake City contributed.