SEATTLE — Members of the white separatist organization Patriot Front spent hours in online chat rooms, meticulously planning how to avoid arrest when they carried out nighttime vandalism raids or tried to disrupt progressive events.

It held plans so tightly that members weren’t told of destinations until virtually the time of departure, and they shrouded their true identities even from each other, hiding behind pseudonyms.

But Patriot Front was unprepared for a casual onlooker to notice June 11 as its members suspiciously toted tactical shields from a Toyota Camry to a U-Haul truck outside a hotel in Coeur d’Alene. Suspicious, the witness called police.

Thirty-one of the group’s members were unmasked when Coeur d’Alene police arrested them, allegedly on the way to disrupt an LGBTQ+ pride celebration at a nearby park.

The Pacific Northwest has long been fertile ground for separatist groups determined to carve out a whites-only homeland here. Patriot Front, formed less than five years ago and populated with mostly members in their 20s, represents a new generation of hate groups, with propaganda calculated to be welcoming to a broader swath of potential recruits.

Their highly visible surfacing in Idaho surprised some of the men’s relatives, who were unaware of their activities.

Patriot Front is known to have orchestrated flash demonstrations to counter progressive events in Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, Houston and Austin, Texas, without facing arrest. But the wholesale roundup in Coeur d’Alene was different.

Six Washington men were among the Patriot Front members arrested for misdemeanor conspiracy to riot: Colton Michael Brown, 23, of Ravensdale; Justin Michael O’Leary, 27, of Des Moines; James Julius Johnson, 36, of Concrete; Spencer Thomas Simpson, 20, of Ellensburg; Mishael Joshua Buster, 22, of Spokane, and his brother Josiah Daniel Buster, 24, of Watauga, Texas, whom public records link to the same Spokane address. They have not been charged, and were released on $300 bail each.

The Seattle Times does not typically name suspects before they are charged, but is doing so in this story because of the high-profile nature of their arrests.

For a group protective of its plans, it is noteworthy that the social justice nonprofit Unicorn Riot in January released months of secretly recorded conversations of Patriot Front members on the voice chat platform Mumble.

The leak, which identified some Patriot Front members’ true identities, provided a rare glimpse behind the curtain of the secretive world of white supremacy — at times dystopian and at others mundane.

Chats included hate speech that demeaned Jewish, Black and LGBTQ+ people, and immigrants. They planned vandalism with graffiti or to post propaganda at colleges and culturally significant locations throughout Washington, and sometimes carried it out, often at night to avoid detection.

The leak also revealed tension between Patriot Front and other white supremacists, who viewed it as unserious and pandering to mainstream culture for its relatively subdued tactics. Even some Patriot Front members questioned its reluctance to use more inflammatory language in its propaganda and asked whether that undermined its relevance in the ecosystem of hate groups.

The group’s manifesto calls for “a hard reset on the nation we see today,” as it “faces complete annihilation as our culture and heritage are attacked from all sides.” It sometimes hoists a 20-foot-wide banner at demonstrations that reads, “Strong families make strong nations,” even as membership has fractured relationships in their households.

Jon Lewis, a research fellow with the Program on Extremism at George Washington University, said Patriot Front, with its emphasis on vandalism and posting of racist stickers, is not in the same category as more overtly violent domestic terrorist neo-Nazi groups such as Atomwaffen, which has reportedly had a significant Pacific Northwest chapter.

But he said their ideology represents a serious threat, particularly if more of its members press for increased aggression.

“Look at these guys who just got pulled out of this van, unmasked ‘Scooby-Doo’ style, and they’re sitting on the grass looking like idiots,” Lewis said, referring to images of the Idaho arrests. “It’s easy to think, ‘Hey these guys are clowns.’ But they had some sort of plan to violently riot against people showing up for a pride rally.”

“It’s less about Patriot Front being the totality of the threat and more about this group being a symptom of this broader disease, broader threat.”

Despite having members nationwide and a relatively high profile, its total membership was merely 300 as recently as last fall, according to the chats. Based on the latest available numbers, more than 10% of Patriot Front was hauled in by the Coeur d’Alene cops.

“They’ve never been correct”

The arrests came as a shock to Ellensburg resident Bruce Simpson, the father of Spencer Simpson. He said he heard his 20-year-old son come home at night after returning from jail in Idaho last week.

He waited until morning and then told him, “Well, I didn’t expect to read about you in The New York Times.”

Spencer replied, “Don’t worry, I am moving out. I can bunk with some guys in Texas or wherever,” according to Simpson.

But as of Thursday his son had not moved out, and Simpson said he worries forcing him to leave might only make matters worse. “If I thought that kicking him out would work, I would. But I really feel like he would be more vulnerable if we did that,” he said.

Bruce Simpson serves in the Air National Guard and works at Central Washington University, which his son attends, studying history. Describing himself as politically center-left, pro-LGBTQ+ rights and extremely anti-Donald Trump, he said he doesn’t know why his son embraced the Patriot Front ideology and has tried to convince him that worldview is wrong.

“I told him the problem with the far right is they’ve never been correct,” he said, pointing to the history of advances in civil rights.

Born in Ellensburg, Spencer Simpson led an “idyllic” life growing up, his father said, becoming an Eagle Scout and getting involved with the Civil Air Patrol. He described Spencer as an introvert who finished high school amid the COVID-19 pandemic, and had just completed his college finals before traveling to Idaho.

Simpson said his son described the group’s plans in Idaho as nonviolent and that the group just wanted “to draw attention because we want our views to be heard.”

Other Washington-linked Patriot Front members and their families could not be reached for comment and in some instances did not respond to messages seeking interviews.

“Fun and accessible”

O’Leary, of Des Moines, was an aspiring member of the group on Aug. 13, 2021, when he was interviewed by a longtime Patriot Front member, according to one of the transcripts leaked by Unicorn Riot.

Until then, the extent of his right-wing activism was defying indoor mask requirements at his local Fred Meyer store, he said in the chat. He’d read the manifesto.

But O’Leary’s true desire, he told his interviewer, was to execute direct action. “I just wanted to do something, basically,” he told the screener. “And you guys just seemed like the most fun and accessible.”

He described himself as a “white-pilled” glass-half-full fascist and hopeful that racial separatism would eventually be the norm in the United States. Maybe not in his lifetime, O’Leary said, but “I think it’ll all work out in the end.”

“Nice,” his interviewer responded, welcoming O’Leary to Patriot Front. “Let’s go throw up some stickers.” Within a month, O’Leary would summit a mountain on what the group called a “hate hike” with his new comrades, including Brown.

The group’s frequent “hikes” or “camping trips” served as planning sessions and helped deflect suspicion from spouses and employers — in one case, as a private security company guard.

Bruce Simpson was surprised to learn that some of his son’s weekend “camping trips” had actually been Patriot Front activities in other states. For example, he said, he recently learned Spencer had traveled with the group last July to Philadelphia, where news accounts reported the white supremacists had marched and chanted slogans before being run off by local residents.

Brown can be heard on a leaked chat advising a teenage member, still in high school, to deceive parents and other family members about their plans. “That’s what we tell all of our parents, all of our loved ones and family members and friends that ask us where we go and do this mysterious stuff, where we just disappear for a weekend at a time.”

Hate speech vandalism

In September 2021, Brown, who lives near Maple Valley, gained more authority when Patriot Front leaders designated his Washington crew its own network, splitting off members in Oregon and Idaho and enabling Brown to more tightly control the group’s activities, according to the chat transcripts.

Brown could not be reached for comment and his father hung up when a reporter called this week.

Brown presided over a conversation where Patriot Front members planned to mar a George Floyd mural in Seattle and post propaganda at Western Washington University and The Evergreen State College, near Seattle’s Northwest African American Museum and at construction sites, where they hoped workers would sympathize with their views.

If the group could stage a flash demonstration in Philadelphia last year, he said, it could certainly accomplish that in Seattle.

Patriot Front members in Washington, Oregon and Idaho were among the most prevalent and active in the leaked chat. It is one of 19 organizations in Washington designated as hate groups by the Southern Poverty Law Center, two fewer than were active five years ago.

Historically, they have included the now-bankrupt Aryan Nations in North Idaho, and the white nationalists who gather annually on Whidbey Island to commemorate the 1984 death of a neo-Nazi killed in a federal siege.

The planned Patriot Front action in Coeur d’Alene was part of a pattern of targeting LGBTQ+ people. The group in October 2021 defaced a pride mural in Olympia, created in response to hate crimes in the city, by spray painting over it with white paint and stenciling “Patriot Front” and “Reclaim America” messages.

Anna Schlecht, the former chair of Capital City Pride, recalls swiftly organizing volunteers to remove the Patriot Front messaging. “They clearly targeted something of immense value to the LGBTQ community,” Schlecht said. No arrests or charges were made after the defacement, although an anti-fascist group later posted photos of Patriot Front members, including Brown, carrying out the vandalism.

“It is important to stand up to fascism; that’s what this is,” Schlecht said. “They are trying to terrify a group of people to go back in the closet after decades of fighting for equality. We are going to be darn careful, but we are not going to go back into the closet.”

Dissent within

Patriot Front’s propaganda avoids racial epithets, although they’re plentiful in the leaked calls, where members call themselves fascists and Nazis, advocate racial segregation, dream of an all-white territory in America and compliment each other with superlatives like “Hitler-level.”

Thomas Ryan Rousseau, a 24-year-old from Dallas who is reported to be Patriot Front’s national leader, said in the chats that the absence of racial slurs on the group’s propaganda materials is intentional. He was among those arrested in Idaho.

But that has led to other white supremacist groups and even some Patriot Front members to grumble in the chats that the group is akin to alt-right talking heads “with better graphic design,” and is seen as “reactionary and moderate,” leading to calls for more direct action.

Day to day, members talked about making posters, designing banners and patches and cutting paint stencils. Direct confrontation like police suspect Patriot Front had planned in Coeur d’Alene isn’t how the group normally spends its time.

Some members, however, also belong to other white supremacist groups and claim in chats to have been present for high-profile moments in contemporary white supremacy, including the deadly 2017 Unite the Right demonstration in Charlottesville, Virginia.

A wedge developed between some white supremacist groups after that rally. That’s when Patriot Front formed as an offshoot of the organization Vanguard America.

Bruce Simpson said even after his arrest, his son is insisting he’ll remain a part of Patriot Front. “There is no remorse. He has said to both my wife and I, ‘no matter what I am not leaving the group.’”

Simpson said he has encouraged his son to apply for a job weighing bales of hay for a local exporter. It would be a graveyard shift. “Work nights. Sleep all day. Stay out of trouble,” he said.

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