The arrest of 31 men affiliated with a white supremacist group at a Pride event raises questions over whether the federal government is doing enough to monitor hate-based gatherings that could spill into deadly violence, experts warned.
It took a tip to 911 from a "concerned citizen" to set off Saturday's arrest in Idaho of the men affiliated with Patriot Front, who police say were spotted in a hotel parking lot dressed like "a little army," piling into a U-Haul less than a quarter-mile from the "Pride in the Park" festivities.
During a news conference Monday, Coeur d'Alene Police Chief Lee White said, "We likely stopped a riot from happening downtown."
But multiple law enforcement experts told NBC News that it was concerning that the group assembled nearby and, if not for the lucky break of the tipster, may have caused bloodshed.
"The manner in which these arrests were made reflects the long-standing problems in the way the FBI and the DOJ deprioritize white supremacist crimes and fundamentally misunderstand the violent element within how the white supremacy movement operates," Michael German, a fellow with the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University, said referring to the Department of Justice. He is a former undercover FBI agent who retired in 2004.
Patriot Front, he added, "has been particularly public in its activities, doing these very aggressive marches, showing up like a flash mob and choosing places where they know they have political opposition with an attempt to intimidate that community, but also prepared to project violence if met with any resistance. So you would hope that this group would be on federal law enforcement’s radar."
Extremism experts say that Patriot Front members target Black Americans, Jews, nonwhite immigrants and LGBTQ people, all of whom they consider a threat to the preservation of their European ancestors and the white race in the United States.
The group has made other public displays, including at an anti-abortion march in Washington, D.C., in January, and are often seen wearing blue shirts, khaki pants and balaclavas.
All of the men — hailing from nearly a dozen states — were booked and released on misdemeanor charges of conspiracy to riot and are awaiting court appearances. Coeur d'Alene police and prosecutors said they are still gathering evidence and further charges may be warranted.
White said the Coeur d'Alene Police Department was aware of the group's existence, but he had never specifically encountered its activity in his city of 51,000 located east of Spokane, Washington. Police said among the items seized from the men were shields, shinguards and paperwork that appeared "similar to an operations plan that a police or military group would put together for an event."
The Dallas-based founder of the Patriot Front, Thomas Ryan Rousseau, was among those arrested; he did not immediately return an emailed request for comment. An attorney for one of the men charged told The Associated Press that the group does not have a reputation for violence and that the case could be a First Amendment issue.
"Even if you don't like the speech, they have the right to make it," Michael Kielty, a Missouri lawyer, said.
An FBI spokeswoman declined to comment about whether the agency had been aware of the movements of those arrested and any monitoring of the Patriot Front.
"If, in the course of the investigation, information comes to light of a potential federal violation, the FBI is prepared to investigate," she said in an email.
The spokeswoman added that the agency does not open investigations "based solely on protected First Amendment activity" and cannot investigate ideologies, only on those "who commit or intend to commit violence and criminal activity that constitutes a federal crime or poses a threat to national security."
But German said the FBI has historically used its investigative powers to focus on Black activists and environmentalists it suspects of violent behavior.
"I don't want the FBI targeting even the most ardent Nazi for saying he's a Nazi and preaching national socialism to his community, but what we're talking about is a group that's allegedly committing crimes," he said. "There's a knee-jerk reaction that this is a group engaged in protected activities, rather than acknowledging there's a group bringing people across states lines to commit crimes."
Matthew Hughey, the author of "White Bound: Nationalists, Antiracists, and the Shared Meanings of Race" and a sociology professor at the University of Connecticut, said Patriot Front remains "one — if not the most — active white supremacist group operating."
"Their ideology is flexible enough to make intellectual appeals using savvy propaganda, the internet and social media, or graffiti or stickers left in public places, as well as going beyond that messaging and allowing for violence."
Patriot Front, which he said may have between 200 to 300 "card-carrying" members, formed as an offshoot of another white supremacist group, Vanguard America, whose members participated in the deadly Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017.
Hughey said the clashes in Charlottesville and at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, weren't isolated, but part of a broader hate-based and far-right movement that is searching for the next place to incite violence and domestic terrorism.
The Pride event in Coeur d'Alene, located in a state with a history of anti-federal government and far-right extremism, was an obvious target, experts said, because it had attracted other protesters and comes at a time of divisive political rhetoric and legislation aimed at the LGBTQ community.
"It's not a matter of if, but when" violence occurs, Hughey said.
White said his police department had been in contact "all day" with the FBI following the arrests but declined to speak further on any involvement beforehand. He added Monday that his office had received death threats "against myself and other members of the police department merely for doing our jobs."
Amy Spitalnick, the executive director of Integrity First for America, a nonprofit civil rights organization that funded a lawsuit against the white nationalists who took part in the far-right rally in Charlottesville, said Saturday's arrests were remarkable because they were the result of a community member calling police and local police taking that call seriously.
She added that it's imperative for the federal government to have a hand in monitoring groups like Patriot Front. The fact that Senate Republicans in May blocked a House-passed domestic terrorism bill to regularly evaluate and take steps to address the threats posed by white supremacists and other violent domestic extremists is a failure in getting to the larger root causes, Spitalnick said.
She believes the federal government must also invest in broader preventative measures, including education and training on how to spot early extremism and addressing extremism within the military and law enforcement ranks.
"This is not a problem that you're going to prosecute or sue your way out of," Spitalnick said.
Other experts said federal agencies should be fully monitoring white nationalist and white supremacist groups, given that Attorney General Merrick Garland warned last year that "racially or ethnically motivated violent extremists" are one of the most lethal elements of the domestic terrorist agenda.
"There are some civil liberty issues that have to be considered, but there is also some monitoring that can and should happen when people are involved in certain activities," said Pete Simi, an associate professor of sociology at Chapman University in California, who has testified before Congress about white supremacist and anti-government extremism.
In Coeur d'Alene, where Saturday's Pride event drew hundreds who wanted to enjoy colorful chalk art, music and kinship, there was a chance to "support your community and have a good time," Simi added. "But make no mistake. It could have turned into something ugly and harmful in terms of people being victimized and lives being lost."