In what seemed like an instant, dozens of masked men streamed across Market Street in Philadelphia, waving flags and screaming the slogan “Reclaim America.”
The fascist group Patriot Front staged a “flash mob” style march on July 3, just like they had in Nashville, Tennessee, on June 5; in Washington, D.C., following the Capitol insurrection on Jan. 6; and last November across the state in Pittsburgh. These sudden marches are a well-worn alt-right strategy: By showing up suddenly, and without warning, they give any opposition little time to assemble a counteroffensive.
By showing up suddenly, and without warning, they give any opposition little time to assemble a counteroffensive.
“They had a bunch of smoke bombs,” said Abdul-Aliy Muhammad, who stopped to document the march as it passed the Holocaust memorial on Ben Franklin Parkway. Amid the smoke, Muhammad said they saw Patriot Front members hitting people. “When they started hitting this person, and I saw what they were doing under the cover of invisibility, I had to engage. Because I didn't know if they would fatally harm this person.”
Other people from the community heard about the mob’s presence, too, and started streaming in, forcing Patriot Front to fight its way out and eventually retreat in the Penske trucks they had arrived in. Police briefly detained the group but let them go.
The flash mob was a remarkable visual, if not a particularly surprising one given the past five years of racist violence in the U.S. The speed with which the community understood the threat and responded does highlight, at least anecdotally, a shift in collective awareness toward the threat of white nationalist violence.
Patriot Front is a Texas-based white supremacist organization that was founded by neo-Nazi Thomas Rousseau. Rousseau had previously been a member of Vanguard America, the organization that convicted murderer James Alex Fields Jr. marched with at the 2017 "Unite the Right" rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, the Southern Poverty Law Center noted.
Since the violence in Virginia, there has been a steady decline in formal and open white nationalist groups associated with the alt-right. In their place, organizations like the Proud Boys and those associated with the "patriot" movement often rely on "dog whistles" rather than openly white nationalist rhetoric.
Patriot Front is an exception: It remains an openly fascist organization that operates as a militia, forces its members into physical and combat training, celebrates historical fascist leaders and is questing toward a white “ethnostate.” The group’s growth has been carefully tracked by the Southern Poverty Law Center, with Patriot Front propaganda showing up in at least a thousand locations in 2020.
While the Trump administration years have been traumatic for many communities, the period has also seen the maturation of a widespread resistance movement.
The growth of anti-fascism has correlated with the decline in the alt-right. At events across the U.S., both formal anti-fascist groups and large community protests have shut down speeches by white nationalists and disrupted far-right rallies. While the Trump administration years have been traumatic for many communities, the period has also seen the maturation of a widespread resistance movement.
The sudden appearance of Patriot Front on the streets of Philadelphia — complete with an organized command structure, a media team and khaki pants — reveals two facts about the threat of white nationalism today.
First, despite public resistance, deplatforming and collapsing infrastructure, organized white supremacy is alive and well. It has become much more difficult for these groups to operate, but that cannot guarantee their dissolution. Until America’s underlying social inequities are confronted, white supremacist groups will continue to mobilize, transforming discontent into targeted violence.
But, secondly, communities are more ready than ever to identify the threat and push back. Patriot Front chose an uninhabited business district to hold its late-night march, a choice made to avoid mass confrontations. Despite that, within a matter of minutes people were documenting the event and sharing the location on social media.
“It’s a type of cultural resistance that a lot of organizers have worked diligently to build in the city, and I think the community response shows that those efforts have been a big success,” Jordan Hopkins, an independent journalist who was on the scene, told me.
Today, people can decode the symbols, communicate widely and organize counterdemonstrations quickly because there has been a mass orientation to antifascist ideas and protest tactics. Communities are much more capable of responding when far-right groups emerge, and because of social movements like the anti-racist demonstrations in the wake of the killing of George Floyd and mutual aid networks, grassroots organizing is stronger and more effective than ever.
Plainly put: White nationalists have not disappeared, but communities can now see them coming. Patriot Front found that out the hard way.