Friday, July 19, 2024

Patriot Front members convicted

Staff Writer | July 20, 2023 7:29 PM

COEUR d’ALENE — A jury has convicted five Patriot Front members of the misdemeanor charge of conspiracy to riot by disturbing the public peace.

After about an hour of deliberation Thursday, the six-person jury returned separate, unanimous guilty verdicts for Devin W. Center, James J. Johnson, Forrest C. Rankin, Derek J. Smith and Robert B. Whitted.

Wes Somerton, chief criminal deputy city attorney for Coeur d’Alene, said he was surprised by the swift verdict.

Judge James Stow will sentence the Patriot Front members Friday morning. Conspiracy to riot is punishable by up to one year in jail, as well as by a $5,000 fine.

The defendants were among the 31 members of Patriot Front who were arrested June 11, 2022 after police stopped their U-Haul truck on the way to a Pride event in City Park.

In court Thursday, Spokane-based defense attorney Robert Sargent called the defendants “sons of liberty” who suffered abuse at the hands of the government.

“They’re willing to pay the price, not because they’re criminals but because they believe in the cornerstone of our Constitution that you can have free speech as long as you don’t cause another party harm,” he said.

Sargent said police were right to stop the U-Haul truck based on the 911 call reporting suspicious activity but went too far when they arrested the Patriot Front members.

“They were citizens who had a right to have their words heard and did not have an intent to harm anyone,” he said. “We don’t convict citizens on mere suspicion.”

Prosecutors countered that, in a criminal conspiracy case, it doesn’t matter whether the plan was carried out, only that the conspirators agreed to it and took steps to enact it.

Somerton referred to Patriot Front’s operations plan, which said they would emerge from the U-Haul truck, form columns and push into City Park “until barriers to approach are met.”

Smoke would be deployed “at the discretion of the column coordinators.” Meanwhile, Patriot Front leader Thomas Rousseau would give a speech through a bullhorn decrying “predatory acts of homosexuals” and “drug-addled freaks,” which prosecutors said were “fighting words” in the eyes of the law, intended to provoke Pride attendees to retaliate.

The group would not leave until “an appropriate amount of confrontational dynamic had been established.”

“They knew going in there that their conduct was likely to cause a disturbance of the peace, if not a full riot,” said deputy city attorney Ryan Hunter, representing the prosecution.

That, prosecutors said, is why Patriot Front came to Coeur d’Alene with shields, hats reinforced with hard plastic inserts, knee pads, shin guards and gloves. That’s why they hid their faces with masks and put their phones in “Faraday bags” that block cell signals.

Patriot Front committed no violent or threatening acts that day, defense counsel told jurors.

Prosecutors said that’s because law enforcement prevented them from carrying out their plan to violently disrupt Pride in the Park, where crowds had amassed and tensions were running high.

“They were stopped,” Hunter said. “Thank goodness for Keith’s 911 call, because they were stopped before that match hit that tinderbox.”

Two Patriot Front members took the stand Thursday.

Devin Center, 23, of Fayetteville, Ark., said Patriot Front members dress similarly and carry shields and flags bearing their logo in order to create a public “spectacle” that draws attention.

“It helps our message be heard,” he said.

The crowds in City Park that day, which included families and children, were a bonus.

“We wanted to demonstrate our lifestyle in front of them,” Center said.

Center said the shields served another purpose: self defense. Patriot Front members bring shields to demonstrations in order to protect themselves from people who oppose them, he said. Center denied ever using the shield as a weapon, even in practice.

“I’ve only trained for that in the event we are attacked,” he said. “If one of my friends is isolated, one of my group members is isolated and being attacked, I’m not going to allow them to be beaten to the ground.”

Hunter questioned Center about social media videos that show Patriot Front members training with shields. In the videos, Hunter said, Patriot Front founder Thomas Rousseau led members in practicing how to form a “skirmish line,” then step forward and thrust the shield in order to push others backward and advance.

“You couch this as purely defensive but your testimony is you have been trained on advancing and pushing with a shield,” Hunter said.

Both Center and Robert Whitted of Conroe, Texas testified they didn’t know where they would be protesting when they rendezvoused with other Patriot Front members and hit the road — not the city, not even the state.

They said they knew generally that they would protest a Pride event but didn’t know the contents of Rousseau’s planned speech until it was entered as an exhibit during trial. Still, they indicated they agreed with the speech’s message.

“Our youth will rise up and destroy this affront to our culture or be prey to the repugnant lusts of these costumed prostitutes,” it read in part, apparently in reference to drag performers.

Rousseau’s speech went on to say the U.S. is going in a bad direction.

“Yes, I believe with drag shows, if that continues to get worse, that is where this nation is headed,” Whitted said.

“A deranged whorehouse?” Hunter asked, quoting the speech.

“If it continues, yes,” Whitted replied.

Whitted said Patriot Front believes in a “return to traditional American values” as put forth by the Founding Fathers and the country’s “original inhabitants.”

Though he did not specify who the “original inhabitants” are, the publicly available Patriot Front manifesto argues that only people of European descent are American and all others are foreign to this country.

“Even those born in America may yet be foreign,” the manifesto reads in part. “Nationhood cannot be bestowed upon those who are not of the founding stock of our people and those who do not share the common spirit that permeates our greater civilization and the European diaspora.”

Women are not permitted to join Patriot Front, but Whitted said “girlfriends and wives” are sometimes allowed to interact at specific events.

No Black, Latino, Jewish or gay men are members of Patriot Front, Whitted said, because the group only admits men who are of “the founding American stock.”

Prosecutors said Patriot Front members weren’t arrested because of their message but because they sought to trample the free speech of others in City Park.

No one has the right to interfere with another person’s peaceful exercise of free speech, Hunter said. Those celebrating Pride have that right, too.

“It’s a sacrosanct one in American society,” Hunter said. “It’s at the very core of who we are as Americans.”