Patriot Front’s Disastrous Philly Event Was Just Their Latest Recruiting Drive

What you need to know about the growing youth-oriented white supremacist group that Philadelphia ran out of town on the weekend.
July 7, 2021, 11:00am
​A still shot of video taken from Patriot Front's flash rally in Philadelphia on the night of July 3.
A still shot of video taken from Patriot Front's flash rally in Philadelphia on the night of July 3. (Abdul-Aliy Huhammad)

Patriot Front, a youth-oriented white supremacist group, were hoping that they’d come away from their midnight flash rally in Philadelphia on July 3 with a slick propaganda video they could use to recruit prospective members. 

The group, which embraces a fascism-meets-Americana aesthetic, has been recently trying to raise its public profile by showing up en masse in cities, catching local cops, media and counterprotesters off guard, and getting footage of themselves marching “unopposed.” 

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No such luck in Philadelphia, home of the unofficial anti-fascist mascot Gritty, whose residents have exhibited little patience for brazen displays of white supremacy in the past. Late on Saturday night, about 200 members of Patriot Front arrived in the city packed into three large Penske moving trucks, and were confronted by local residents who had gathered to chase them out of town. 

While fleeing, members of the group deployed smoke bombs to obscure their retreat. Police Officer Michael Crum told a local news station that the group “literally ran away from the people of Philadelphia.” Many in the group were briefly detained and frisked by police, but none were arrested. 

Patriot Front’s Philly debacle was at least the sixth public appearance by the group since the beginning of this year. They managed to get about 150 people to Nashville, Tennessee for a march last month, about 80 to a banner drop in Chicago, and organized events in D.C. and San Antonio. And the latest incident in Philadelphia shows that they’re willing to travel and are emboldened enough to mobilize in large numbers. 

The group is prolific when it comes to distributing recruitment fliers across the country, a strategy used by extremist groups to make themselves seem bigger, said Carla Hill, associate director of the Anti-Defamation League’s Center for Extremism, who has been tracking Patriot Front since their creation. However, Hill added that the group’s public appearances are causes for concern. 

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“White supremacists are really good at making themselves look bigger than they are,” said Hill. “At the same time, there’s no white supremacist group that’s showing up with 150 to 200 guys to march through the city. It is significant that they can pull that off.” 

Patriot Front emerged as a splinter group of Vanguard America, a neo-Nazi group, in the aftermath of the violent Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville in August 2017. Many groups involved in that rally scrambled afterwards to rebrand themselves hoping to avoid liability. Vanguard America was the subject of particular scrutiny for its association with James Alex Fields Jr., the young neo-Nazi who was seen marching with them hours before he rammed his car into a crowd of protesters, killing one. 

The leader of the Texas chapter of Vanguard America, Thomas Rousseau, who led the Vanguard America contingent in Charlottesville, took over the group’s website domain and formed Patriot Front in late August.

Initially, Patriot Front contained echoes of its predecessor’s neo-Nazi rhetoric, according to Hill, and the first domain for their website was a Nazi slogan. But in early 2018, it had an optics make-over, foregoing anti-semitic imagery and explicit white supremacist language in exchange for a peppy Americana aesthetic. 

“They initially had a hard time breaking away from their neo-Nazi roots. At first it was easy to find these guys online using anti-semitic rhetoric,” said Hill. since they worked on their brand, to this red, white and blue, patriotic version of white supremacy and neo-fascism that some people find acceptable.” 

Other groups involved in Unite the Right made similar efforts to rebrand, and couch their bigotry in patriotic euphemisms. For example, the now-defunct Identity Evropa became American Identity Movement, also adapting a new red, white and blue logo. But amid struggles around optics, and infighting about the groups’ political aspirations, it collapsed in on itself last year, and they disbanded. 

Patriot Front, however, has remained consistently visible. They’ve kept themselves in the news by distributing fliers and stickers advertising on college campuses and cities across the U.S. Hill estimates that they have at maximum about 400 members, but that can be hard to tally. When Patriot Front assembles for public demonstrations, they cover their faces completely, which makes it difficult to know much about who they’ve been able to recruit. Hill says that Patriot Front requires members to be under the age of 35, white, male, and in good physical shape. 

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Their propaganda (in the form of fliers, banners and leaflets) was documented in every state and DC, with the exception of Hawaii, between January 2018 and December 2020, according to data from the Southern Poverty Law Center. Texas, where the group is based, accounted for the majority of “propaganda incidents,” according to the SPLC, followed by California, Massachusetts, Washington and New York.  Data about propaganda incidents relies on people being aware of the group and reporting their propaganda when they encounter it. Last year saw the most propaganda incidents recorded for Patriot Front since their creation, according to the SPLC, which tallied a total of 6,126. 

This year, those propaganda efforts have continued, but the incident in Philadelphia means that they’re seeking higher-profile targets and more publicity. The group recently vandalized memorials for George Floyd and other victims of police brutality in New York, Newark, New Jersey, Philadelphia and Louisville. 

Follow Tess Owen on Twitter.