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News / Northwest

‘Hate wants hate back’: White supremacists target Pride events across the Northwest as organizers push back with love

By Emma Epperly, The Spokesman-Review
Published: July 23, 2023, 6:07am

SPOKANE — Pride in Perry, the block party in Spokane’s most prominent “gayborhood,” was a stop on a new white supremacist network’s tour of hate this summer that’s targeting small Pride events across the Northwest.

The group’s “armed and dangerous mentality” didn’t disrupt the event. Instead, it brought the community closer together, said Ian Sullivan, event organizer and executive director of Odyssey Youth Center.

As music blared, rainbow-clad attendees arrived at Pride in Perry last month. So did a group of masked men carrying a sign that read “protect white children.”

The men had video cameras to capture the shocked looks and conflicts with Pride attendees that they later paired with electronic dance music for a video posted to their channels on Telegram, an encrypted instant messaging service that has been widely used by political fringe groups. The video ended with nine men in black clothing performing a Nazi salute.

The anonymous men are part of the Northwest Nationalist Network (3N) that targeted a half dozen smaller Pride events in the Northwest.

“I’d never really seen anything like it,” said Mathew Danielson, president of Spokane Pride.

The group’s tactical dress, obscured faces and insults toward any minority group go far beyond the typically religious protesters that attend area Pride events, Danielson and Sullivan said.

“They were just lobbing verbal bombs at anybody they could,” Sullivan said. “Which, in a way, was helpful for us to write them off. They were just being extremely violent bullies. They were just targeting any of the others.”

The network is made up of active clubs and nationalist groups that formed into a coalition earlier this year. The network includes the Evergreen Active Club, Big Sky Active Club, White Lives Matter Montana, Vinland Rebels, Rainforest Active Club and Active Club Portland, although other nationalist groups appear to have come and gone, according to the 3N Telegram channel.

Active clubs use combat sports as a recruitment tool for white nationalism, said Kate Bitz, organizer and program manager with the Western States Center, a nonprofit that supports communities in organizing on social justice issues.

One of the leaders in the movement in Washington, Daniel Rowe, stabbed an interracial couple in Olympia in 2016. He later pleaded guilty to the hate crime and was sentenced to four years in prison, according to the Olympian.

Otherwise it’s unclear who exactly the members of these nationalist groups are, Bitz said. They appear masked in public and often use pseudonyms on social media.

The new network was meant to unify the white supremacists in the Northwest and bolster their numbers in their intimidation campaign at small Pride events, which began in late May, Bitz said.

“They appear to be targeting smaller and newer Pride events,” she said.

While there is a history of protest against LGBTQ+ events, 3N is different than groups in years past.

“As I’m looking at what’s happened across the region this year, the appearance of an overtly white nationalist group here in some ways is new,” Bitz said. “Certainly, we did not see a group like this moving from event to event on a weekly basis trying to intimidate people.”

The group protested at Pride events in Bozeman and Livingston, Montana, in May before coming to Washington for Lewis County Pride in Centralia in early June. They appeared at Wind River Pride in Lander, Wyoming, before attending Pride in Perry on June 25. They were also at Oregon City Pride on June 26.

During all of this, the individual groups continued to be active in their home states, dropping fliers and putting up stickers, Bitz said.

With the increased presence at smaller Pride events, especially those in more conservative areas, the Western States Center created a Protecting Pride Organizing Guide to help event organizers keep attendees safe.

If communities stand by Pride organizers, it can often deter white supremacists from showing up, Bitz said.

Elected officials attending events or issuing proclamations, businesses displaying Pride flags and police being prepared and having a presence all send a message that hate isn’t welcome, she said.

“It does make a difference,” Bitz said. “We have seen that over and over again in ways that are surprisingly clear.”

‘No cupcakes for Nazis’

Kyle Wheeler did not imagine beating a neo-Nazi in a pushup contest would be part of the third annual Lewis County Pride this year.

Wheeler, who serves as president of the Lewis County Dignity Guild, knew protesters were a possibility.

“We live in an extremely rural, and extremely red, county,” Wheeler said. “We’re in an area where there’s always that level of concern, but we’ve never experienced any protest.”

This year was Centralia’s biggest Pride event yet, with about 175 attendees and dozens of booths.

Things were just getting started when Wheeler got a tip that a group of white supremacists were on their way.

He positioned himself to welcome them and prevent the neo-Nazis from recording the shocked reactions they like to edit into propaganda videos.

Rowe was in attendance, Wheeler said, and was clearly disappointed to be welcomed by organizers, rather than confronted.

“I just tried really hard to smile at my attendees,” Wheeler said. “And make sure and see that I was calm.”

A few confrontations did arise, including one attendee twerking on a white supremacist and another attendee beating a 3N member at a pushup contest. Both interactions went viral.

When Centralia Mayor Kelly Smith Johnston heard about the situation, she rushed down to Pride to help ensure the event continued safely.

As the event continued, Wheeler began handing out rainbow cupcakes in honor of friend, Rikkey Outomuro, known as Tru Starlet, who was killed in 2019.

One 3N member asked for a cupcake.

“There will be no cupcakes for Nazis at this event,” Wheeler replied.

The phrase became part of a rallying cry for the community in Centralia as they cope with their confrontation with extremism, Wheeler said.

The 3N members attempted to disrupt a drag show during the celebration, but the owners of several businesses in town refused them service, Wheeler said.

Wheeler said he was encouraged by the way the community came together over the course of pride month in support of the Dignity Guild and LGBTQ+ community.

“If they would have tried to do this level of disruption a year ago, or even two years ago … a lot of folks would have ran and packed up,” Wheeler said. “It was really affirming for everybody that we do have a space here. That we do belong here and that we’re allowed to expect safety in our community.”

‘Hate wants hate back’

The series of disruptions comes a year after 31 members of Patriot Front, another white supremacist organization, were arrested at North Idaho Pride.

“People who are very hateful, what they’re trying to get from you is for you to hate them back,” said Luke Emerson, a board member of the North Idaho Pride Alliance.

Following the arrests, two military veterans, Emerson and Sarah Lynch, the alliance’s executive director, stepped up to help North Idaho Pride Alliance focus more on safety.

In 2022, there was significant online activism against Pride leading up to the event.

“We could see there was a lot of extremism happening,” Emerson said.

This year, the group worked with local officials to send a message that extremism wasn’t welcome. They communicated with local law enforcement, taking their advice to not announce the date of the 2023 Pride in the Park until just a few weeks in advance. They created a safety team and held multiple sessions of peacekeeper training put on by the Peace and Justice Action League.

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Coeur d’Alene Mayor Jim Hammond read a proclamation at a City Council meeting recognizing June as LGBTQ+ Pride month.

The increased preparation and community support helped send the message that North Idaho is a place for everyone, Emerson said.

“We want a safe and inclusive place for everyone to be happy,” Emerson said.

Businesses stepped up in support too, with nearly 50 more booths at the event than last year, he said.

Emerson attributes the increase to people saying “enough is enough” after threats last year that any businesses supporting Pride in the Park would lose business from the large evangelical population in the region.

“I think Coeur d’Alene and North Idaho residents started realizing if we don’t stand up, this is the future,” Emerson said of the increased support following the Patriot Front ordeal.

“There’s nothing better than a group of protesters going to a place like a Pride event and seeing everyone having a good time,” Emerson said. “That’s the best retaliation you can give them.”