It has been nearly five years since the deadly “Unite The Right” rally took place in Charlottesville, Virginia. It was a cultural pivot point in which the United States collectively saw the way white nationalists and neo-Nazis had become emboldened by a new political climate.
This new climate did not instantly dismiss racist or bigoted rhetoric in mainstream politics — rather, there was a newfound tolerance of it. And during that violent event in Charlottesville in August 2017, the nation saw a collection of far-right extremists who were no longer afraid to spout their xenophobic, racist and anti-Semetic rhetoric.
During the Charlottesville rally, troves of white faces marched through the streets, holding torches and at times chanting the phrase “You will not replace us” — rhetoric inspired by “replacement theory,” a white nationalist ideology that believes non-white immigrants and minorities are going to replace Caucasians in America and strip them of their socio-economic status.
The Charlottesville rally will live in infamy after a man believed to be associated with a group called Vanguard America drove his car through a crowded street and killed counter-protester Heather Heyer.
While this event seemed to be far removed from King County, watchdog groups like the Southern Poverty Law Center that keep tabs on hate and extremism believe groups tied to the Charlottesville tragedy organize, demonstrate and live among communities in the Puget Sound region, with some even making recent headlines.
In June, 31 members of a group called Patriot Front were arrested in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, including the group’s founding member, Thomas Rousseau. They were reportedly detained after being found packed into a U-Haul truck, wearing riot gear and shields, and having equipment such as a smoke grenade in their possession.
According to the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), Rousseau founded Patriot Front and fragmented from Vanguard America following the events of Charlottesville.
“[Patriot Front’s] formal break from [Vanguard America] came amidst a movement-wide debate over the effectiveness of public demonstrations and the issue of optics in the wake of ‘Unite the Right,’ which resulted in widespread condemnation from the mainstream public,” the Southern Poverty Law Center’s website wrote about the group’s origins.
With what the SPLC described as a “conscious rebranding” after the events of Charlottesville — where attendees reportedly flaunted swastikas and Nazi-era imagery — the SPLC said Patriot Front “was one of a number of hate groups that sought to recast itself as mainstream, patriotic Americans by dressing up their propaganda and rhetoric in Americana.”
According to the SPLC, Patriot Front’s primary activities include demonstrations such as public banner hangings, posting flyers and miscellaneous acts of public service such as park cleanups.
“When [Patriot Front] orchestrates protests or public appearances, they are typically tightly choreographed and scripted to maximize propaganda value,” the SPLC wrote of the group. “Virtually all its activities are undertaken with propaganda value in mind.”
Also in town in Coeur d’Alene the day the 31 members were apprehended was an LGBTQ+ Pride event where festivities were being held that authorities believe the Patriot Front members aimed to disrupt. The men from this Patriot Front group — which the Southern Poverty Law Center describes as a “white nationalist hate group” — came from several different states and were found with tactical instructions to execute a planned operation.
Several of these men came from Washington state to enact this alleged plan, including Justin Michael O’Leary of Des Moines in King County. He was among six Washington men arrested for misdemeanor conspiracy to riot. They were released on $300 bail each and have not been charged, according to media reports.
While information on the private lives of Patriot Front members would typically be difficult to find, an internet watchdog group called WaNaziWatch has shared photos, documents and online communications between O’Leary and other members of the Patriot Front group, from agents in Washington as well as other states.
According to WaNaziWatch, much of their information came from an undercover informant who was within the Patriot Front group while they planned, trained and executed demonstrations. Other information that WaNaziWatch shared on its website was claimed to have been gathered through open source intelligence gathering tools that allow access to information and data through social media, hidden metadata, software and code repositories.
“We do what we do to disrupt organizing by white nationalists/fascists/neo-Nazis. Most of them attempt to organize and do actions anonymously,” the anti-fascist watchdog group said about their motivations in an email. “When we expose them, it interferes with their ability to organize politically — lost jobs, public shame, etc. We have countless examples of the effectiveness of this type of action.”
A representative from WaNaziWatch said in an email that they had been aware of the Patriot Front ever since it broke off from a group called Vanguard America, which was involved in the deadly “Unite The Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Jeff Tischauser, senior research analyst with Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Project, said that the investigations and leaks shared by WaNaziWatch were used by SPLC to corroborate the identities of Patriot Front members in Washington and their direct involvement in demonstrations and vandalism in the region.
“We corroborated the identities of Patriot Front members first reported by WaNaziWatch using our own investigative tools,” said Tischauser. “With the information supplied by WaNaziWatch, we corroborated the identities of Patriot Front members responsible for destroying the Pride mural in Olympia, Washington.”
Together, the members of Patriot Front have left a trail of digital breadcrumbs painting a picture of their motivations, aspirations, and the hateful extremism that hides in local communities and desperately wants to be seen.
Online RocketChat communications between members of Patriot Front leaked by WaNaziWatch indicate O’Leary first interviewed to be a member of Patriot Front on Aug. 7, 2021. According to the chat, he was interviewed by two Patriot Front members — one from Arkansas and one from Texas — as indicated by their code names in the chat.
The chat contains notes taken from O’Leary’s interview with the group. According to those notes, he didn’t know what his political ideology was, and he explains that he was vaguely Christian, raised in a Catholic family. He explained he once voted for President Barack Obama and then Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein in 2016.
O’Leary, 28, explains that he was “redpilled” — a term used by the far-right to explain the idea that their perspective was changed and the far-right ideology was realized — after watching a Ben Shapiro video about transgender people. Ben Shapiro is a conservative pundit who has previously refused to use the preferred pronouns of transgender individuals and often refuses to legitimize transgender identities.
Shorthand notes written about O’Leary’s answer to an unknown question said this (original text with typos):
“civic nationalism is a nice idea but it’s not possible for all these different cultures to become one. multiracialism exists to destroy us. jews are behind mass migration, tranny story hours, gay marriage but this wouldn’t happen if whites weren’t complicit. not sure about white genocide. can foreigners become American? maybe. a German that comes to America and has kids with an American woman, those kids are American. Mexicans don’t assimilate. people out of Europe can assimilate. other people can fit in and adapt but aren’t American. you have to be of European descent, live in America for generations, speak English. non-Whites can “kind of” be American. [sic]”
When asked why he wanted to join Patriot Front, notes regarding O’Leary’s answer read: “just wanna meet up with more people, secure a future for us, further ‘our cause,’ multiracialism isn’t desirable, shouldn’t be ashamed of what we are. [sic]”
It is noted that O’Leary believed (typos included in original text): “homosexuality is distructive to the persons involved and around it, it shouldn’t be promoted, russia and hungary are role models for how to deal with the issue, keep it to yourself. gays and trans shouldn’t be allowed to adopt chldren. [sic]” The text also notes that O’Leary allegedly “admires Andrew Jackson.”
Photos shared by WaNaziWatch allegedly taken by an informant hidden within Patriot Front show O’Leary training in what appears to be a park with other members of the group. They practiced drills in which they locked their arms together and boxed each other.
Photos, video and audio recordings shared by a hidden informant as well as online chat communication can be used to link O’Leary to several Patriot Front demonstrations and acts of vandalism.
O’Leary is seen unmasked in some photos that depict him painting a large Patriot First banner that reads “America First.” Other photos show that same banner and others like it being hung on a walkway above an overpass, and a man who appears to be a masked O’Leary is helping to hang the banner. WaNaziWatch claims the photos of the banner hangings were taken in Kent and near Alderwood Mall in Lynnwood.
Other photos show O’Leary allegedly participating in the spraypaint tagging of public infrastructure, such as a bridge that WaNaziWatch found to be located near the Green River and Kanaskat-Palmer State Park, north of Enumclaw and east of Maple Valley. Other photos appear to show O’Leary assisting in the defacement of a prominent pro-LGBTQ+ mural in Olympia. Coverage of that incident can be found here.
A chat message, posted by O’Leary’s account under a Patriot Front code name, showed a haul of yard signs that had apparently been removed. The signs all featured pro-LGBTQ+ messages, and some said “Black Lives Matter.”
“I corroborated the identities of these individuals using leaked video, photographs, and audio of phone meetings. These leaked documents were published by Unicorn Riot who obtained the material from an antifascist activist who infiltrated Patriot Front,” said SPLC researcher Jeff Tischauser. “Thomas Rousseau has publicly acknowledged the leaks on far-right podcasts and has sought to downplay the material.”