With the nation reeling from the deadly riot at the United States Capitol carried out by extremists and other insurgents, a white supremacist group from Texas held a little-publicized rally in the heart of the Loop Saturday.
Chicago police officers looked on while the leader of a group known as the Patriot Front barked into a megaphone while members gathered in front of the Cook County Building.
Some held shields bearing the group’s name, while others hoisted a banner reading “FOR THE LIFE OF OUR NATION.” Others carried an early version of the American flag that features 13 stars — which some extremist groups have adopted after some criticized the flag’s connection to the slavery era in the U.S.
Jason Peterson, a photographer who stopped to take photos of the group as he drove by, said as many as 80 demonstrators he saw appeared to be “seething with rage,” although he said some of the messaging was hard to decipher. Many of the men wore face coverings, hats and sunglasses.
“It was the most surreal-looking thing that I’ve ever seen,” Peterson said, noting that the group was reciting choreographed chants amid clouds of smoke emanating from canisters that had been set off. “It was super scary.”
In a blog post, the Anti-Defamation League noted that Patriot Front “espouses racism, anti-Semitism and intolerance under the guise of preserving the ‘ethnic and cultural origins’ of their European ancestors.”
Patriot Front’s figurehead, Thomas Rousseau, was photographed leading Saturday’s downtown demonstration, according to Carla Hill, a research fellow at the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism. Rousseau previously led members of another extremist group, Vanguard America, at the disastrous “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017.
He was captured there in photographs with James Alex Fields, Jr., who was sentenced to life in prison for ramming his vehicle into a crowd of protesters and killing a 32-year-old woman, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. Patriot Front ultimately splintered from Vanguard America in the wake of that event, the Anti-Defamation League reported.
A message sent to the Patriot Front’s website went unanswered.
Police monitored protest
Peterson, the photographer, noted that Chicago cops who were monitoring the rally also seemed confused about its purpose. He said they ultimately followed the Patriot Front contingent when the demonstration moved toward Millennium Park. The group posted its own photos of members walking downtown, including by the Art Institute.
Thomas Ahern, a Chicago police spokesman, acknowledged that police knew about the rally and sent officers to monitor it, though nothing came of it.
“The department was aware of the demonstration Saturday, January 23, 2021, and resources were deployed to the demonstration,” he said. “There were no arrests or citations issued. There was red, white, and blue smoke from a canister or canisters. No traffic was blocked and the group remained on the sidewalks.”
A post in a Patriot Front channel on Telegram, a messaging app, stated the group was rallying “in protest of state cancellations of pro-life rallies, and in support of the nation’s right to life.”
A pro-life car caravan organized by March for Life Chicago was happening around the same time as Patriot Front’s downtown rally, though one woman who helped coordinate the event said she’d never heard of the group.
“To be clear, I would never support any sort of white supremacy,” said the woman, who asked to remain anonymous.
Hill, the researcher on extremism, said it’s now somewhat common for members of Patriot Front to attend similar events even if they weren’t invited.
Over the past three years, members of the group have attended pro-life rallies in Chicago in January, according to the Anti-Defamation League. Since 2017, the group has demonstrated a total of eight times in Chicago.
“They’re not welcome but they do join anyway,” Hill said, adding that the demonstrations are typically “used to create photos and video propaganda for online recruitment.”
In 2018, members of the group were ejected from a pro-life rally in the city after displaying a banner that read, “PROTECT OUR POSTERITY” and that referenced the phrase “blood and soil,” according to a blog post on the Pro-Life Action League’s website. “Blood and soil” is a Nazi slogan that was chanted by demonstrators in Charlottesville.
Groups maintain low-key presence
While it’s not unprecedented, Hill said the group’s latest rally is still alarming.
“Any time 80-plus white supremacists show up somewhere, it is definitely troubling,” she said. “That’s quite a large group of people to get together and hold that ideology in unity.”
However, Hill said the turnout likely represented “a good portion of their active members from across the country.”
“That’s not a local group size,” she noted. “I’m sure the local Chicago chapter is much, much smaller, maybe five [people]. And that’s a broad area around the greater Chicago area.”
Though extremist groups have been placed under a microscope in the wake of the mayhem that unfolded earlier this month in Washington, D.C, Hill said members of the group steered clear. In fact, she said adherents typically don’t back political parties and typically hold unannounced events in an effort to “create their own narrative of what happened.”
“That’s what they’ve been doing since they split after Charlottesville. ... There’s very little counter-protest. The media doesn’t show up because they don’t know about it. The police don’t know about it. So they can tell it like they want to.”