ATHENS, Ohio — Earlier this week, unknown individuals apparently associated with a neo-Nazi group painted the Ohio University graffiti wall and posted stickers throughout Uptown Athens. The incident does not necessarily mean there are active members of the group in Athens County, despite an Ohio presence.
The graffiti wall mural advertised white nationalist organization Patriot Front and featured a fascist symbol. It was painted over with anti-fascist messages within 12 hours, according to a community member who participated in the repainting. Stickers pasted throughout Uptown also advertised Patriot Front.
“These individuals are not reflective of the community that their activities are happening in,” said Morgan Moon, an investigative researcher with the Anti-Defamation League who is from southeast Ohio and has subject matter expertise on Patriot Front. “This is a small fringe group with small numbers, and they might have an outsized impact because of how much propaganda they put up. But it does not reflect the larger community.”
Sam Smith, a California-based researcher with Public Research Associates who studies the white nationalist movement, estimated Patriot Front has 250 to 300 active members nationally, with 10 to 15 members in the Network 13 sub-group. According to Moon, Network 13 includes members across Ohio and parts of Michigan and Pennsylvania. Smith said membership numbers took a hit after 31 people associated with Patriot Front were arrested in Idaho for planning to riot at an LGBTQ+ Pride event.
The Southern Poverty Law Center classifies Patriot Front as a white nationalist hate group. The group is “an image-obsessed organization” with an “explicitly fascist agenda,” according to the SPLC.
Patriot Front embraces 20th century fascist slogans, iconography and ideology. For instance, the mural on OU’s graffiti wall featured a fasces symbol that was adopted by Benito Mussolini and became the most well-known symbol of fascist Italy. Smith said there is ideological diversity within the group, however, noting they accept any white member who is committed to white nationalism, regardless of their specific political identification.
The recent incident is not the first time the organization has put up propaganda in Athens. Posts in the messaging app Telegram show photos of Patriot Front stickers placed in Athens in March, June and October 2020.
According to the SPLC, Patriot Front requires members to put up racist propaganda. Moon said members who do not meet propaganda quotas may be expelled from the group. Patriot Front was responsible for 80% of white supremasist propaganda last year, averaging 14 incidents of propaganda per day, Moon said.
Unicorn Riot, a nonprofit media organization, leaked over 400 GB of internal communications from the organization in 2022.
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In multiple communications, Ohio Patriot Front members discuss selecting locations in different parts of the state to put up stickers. In one direct message thread within a server named ‘Blood and Soil,’ after the Nazi slogan, one member refers to the other having driven two hours “just to sticker,” and says that in the future, “We can pick spots that are towards your direction too.”
In other communications from around the country, Patriot Front members reference routinely putting up stickers and painting stencils in different towns across numerous geographies.
According to the SPLC, this practice allows the group to appear to have a larger presence than it actually does. Other white nationalist organizations are beginning to model Patriot Front’s heavy emphasis on propaganda to recruit new members, said Smith.
Moon said the Patriot Front specifically targets young white men, and said the organization allows members only under 35. As a result, the organization often focuses its propaganda on college campuses, which Moon said could explain the recent incident on OU’s campus.
While members may not live specifically in Athens, the group does have an Ohio presence. In leaked internal communications, some members refer to hometowns in Columbus, Cincinnati and northern Ohio. One photo shows nine members at an Ohio gathering.
Patriot Front’s activity in Ohio and across the country has been increasing recently, though Moon added that this may not reflect an increase in membership so much as an increase in activity, potentially flowing from leadership directives.
The uptick has not been limited to propaganda. Earlier this month, Patriot Front members protested a drag event in Chardon, Ohio. Last month, Patriot Front and members of other white nationalist groups including the Proud Boys and White Lives Matter disrupted a drag storytime in Wadsworth, Ohio.
Moon said Patriot Front has recently targeted the LGBTQ+ community specifically “under the guise of preserving ethnic origins” and “promoting traditional families” — specifically white children and white families.
The group specifically promotes the “baseless” conspiracy theory that “the LGBT community is grooming children for pedophilia,” Moon said. (Locally, Artifacts Gallery owner Amy Mangano has promoted the same and related conspiracy theories on her Twitter account in the name of ‘feminism.’ Her transphobic stance and storefront signage has prompted complaints and protests.)
While Moon referred to Patriot Front as a “small, fringe” group, Smith said the interorganizational collaboration between white nationalist organizations in Wadsworth reflects a trend.
“Inter-organizational collaboration has expanded dramatically over the past year,” Smith said, adding that this makes possible larger events which pose a greater threat to public safety.
Patriot Front has its origins in Vanguard America. Smith said Vanguard America “rebranded” into Patriot Front for “optics” after a member murdered anti-fascist protestor Heather Heyer at the Charlottesville ‘Unite the Right’ demonstration in 2017.
The attack injured many others, including then-Athens County resident Bill Burke. Burke sued several organizations associated with the ‘Unite the Right’ protest; one case resulted in a $2.4 million judgment against a think tank led by prominent white nationalist Richard Spencer.
“Athens is a beautiful city,” Burke said in an email. “Queer kids, Muslim kids, Jewish kids, Christian kids, black, white, Asian kids all welcomed this old Appalachian hillbilly into their world with open arms. They… enriched me with so much love and understanding that it fills my heart with joy when I think of Athens. But I know Athens, your diversity is your strength, and you will show the Patriot Front that their hate is no match for your love.”
Smith encouraged residents to respond to incidents of Patriot Front propaganda to encourage “real community engagement and real community solidarity against hate proliferating in central areas.”
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