Richard Painter, who formerly served as the chief ethics lawyer for President George W. Bush, tells Raw Story that the leadership of the white supremacist group Patriot Front could potentially face legal consequences after its leader instructed members to consult him about vandalism.
The insular white supremacist group has painted over at least a dozen murals honoring George Floyd and other Black people killed by the police in the past year, and has also reportedly vandalized a Hmong cultural center in St. Paul, Minn. in recent months. In early 2019, the group’s posters were placed at a synagogue and at an LGBTQ center in Burlington, Vt.
During a national conference call that was leaked by Atlanta Antifascists last week, Patriot Front leader Thomas Rousseau can be heard saying, “So, when it comes to large-scale mural coverups, make sure you are always consulting a director for something like that, or you are consulting me. Generally, as the activism becomes higher in risk and scale, the more you need to get consultation. Things like billboards, big murals and things like that, you’d want to be careful — you want to run it by me.”
Painter said that Rousseau’s specific directions to members concerning acts of vandalism brings potentially conspiracy law into play, but he cautioned that who owns the property that has been trespassed or vandalized makes a difference as to whether the offenses would qualify as hate crimes.
“If it’s a conspiracy to go after minority-owned businesses, it could be very serious, and it could be a violation of civil rights,” Painter said.
“If they start going after stores owned by Hispanics, Blacks and Hmong immigrants, that type of thing gets very dangerous — like Nazi Germany going after Jewish-owned shops and breaking out their windows,” he said. “That needs to be prosecuted as a hate crime.”
In early September, vandals reportedly covered up a mural displaying antiracist poetry on the storefront of the Hmong Cultural Center Museum in St. Paul, and stenciled the slogan “Life, liberty, victory” atop the new layer of paint, according to a report from Minnesota Public Radio. The three words are prominently displayed on Patriot Front’s website, and MPR noted that the slogan is linked to the group.
Mark Pfeifer, the program director at the Hmong Cultural Center Museum, told MPR that the vandals also damaged neighboring Hmong businesses.
Notably, a vandalism highlight reel video entitled “Patriot Front September-October 2021 Activism” that was posted on the video streaming platform BitChute does not include any reference to the Hmong Cultural Center Museum incident. In contrast, the video includes footage of members defacing a “No Place for Hate” mural on the outside wall of an Italian ice shop in Boyertown, Pa., a “Respect & Love Olympia” mural on a city-owned building in the Washington state capital, and a mural honoring the Black tennis star Arthur Ashe in a public park in Richmond, Va.
Painter said he would be cautious about prosecuting someone for hate crimes based solely on the content of the murals, noting that leftists have defaced or attempted to topple monuments, including Robert E. Lee in Richmond and President Andrew Jackson in Washington DC.
“It would be a mistake to prosecute a hate crime based on the content of the mural,” Painter said. “You have group on the left who might go after statues of George Washington. I think something like that should be prosecuted as vandalism, but not as a hate crime.”
Patriot Front members have also reportedly hung the group’s posters at a synagogue and at an LGBTQ pride center in Burlington, Vt. in early 2019. The Burlington Police Department described the activity in a press release as “bias-motivated vandalism.”
“You need an underlying crime — vandalism or trespassing; that’s a misdemeanor,” Painter said. “If I’m Jewish, and they put a swastika on my store, that becomes a hate crime.”