Plastering hate: Why white supremacist stickers are appearing in Maryland and beyond

How Patriot Front’s nationwide campaign is recruiting members, spreading hate, and funding its efforts while sowing distrust among local communities

Published on: December 02, 2022 6:00 AM EST|Updated on: December 02, 2022 9:36 AM EST

Photo collage of screenshots showing Patriot Front stickers in public places
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On a warm spring day early in the pandemic, with the country still in lockdown, Tim Fargus and his family decided to head outdoors. They set off to explore the woods in Overlea just across the city line in eastern Baltimore County. Walking the winding trails of Holt Park, they soon discovered wooden lean-tos and graffiti in the back of the park. His kids dashed forward for a closer look.

When the parents caught up, they spotted the stenciled words “Patriot Front” on an electrical transformer. Next to it was a handwritten antisemitic slur.

Unknowingly, the Farguses had stumbled upon a nationwide campaign to promote white supremacy. According to a Baltimore Banner analysis, white nationalist organization Patriot Front has put up thousands of stickers, graffiti, and banners in communities across the country, including in Maryland, since the beginning of 2020.

Distributing these promotional materials has become central to Patriot Front’s efforts to fund, recruit and organize its operation both digitally and offline, according to The Banner’s analysis of Patriot Front social media, internal communications from the group and interviews with experts.

The group has risen to prominence over the last few years with headline-grabbing tactics — defacing public property, such as the Arthur Ashe mural in Virginia, and attempting to disrupt public events. In June, 31 Patriot Front members, including its founder Thomas Rousseau, were arrested and charged in Idaho with conspiracy to riot after police found them in the back of a U-Haul moving truck near a Pride event.

Largely overlooked, though, has been the group’s quieter efforts to spread its message.

The Baltimore Banner collected and analyzed posts by Patriot Front members and supporters on the messaging platform Telegram, where the organization regularly circulates information to followers. The analysis of two Patriot Front channels found more than 500 posts claiming to show the dissemination of 2,407 stickers, banners and flyers throughout Maryland since the beginning of 2020. The Telegram channels also featured thousands of other posts about the group’s propaganda campaigns across the country.

In Maryland, Patriot Front members posted materials on car windshields, street signs, public parks, highway overpasses and even inside buildings. Occasionally, the Patriot Front material was also posted alongside violent and hateful language. For example, one sticker in Cumberland in Western Maryland appeared alongside graffiti reading “Kill Biden,” and another in Colesville in the Washington, D.C., suburbs was next to a photo of Hitler.

A review of these Telegram posts found that the group initially targeted more conservative Maryland counties and then, in August 2021, switched their focus to liberal counties in the D.C. and Baltimore metro areas.

Patriot Front posted two out of every three flyers, stickers, or banners between Jan. 1, 2020 and October 2022 in a county that voted for President Joe Biden in the 2020 presidential election.

This switch to liberal areas could be intentional. According to leaked internal Patriot Front chats obtained by Unicorn Riot, a nonprofit that researches the far-right, one member encouraged another to post propaganda in “Downtown Savannah” because it was “super liberal.”

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According to Jeff Tischauser, a senior research analyst with the Southern Poverty Law Center, Patriot Front members often discuss posting propaganda in liberal areas like “going into the lion’s den” and to prove that the group isn’t afraid to target their neighborhoods.

Though Patriot Front appears to still be focusing on liberal counties, the number of stickers and flyers posted has plummeted. No county has had more than 20 posts in a month since April 2022, a number far lower than the peak of 120 posted in Montgomery County in October 2021.

Still, Patriot Front members posted hundreds of flyers in Baltimore City and Montgomery, Carroll, and Baltimore counties in the first quarter of 2022.

Publicly discreet, privately explicit

After finding the graffiti in the park, Fargus went home and took to Google.

He discovered that Patriot Front was founded by Thomas Rousseau after he broke off from the neo-Nazi group Vanguard America in the fallout after the 2017 Charlottesville rally. Fargus read about Rousseau’s intention to take white supremacy mainstream by relying less on overtly racist imagery and instead harkening back to U.S. Colonial history and the Revolutionary War.

Rousseau claims that this “heritage” justifies the group’s beliefs of white supremacy and therefore infuses it throughout Patriot Front’s visual branding, which is peppered with phrases like “Revolution is Tradition” or “Reclaiming America” mixed in with red, white, and blue graphics and the Betsy Ross flag.

According to Tischauser, Patriot Front’s slogans intentionally toe the line of racist and xenophobic messaging without explicitly expressing it. “It’s basically rhetoric that gets very close to the point of inciting violence, but it doesn’t really provide a target, just kind of the rationale,” Tischauser said.

That tightrope walk on language is a draw for new members, according to Patriot Front communications obtained by Unicorn Riot. One recruit told a Patriot Front member that he wanted to join because “We have good optics and don’t shove our ideals in peoples faces.”

This same recruit also said he believed in “the idea of protecting the white race,” and that “Nationhood cannot be bestowed to those not of the founding stock,” referring to ancestors who were part of the American Revolution.

Though Patriot Front has moved away from using common antisemitic tropes like the swastika, it still regularly uses lesser-known fascist symbols. For example, a popular sticker “Better Dead than Red‘’ features a hammer and sickle, invoking anti-communist ideology commonly found among fascist organizations. Another common Patriot Front logo, “Revolution is Tradition,” features the fasces, a symbol used by Mussolini’s Italian fascists in the 1920s.

Photograph of a Patriot Front sticker with fasces on left, illustration of historic logo of Italian National Fascist Party featuring fasces on right.

Fargus was disturbed by what he was learning about Patriot Front, but he decided to move on. “This kind of felt like just one more thing on a pile of everything else we were paying attention to,” Fargus said.

Around the same time, it seemed as if his neighborhood was undergoing a massive shift. Trump and “Make America Great Again’' signs started cropping up in neighbors’ yards. The local Nextdoor app was becoming increasingly divisive. One neighbor even confronted the Farguses for putting up a “Black Lives Matter” sign in their yard.

While the western parts of Baltimore County are deep blue, many precincts in the eastern half, like where the Farguses live, voted for Dan Cox, the Republican gubernatorial candidate in the most recent election. Cox won the precinct that includes Sparrows Point in Southeast Baltimore County by 53 points.

After the election, Fargus found this polarity creeping into his home. He and his wife had to explain Jan. 6 to their kids after they saw clips of the insurrection on TV. They started coming home from school or friends’ houses with questions about Trump and Biden, Fargus said — the sort of questions that kids five years ago likely wouldn’t have asked their parents.

To escape these pressures, Fargus and his family started taking regular walks in the neighborhood. And, on one such walk in early 2021, they noticed a Patriot Front sticker on the back of a street sign. Then another. Eventually, Fargus counted four new Patriot Front stickers in their neighborhood.

This was no longer a one-off spotting, but, to Fargus, a sign of something potentially more insidious.

“What kind of neighborhood are we in, actually?” Fargus wondered.

Patriot Front stickers in eastern Baltimore County. (Tim Fargus)

From Nationalist to Activist

It’s by design that Fargus kept finding Patriot Front propaganda.

Patriot Front members are expected to distribute batches of “promotional materials” weekly, according to the Unicorn Riot leaked chats, posting a minimum of four items per area. This is not only how the group funds its organization, but also how it continues to build it.

The proceeds — a standard order costs $45 for 300 pieces — support a variety of the group’s expenses, including demonstrations like their march in Indianapolis over Labor Day, where they carried a “Reclaim America” banner through downtown.

Rousseau characterizes the sales as simple activism, but in the leaked chats, members allege that the promotional materials are “singlehandedly paying Thomas’ rent” and are cost prohibitive and illegal. Several Patriot Front members in the chats said they had police called on them for committing vandalism, leading to the arrest of a Maryland member.

In the chats, members also related how they were prohibited from fulfilling their weekly quota with outdated designs, thereby forcing them to purchase the newest propaganda possible. These rules, to Tischauser, signal that Patriot Front is attempting to create consistent cash flow for the organization and its leaders.

Patriot Front requires the group to chronicle their “stickering” or “flyering” on social media, by taking pictures of their work to later post on official Patriot Front accounts. Messages from the Unicorn Riot leak show that if members post outdated designs or too few stickers, group leaders prohibit them from being shared on social media.

Rousseau has repeatedly said that the propaganda material is not for the casual onlooker, but to connect with those who already hold the same beliefs.

“Our goal is to turn nationalists into activists,” Rousseau wrote in leaked chats. “To target our desired demographic we must focus on where we are most able to find them, which is online.”

In his research, Tischauser has found that the physical propaganda often gets taken down quickly. Online, he said, the images have a much longer lifespan and get reposted on various far-right chatrooms and Telegram channels, which have become fruitful recruiting tools for the group.

Even as Rousseau aims to lure recruits from social media, he said in a recent podcast interview that the group organizes in real life in order for members to “feel like you are not alone” as opposed to “growing roots into their couch cushion.” Patriot Front outings range from blanketing towns with Patriot Front stickers to food drives and group workouts. All of which gets posted to Patriot Front social media.

This dual approach has proven effective. For example, a recruit in Kentucky said he’d found out about Patriot Front on Telegram, and decided to join the group after seeing videos of members hiking together.

“They attract folks looking for answers,” Tischauser said. “They attract people who are confused and sometimes, you know, they also manipulate people.”

Six photographs showing Patriot Front stickers on poles, traffic signs, and stuck in car windshield wipers. Messages include “Better Dead than Red,” “Reclaim America,” and “Revolution is Tradition.”

“A home for their poison”

Months passed, and Fargus still kept seeing the Patriot Front stickers.

He started viewing his neighbors differently. When his kids had school fundraisers or bake sales, he was hesitant to let them knock on neighbors’ doors, unsure who was on the other side.

Eventually, Fargus decided to post about the stickers on Nextdoor.

“It makes me angry that these people feel like our neighborhood is a home for their poison,” Fargus wrote in September. “I don’t know who around here is a member of this group, since they keep their membership rolls secret, but I want them to see that this community rejects them.”

Dozens of comments sprang up rapidly. Some thanked Fargus and denounced Patriot Front. Others claimed he was censoring free speech and spreading “vicious rumors.”

“Can you say communist!?,” one read. “Now we’re reporting neighbors to the FBI!!?”

However, the repeated Patriot Front postings don’t necessarily mean that one of Fargus’ neighbors posted the stickers, Tischauer said. In fact, he noted, the poster may not even be someone who lives in Maryland.

Patriot Front members are encouraged to drive hours away from their homes to post their propaganda in order to appear larger and farther reaching than they actually are. Tischauser said he estimates that Patriot Front has roughly 230 members nationally and no more than 50 in the mid-Atlantic region.

“They want people to think that they’re a well-organized, well-disciplined organization with a lot of reach in all communities,” Tischauser said.

After Fargus posted about the propaganda, one user, Maynard R, replied saying he was determined to remove them.

“My ancestors didn’t create this country for this kind of stuff to happen,” he commented. “My father and my grandfather didn’t serve in the U.S. military during two wars for this to happen. I didn’t deploy to Afghanistan after 9/11 for this to happen.”

The next day, the stickers were gone.

Data Analysis Methodology

The Baltimore Banner collected and analyzed posts from two main public Patriot Front Telegram channels using the keyword “Maryland,” logging nearly 600 posts claiming to show the dissemination of 2,364 stickers, banners and flyers throughout the state since the beginning of 2020.

The number of propaganda materials posted was logged when available. Posts that did not report a number were counted as 1. Posts were geolocated to the named city or census-designated place’s center using the U.S. Census Bureau’s geocoder. Locations were verified using Google Maps and Wikipedia.

The Baltimore Banner analysis mirrors similar findings from the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracked the distribution of extremist right-wing propaganda distribution across multiple groups nationally. The difference between their findings and ours are explained by the focus of the data collection. The SPLC attempted to track propaganda posting trips, grouping posts made in multiple nearby locations at the same time as one. The Banner tracked the number of propaganda materials posted by location.

The Banner made statistical claims based on county instead of listed location to account for posts that could have been near or just outside of a place named in Patriot Front’s Telegram posts. Instances where a named city or place reside in multiple counties were excluded from the county analysis.

Learn more about our analysis and reproduce our findings by visiting our GitHub page.