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Inside a 'Patriot Party' rally where Trump loyalists search for a path forward

Inside a 'Patriot Party' rally where Trump loyalists search for a path forward

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The "Patriot Party" is somewhere between a meme and a movement of Trump loyalists.

The idea and, perhaps just as important, the logo, have been circulating on social media since last summer. But after the Capitol riot and swearing-in of President Joe Biden, Patriot Party groups have formed and multiplied, mostly on Telegram, where they share memes, disinformation and commentary in chaotic channels in all 50 states.

Before it was removed from Facebook, one Patriot Party group had more than 12,000 members. One post that was removed read: "We need to organize our militia ... Wars are won with guns.. an when they silence your commander in chief you are in a war."

On February 6, one Patriot Party group held its first organized public rally in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, which was billed as an "awareness march." Only about 30 people showed up, not much happened and it was over in a couple of hours. But at its conclusion, when CNN returned to the parking lot, some attendees had changed their clothes. At least eight were wearing Proud Boys hoodies. They were shouting that their cars had been vandalized. They would not explain the wardrobe change and were angry at the question.

The energy and anger that fueled the Trump movement and the January 6 Capitol riot are still out there, swirling around, and it's not clear yet who's going to seize them and to what ends. At the moment, it appears the Patriot Party is becoming one vessel for that energy. But even those within it are not sure who their comrades are.

The "awareness march" was organized by a man named Richard "Dick" Schwetz. Schwetz, who often goes by Dick Sweats online and who indicated his name had posed a challenge for most of his life, has publicly, on video, said he's a Proud Boy. But as he waited in the parking lot for a bus full of women that was supposedly coming from Pittsburgh that never showed, Schwetz denied this event had anything to do with that group.

"This isn't about the Proud Boys. It's about the Patriot Party," he said. Asked if the Patriot Party was putting a friendlier face, with a cute lion logo, on more violent actors, like militias or the Proud Boys, Schwetz said, "Stop. See that's where you guys go. You go too deep."

CNN then pointed to the pile of merchandise visible in the back of Schwetz's car, which included hats with the Patriot Party logo in the Proud Boys' black-and-gold colors. Was that intended to look like the Proud Boys? Schwetz said, "No, I don't, I -- I just had yellow vinyl. I'm sorry. That's all I had left over."

Schwetz told CNN that one reason for the rally was to "set up official Patriot Party representatives."

"The only way we could figure out to do that, since we're all deplatformed from every single social media outlet there is, is by meeting up in person and doing it the old-fashioned way. I got the pen and paper and everything," Schwetz said. It's hard to tell who's for real online, he admitted. "It's a digital world. It's unfortunate."

In the last days of his presidency, Donald Trump floated the idea of starting a new party, CNN has reported. The Wall Street Journal reported he wanted to call it the Patriot Party. Trump campaign adviser Jason Miller then told CNN that Trump is not currently considering launching a third party.

But some of his followers are trying to do it themselves. The Trump campaign had to file a notice with the Federal Election Commission that it had "no affiliation" with a Patriot Party that had claimed in its own filing to be working with Trump's campaign.

There are multiple national Patriot Party Telegram channels and groups in every state. There are not clear leaders. Many followers say they've been kicked off Facebook and Twitter, so they mostly organize on Telegram -- where anyone can join under any name.

There, people are sharing the same disinformation about the election, QAnon, Covid-19 and the riot itself that is often banned from other social media.

CNN has spoken to several people in these channels who were at the Capitol on January 6.

One person who was at the Capitol and also in Harrisburg was Andy Walker, a regular at "Stop the Steal" events in Pennsylvania after the election. "We want our freedoms back. We want the constitutional way," Walker said. "The laws that ... this nation was founded on ... And there's the censorship, the banning. Everything's getting out of control."

Walker said he wanted to get Patriot Party types elected to local government. Like other people at the rally, he said he believed the election had been stolen. It wasn't.

Walker said he'd marched to the Capitol on January 6, but he denied going inside the building. "I'd do it again," he said. "What do they expect from us when we've been suppressed and shut down and silenced?"

The Patriot Party supporters hung out for a bit on the state Capitol steps in Harrisburg. Two women came by to raise awareness about a lawsuit they thought would overturn the election results. Some made plans to meet at a restaurant later. A woman asked the CNN crew if the journalists liked the American flag.

Then the rallygoers walked back to their cars, shouting, "Bye, CNN!" We hung around talking to people for a few more minutes, then headed back to the parking lot, where we found a strange scene. The Patriot Party supporters were distraught. And some were wearing different clothes.

At least eight were wearing Lehigh Valley Proud Boys hoodies, some with yellow bandannas. One was wearing a strikingly similar black-and-gold Patriot Party hoodie. They were shouting. They said "domestic terrorists" had vandalized their cars -- nails behind the tires, two flags stolen, spray paint on the windshield and windows of two vehicles, and one tire slashed.

"This is the aftereffects of domestic terrorism against conservatives in this country, which has been happening forever!" Schwetz said.

When CNN pointed out that the Proud Boys were there, Schwetz said, "I don't know, I never heard of them, never heard of those guys."

In a video later posted to Telegram, Schwetz said, "We got our boys here."

At least 16 people linked to the Proud Boys have been charged in connection with the Capitol riot, and 5 have been charged with conspiracy. Canada also designated the Proud Boys as a terrorist organization in February.

No one would answer the question of why the Proud Boys had changed into their hoodies or why they'd come in the first place. A woman shouted, "Leave the Proud Boys alone!"

Walker, whose tire was slashed, became angry when CNN asked who he thought had done it. "First of all I don't think anybody said anything about antifa. It's domestic terrorism, that's what it is. Nobody said anything about antifa. Nobody said anything about BLM," Walker said.

When asked who he thought did it, Walker became enraged, shouting, "I don't give a s***! Does it matter who it was? Nobody gives a s*** who the f*** it was! It happened! I don't give a s***!"

(In a video recorded minutes later in the same parking lot and then posted to the Patriot Party of PA Telegram channel, Schwetz did blame antifa, saying, "We came back earlier because of threats being made on telegram by antifa. ... They came out and pretty much attacked us right away just assuming that because we're men and we're patriots that obviously we're the enemy.")

"We weren't doing anything to anybody," a woman chimed in. Some other men shouted, though it was incomprehensible in our audio recording.

When asked, repeatedly, how he reconciled the fact that he'd said the event had nothing to do with the Proud Boys and yet there they were, Schwetz responded, "I have asked you to be respectful about the fact that it was a Patriot Party event. You keep going back to something has nothing to do with that."

Schwetz called the police. A Black police officer eyed the Confederate flag sticker on Walker's truck as he surveyed the damage.

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