The Austin Chronicle

South of Austin, White Supremacist Groups Are Flourishing

Patriot Front manager identified in Hays County

By Jordan Buckley, December 29, 2023, News

The Hill Country around Wimberley – the picturesque village an hour southwest of Austin – is home to several notable musicians, including Paul Simon, Edie Brickell, and Willie Nelson. It’s also, increasingly, a hotbed for white supremacist activity. A new investigation by Southern Poverty Law Center found the area is stomping ground to a leader of one of the most active white supremacist hate groups in the country.

In October, SPLC identified Brenner Cole of Hays County as a "network director" for the massive propaganda generator Patriot Front. "Since 2019, Patriot Front has been responsible for the vast majority of white supremacist propaganda distributed in the United States," writes the Anti-Defamation League, which tracks domestic extremism. According to the SPLC's hate fliering map, Patriot Front surpasses other hate groups that use this tactic by a factor of 10 to 1.

Put simply, "Patriot Front is the most active white nationalist hate group we track," said Jeff Tischauser, senior research analyst at SPLC's Intelligence Project.

Patriot Front spreads a lot of its messaging online (their fantasy is that they are heirs to the United States' conquest by European ancestors, per their manifesto) but the group's signature rally vibe is the sudden public presence of dozens of white, masked men uniformed in khakis and polos, standing in military formation. They either don shields or torches or flares or poles with inverted American flags.

The Chronicle reached Cole, asking if he's still involved with Patriot Front and if he wanted to provide any context. Cole declined to comment. SPLC reports that he coordinates the South Texas region for the group, pointing to a cache of leaked documents, social media posts, and personal details revealed from his 2018 arrest as evidence. Per the SPLC, his duties include plotting bigoted vandalism, securing new recruits, and coordinating demonstrations.

Marking San Marcos

Patriot Front spun off of the neo-Nazi group Vanguard America in August of 2017 in the wake of the "Unite the Right" convergence in Charlottesville, Virginia, where James Fields Jr. plowed into a street full of anti-racist protesters, killing a woman named Heather Heyer.

During that infamous tiki torch rally, Fields, toting a Vanguard America shield, was photographed with Thomas Rousseau – then a teen from the Dallas suburbs in leadership at the organization. The photo, published by antifa news source It's Going Down, shows them dressed alike at the rally prior to his vehicular attack. The public relations crisis erupting from Fields' terrorism spurred Rousseau to seize the organization's domain and rebrand as Patriot Front, the ADL reports.

In its inaugural season, the group chose San Marcos as a chief laboratory for its racist research and development. That October, city Ethics Commissioner Naomi Narvaiz sparked backlash for retweeting a Patriot Front post – but the City Council declined to punish her. (In 2020, she would serve in the Electoral College for Texas, voting for Donald J. Trump and then heading to the Capitol weeks later to try to "Stop the Steal.")

ADL found that in the first year of Trump's presidency, among the dozens of reports of racist propaganda discovered across numerous campuses in the Lone Star State, Texas State University saw the most. In October 2017, Patriot Front unfurled a fugly banner from the roof of the university's Alkek Library reading "America Is a White Nation." (Days later, student activists countered with a larger banner – proclaiming "America Is Not a White Nation" – draping the same unauthorized spot.)

On December 3, 2017, city and campus police detained two gaggles of graffitists from Patriot Front who were hanging fliers and banners downtown and at the university. (In response to public records requests, the city of San Marcos named the three men they caught, while Texas State University opted to fight all the way to the Texas Attorney General's Office to keep the other five culprits' identities redacted.)

Who Is Brenner Cole?

"Patriot Front may claim to be nonviolent but many of its members have a history of violence," says SPLC's Tischauser. In Cole's case, Hays County records show he pleaded guilty to aggravated assault with a deadly weapon in 2020: He had brake-checked a tailgater on Ranch Road 12, and when both cars pulled over to discuss, Cole assailed the motorist with a knife.

We don't know how Cole initially became involved with Patriot Front. A Wimberley High School yearbook from 2016 features him several times, indicating an early inclination toward management. In a section titled "The Secrets to Success," he advised fellow students, "Don't procrastinate on doing your work and make sure you are on good terms with your teachers." As of 2020, the address Cole listed on his bail bond was a 7-acre estate in Wimberley, owned by his parents and valued at $2.4 million, according to the Hays County website.

During his two years of deferred adjudication – whereby Cole agreed in writing to "avoid persons or places of disreputable or harmful character" – SPLC reports Cole rose in Patriot Front ranks, with Rousseau officially appointing him regional manager on Dec. 10, 2021.

The SPLC has tracked most of Patriot Front's propaganda in the Hays County area to Cole, Tischauser said. But he's not isolated. Other active hate groups in the area include Aryan Freedom Network, the New Columbia Movement, and Active Clubs. "All of these groups see themselves as pushing the Texas GOP further to the right," Tischauser said. "These groups are congratulating themselves online and are increasingly emboldened."

Jordan Buckley is a co-founder of Hays County advocacy group Mano Amiga and left in 2022. He now muckrakes for the grassroots media outlet Caldwell/Hays Examiner.

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