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Are the Proud Boys Done or Are They Just Getting Started?

As the 2020 election approaches, there could be an increase in violence from the far-right group, says a researcher tracking the spread of the Proud Boys

Member of the Proud Boys poses for portrait to show his tattoo during the ?ƒ˙#DemandFreeSpeech Freedom Rally?ƒ˘ on July 6th, 2019 at Freedom Plaza in Washington DC.

The Proud Boys have had a quiet year — but it probably won't stay that way.

Yuki Iwamura/Redux

Over the past year, the extremist, far-right group the Proud Boys has undergone what appears to have been a dramatic implosion. Gavin McInnes, the group’s bombastic, ironically mustachioed founder (and the co-founder of Vice magazine), resigned late last year. More recently, the group was one of the targets of social media platforms’ efforts to combat hate speech; mainstream sites like YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook banned a number of Proud Boys-related accounts, thus significantly curbing its ability to attract new recruits. The embarrassing leak of a sloppily redacted Proud Boys charter, written by attorney and member Jason Van Dyke, only served to further heighten tensions within the group, leading to members jockeying for power.

For a few months, it seemed as if the Proud Boys were set to be relegated to little more than a footnote in history, yet another extremist group undone by petty squabbling and internecine bullshit. And then, on June 29th, something shifted. Andy Ngo, a self-styled journalist-activist and far-right provocateur, tweeted that he had just been violently assaulted by “antifa,” or anti-fascist protesters, at a Proud Boys and Patriot Prayer rally in Portland, Oregon. “Attacked by antifa. Bleeding,” he wrote. “They stole my camera equipment. No police until after.” He also retweeted a report from the Portland police force alleging that the counterprotesters had dumped a quick-drying cement milkshake on activists’ heads. (This claim turned out to be untrue; the milkshake was actually made of coconut milk.)

It didn’t matter that the claim turned out to be untrue, and that the beverages in question were actually vegan treats; nor did it matter that Ngo, as a BuzzFeed profile of him later argued, has built a successful freelance journalist career on the demonization of leftist activists. Immediately, parties on both sides of the political aisle condemned the attack on Ngo and called for the anti-fascist protesters, or antifa, to be held accountable. (Ultimately, three counterprotesters at the rally were arrested; one was charged with assault, while the other two were charged with disorderly conduct and harassment.) President Donald Trump, Republican Sen. Ted Cruz, and even Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Joe Biden unequivocally condemned the attack. Last month, Cruz called for the FBI to investigate antifa during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, in so doing comparing them to the KKK. And following the El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, shootings, President Trump issued a statement saying he was “concerned about the rise of any group of hate … whether it’s white supremacy, whether it’s any other kind of supremacy, whether it’s antifa, whether it’s any group of hate” — the last part an allusion to the Dayton shooter, whose apparent leftist leanings on Twitter immediately prompted the far right to link the attack to antifa.

The assault on Ngo, combined with the push toward the demonization of antifa in general, has been galvanizing for the Proud Boys. Members of the organization, communicating largely through the encrypted messaging app Telegram, saw it as exactly the boost that was needed. Much discussion focused on what could “be done” about antifa, juxtaposed with some “light fantasizing” about how other members of the Proud Boys would have defended themselves in that situation, according to Jared Holt, an investigative reporter at Right Wing Watch. “At least internally, the people in the organization really ratcheted up and energized,” he says. Now, as the Proud Boys gear up for another rally in Portland on Saturday, August 17th, all eyes are on the organization to see whether it will continue to disintegrate, or whether a push from mainstream establishment players will make it stronger.

Throughout their relatively short history, the Proud Boys have been characterized as many things: On the left, they have been referred to as a white supremacist or white nationalist group, while on the right they tend to be depicted as a band of extreme, if not overtly violent, outliers. On their own website, the Proud Boys characterize themselves as a “pro-Western fraternal organization for men who refuse to apologize for creating the modern world” and summarize its various political stances, including being pro-free speech, pro-gun rights, and “glorifying the entrepreneur … venerating the housewife [and] reinstating a spirit of Western chauvinism.” McInnes once described the group as a “men’s club that meets about once a month to drink beer.” (The Proud Boys did not respond to requests for comment from Rolling Stone.)

Metropolitan Republican Club of New York City invited Gavin McInnes, who founded a far-right group which regularly engages in street brawls and violence, to gave a lecture on Friday evening, October 13, 2018 in NYC, where he will "discuss historical context and offer perspective on the environment that surrounded Otoya Yamaguchi in 1960?s Japan."McInnes, who was also one of the co-founders of VICE, founded the Proud Boys in 2016, a group which bills itself as a "pro-Western fraternal organization for men who refuse to apologize for creating the Western world." McInnes has repeatedly insisted the group is not far-right or racist, describing the group in the wake of last year?s Unite the Right rally as "a men?s club that meets about once a month to drink beer" ? despite the fact that Jason Kessler, a initiated Proud Boy, was the main organizer for the event. Afterwards, Proud Boys marched through the upper East side after the event and got in a scuffle with ANTIFA.

Former Proud Boys leader Gavin McInnes at the Metropolitan Republican Club of New York City on October 12th, 2018. Photo credit: Mark Peterson/Redux

None of these characterizations, however, are quite correct. The group, which was founded by McInnes following Trump’s election, is not a white nationalist group in the sense that it does not overtly espouse a white supremacist ideology, as do less media-friendly groups such as Identity Evropa. On their website, the Proud Boys say they’re “anti-racism,” and the group ostensibly welcomes members of all races. But the Proud Boys espouse “more of a generalized hate ideology,” says Holt. They have rallied against, among other things, transgender people, Muslim people, and, for some reason, masturbation. Above all else, their target is the overall “feminization” of Western culture, or the idea that masculinity has been slowly degraded by leftist ideology; their core beliefs can best be summarized as a mélange of neofascism, Fight Club-esque hypermasculinity, and early-2000s-era hipster trolling. (The obsessive focus on hypermasculinity is all the more ironic in light of the origins of the group’s name, a deleted musical number from the Disney movie Aladdin called “Proud of Your Boy.”) Samantha Kutner, a researcher who works as a consultant for the anti-extremism group Light Upon Light, refers to them as “a violent crypto-fascist-extremist organization,” noting that “every element of that title has data to support that.” And Kutner would know: Since 2017, she has tracked violent incidents involving Proud Boys throughout North America, and has documented a total of 111 incidents as of press time.

Above all else, the Proud Boys are known for espousing violence. It has vehemently and repeatedly denied that it does so in isolation, and has framed whatever violent action it may take as a response to left-wing censorship. But members of the group have repeatedly been arrested for engaging in violence at rallies, and leaked Telegram chats from earlier this year indicate that much of this violence may be premeditated, with group members gleefully discussing which “weapons” to use and how to best “bait” counterprotesters into throwing a punch. Internal rhetoric is also highly charged and enthusiastically fascistic, with members talking about disposing of their enemies via “helicopter rides,” a reference to Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet’s preferred method of executing dissenters.

At first, many conservative media outlets were willing to overlook the group’s violent tendencies, saying “this is just a drinking club, the media is hysterical,” says Holt. He attributes this perception to McInnes’ knack for spin, stemming from his days as a media mogul, which allowed the Proud Boys to carve a space for themselves in the far-right ecosystem. It also allowed them to forge ties with some members of the GOP establishment: The group has been used as “security” for far-right figures like disgraced political operative Roger Stone. GOP Rep. Matt Gaetz has also been photographed with — and publicly defended — members of the organization. Enrique Tarrio, who succeeded McInnes as the group’s leader, also sat directly behind Trump during a speech back in February, wearing a shirt that said “Roger Stone Did Nothing Wrong.” “As far as their role in the far-right ecosystem, they’re the boots-on-the-ground enforcers,” says Holt.

In 2018, however, several members were embroiled in a violent altercation with antifa in front of New York City’s Metropolitan Republican Club, resulting in the arrests of nine Proud Boys supporters and three anti-fascist protesters on riot charges. The arrests proved to be a turning point, and “absolutely had a chilling effect” on the group, making it difficult for even their most fervent supporters to deny their violent tendencies, says Keegan Hankes, senior research analyst at the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), which classifies the Proud Boys as a hate group (and was sued by McInnes earlier this year for this reason). “It’s a serious thing when [nine] of your members are arrested.”

Metropolitan Republican Club of New York City invited Gavin McInnes, who founded a far-right group which regularly engages in street brawls and violence, to gave a lecture on Friday evening, October 13, 2018 in NYC, where he will "discuss historical context and offer perspective on the environment that surrounded Otoya Yamaguchi in 1960?s Japan."McInnes, who was also one of the co-founders of VICE, founded the Proud Boys in 2016, a group which bills itself as a "pro-Western fraternal organization for men who refuse to apologize for creating the Western world." McInnes has repeatedly insisted the group is not far-right or racist, describing the group in the wake of last year?s Unite the Right rally as "a men?s club that meets about once a month to drink beer" ? despite the fact that Jason Kessler, a initiated Proud Boy, was the main organizer for the event. Afterwards, Proud Boys marched through the upper East side after the event and got in a scuffle with ANTIFA.

Proud Boys march through Manhattan after the event at the Republican Club last October, before they got in a fight with antifa protesters. Photo credit: Mark Peterson/Redux

A month later, McInnes publicly quit the Proud Boys, a day after the FBI classified the Proud Boys as an extremist group. “I’m told by my legal team and law enforcement that this gesture could help alleviate their sentencing,” McInnes said in a YouTube video announcing his resignation. “Fine. At the very least, this will show jurors they are not dealing with a gang and there’s no head of operations.” (The FBI later walked back its classification of the Proud Boys as an extremist group, saying that while the bureau may investigate individual members, “the FBI does not and will not police ideology.” Though it essentially attributed the designation to a clerical error, some of the sources who spoke with Rolling Stone were skeptical of this explanation: “It doesn’t make a ton of sense given the violence that follows them around,” says Hankes.) 

Since McInnes’ resignation, the Proud Boys have stayed relatively under the radar. “Compared to recent years, [activity has been] light,” says Hankes. “They have not been as active as they had been in the past year or so.” Part of that may be due to the legal proceedings stemming from the 2018 incident, with two former Proud Boys members, Maxwell Hare and John Kinsman, standing trial in New York City this month. It also may be a result of Tarrio — 34 and a former president of the Miami chapter of the Proud Boys — assuming the helm of the group. Compared with McInnes, Tarrio “doesn’t have a huge megaphone or platform,” nor is he as “prone to saying crazy stuff into a camera lens,” says Holt.

The fact that many Proud Boys members, including Tarrio, have been banned from major platforms like Twitter has also helped to diminish their organizing and recruitment efforts, as their reach has been significantly limited. “What we’ve seen is a decline in the numbers they’ve been able to draw out,” Effie Baum tells Rolling Stone. Baum is the spokesperson for PopMob (short for Popular Mobilization), which has led many of the anti-fascist counterprotests in Portland, including the one last June where Ngo was attackedSince August 2018, she says, “attendance has been way down” at Proud Boys-related events in the area.

That’s not to say, however, that the Proud Boys have been totally underground. In the Pacific Northwest, specifically Portland, a long-standing battle has been raging between anti-fascist protestors and the far right. Kutner has logged more than 20 violent incidents in the city, as opposed to other cities in North America, where the number falls between one and five. Some anti-fascist protesters have accused Portland police of being overly sympathetic to members of the far right, particularly after texts between a Portland police lieutenant and far-right-group Patriot Prayer leader Joey Gibson, in which the officer appears to consult with Gibson about issues related to safety and public protest, were leaked in February. In response to the leak, Mayor Ted Wheeler announced he was calling for an investigation into the police department. (In response to a request for comment from the Portland police department, a representative referred Rolling Stone to press releases issued following the initial incident, adding, “we will continue to reach out, with our police liaisons, to various groups who plan to hold rallies in our city to help facilitate safer events.”)

The Proud Boys are still small  — Kutner estimates their current membership at approximately 3,000 — but they are growing, though perhaps not at the rate they would like. Moreover, as Trump gears up for his re-election campaign, counter-extremism researchers fully anticipate there will be more Proud Boys-related violence. In the past month alone, they’ve been accused of issuing violent threats to those they view as opponents, including researcher Gwen Snyder, reportedly appearing at her Philadelphia home and intimidating her neighbor. They were also present at Trump’s July 4th event and a July 6th rally in Washington, D.C., during which they chanted “I like beer,” a reference to Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s 2018 testimony at a congressional hearing regarding allegations that he had committed sexual assault. “It’s important to remember the Proud Boys formed in 2016. [The presidential election] is the thing that gave them power and organizing capacity,” Kutner says. “So you’ll see that return in 2019 [with] even more intense narratives trying to promote the message that anti-fascists are a hate group and a domestic terrorist organization.”

WASHINGTON, DC - JULY 06: Proud Boys provide security during a "Demand Free Speech" rally on Freedom Plaza on July 6, 2019 in Washington, DC. The demonstrators are calling for an end of censorship by social media companies. (Photo by Stephanie Keith/Getty Images)

Proud Boys provide security during a rally on Freedom Plaza on July 6th, 2019 in Washington, DC. Photo credit: Stephanie Keith/Getty Images

Moreover, recent news events, combined with the antipathy stoked by the attack on Ngo last June, has fueled the fire of anti-antifa sentiment nationally, which could serve as a boon for groups like the Proud Boys. The mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton led to the far right promoting conspiracy theories blaming both events on antifa. (The El Paso shooter was a Trump supporter who used white supremacist, anti-immigration rhetoric in his manifesto; the Dayton shooter promoted leftist views on social media, but there is no evidence he was involved in organizing anti-fascist protest events in the area.) The narrative of antifa as a violent threat to national security, which has also been echoed by President Trump, may have a chilling effect on antifa organizing, says Kutner, giving right-wing groups the space they need to grow.

At its Portland rally on August 17th, the extent to which such rhetoric has had an energizing effect on the group will become more clear. According to one Daily Beast report, the lead organizer of the event, former InfoWars reporter Joe Biggs, has already posted a video in which he holds a MAGA-decorated baseball bat and gleefully saying he plans to “put this to good use.” (Biggs told the Daily Beast he did not plan to bring the bat to the rally.) Overall, there’s a widespread concern in Portland that the national rhetoric swirling around the mass shootings, combined with the events of the rally last June, will lead to “bloodlust” at the upcoming rally. “They’re gunning for a fight,” says PopMob’s Baum.

While, hopefully, that won’t be the case, both the Proud Boys and the hyper-emotionally charged, politically divisive rhetoric that creates the conditions for the group to thrive, will likely not recede into the background anytime soon. Despite the attempts to repackage themselves as little more than an un-PC, beer-swilling men’s club, “there are 111 incidents that suggest otherwise,” says Kutner. “There’s no doubt who they are as an organization and what they do and what they believe.”

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