The Proud Boys
A Republican Party Street Gang
The Proud Boys became a national focus in October 2018 when independent journalist Sandi Bachom posted video of a violent confrontation in New York City. On October 12 Gavin McInnes, founder of the Proud Boys and exiled co-founder of VICE Media,1 was the headline speaker for an event at the Metropolitan Republican Club in Manhattan.2 That morning, the club reported their facility had been vandalized overnight with anarchist graffiti, broken windows and glued locks, prompting an outcry from the Right, as New York Republican Party chairman Ed Cox decried the damage as an act of “political violence.” Amid these tensions, McInnes included in his appearance a re-enactment of the 1960 assassination of Japanese socialist leader Inejiro Asanuma by a Japanese nationalist, seeming to foreshadow the actual violence that would follow later that night. After the event, video footage3 showed a group of Proud Boys following a group of protesters before charging at them. One protester threw what appeared to be a water bottle, and seconds later all three were thrown to the ground, being punched, kicked and stomped by several Proud Boys.
The event sparked national alarm about right-wing violence, less than a month before the midterm elections and after a campaign season marked by increasingly inflammatory rhetoric from top Republican officials. Who were the Proud Boys? What were they doing at a Republican event? Was this a sign of increasing right-wing violence? And why didn’t the police arrest the assailants that night?
Until that point, the Proud Boys, launched in 2016, had managed to stand apart from many of the other groups that attended and organized the fatal Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. Compared to the White supremacists they sometimes marched alongside, the Proud Boys—self-declared “Western chauvinists” whose core ethos is that they won’t “apologize for creating the modern world”4—enjoy comfortable proximity to the conservative mainstream. Existing almost entirely to antagonize left-wing and Democratic opposition, they effectively serve as the Republican Party’s militant arm.
The incident in New York City wasn’t an anomaly. Although the Proud Boys may present themselves as merely an edgy male drinking club, the organization has the hallmarks of an organized gang. According to Proud Boy Magazine, membership has four degrees, two of which involve physical violence.5
To earn the second degree, an initiate must, absurdly, name five breakfast cereals while getting beaten up by his fellow “boys.” The fourth requires getting arrested or physically fighting political opponents.6
In the days after the New York fight, McInnes embraced the label, proclaiming, “I started this gang called the Proud Boys,”7 and acknowledging they have engaged in violence “for fun.”
“I’m done avoiding [violence],” he continued. “I’m taking the low road, I’m punching them in the face.”8
Since its founding, the Proud Boys have been a steady presence at political rallies around the country. In early 2017, in a series of protests dubbed “the Battle for Berkeley,”9 the Proud Boys began to make a name for themselves. That March, a Proud Boy named Kyle Chapman was seen hitting a counterprotester in the head with a wooden stick, earning him favor among the Far Right, as well as the battle nickname “Based Stickman.” Chapman went on to form the Fraternal Order of Alt-Knights, which McInnes described on Twitter as the Proud Boys’ “military” wing.10
Throughout 2017 and 2018, Proud Boys were also regulars at explosive protests in Portland, Oregon, often partnering with Patriot Prayer, a right-wing organization spearheaded by failed U.S. Senate candidate Joey Gibson, to battle Portland’s large anti-fascist bloc. They were present at a Resist Marxism event that turned violent in Providence.11 And they played a notable, though complicated, role in the August 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, which made international headlines after a rally-goer drove his car into a crowd of counter-protesters, killing one and injuring many more.*
The Proud Boys were not themselves sponsors of Unite the Right, but one of its main organizers was their own Jason Kessler, a Charlottesville local. Leaked chats obtained by independent media collective Unicorn Riot show that a month before the event, in July 2017, Kessler sought to recruit rally participants from among the “Alt Lite,”12 an umbrella term for right-wing organizations that some in Alt Right circles consider insufficiently racist to qualify as fully Alt Right.13
The purpose of Unite the Right was to draw the two factions together, but many Alt Lite groups were shying away. Initially, Proud Boy Kyle Chapman was listed as a speaker at the event, but he backed out. The Proud Boys declined an official organizational role, at first issuing a neutral statement in June saying, “This event isn’t ours, which is why our name is not on the flyer, but we wish them nothing but the best.”14 But sometime later, the group, which outwardly claims to reject racism, took a harder stance, as the rally’s White supremacist tone drew increasingly bad press. “So here’s the deal Proud Boys,” read an announcement in Proud Boy Magazine, “if you want to go to the rally, I can’t stop you. But just don’t fucking wear your Fred Perry or decide to belt: ‘Proud of Your Boy.’ Remember, we don’t allow racists in Proud Boys, if you decide to rub elbows with those people in colors, you very well could find yourself being disavowed.”15
Amid this distancing, rally organizer Kessler, in an attempt to force participation, arranged for a group of Proud Boys and other far-right activists to come to Charlottesville to antagonize protesters, and called for others to join them. “We’re going to be triggering Antifa to protest and force the Alt-Light’s hand,”16 he wrote in the chat messages obtained by Unicorn Riot. “Just wear your MAGA hats and blend in as Proud Boys. It’ll be fun.” Several Proud Boys ultimately did attend the rally, seemingly without consequence, despite the earlier threats. And a week after the rally’s violence shocked the country, McInnes publicly disavowed it, saying, “[i]f you know of anyone who is presently a member and who is Alt-Right, they are cut from the club as of right now.”17
Perhaps because of these mixed messages, after Unite the Right the Proud Boys managed to avoid most of the mainstream backlash that other White nationalist groups incurred. While Alt Right groups struggled with enormous legal burdens and diminishing support after Unite the Right,18 the Proud Boys and their affiliate organizations seemed to thrive, holding more rallies around the country and maintaining active social media pages. To understand why, it’s useful to explore the taxonomies of Far Right and White supremacist organizing.
Far-right organizing circles, including neofascist and White nationalist organizations, are notoriously prone to infighting. The motivation behind the fatal Charlottesville rally was implicit in its name: to visibly unite far-right groups in a show of force; further marginalize liberal, progressive, and leftist communities; and strengthen institutional oppression of minorities. The internal chats published by Unicorn Riot19 show a fractured and bickersome collection of White supremacist organizations, where extensive debate on optics and identity politics was commonplace, and where organizers struggled to keep the most violent impulses of their followers in check.
Since the resurgence of public White nationalism (emboldened, but not invented by, the Trump administration), the Far Right has struggled with different public-facing looks. On one end of the spectrum are militant vanguardists, who eschew social norms in favor of a violent approach that will accelerate social divides and bring out closeted supporters. On the other end are movementarians, who seek to leverage loopholes in free speech principles to inject themselves into normal debate and amass power through political means. Movementarians appeal to a mainstream sense of decorum—often under the pretext of defending the rights of a “victimized” class of White conservatives—while bringing forth reactionary concepts on race, gender, and civil rights.
There are varying schools of thought one can encounter along this spectrum. There’s identitarianism, which describes groups like Identity Evropa in the U.S. and Génération Identitaire in Europe, which seek to center White identity and a mythical European heritage as a cultural touchstone around which Western society should build itself. There are ultra-nationalists, which includes groups like the Rise Above Movement, which seek to establish national identity through forceful exclusion of others. And there’s constitutionalism, exhibited in groups like the Oath Keepers or various Patriot movement chapters, which believes the Constitution empowers the people separately from, and to a greater extent than, state authority.20
Ranking these groups as farthest-Right on the political spectrum is pointless. Despite their deep philosophical differences in approaches and tactics, all share a common end-goal: the eradication of civil rights and the establishment of a White patriarchal ethnostate. Regardless of their preferred approach, the Far Right is united by a perception that the status quo is irreparably flawed.
The Alt Right is not the only recent development in far-right politics. The Alt Lite is a variant of contemporary conservatism that breaks with the mainstream but publicly claims to reject the explicitly racist identity politics of the White supremacist Alt Right. The Alt Lite is largely a social media-driven phenomenon; their most prominent figures are all sub-mainstream personalities with large online followings: Mike Cernovich, Jack Posobiec, and of course Gavin McInnes. The Alt Lite movement sometimes uses people of color, women, and sexual minorities—a tiny minority of their movement—to convey their message.
The Proud Boys have become the Alt Lite’s preeminent activist organization. Showcasing members of color or leaders’ interracial partnerships with non-White girlfriends and wives, the Proud Boys have, to varying degrees of success, passed themselves off as a non-racist organization even as they are regularly filmed beating up anti-racist activists. Indeed, the Proud Boys’ “multiculturalism” has caused them to fall out of favor among many White nationalist organizations. The difference is not entirely cosmetic: although Proud Boys’ blogs, Facebook pages, and private chats are full of content that is unquestionably racist, it’s of a subtler variety than the deeply racial memetics—such as pictures of lynched Black people and Holocaust photos—that Alt Right groups deploy. The Proud Boys’ racism is sometimes only visible through the lens of the politics of privilege and institutional White supremacy.
The absence of undeniably racist symbols such as a Klan hood or a Nazi swastika has given the Proud Boys a level of access to the Republican mainstream (as well as a free pass for militant street activism) that the Alt Right can only dream of. For these reasons, it’s too simplistic to view the Proud Boys as yet another White supremacist group. Rather, when the Alt Right and overt White nationalism became too toxic for mainstream Republican tastes after the tragedy in Charlottesville, the Proud Boys filled the gap. Fronting men of color, the organization became the perfect street gang for the GOP to use to continue its antagonism of Leftist politics, and thereby cast progressives as the real “extremists.”
The Alt Lite has openly feuded with the explicitly White supremacist members of the Alt Right. In June 2017, several Alt Lite figures held a competing rally in Washington, D.C., in an effort to draw attention and support away from an Alt Right event.21
These public conflicts aside, it is difficult to see a meaningful ideological difference between the Alt Lite and the Alt Right—both widely criticize social justice movements, mock activists for racial equality, and vociferously support Western hegemony—and the Anti-Defamation League lists McInnes among the Alt Lite members whose separation from the Alt Right is superficial, at best.22
The brutal violence at the October event in New York obscured a vital fact: that McInnes and the Proud Boys were in Manhattan at the invitation of members of the Metropolitan Republican Club, a private, but mainstream, Republican organization. Less than a month away from the midterm elections, McInnes’s appearance seemed to be less about an earnest presentation of a political viewpoint than provocation for provocation’s sake. In the Far Right’s parlance, they were there to “trigger the libs.”
As such, the street violence seemed strategic. Capitalizing on centrist disdain for the optics of antifascism—the black bloc, the anonymity, the violence—these repeated engagements were seemingly designed to frame the Left, and by extension the Democratic Party, as lawless and violent.23 (In August 2018, ahead of the midterm elections, Trump warned evangelical leaders in a closed-door meeting that, if Democrats won, they would “overturn everything that we’ve done and they’ll do it quickly and violently,” specifically referencing anti-fascist groups.24) It’s a style of antagonistic politics that has already become normalized elsewhere in the Republican Party, as every booming chant of “lock her up” at a Trump rally further entrenches the idea that politics is about obliterating your opponent. The Proud Boys and the Alt Lite don’t operate separately from this dynamic but within it, as much of the violence that erupted in Portland occurred at campaign rallies for 2018 Senate candidate Joey Gibson. (Although Gibson’s failed U.S. Senate bid was in Washington state, he held frequent rallies in neighboring Portland, Oregon.)
Gibson was not the only candidate with far-right ties. Corey Stewart, who has well-documented connections to White nationalists and neo-confederates, including Unite the Right organizer Jason Kessler,25 won the Republican primary for the U.S. Senate race in Virginia. Patrick Little26 and Paul Nehlen27 are open antisemites who ran failed bids for U.S. Congress. Steve King won re-election in Iowa, despite new revelations about his connections to an international neonazi group (and even his seeming openness to Holocaust revisionism).28 Trump has opened the door to the GOP for neonazis, and they have wasted no time in accepting the invitation.
However, the reality is that most of those candidates lost their races, badly. Although King was re-elected, his margin narrowed substantially in a race that was no contest just weeks before.29
It’s increasingly unclear that the Proud Boys-style strategy of inciting violence to discredit the Left works or is sustainable. Tainted by Trump’s candid racism, a wave of far-right violence, and the Russia investigation, the Republicans lost significant ground in the House. Many White nationalists from the Alt Right, like Richard Spencer and his followers, are facing serious legal troubles, in the form of state30 and federal31 criminal charges, as well as a handful of significant civil lawsuits.
The Alt Lite’s luck may be running out, as well. After the videos of the violence in New York became national news, 10 Proud Boys were indicted in New York Superior Court. McInnes’s forthright declaration that he had founded the Proud Boys as “a gang” became particularly damning in light of these indictments: members John Kinsman and Maxwell Hare both stand accused of Attempted Gang Assault charges, a serious felony that carries a sentence of up to 15 years in prison. The same week the indictments were returned, the Clark County, WA sheriff’s department’s internal investigation into a deputy’s ties to the Proud Boys came to light.32 The report, which led to the deputy’s firing, asserted that the FBI had designated the Proud Boys as an “extremist organization” with ties to “white nationalism,” though the Bureau denies that it investigates groups based on ideology.33
The New York incident is not the only source of legal trouble for the Proud Boys. Former Proud Boy member and Texas attorney Jason Lee Van Dyke is facing a charge of filing a false police report, and was recently re-arrested for failure to appear at a bond review hearing resulting from threats he allegedly made against a defendant in a civil case he filed.34 And in the most disturbing case yet, Buckey Wolfe, who appeared on social media several times in Proud Boys gear alongside Seattle-area Proud Boys, was arrested on charges of second-degree murder for stabbing his brother in the head with a sword, because, Wolfe claimed, his brother was turning into a “lizard.” Wolfe’s social media shows his affiliations with the Proud Boys concurrent with a descent into fringe Alt Lite media, including sharing stories from the conspiracy theory movement QAnon.35
These legal battles are taking a toll on the Alt Lite leadership. Just a few days after news of the FBI designation surfaced, McInnes publicly announced his separation with the Proud Boys,36 citing hopes that his departure would diminish any sentences the Manhattan 10 might receive. (These defendants face trial in March 2019 and are still considered innocent, so McInnes’ statement seems to curiously presume their conviction.)
Nevertheless, right-wing antagonistic politics haven’t abated. As Far Right politicians have expanded the use of explicit bigotry in political campaigns, they’ve opened a window for other right-wing candidates, couching racist appeals in more euphemistic language, to appear moderate by contrast. As Trump escalates his violent rhetoric, calling journalists the “enemy of the people” and suggesting that any impeachment efforts will result in mass revolt, it seems unlikely that the violent sectors of the Right will stand down. There are plenty of minor figures in these movements, and they will be quick to fill any leadership vacuums that may form in the wake of the October violence. As long as the Republican Party continues to benefit from violent White supremacy, political violence on U.S. streets is sure to continue.