Proud Boys: Who they are, and why experts who study hate and extremism find them interesting

PUBLISHED:

Gavin McInnes is surrounded by supporters after speaking at a rally Thursday, April 27, 2017, in Berkeley, CA. (AP File Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

Last month, members of Proud Boys, the national far-right men-only group with a strong Southern California presence, were expelled from a downtown Los Angeles bar after a dust-up with Antifa, a group of anti-fascist protesters.

Now, the city of Portland is bracing for violence on its streets as Proud Boys along with the right-wing group Patriot Prayer and other anti-government groups, will put on the “Freedom March” in that city Saturday, Aug. 4, an event which has been likened by many to the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville last year.

Saturday’s march is being held in support of Joey Gibson, founder of Patriot Prayer, many of whose members come to rallies armed with guns. Gibson is seeking a U.S. senate seat in Washington State.

The Proud Boys have been labeled as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center for their anti-Muslim and misogynistic rhetoric, and for appearing with other hate groups at extremist rallies such as “Unite the Right.”

The Proud Boys don Fred Perry polo shirts and red “Make America Great Again” hats and brand themselves as “Western Chauvinists” who are unapologetic about being white and male. The group was started by Gavin McInnes, co-founder of VICE Media, in 2016.

On his Twitter account, McInnes says he is pro “life, West, gun, gay, Israel, Trump, law enforcement and First Amendment,” and that he is anti “Nazi, Antifa, Alt-Right and Feminist.” The group also claims to have a number of members who are non-white.

However, experts on hate and extremism who follow the group and study its activities, say they are most definitely a part of the alt-right.
“I’d say they are more Alt-Light,” said Brian Levin, director for the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at Calstate, San Bernardino.

“They have this muddled message. They use all these code words for white supremacy like ‘western chauvinism.’ But when they start to feel the heat, they distance themselves. They are like a duck that wants to be a platypus.”

Verbal threats, violence and a display of machismo are all ingrained in the Proud Boys’ ethos, said Carla Hill, an investigative researcher with the Anti-Defamation League. They like to incite violence and provoke people with their MAGA hats, especially the Antifa, she said.

“They are absolutely willing to take their ideology to their street,” Hill said, adding that the Proud Boys in particular seems to be an interesting cross between a street gang and a hate group.

Over the last year, the Proud Boys have made their presence felt at a number of marches and rallies including a pro-Trump rally at Bolsa Chica State Beach in March 2017, which turned violent and at an anti-Sharia rally in San Bernardino in November.

All of those marches and rallies featured the group the Proud Boys consider their arch-nemesis: Antifa or anti-fascist groups.

On its site, the Proud Boys also say they are affiliated with the violent organization, Fraternal Order of the Alt Knights (FOAK), which operates like a “fight club.” The Proud Boys refer to them as their “military arm.”

The group, which is believed to exist in about a dozen states with at least 100 members in each state, doesn’t operate in a vacuum. Hill says McInnes is known for using provocative language on social media.

“His prerogative nature is what pushes this group and these young men who follow him,” she said.

Hill finds the group’s initiation process interesting and similar to that of a street gang. The first step as a recruit, she said, is to recite an oath declaring that they are unapologetic Western chauvinists.

The second level involves other group members punching the recruit. To get to the third level, the recruit must get a Proud Boy tattoo and the final level is reserved for those who have had a violent confrontation with the Antifa or on another issue related to their cause.

The Proud Boys are an example of “veiled white supremacy,” which seems to be in vogue with many right wing groups today, said Peter Simi, associate professor of sociology at Chapman University who has extensively researched white power groups.

“The Proud Boys deliberately cultivate a street image and place a strong emphasis on physicality, but maintain a clean-cut image,” he said.

Levin said the Proud Boys’ bigoted stereotyping has an air of nuance that’s missing from Klansmen.

“They are certainly part of a growing and active set of a leaderless movement in an Alt-Right, Alt-Light movement,” he said.