Emily Gorcenski: The Proud Boys, A Republican Party Street Gang

REUTERS/Stephen Lam

White supremacist adjacent, they march alongside, the Proud Boys enjoy comfortable proximity to mainstream conservatives

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

The Latest in a String of Violent Incidents

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 ...
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