Subscribe to the Sounds Like Hate podcast to learn more about hate groups like the Proud Boys.
Established in the midst of the 2016 presidential election by VICE Media co-founder Gavin McInnes, the Proud Boys are self-described “Western chauvinists” who adamantly deny any connection to the racist “alt-right.” They insist they are simply a fraternal group spreading an “anti-political correctness” and “anti-white guilt” agenda.
The Proud Boys’ actions belie their disavowals of bigotry: Rank-and-file Proud Boys and leaders regularly spout white nationalist memes and maintain affiliations with known extremists. They are known for anti-Muslim and misogynistic rhetoric. Proud Boys have appeared alongside other hate groups at extremist gatherings such as the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. Former Proud Boys member Jason Kessler helped organize that event, which brought together a broad coalition of extremists including Neo-Nazis, antisemites and militias. Kessler was expelled from the group after the violence and near-universal condemnation of Charlottesville rallygoers.
Other hardcore members of the alt-right have argued that the “Western chauvinist” label is just a “PR cuck term” McInnes crafted to gain mainstream acceptance. “Let’s not bullshit,” Brian Brathovd, aka Caerulus Rex, told his co-hosts on “The Daily Shoah,” an antisemitic podcast popular with the alt-right. If the Proud Boys “were pressed on the issue, I guarantee you that like 90% of them would tell you something along the lines of ‘Hitler was right. Gas the Jews.’”
White nationalists and neo-Nazis themselves have cited McInnes as a gateway to the alt-right. On “The Southern AF Podcast,” one former Proud Boy who went on to embrace white nationalism said he was originally drawn to the group because of its “pro-white sentiment.” “All his jokes, all his content when I first started listening to him,” he said of McInnes, “was all freakin’ alt-right stuff and racial issues and funny, comedic ways to like try to point out that white civilization has been superior.” Many Proud Boys like him have moved on to more extreme groups and ideologies.
McInnes plays a duplicitous rhetorical game: claiming to reject white nationalism while espousing a laundered version of popular white nationalist tropes. He has ties to the racist right and has contributed to such hate sites as VDare.com and American Renaissance, which publish the work of white supremacists and so-called race realists. McInnes has himself said it is fair to call him Islamophobic. He announced the founding of the Proud Boys in the far-right Taki’s Magazine.
The Proud Boys stage frequent rallies around the country. Many have descended into violent street riots where members openly brawl with counterprotesters. Indeed, as early as summer 2018, a document circulated by Washington state law enforcement described the group’s involvement in a series of violent incidents in Oregon and Washington, as well as its involvement in Unite the Right. This report came to light a mere two months before 10 members were charged with assault after an attack on antifascist activists in New York City in October 2018.
Through 2019 and 2020, the Proud Boys were one of a handful of far-right groups instrumental in instigating violence and civil unrest in the Pacific Northwest. Likewise, a series of leaked chats showed Proud Boys and extremists associated with other far-right groups discussing how and when to use violence against leftist activists while planning rallies in the northeast in early-to-mid 2019.
The group became a household name after a mention at the Sept. 29, 2020, presidential debate.
In early February 2021, the Canadian government designated the Proud Boys as a terrorist entity, citing the role the group played in the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C.
In Their Own Words
“All the heroes of BLM and Antifa are degenerate criminal lowlifes or pedophile rapists. I don’t lose any sleep when they are justly removed from society.” – A Telegram channel associated with the Proud Boys, Sept. 22, 2020
“The true minority in this world ARE whites. White children are less than 3% of the worlds [sic] population. I think since white majority countries are on a pathway to extinction we should correctly refer to non whites by their true names. Worldwide majority.” – A Telegram channel associated with the Proud Boys, Sept. 7, 2020
“All I want to do is smash commies too. Actually I’m lying I’m way past just hitting them. When the time comes I will stop at nothing to fully eradicate them all.” – Anthony Mastrostefano, in a private chat associated with the Proud Boys, spring 2019
“I promise you this, Ted Wheeler: I’m coming for you, you little punk. And all your antifa bastards. I’m coming for you f-----s, too.” – Proud Boy and Patriot Prayer collaborator Reggie Axtell, in a video posted on his Facebook, January 2019
“The time is now. We’re gonna have to get some swollen fists. We’re gonna have to get some swollen fists. We’re gonna have to fight, alright?” – Gabe Silva, in a Facebook video, June 2018
“I just realized something. Cory Booker is kind of like Sambo. He’s kind of shucking and jiving for the white man. Cory Booker grew up rich in an all-white suburb. He’s basically a white guy. His parents were very wealthy executives at IBM. … But he wants to be a Black dude, so he pretends that he’s down with the brothers and he acts outraged about racism all the time – for white people. That gets him votes from whites.” – Gavin McInnes, “Get Off My Lawn,” Jan. 17, 2018
“I’m not a fan of Islam. I think it’s fair to call me Islamophobic.” – Gavin McInnes, NBC interview, Nov. 2, 2017
“I am not afraid to speak out about the atrocities that whites and people of European descent face not only here in this country but in Western nations across the world. The war against whites, and Europeans and Western society is very real and it’s time we all started talking about it and stopped worrying about political correctness and optics.” – Kyle Chapman, who formed the Fraternal Order of Alt-Knights, a paramilitary wing of the Proud Boys, Unite America First Peace Rally, Sacramento, California, July 8, 2017
“Maybe the reason I’m sexist is because women are dumb. No, I’m just kidding, ladies. But you do tend to not thrive in certain areas – like writing.” – Gavin McInnes, “The Gavin McInnes Show,” June 28, 2017
“Put something on the table! Give us a reason to accept you, because you know what? Sharia law ain’t it. Raping women ain’t it. Cutting off clits ain’t it. Throwing gay people off roofs ain’t it. You are a disgrace.” – Pawl Bazile, an editor at Proud Boy Magazine, on Muslims and why he is a “Western chauvinist,” March Against Sharia rally, New York City, June 10, 2017
“Why don’t we take back Bethlehem? Why don’t we take back Northern Iraq? Why don’t we start our own Crusades? That’s what the Crusades were. They weren’t just someone picking on Muslims for no reason – they were a reaction to Muslim tyranny. We finally fought back.” – Gavin McInnes, “The Gavin McInnes Show,” March 8, 2017
“Palestinians are stupid. Muslims are stupid. And the only thing they really respect is violence and being tough.” – Gavin McInnes, “The Gavin McInnes Show,” March 8, 2017
“We brought roads and infrastructure to India and they are still using them as toilets. Our criminals built nice roads in Australia but aboriginals keep using them as a bed. The next time someone bitches about colonization, the correct response is ‘You’re welcome.’”
– Gavin McInnes, “10 Things I Like About White Guys,” Taki’s Magazine, March 2, 2017
“The white liberal ethos tells us Blacks aren’t at MIT because of racism. They say Blacks dominate the prison population for the same reason. They insist America is a racist hellhole where ‘people of color’ have no future. This does way more damage to Black youth than the KKK. When you strip people of culpability and tell them the odds are stacked against them, they don’t feel like trying. White liberals make this worse by then using affirmative action to ‘correct’ society’s mistakes. When Blacks are forced into schools they aren’t qualified for they have no choice but to drop out. Instead of going back a step to a school they can handle, they tend to give up on higher education entirely. Thanks to the Marxist myth of ubiquitous equality, this ‘mismatch’ leaves Blacks less educated than they would have been had they been left to their own devices.”
– Gavin McInnes, “America in 2034,” American Renaissance, June 17, 2014
Canadian Gavin McInnes has flaunted his contempt for PC culture for decades. Before entering the fray of right-wing politics, McInnes co-founded VICE magazine, a publication that epitomized hipster culture in the late 1990s and 2000s. While the magazine tended to dabble in provocative and taboo topics – generally under a veneer of irony – McInnes took pleasure in stepping over the line. In 2002, for instance, when a New York Press reporter asked McInnes what he thought the residents of New York’s Williamsburg neighborhood, he responded, “Well, at least they’re not fucking n-----s or Puerto Ricans. At least they’re white.”
While presenting his observation as a joke and revenue-generating ruse (“incendiary political statements garnered endless publicity for us,” he later told Gawker), it’s a sentiment McInnes has expressed repeatedly. “I love being white and I think it’s something to be very proud of,” he told The New York Times a year later, revealing an ideology that would become the foundation of the Proud Boys. “I don’t want our culture diluted. We need to close the borders now and let everyone assimilate to a Western, white, English-speaking way of life.” McInnes also began writing for VDARE.com, a white nationalist hate site. In a 2005 article, he railed against Canadian multiculturalism and lamented that Jared Taylor, the editor of the white nationalist outlet American Renaissance, had not been invited to speak at the University of Ottawa. In 2016, McInnes would welcome Taylor onto his own show.
Citing creative differences, McInnes left VICE in 2008 to pursue other media projects. But his relationship with mainstream outlets began to erode in 2014 as he swapped irony for earnestness. As part of an American Renaissance series featuring “race-realist commentators on the future of American race relations,” McInnes offered his predictions alongside fellow contributors such as John Derbyshire, Paul Gottfried, Richard Spencer and Jared Taylor. McInnes claimed he didn’t harbor hate for minorities. He did, however, write that he despised white liberals who subscribed to a “Marxist myth of ubiquitous equality” and who refused to acknowledge innate disparities between people of different races. He supported this notion using the long-discredited work of white nationalist social scientist Charles Murray. McInnes insisted he held out hope for the future of American race relations: “When we’re all forced to live side by side, we’ll quickly realize we’re incompatible, and agree to disagree. The blind utopians at The New York Times will be crushed and the rest of us realists will be dancing in the streets.”
Only months later, McInnes published an article titled “Transphobia is Perfectly Natural” that prompted his then-employer, the ad agency Rooster, to indefinitely sever ties with him. “We’re all transphobic,” he wrote in the piece, published on the website Thought Catalog. “We see there are no old trannies. They die of drug overdoses and suicide way before they’re 40 and nobody notices because nobody knows them. They are mentally ill gays who need help, and that doesn’t include being maimed by physicians.” McInnes has also referred to transgender people as “gender n-----s” and “stupid lunatics.”
With former business partners turning him away, McInnes formed a partnership with the Canadian far-right video channel Rebel Media in spring 2015. A few months later he launched “The Gavin McInnes Show” with Compound Media. On both platforms, he regularly chatted with right-wing guests. (His first show featured the far-right provocateur and former Breitbart reporter Milo Yiannopoulos.) He carved out an ideological space for frustrated young men to rally around: Western culture is superior to all others, racism is a myth created by guilty white liberals, Islam is a culture of violence, and feminism “is about de-masculinizing men,” he told his audience. A group of like-minded men at Compound Media – who bonded over their shared frustration with PC culture – began to meet in New York City dive bars. From these gatherings, the Proud Boys were born, and McInnes officially introduced the group in Taki’s Magazine in September 2016.
There are four degrees of membership within the Proud Boys, and to become a first degree in the “pro-West fraternal organization” a prospective member simply has to declare, “I am a Western chauvinist, and I refuse to apologize for creating the modern world.” To enter the second degree, a Proud Boy has to endure a beating until they can yell out the names of five breakfast cereals (in order to demonstrate “adrenaline control”). Those who enter the third degree have demonstrated their commitment by getting a Proud Boys tattoo. Any man – no matter his race or sexual orientation – can join the fraternal organization as long as they “recognize that white men are not the problem.” The fourth is reserved for those who have gotten in a “fight for the cause.” All members are banned from watching pornography or masturbating more than once a month because, in theory, it will leave them more inclined to go out and meet women.
Women have their own group, the Proud Boys’ Girls, who – like all women in the eyes of the Proud Boys – are defined by their relationship to men. Members of the women’s contingent, an informal organization, are overwhelmingly the wives and girlfriends of Proud Boys.
Proud Boys believe women are happier when they stay home and have children. Women are “less ambitious” than men, McInnes told a host on Fox News in 2015. “This is sort of God’s way – this is nature’s way – of saying women should be at home with the kids.” Just as he believes women are ill-suited for the workplace, McInnes has argued that the world of politics is best left to men. “When I hear women talk about politics and so often put emotional claptrap over policy,” he tweeted in early 2017, “I think, ‘Who let these bitches vote?’”
Members of the Proud Boys are identifiable by their yellow-trimmed, black knockoff Fred Perry polos and tongue-in-cheek catchphrase “Uhuru!” – a Swahili word they picked up from a YouTube video in which an activist talks to white people about reparations. Their name comes from the Aladdin song “Proud of Your Boy.” They adhere to a list of libertarian-leaning principles, including opposition to the drug war, racial guilt and political correctness, and support for small government, closed borders and “venerating the housewife.”
In September 2020, Fred Perry announced it was pulling the black and yellow polo shirt preferred by the Proud Boys, saying it would remain off the market “until we’re satisfied that its association with the Proud Boys has ended.”
The oddball humor that tinges Proud Boys culture, which creates a set of references incomprehensible to those on the outside, has attracted a surprisingly large number of men. They are vehement supporters of President Donald Trump, whose 2016 election preceded an increase in Proud Boys membership. The website Rewire estimated that by August 2017 there were roughly 6,000 members and, by the end of the year, the Proud Boys’ official Facebook and Twitter pages each had over 20,000 followers.
Red “Make America Great Again” hats are nearly as prominent at Proud Boys gatherings as their black and yellow polos. In fact, one of their first public outings was at a pro-Trump art show – called “#DaddyWillSaveUS” – where McInnes displayed photos of himself posing as a white slave. It’s a favorite mythical reference of his as well as neo-Nazis and white nationalists. One episode of his Rebel Media show centered on the notion that the “history of slavery is rife with white slaves.”
Group meetings, according to McInnes, “usually consist of drinking, fighting, and reading aloud from Pat Buchanan’s “Death of the West,” an anti-immigrant treatise.
For McInnes and the Proud Boys, much like Buchanan, pro-Westernism is indistinguishable from outright opposition to Islam. McInnes’s Rebel Media videos feature such titles as “Donald Trump’s Muslim ban is exactly what we need right now,” “10 examples of the Koran being violent,” and “Islam isn’t ‘dope.’ It’s sexist.” He’s also hosted Pamela Geller – one of the most prominent figures in today’s anti-Muslim movement – on “Get Off My Lawn,” his show that was broadcast on the conservative online media platform CRTV. “People here in America say, ‘Muslims are what? One or two percent of the population? There’s never gonna be sharia law here,’” he said during the interview, assuring viewers that Britain, where Muslims are “raping children regularly” and where “we have a woman raped several times in one night,” is the “canary in the coalmine.” In an interview with NBC, McInnes admitted “I’m not a fan of Islam. I think it’s fair to call me Islamophobic.”
Proud Boys quickly became a staple at anti-Muslim and other far-right demonstrations. Rank-and-file members were in attendance at the anti-Muslim hate group ACT for America’s “March Against Sharia” rallies held in 28 cities around the country on June 10, 2017. At the New York City event, local Proud Boy Pawl Bazile gave a speech contrasting his own Italian forebears with Muslim immigrants. “Give us a reason to accept you,” he yelled, “because you know what? Sharia law ain’t it. Raping women ain’t it. Cutting off clits ain’t it. Throwing gay people off roofs ain’t it. You are a disgrace.” He also referred to Burkas as a “ghost costume.”
Only weeks after the rally, the New York chapter gathered for an event they called “Islamberg Exposed: Ride for Homeland Security.” The Proud Boys, along with radical antigovernment groups including the Oath Keepers, caravanned through the small, upstate New York African-American Muslim community of Islamberg, which they described as a “suspected grounds for recruiting, housing, and training terrorists, as well as a place away from the public eye to stock pile weapons.” In a film Bazile made of the “ride through,” one of the participants claimed to have conducted “night-vision reconnaissance” in the town, and allegedly witnessed “breaking-neck practicing” and “hand-to-hand combat training.” Participants featured in the film, including Lisa Joseph from ACT for America, referred to the community as a “no-go zone”: fictitious Muslim neighborhoods that are so dangerous even the police refuse to enter. The outing turned up nothing.
Proud Boys join other far-right extremists at ‘Unite the Right’
The Proud Boys’ pro-Western posture allows them to position themselves – somewhat counterintuitively – as a tolerant and progressive social force. If Islamic backwardness, as they imagine, threatens gay people and women, then they serve as their guardians by protecting and promoting Western values. Their opposition to Muslims and Islam, improbably, stands as a marker of their own tolerance.
The Proud Boys do their best to muddy right-wing taxonomies. Despite the pains they’ve taken to distance themselves from open white nationalists and antisemites, Proud Boys have been present at high-profile alt-right events, including the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. “Just don’t fucking wear your Fred Perry, or decide to belt: ‘Proud of Your Boy,’” McInnes warned followers before the event. “If you decide to rub elbows with those people [while] in colors, you very well could find yourself being disavowed.”
But they did show up, which McInnes evidently expected. In the first episode of his Compound Media show after the August rally, McInnes said he had been “just combing through all the media reports going, ‘Don’t say Proud Boys, don’t say Proud Boys, don’t say Proud Boys,’” hoping the “lunatic Nazi” who killed Heather Heyer wasn’t a member of his group. He wasn’t, but the white nationalist Jason Kessler – who has been filmed undergoing his second-degree Proud Boy initiation – was the rally’s principal organizer.
Less than two months earlier, Kessler had been a guest on “The Gavin McInnes Show,” where he promoted Unite the Right and, in a chummy interview, laid out the ideological overlap he and McInnes shared: “What’s really under attack is if you say, ‘I want to stand up for white people. I want to stand up for Western civilization. I want to stand up for men. I want to stand up for Christians,’” to which McInnes added other examples: “I’m against immigration. I’m against jihadis. I’m against radical Islam.”
After Charlottesville, in a move to protect the fratty and innocuous Proud Boys brand he’s worked so hard to cultivate, McInnes ejected Kessler from the organization and insisted he had never really been a Proud Boy. “I’m suspicious of you, coming to Proud Boys meetings saying you’re not alt-right … and I think you were there to try to recruit guys,” McInnes told Kessler when they spoke on his show two days after the rally. It was only after the violence in Charlottesville, when any doubts about the true nature of the movement were stripped away, that McInnes attempted to earnestly distance the Proud Boys from the alt-right label. Before that, he seemed content to let the Proud Boys brand appear more ideologically ambiguous, profiting off the alt-right’s rising popularity until things got ugly.
The Proud Boys ‘tactical defense’ arm blurs ideological boundaries
Although McInnes attempted to distance his organization from Charlottesville, violence is firmly entrenched in Proud Boy dogma. McInnes was filmed punching a counterprotester outside the D.C.-based, far-right gathering Deploraball in January 2017. Then, after a speaking engagement at New York University the next month turned violent, he wryly declared, “I cannot recommend violence enough. It’s a really effective way to solve problems.” The Proud Boys added the fourth degree to their membership hierarchy in early 2017. “You get beat up, kick the crap out of an antifa,” McInnes explained to Metro. Though he claimed in the interview he was ready to “get violent and beat the f--k out of everybody,” he later backtracked in a Proud Boy Magazine piece, assuring the public the fraternal group was opposed to “senseless violence.” “We don’t start fights, we finish them,” McInnes wrote.
Around the same time, Proud Boys member Kyle Chapman announced he was forming a new “tactical defense arm” of the Proud Boys – with McInnes’ “full approval” – called the Fraternal Order of Alt-Knights (FOAK). The paramilitary wing positioned itself as a defensive organization formed to protect right-wing activists at political demonstrations.
Chapman, who has an extensive criminal history, openly encouraged fellow Proud Boys and others on the far right to sacrifice for their beliefs. “You’re maybe gonna have to do some time in jail and you very may well have to die. … I’m willing to die. Are you guys willing to die?” Chapman first gained the attention of the alt-right when he was photographed hitting a counterprotester over the head with a stick at a March 4, 2017, pro-Trump rally in Berkeley, California. His action earned him the nickname “Based Stick Man.”
Chapman quickly became one of the most recognizable faces of the Proud Boys on the West Coast. The group continued to attend a series of rallies (dubbed “The Battle of Berkeley” in far-right circles) throughout spring 2017, bringing them together with white nationalists and antigovernment extremists. At a pro-Trump rally on April 15, Proud Boys distributed recruitment fliers while other attendees – including members of white nationalist groups such as Identity Evropa and the Rise Above Movement – carried antisemitic signs and performed Nazi salutes.
Augustus Sol Invictus – born Austin Mitchell Gillespie – also exemplifies the permeable barrier between the Proud Boys and outright white nationalists. Invictus is an attorney and one-time Senate candidate whom Chapman named his second-in-command in FOAK. Invictus’ ideology is a bizarre mix: in addition to some mainstream libertarian beliefs, he claims Nazi and antisemitic thinkers (from the likes of Carl Schmitt and Francis Parker Yockey) as his chief intellectual influences. He identifies as a pagan and is an admitted Holocaust denier. Indeed, as Invictus told Hatewatch in 2017, “Do I believe that 6 million Jews were killed by the evil Hitler? Is that what you’re asking? … Okay, then I am still waiting to see those facts.”
McInnes welcomed Invictus onto his June 28, 2017, show, where the conversation repeatedly dipped into Invictus’s interest in armed revolution. He explained that he’d fallen out with fellow attorneys who took offense at his suggestions that “maybe lawyers should be hanged in a revolution and … if people get in our way, shoot them.” With regard to journalists, Invictus continued, “I’ll tell them, ‘You’re the first ones that are gonna be hanging from a lamppost in the event of revolution.’”
Like other former Proud Boys, Invictus eventually left the group for more hard-core parts of the white nationalist movement. Two months after his interview with McInnes, Invictus severed his ties with FOAK and, by implication, the Proud Boys, explaining in a Facebook video that he was frustrated with Chapman’s lack of professionalism. With its leadership bogged down by infighting and Chapman’s legal troubles mounting, FOAK dissolved in the early months of 2018.
There’s no shortage of current members with violent histories. Brien James, the state representative for the Indiana Proud Boys and a onetime member of FOAK, gained his skinhead credentials in the Outlaw Hammerskins before becoming one of the founding members of the Vinlanders Social Club, a racist gang linked to at least nine murders nationwide. He now leads American Guard, which he describes as a “constitutional nationalist” organization, but which has a number of easy-to-spot racists. Rick Hervey, the vice president of the Colorado chapter, appears in a Facebook photo wearing a shirt bearing the white supremacist “14 Words” slogan, and John Camden, the New Hampshire chapter vice president, has a neo-Nazi Wolfsangel tattooed on his neck. James’ roles in the Proud Boys and American Guard point to a larger overlap in membership between the two groups, whose members appeared at a number of the same events during summer and fall 2018.
Invictus, too, has faced years of allegations of domestic abuse, as Hatewatch first reported in July 2017. He was arrested on Dec. 30, 2019, on charges of kidnapping, domestic violence and possession of a weapon during a crime of violence. Though Invictus was briefly released on bail in April 2020, he was arrested again after reportedly harassing his ex-wife upon his release from prison after health concerns raised by his lawyers related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Teaming up with Patriot Prayer
Unite the Right marred the image of the alt-right and ensnared the groups and individuals responsible in lawsuits. As they receded back to the internet to focus on building their movement through content creation, the Proud Boys stepped in to become the face of far-right marches and rallies. Their generic, pro-America messaging allowed the Proud Boys to succeed where the alt-right had failed: operating under the banner of “free speech” and playing up the idea of a violent left-wing menace, they could do battle in the streets without the same degree of scrutiny that the public and law enforcement placed on groups who presented their mission in explicitly racial terms.
The Proud Boys’ rally activity in 2018 centered in the liberal stronghold of Portland, Oregon, alongside the far-right group Patriot Prayer. Led by onetime U.S. Senate candidate Joey Gibson, Patriot Prayer has been the driving force behind right-wing organizing in Washington and Oregon since late 2016. It’s a big-tent organization that attracts a wide range of figures from the far right, including militia members and white nationalists (who have continued to show up at events even though Gibson denounced white supremacy at a rally in August 2017). The object of their rallies is almost always the same: to create combustible situations where violence is likely and, once ignited, can be used to fuel the narrative of right-wing victimization.
The rhetoric surrounding the Pacific Northwest rallies made clear that the Proud Boys see “antifa” as their foremost enemies. While antifa is, in reality, a small and loosely organized antifascist collective that utilizes militant tactics to counter the influence of far-right activists in their communities, the Proud Boys have turned them into a boogeyman that represents the whole of leftist politics. They denounce anyone they disagree with politically as a member of antifa, with McInnes going so far as to describe the group as a paramilitary arm of the Democratic Party. Flattening any distinctions between militant activists and mainstream Democratic politicians is a rhetorical trick aimed not only at delegitimizing all of the political left but also justifying their own violent actions against anyone they consider a political enemy.
The Proud Boys/Patriot Prayer campaign to counter liberal influence in Portland built steadily throughout summer 2018, with violent clashes between the far-right organizers and antifascist encouraging larger crowds at subsequent rallies. During a June 3 march, after the Proud Boy Tusitala “Tiny” Toese declared that they were ready for “whatever kind of fight,” another member of the group, Donovan Flippo, teamed up with Allen Pucket of the hate group the Hell Shaking Street Preachers to attack a man outside of a parking garage.
With tensions high, members of the Proud Boys and Patriot Prayer vowed to return for another rally. “The stench-covered and liberal occupied streets of Portland will be CLEANSED,” a post by a Patriot Prayer Facebook account declared. The June 30 “Freedom Rally” descended into a riot, with Proud Boys and their political opponents openly brawling in the streets amidst explosions of flash-bang devices and pepper spray.
Violence is the Proud Boys’ most effective recruiting tool, and the June 30 rally provided arguably the group’s biggest promotional boost. On the streets of downtown Portland, Proud Boy Ethan “Rufio Panman” Nordean was caught on camera knocking out an antifascist protester in a single punch, instantly sparking a celebrated meme within the far right. Applause even came from the hosts of the neo-Nazi podcast “The Daily Shoah.” “It’s so much fun to see that guy get fucking clocked,” host Mike Peinovich said after watching the footage from Portland.
After Nordean’s punch went viral, membership in private Proud Boys “vetting pages” on Facebook spiked nearly 70% over the course of a month. “Seeing that soy boy antifa scum get knocked the fuck out has been the highlight of my year. Ive [sic] watched it over and over,” a new recruit wrote in one of the vetting pages.
The far-right groups rode the momentum to the “Gibson for Senate Freedom March” on Aug. 4, which drew the largest crowds of the summer. The lead-up to the event was dominated by talk of martyrdom and blatant threats. “Guess what antifa?” the Sacramento Proud Boy Gabe Silva asked in a video posted to Facebook, “We are pissed off Americans. We’re coming for you. We’re not playing games no more. You like what we served up? We got more where that’s coming from.”
The Proud Boys clearly showed up looking for a fight: Many were decked out in padding and helmets, with a large group wearing shirts that read, “Pinochet Did Nothing Wrong!” When a journalist asked Toese about this, mentioning that the Chilean dictator had killed tens of thousands of people, the Proud Boy responded, “Aren’t they all communists?” The Proud Boys have increasingly embraced Pinochet as a sort of mascot. “Helicopter ride” memes and the phrase “Make Rotary Aircraft Great Again” – references to the dictator’s practice of dropping political enemies from helicopters – are common on Proud Boys’ social media posts. At one point, the group also sold merchandise and gear featuring a crest associated with Pinochet.
The group’s momentum began to slow after the August rally – the police successfully kept both sides apart – leaving the Proud Boys without any violence to avenge and thus no reason to schedule another rally.
But that didn’t mean the violence stopped. In May, Flippo and Toese reportedly grabbed a Black teenager in a mall parking lot in Vancouver, Washington, after he yelled an obscenity about Trump. The next month, the same two Proud Boys drove through northeast Portland shouting, “Build the Wall!” When a pedestrian began to argue with them, Flippo and Toese got out of the truck and allegedly punched the man, splitting his lip open. In Kentucky, Proud Boys reportedly pepper-sprayed members of a leftist organization who were sitting on a bar patio.
Proud Boys have a history of menacing and threatening their political foes. Proud Boy Kenneth Lizardo reportedly showed up at the home of comedian Vic Berger in May 2018 in response to videos he had made mocking McInnes, including one that shows the Proud Boys founder repeatedly using a racial slur.
Members of the group have shown up to left-leaning political gatherings to harass attendees. A group of Proud Boys came to the 2019 Women’s March in Orlando, Florida, to taunt people protesting against the policies of the Trump administration, carrying a sign that read, “Feminism is cancer,” and yelling over demonstrators before police ticketed them for trespassing. Only days later in Portland, where Proud Boys announced they would be roving the streets to “demask” antifascists, a member threatened Ted Wheeler, the Portland mayor whom right-wing activists regularly accuse of collaborating with leftist organizers. “Your days are fucking numbered,” Proud Boy and Patriot Prayer collaborator Reggie Axtell said in a comment directed at the mayor. “I’m coming for you, you little punk. And all your little antifa bastards. I’m coming for you fuckers, too.”
Assault in New York City
Though McInnes constantly insists that references to violence are part of a comedic act, the joke is lost on rank-and-file Proud Boys who have wholeheartedly embraced violence as a legitimate way to silence their political enemies.
That was made clear the night of Oct. 12, 2018, when a large group of Proud Boys attacked leftist protesters after McInnes gave a speech at New York City’s Metropolitan Republican Club. The Proud Boys founder was there to commemorate the 1960 televised assassination of the leader of the Japanese Socialist Party at the hands of a young ultranationalist, Otoya Yamaguchin, whom McInnes later called a “fucking badass.” After reenacting the socialist leader’s murder, McInnes warned the audience not to let his ideology take root in America. Instead, they should embrace his own backward-looking philosophy: “We need to get back to the era where you could insult someone’s religion, you could insult their ethnicity, you could insult everything about them.” McInnes instructed those who failed to accept his bigotry to “get the fuck off the road.”
After the event ended, the Proud Boys went to the streets riled up. “I’m ready to swing right,” a journalist at the Metropolitan Club heard a Proud Boy say as people began to stream from the venue. “No one better fuck with us tonight.” Only blocks away, they spotted a group of black-clad protesters. “You ready? Go boys!” one of the Proud Boys yelled before they charged at the protesters, pummeling them to the ground. One of the attackers yelled the homophobic slur “f-----” as he kicked a person laying on the sidewalk.
Afterward, another bragged that he had kicked his victim “right in the fucking head.” “He was a fucking foreigner,” he added. Included in the group who committed the assault were several far-right skinheads.
Police eventually charged 10 Proud Boys with riot and attempted assault in relation to the attack. Two members of the group, Maxwell Hare and John Kinsman, were found guilty on charges of attempted gang assault, attempted assault and riot in August 2019. Another seven individuals who faced charges related to the incident pleaded guilty. Hare and Kinsman were sentenced to four years in prison on Oct. 22, 2019.
Instagram and Facebook banned both the Proud Boys and Gavin McInnes in response to the violence in New York City. Twitter removed the group and its founder from their site two months prior. Without access to social media – and especially Facebook, which was the Proud Boys’ primary platform for organizing rallies and recruiting new members – the group fell into disorganization. Blaze Media, which had merged with CRTV and was hosting “Get Off My Lawn,” announced it was severing ties with McInnes shortly after.
Out of fear of mounting legal threats, which increased after it became public that the Proud Boys had gained the attention of the FBI, McInnes announced on Nov. 21, 2018, that he was officially dissociating himself from the group. In reference to the charges pending against the group of New York City Proud Boys, McInnes said that this action – which he said was “100% a legal gesture” – would “show jurors they are not dealing with a gang and there is no head of operations.” (He had called the Proud Boys a gang on a podcast with Joe Rogan in early 2017.) McInnes repeatedly attempted to distance himself and the Proud Boys from white nationalism, calling the ideology “remarkably esoteric” and insisting that “it’s unlikely any of us will ever meet a white supremacist.”
Despite McInnes’ insistence that the Proud Boys forswear any racist beliefs, the group chose known neo-Confederate Jason Van Dyke as their new chairman just days after their founder announced his exit. Van Dyke was a member of the Dallas-Fort Worth chapter who had previously served as the group’s attorney. After releasing a document with the Proud Boys’ new bylaws, in which he accidentally revealed the names of the group’s new “Elders,” the new chairman suffered a very public meltdown. With his personal cell phone number posted on Twitter, a number of anonymous users sent Van Dyke a series of mocking text messages. Van Dyke responded to many of the messages with photos of guns. He texted, “fuck off f-----” to one person and “fuck off dumb n-----s” to another. Two days after appointing him as their leader, the Proud Boys announced that Van Dyke was chairman no more.
Enrique Tarrio, an Afro-Cuban man who once led the Miami Proud Boys chapter, took over as chairman after Van Dyke’s removal in 2018. Though McInnes had banned Proud Boys from going to the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Tarrio was there sporting a patch from the Proud Boys’ associated Fraternal Order of Alt-Knights.
Leaked chats show a propensity for violence
Despite the numerous legal hurdles facing the group after their October 2018 brawl in New York City, members did little to rein in their violent rhetoric. In May 2019, HuffPost reported on a trove of leaked chatlogs including members of the group, which covered a time period from February through March of that year. The chats, which were later published in full by Unicorn Riot on Sept. 25, 2020, included a coalition of members from the Proud Boys, American Guard, Resist Marxism, Patriot Prayer and several militia groups. In them, members discussed the need for a “win” against antifascist activists in the runup to a series of rallies in the northeast. Others offered instructions on how and when to use violence.
“If any contact is made with you, that’s assault. If they take your hat, spray you with sill string, spit, push… Its [sic] assault. We need to have all our guys there before we retaliate though if we can. The cops aren’t going to let us fight long. We need to inflict as much damage as possible in the time we have,” far-right organizer Alan Swinney, who used the username “Alan Groot” on Telegram, told members of one of the leaked chats.
The group distanced themselves from Swinney after HuffPost’s story ran, saying that they did “not agree with the aggressive statements made by him, or his tactics.”
But Swinney was far from alone in his statements encouraging violence. Some brandished weapons and sent selfies with them to the group; others discussed what kind of weapons they’d bring to rallies. In the same chatroom, Proud Boys member Anthony Mastrostefano announced that “all I want to do is smash commies.” He continued: “When the time comes I will stop at nothing to fully eradicate them all!”
The Proud Boys’ role in ongoing unrest in the Pacific Northwest
In 2019 and 2020, the Proud Boys and other far-right groups were behind a number of demonstrations in Portland. The group’s leadership has frequently portrayed these rallies as a means of forcing Portland to waste resources connected to crowd management.
Tarrio, who lives in Florida, has recently told journalists that his group intends to continue holding disruptive rallies until “[Portland Mayor] Ted Wheeler does something,” presumably referring to antifa.
Though Portland had served as a magnet for street fighters since 2017, an attack on activists at a local cidery contributed to growing political unrest in the city. On May 1, 2019, Joey Gibson and other members of Patriot Prayer allegedly coordinated an attack on Cider Riot, known to be popular with left-wing activists. The brawl resulted in a civil lawsuit, filed on behalf of Cider Riot’s owner on May 3. The complaint alleged that Gibson and his fellow “defendants were spoiling for a fight.” A wave of felony riot charges against several Patriot Prayer affiliates, including Gibson and at least one former member of the Proud Boys, followed.
As a result of the felony riot charges, Gibson turned himself in on Aug. 16, 2019, at Portland’s Multnomah County jail.
But Gibson was taken into custody just as the city was bracing for yet another onslaught of far-right activity. On Aug. 17, 2019, some 500-plus extremists gathered in the city for a rally to “End Domestic Terrorism.” Material promoting the event explicitly targeted leftist and antifascist activists. Among the organizers were Proud Boys chair Tarrio, Proud Boys organizer and former Infowars employee Joe Biggs, and Ethan “Rufio Panman” Nordean, whose 2018 attack on an antifascist demonstrator had driven recruitment for the group after a video of it went viral on social media. At the time, The Guardian reported, the event proved to be the “largest far-right demonstration of the Trump era” in Portland.
“Hey Mayor Ted Wheeler, thanks for footing the bill on our $2 million weekend in Portland. Maybe you wouldn’t have to spend that kind of money if you did your job. … And if you don’t do your job, we’re going to continue to come back,” said Biggs in a video posted to the Proud Boys’ Telegram and YouTube accounts on Aug. 18, 2019. His comment echoed an earlier statement from Tarrio published in the far-right website Gateway Pundit immediately after the event, where he threatened to “come back month-after-month” if the mayor of Portland didn’t “free [his] city from the grip of Antifa.”
As The Guardian noted, Tarrio “appeared to be promising to hold the city to ransom.”
Legal consequences for members of the Proud Boys and Patriot Prayer continued to mount. Tusitala “Tiny” Toese was arrested on Oct. 5, 2019. Toese’s initial arrest at the Portland International Airport was tied to warrants issued for his arrest after he was indicted on felony assault charges for allegedly attacking a man during a June 2018 rally. He was subsequently sentenced to 10 days in prison for violating the terms of his probation. A few months later, in January 2020, he was banned from participating at protests in Portland for two years.
But a wave of political and civil unrest in 2020 provided new opportunities for the Proud Boys to make their mark in Portland and elsewhere, particularly in the Pacific Northwest.
In June 2020, leftist activists staged a weeks-long occupation protest in Seattle in a region that came to be known as the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone, or “CHAZ” for short. The zone became a target for far-right and right-wing activists. Footage captured on June 15 near the zone depicted several men wearing Proud Boys gear attacking a man. In another video, the victim told artist and documentarian Rod Webber that the group’s “MO” seemed to be “to knock me around a bit, get my phone, steal the phone.” He told Webber that a few of the men appeared to be armed.
As the Daily Beast reported on June 16, 2020, at least one of the men captured on film was Toese, who had also recorded a video threatening leftist activists less than ten days earlier. Later that month, authorities in Portland issued a warrant for Toese’s arrest, citing a parole violation after Willamette Week reported he had allegedly threatened a Black Lives Matter protester in Portland.
On Aug. 15, 2020, a Portland rally organized by Haley Adams, a far-right provocateur and a close associate of Patriot Prayer and the Proud Boys, brought together roughly 25 people outside of the Multnomah County Justice Center. As Willamette Week reported, far-right extremists stood briefly outside of the Justice Center exchanging barbs with left-wing counterprotesters before setting out on a march through downtown Portland. Some of the far-right protesters with Adams could be seen spraying the counterprotesters with Mace and/or shooting them with pellet or paintball guns. Not long thereafter, a man later identified as Skylor Jernigan drove through the crowd of anti-racist counterprotesters and fired two gunshots into the crowd.
Jernigan, a frequent presence at far-right events in Portland, was charged with two felony counts of unlawful use of a weapon and three misdemeanors. He has previously leveraged threats against activists and lawmakers. As Hatewatch reported in January 2019, Jernigan threatened antifascists in a Facebook video, saying: “You’re gonna be getting knives put into your throat. You’re going to be getting bullets put into your head if you don’t stop this shit with us.”
Then, on Aug. 22, 2020, Alan Swinney, who previously instructed Proud Boys and other far-right extremists in private chats on the use of violence against their adversaries, reportedly fired a paint gun repeatedly and dispensed Mace into a crowd of antiracist protesters. He also allegedly pointed a gun at leftist activists but he did not fire. “Leftists are losing their minds that I’m not in jail right now for this. I wont [sic] be going to jail either,” Swinney wrote on the social media site Parler.
“If my lifes [sic] in danger or the lives of innocent people around me, I’ll pull a gun. EVERY time. Without question,” he said in the same post.
He was arrested on Sept. 30, 2020, on 12 charges, including attempted assault, unlawful use of tear gas, unlawful use of a weapon and of Mace, menacing and pointing a firearm at another person. Swinney also faces a civil lawsuit connected to his alleged actions in August 2020.
The next week, right-wing and far-right demonstrators fired paintball guns from the bed of a pickup truck into a crowd of counterprotesters. The attack was part of a large, pro-Trump demonstration, which consisted of a caravan of hundreds of trucks. Hours after the caravan ended its journey through the city, far-right and left-wing activists continued to clash in the streets. At around 9 p.m., police reported finding a man with a gunshot wound to the chest. He was identified as Aaron “Jay” Danielson and said to be a supporter of Patriot Prayer. His alleged shooter, Michael Reinoehl, was later identified as a self-described “security” person who claimed he shot Danielson in self-defense. Reinoehl was shot to death by officers on Sept. 3, 2020.
The Proud Boys soon announced a rally in response to Danielson’s death to be held on Sept. 26, 2020, in Portland. The event drew around 1,000 attendees, many of whom were open carrying guns, according to The Guardian. On social media, activists and reporters cited several instances of far-right extremists at the event either threatening or appearing to assault journalists.
Activity on social media accounts associated with the Proud Boys indicate the group appears to have taken their mention at the presidential debate as indicative of a positive shift in mainstream political rhetoric regarding the group. In the days following the debate, the group enshrined their mention in memes and merchandise sold through their official website.
Proud Boys participated in “Stop the Steal” events throughout the country following Biden’s win in the November 2020 election. After a Dec. 12, 2020, incident in Washington, D.C., where Proud Boys were filmed tearing down and burning Black Lives Matter banners at a number of historical Black churches in the city, police announced they were investigating the events as possible hate crimes. On Jan. 4, 2021, Tarrio was arrested on charges of destruction of property stemming from this episode. During the arrest, police said they found two high-capacity magazines in his possession.
A number of Proud Boys were arrested in the aftermath of the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. Among them were Ethan “Rufio Panman” Nordean and Joe Biggs, who were charged for their role in breaching the Capitol. Nordean was arrested on federal charges of obstructing or impeding an official proceeding, aiding and abetting, and knowingly entering or remaining in a restricted building. Biggs faces similar charges.
The Canadian government announced it had designated the Proud Boys a terrorist entity on Feb. 3, 2021, noting the role played by the group in the Jan. 6 insurrection.