Last Friday, Proud Boys leader Gavin McInnes riled up a crowd of supporters at New York City’s Metropolitan Republican Club with what he played off as a comedy routine: the commemoration and celebration of the 1960 televised assassination of a socialist.
McInnes’ talk kicked off an evening marred by violence. After his remarks ended, Proud Boys streamed onto the street and, just blocks from the original venue, violently beat three protesters. One bragged that he had kicked his victim “right in the f------ head.” “He was a f------ foreigner,” he said. Then he and another Proud Boy congratulated each other with a brotherly embrace.
Last week’s beating generated an exceptional amount of media coverage of the Proud Boys — and led police to announce they’ll be pursuing riot charges against nine of their members. But the behavior on display that night on New York’s Upper East Side was anything but unexpected in light of the group’s recent conduct and, at a broader level, their guiding philosophy. Violence is at the core of their ideology and their primary tool for silencing their political foes.
"We will kill you. That's the Proud Boys in a nutshell."
During his speech at the Metropolitan club, McInnes told the audience that the “Western chauvinist” beliefs he espouses — which overlap almost wholly with President Donald Trump’s — should not be confused as “dictums.” “I’m not enforcing them upon anyone,” he argued. But as the Proud Boys credo goes, violence is “a really effective way to solve problems,” and, according to McInnes, the political left poses an existential threat to the nation’s future. While the Proud Boys leader might not be issuing dictums, he and his reactionary troops are using violence to shut down and punish those whose views conflict with their own and, as was the case with the “foreigner” the group beat on Friday, those they believe do not deserve a place in the body politic.
McInnes has a well documented and long-running record of blatantly promoting violence and making threats. “We will kill you. That’s the Proud Boys in a nutshell. We will kill you,” he said on his Compound Media show in mid-2016. His followers often repeat his calls for violence and seemed especially emboldened this past summer as they participated in a number of large-scale “free speech” rallies across the country.
Portland has seen the most action thanks in large part to Joey Gibson, the leader of the West Coast Proud Boys’ companion group, Patriot Prayer. After a particularly brutal clash there on June 30 between those two groups and antifascist counter-protesters, Proud Boys took to social media to amp each other up for the next brawl planned for Aug. 4. “We’re coming at you,” California Proud Boy Gabe Silva threatened in a Facebook video aimed at members of antifa. “You’re not gonna run your mouth about communism to us without getting smacked.” At a September rally in Austin to support the right-wing conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, Tusitala “Tiny” Toese, a Proud Boy from Washington state, repeated the sentiment on stage: “My daddy always tell me, you know, ‘If you can’t talk sense into them, smack some sense into them,’” he said to applause.
At the June 30 rally the Proud Boys found a new hero in Ethan “Rufio Panman” Nordean, who struck a counter-protester in the face so hard he knocked the person unconscious. The Proud Boys immediately turned him into a meme. They promoted video of the violence on social media and even created a commemorative challenge coin featuring an image of Nordean’s punch and sold it on their official online store. McInnes hailed the punch as “the turning point in our war against antifa.” “I honestly think that that knockout is a pivot in the movement, it marks the beginning of the end of antifa, and the beginning of being safe and proud to be Trump.”
In many ways, this summer’s violence did mark a turning point because it made Proud Boys — who faced very few legal consequences for assaults they committed in public and often on video — feel they had been given license to share their darker violent fantasies. “Anyone ELSE hear about FEMA camps, and think: ‘Boy…that would be an EXCELLENT place for all you shitbags to have your little communist experience!’” an Oregon Proud Boy and administrator of the Patriot Prayer of Oregon page recently posted on Facebook. “I know it’s a fairy tale…good things like that don’t occur in real life. But…Santa said if I was a good boy…”
Perhaps the most obvious example of just how far the Proud Boys are willing to push the discursive boundaries are the “Pinochet did nothing wrong” shirts they’ve recently been wearing to rallies. The Chilean dictator, who came to power through a military coup in 1973, was responsible for the torture and death of thousands of his political foes. At times, murders were carried out by death squads who dropped dissenters from helicopters. The back of the Proud Boys’ shirts read “Make communists afraid of rotary aircraft again,” and feature figures bearing the antifascist logo tumbling from a helicopter. Toese wore the shirt at the Aug. 4 Portland rally where HuffPost journalist Christopher Mathias asked him, “Didn’t Pinochet kill like 35,000 people?” “Aren’t they all communists?” he responded.
It’s within this context — of months of repeated street brawls, of praise lavished on the group’s most violent fighters, of fantasies of injuring and killing leftists, and of the fetishizing of brutal dictators — that last Friday’s events are best understood. McInnes has always tried to play off his references to violence as a joke, but what’s happening on the ground is more than enough evidence that his followers don’t receive his words that way.
"The only good leftist is a dead one."
At the beginning of his speech Friday, a costumed McInnes reenacted the 1960 assassination of Inejiro Asanuma, the head of the Japanese Socialist Party. He played the part of Otoya Yamaguchi, the young Japanese ultranationalist who killed the party leader with a sword during a live television broadcast. McInnes’ performance was conducted in slow motion and hammy, but the theatrical way he acted out the assassination doesn’t erase the fact that he was — in front of an audience of Proud Boys and other supporters — celebrating the murder of someone he considers a political enemy.
The assassination is, notably, a feted meme within the alt-right. The Pulitzer Prize-winning image of both men taken just moments after Asanuma was stabbed has been styled to fit the movement’s retrofuturist “fashwave” aesthetic and appears in racist “alt-right” spaces across the internet. The white supremacist clothing company Right Wing Death Squad printed the image on a shirt with the words “Physical Removal.” In online spaces like 4chan's /pol/, mentions of the assassination are usually accompanied by comments like “the only good leftist is a dead one” and “The commieshit got killed good.”
McInnes also openly praised Yamaguchi, calling him a “f------ badass” on his podcast the day after the Proud Boys fought with antifascists in New York City. “He didn't get him in his scope on a grassy knoll, he charged him on stage with a samurai sword. And his mugshot looks really cool...I just thought ‘What a great icon, what a great hero!’” he gushed.
After reenacting the murder on stage, McInnes told the audience, “Never let evil take root,” a phrase that appears on the fashwave version of the Asanuma assassination photo. If there was any doubt who McInnes believes to be evil and, by implication, deserving of physical retribution, he continued by warning that “socialists are taking root in America.” But it’s not just socialists or even antifa, in McInnes’ estimation, who are deserving of punishment. He does his best to paint the political left broadly as the enemies of the Proud Boys and Trump supporters more generally. He called antifa the “paramilitary wing” of the Democratic Party on his podcast and, on his CRTV show the next day, went even further: “The media, the DNC — and I’m talking about the government, I’m talking about [Andrew] Cuomo, the top brass — and antifa are all the same,” he said before suggesting Democrats sent left-wing protesters to his event to “get some violence going.” He later again suggested all his ideological opponents were acting against him in tandem. He told Mathias, the HuffPost reporter, “I don’t see you as a journalist — I see you as antifa.”
McInnes implies that all those who disagree with him are, using his own phrase, “socio-fascists,” who deserve a good beating so they’ll fall in line and hold their tongues. He argues that America doesn’t need any progressive changes, but that we should instead “get back to this era where you could insult someone’s religion, you could insult their ethnicity, you could insult everything about them.” “We’re not starting over again,” he said on his podcast, “You can come along for the ride or get the f--- off the road.” And that’s essentially his and the Proud Boys’ creed: support our bigoted beliefs or face the consequences. In their words, “f--- around and find out.”
With McInnes’ performance on Friday and the violence that followed, coming at the end of a long summer of clashes that sometimes descended into riots, it’s clear he and the Proud Boys are feeling emboldened. And with good reason: their narrative of an unhinged and unruly left — which they use to justify their own violence — has been gaining acceptance by Trump and his ilk. Several Republicans recently characterized those who opposed Brett Kavanaugh’s appointment to the Supreme Court as a “mob,” and Trump used similar language to describe Democrats more generally. He told an audience at a Kansas rally that members of the party had “become too extreme and too dangerous to govern.” At an earlier rally in Missouri, he insisted that the “Democrat party is held hostage by far-left activists, by angry mobs — antifa — by deep-state radicals.” “I would never suggest this, but I’ll tell you — they’re so lucky that we’re peaceful,” he said and smirked.
In some ways, McInnes can read Trump’s words like the cheers he received on Friday at the Metropolitan Republican Club: a sign that everyone is in on the joke, even when its implications could be deadly serious.