Proud Boys come creeping back out of the woodwork — one hijacked local event at a time
While you might get the impression that the Proud Boys largely vanished from the public radar in the weeks following the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection in which they played a central role, the reality is that the proto-fascist street-thug organization has been popping up all over recently—but operating on a purely local level, consistently hijacking causes and events organized by local activists and communities.
This appears to be their latest strategy, as imprisoned Proud Boy Ethan Nordean had suggested in his pre-arrest Telegram chats: Namely, to scale down their operations and spread their recruitment by focusing on local issues. Over the past several weeks, as Tess Owen observes at VICE, they appear to be enacting it in places like Nashua, New Hampshire; Miami and Tampa, Florida; and Salem, Oregon.
The strategy mostly appears to entail identifying local grievances that can provide opportunities for Proud Boys to involve themselves. In Miami, for instance, Proud Boys leader Enrique Tarrio turned up uninvited with several cohorts, offering "support" for a protest by the Cuban-American community backing dissidents in Cuba.
"Since Jan. 6, members of the group have steered clear of large-scale rallies, and instead attempted to build grassroots support in their communities by latching onto hyper-local culture war dramas and ginning up tensions," Owen writes.
In Nashua, as Owen reports, Proud Boys turned up at school board meetings, masked and wearing their uniform shirts, to protest "critical race theory" in local schools. Their presence riled local residents.
"Proud Boys come to our board meetings for what? For what? What is the purpose of them being here? Are they here for our children? I think not," said board member Gloria Timmons, who doubles as president of the Nashua chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
Nordean's pre-arrest chats with his fellow Proud Boys about how to proceed after Jan. 6 promised this kind of strategy. "I'm gunna press on with some smart level headed non emotional guys and create a game plan for how to approach this year, we aren't gunna stop getting involved in the community, especially with the momentum we have," Nordean wrote.
He later added: "Yeah, this is just to organize and prepare for when we do decide to get active again. At the very least there's lots of good excuses to just get out and do meet n greets with the public, raise money, community service, security for events etc ... but we can work on an effective process so we look more organized and have properly vetted members who are representing the club."
This is consistent with Proud Boys' proclaimed self-image as just normal American guys, their belief right up to Jan. 6 that the police were on their side, and their ongoing denials of being racist or extremist. The localized issues are often the same right-wing grievances being ginned up nightly on Fox News, as with critical race theory in New Hampshire schools. The common thread among the issues being hijacked by Proud Boys is that they are congenial to (if not fueled by) conspiracism, and primarily revolve around concocted enemies.
The first post-insurrection Proud Boys event of note was an early-May rally at a city park in Salem, Oregon, at which journalists were threatened and ejected and guns were on broad display. It was also notable for the remarkable absence of any kind of police presence. However, another Proud Boys event held in Oregon City on June 15 was shut down by police when they declared it a riot.
Most of the Proud Boys' reappearances have occurred over the past month:
- July 3, Buhl, Idaho: A Proud Boys float, featuring uniformed marchers walking alongside, was among the 100 or so entries for the town's annual Sagebrush Days parade. The polo shirt-wearing Proud Boys carried both an American flag and a black flag emblazoned with the organization's logo.
- July 10, Grand Rapids, Michigan: A local Proud Boys chapter announced that it planned to hold a rally in a local park to "honor the lives lost to antifa & BLM racist mob violence," but nobody from the organization showed up at the anointed time and place.
- July 10, Tallahassee, Florida: A group of about 100 protesters that included a large number of Proud Boys rallied on the lawn of the Historic Capitol Museum to demand the government release the Jan. 6 insurrectionists. They flashed signs at passersby and chanted, "Let them go." It was hosted by Luis Miguel, a Republican senatorial candidate from St. Augustine, who described the arrested indictees as part of a patriotic brotherhood: "They're not insurrectionists; they're not traitors; they're not terrorists. They are heroes," he said.
- July 11, Miami, Florida: As demonstrators assembled en masse around Miami to support nationwide anti-government protests in Cuba, Tarrio arrived with a pack of Proud Boys to offer their backing. One of the Proud Boys asked Miami Police Chief Art Acevedo why he hangs out with "Marxists" and "Communists." Acevedo also had a hostile exchange with Tarrio.
- July 14, Salem, Oregon: A group of about 20 Proud Boys, armed with holstered handguns, paintball guns, bats, and body armor gathered to protest outside a Planned Parenthood clinic to protest abortion laws, and were met by a crowd of at least 40 counter-protesters. The opposing sides ended up brawling, and Salem police arrested two people.
- July 14, Helena, Montana: An ostensible "fundraising event for veterans" sponsored by a local Proud Boys group was canceled after being publicized locally. A "Proud Boys Poker Run" was supposedly intended to dedicate funds to a wounded veterans fund, but the person who originated the event punted when he was exposed: "the poker run for the 24th is hereby officially cancelled due to snow-flakes," he wrote on the event's website. "unfortunately a few uninformed sheep started causing problems at the hub sorry for any inconvenience and hope yall have a great summer."
- July 17, Los Angeles, California: A crew of black-clad Proud Boys descended upon the scene outside Wi Spa, which had attracted a crowd of protesters and counter-protesters in a dispute over the business' policies regarding transgender members. As Left Coast Right Watch's on-scene reporting showed, a handful of fights turned into an outright street brawl. Police clashed mostly with left-wing protesters, using batons and riot munitions, and the scene was declared a riot and cleared.
- July 19, Red Bluff, California: A number of Proud Boys showed up to rally outside a court hearing for a local tavern owner facing assault charges, reportedly flashing white-supremacist hand gestures. The tavern, the Palomino Room, has become "kind of a Mecca for right wing extremism, given the owner's outspoken views regarding those awful, oppressive mask mandates," reported the local news outlet. "From there it has been surmised that the Proud Boys might have vandalized the Wild Oak store by firing a paint ball at it and attaching a State of Jefferson Proud Boy sticker in front of a 'Black Lives Matter' sign."
- July 20, Scotland, South Dakota: Local Proud Boy David Finnell applied on behalf of the group to sponsor a street dance from noon until midnight in mid-September, and the local city council approved the request, which would have closed a section of the city street, as required for alcohol consumption and food vendors. However, after the announcement produced a torrent of disapproval, Finnell pulled out, saying the Proud Boys were dropping sponsorship of the event "out of concerns for safety."
- July 26, Tampa, Florida: An anti-COVID-19-restriction rally, billing itself as a "Worldwide Freedom Rally," attracted a large contingent of Proud Boys supporting the cause. Some of them carried yellow "Don't Tread On Me" Gadsden banners, as well as signs declaring that "Trump won," and demanding the government "free political prisoners"—that is, the Jan. 6 insurrectionists.
- July 30, Boise, Idaho: Some anonymous Proud Boys hung two large banners bearing their logo from two heavily trafficked freeway overpasses in the city. Police removed the banners, and said it was unclear who hung them.
One of the more insidious aspects of the Proud Boys' strategy is how it manipulates small-town environments to insinuate themselves within them, and once there, how it divides and creates turmoil within those communities where little existed previously. As a local account in Mainer News demonstrated, the Proud Boys' gradual takeover of a small old tavern in Portland, Maine, alienated and angered local residents, who blamed the tavern owner for permitting it.
The owner, as the report explains, wasn't necessarily sympathetic to the Proud Boys, but really had little idea about their background. "'Oh, they're not that bad,'" the man reportedly told his longtime bouncer, who quit over the situation.
"They're bad as the fuckin' Klan, Bobby!" the bouncer replied. He then pointed at a group of Proud Boys across the street, and added: "Yeah, I'm talking about you motherfuckers."
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