October 6, 2020
IntelBrief: The Proud Boys Viral Moment – Will it Devolve Into a Virulent Threat?
A fascist, anti-Islamic, and misogynistic group known as The Proud Boys gained instant notoriety last week during the Presidential debate when President Trump refused to condemn white supremacy. After the President told the group to ‘stand back and stand by,’ the Proud Boys quickly went to work creating new memes to distribute on social media and adopting the President’s words as a slogan. The organization’s public relations machine also kicked into high gear. The Proud Boys have pushed back on narratives depicting the organization as a white supremacist group, yet its official Telegram channels and social media postings blatantly embrace racially charged narratives. The organization’s attempts to disguise its true colors are, in reality, nothing but a thin veneer. While the Proud Boys’ current leader Enrique Tarrio is Afro-Cuban, he is a figurehead the group put in charge as part of a half-hearted rebranding effort to portray the group as racially diverse - a convenient talking point when its motivations are questioned. The group was initially founded in 2016 by Vice Media co-founder Gavin McInnes.
Headquartered in New York, the Proud Boys have grown into a global phenomenon with chapters in more than forty countries, according to the group’s own website. In examining the Proud Boys’ internet presence, it is especially clear over Telegram that the group has adopted the symbols, memes, and language of the broader white supremacist movement. Numerous Telegram posts associated with the Proud Boys show members using the ‘ok’ hand gesture – a symbol coopted by white supremacists and later added to a database with other symbols of hate by the Anti-Defamation League. In a recent Telegram post by the Proud Boys’ Britannia and Canadian Chapters, one post contained a doctored image of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in racist blackface, which circulated within the Proud Boys community. The online images adopted by the Proud Boys reflect the group’s offline ethos. In 2017, the Proud Boys were one of many radical right-wing groups to participate in the ‘Unite the Right’ rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. Of course, at the rally, white supremacy was a dominant theme and one of the organizers was former Proud Boys member Jason Kessler, a well-known neo-Nazi.
The group has also tried to depict itself as a reactionary force that is simply protecting ‘western civilization.’ In reality, the group’s members have engaged in political violence, vandalism, and vigilantism. The Proud Boys have engaged in violence in New York City; Charlottesville, VA; Berkeley, CA; and Portland, OR. One Proud Boys member, Alan Swinney, was arrested in Oregon for assault and weapons charges – including pointing his revolver at someone during a Trump rally. In 2019, two members of the Proud Boys were sentenced to four years in prison for engaging in a street brawl. Proud Boys members may have grander aspirations. Recently, the Proud Boys Telegram feed expressed concerns that the group was unable to easily acquire CS gas – a type of tear gas that has been used by law enforcement to subdue protesters. Finally, after President Trump’s ‘stand back and stand by’ remarks, multiple Proud Boys went to social media to announce their readiness to engage in a civil war, and groups on the extreme far-right, including so-called accelerationists, have fueled similar calls.
Whether the Proud Boys would carry out a significant act of terrorism remains unclear. Senior leaders within the group are likely to retain a more measured approach and continue to deflect accusations of racism. However, it remains unclear whether these leaders can tamp down the rank-and-file members who retain an interest in civil war and white supremacist ideology. This is especially concerning as the President himself has signaled to the Proud Boys the need to stand by to battle ‘left-wing radicals.’ In 2018, it was reported, apparently prematurely, that the FBI considered the Proud Boys an extremist group with ties to white nationalists. Since that report, the FBI walked back from efforts to label the Proud Boys as extremists. One possible avenue for review is H.R. 5736, a bill sponsored by Representative Max Rose that would require DHS to review the threat posed by white supremacists in the United States and to make its findings publicly available. If the bill is eventually adopted, decision-makers may have better fidelity on the scale and scope of the threat posed by The Proud Boys and other groups of its ilk.