The Proud Boys are a right-wing extremist group with a violent agenda. That has never been more evident than over the course of the summer of 2021, when the Proud Boys and their associates reportedly engaged in violence at eight separate events.
That violence, often against counter-protesters, has included fighting with fists, as is traditional for the Proud Boys, but paintball guns have also become a popular weapon. Proud Boys have also allegedly attacked journalists in the fray of protests in Los Angeles, CA and Portland, OR. It is not always clear who initiates the violence, especially as Proud Boys often wear black clothing – rather than their prior uniform of black and gold polo shirts – in an effort to blend in with black-bloc antifa adherents and anarchists. This new tactic, announced prior to the January 6 insurrection, has held through the summer.
Proud Boys have the dubious distinction of being the best represented extremist group among those arrested in relation to the insurrection, and some of the most serious charges are levelled against group members. These arrests included highly influential members, including several members of the so-called “elder’s chapter.” As of September 1, the Proud Boys had the highest number of arrests on January 6 with 43 members making up over 30% of those arrested that day with documented extremist ties.
Shortly after the insurrection, the group was rocked by allegations that their National Chairman, Enrique Tarrio, who was arrested two days prior to the insurrection, was an FBI informant. Following this revelation, at least three Proud Boys chapters declared autonomy from the national organization. Despite this internal turmoil and the arrests of 34 members on charges ranging from vandalism to conspiracy for their participation in the insurrection, the group rallied around those charged with crimes. They branded their incarcerated group members as “political prisoners” wrongfully imprisoned for their political beliefs. They raised funds for members’ legal fees, dropped banners with the slogan “free our political prisoners” at a major league baseball game, and lamented on Telegram that they were victims of an unjust system.
The Proud Boys have branded themselves as victims of the “Marxist” left and of so-called “cancel culture.” This has a certain power among those who believe that right-wing viewpoints are side-lined, silenced and in need of protection. Proud Boys also position their rhetoric and actions as patriotism and have shown they are willing to show up and fight, often literally, for their bigoted beliefs.
Those beliefs lead Proud Boys to the following actions: Members have pulled people from cars and assaulted them because of their perceived membership in left-wing groups. They stifle freedom of speech at protest efforts with their threats of violence. They have inserted themselves in political events using their known history of violence to intimidate and attempt to quash opposing political viewpoints. They hamper freedom of expression by allegedly attacking journalists reporting on protests and rallies. There was a strategic decision made when the Proud Boys moved from denying any wrongdoings at the Capitol, to instead leveraging their actions there as patriotic, to try and paint the Proud Boys as victims by undermining democratic institutions to gain more followers and political sway.
Violence is almost expected when the Proud Boys come out in numbers to provide “security” for or attend an event. Most recently, violence erupted on the streets of Olympia, Washington, on September 4, 2021, between a group of Proud Boys and people dressed in black. The chaotic scene resulted in known Proud Boy member Tusitala “Tiny” Toese getting shot in the leg. Toese has been a staple at some of the most violent right-wing demonstrations throughout the Pacific Northwest. Following a 2018 assault in Portland, he was convicted of fourth-degree assault and was sentenced to six months in prison.
Not every event they participate in devolves into violence, but even at rallies where they explicitly disavow violence and claim to want to keep the peace between themselves and counter-protesters, anything they perceive as a threat or provocation is met with force – and they always come prepared to fight. Their role as “security” for right-wing events has, in their view, given licence to violently confront counter-protesters using any level of force they deem fit. At an August 22, 2021, event in Portland, Oregon, this was readily apparent as calls for peace were ignored when an alleged antifascist protester drove into the parking lot where Proud Boys were holding an event. Within moments Proud Boys were working to overturn and destroy the “Metro West Ambulance” vehicle: windows were smashed, and someone wrote “FAFO” on the side -- an acronym of the popular Proud Boys slogan “Fuck Around and Find Out.” As the van was being flipped over, Proud Boys and other right-wing protesters chanted, “Fuck antifa!”
Combining bigotry and political violence, and painting it as “patriotism”
Because they package their views as patriotic, and themselves as beleaguered members of the downtrodden right wing, the Proud Boys are often a gateway group introducing members to hateful ideologies. This makes them especially dangerous. Proud Boys seem to show up at every imaginable event related to right-wing causes, regardless of the issue at hand, positioning themselves as gatekeepers and “security forces.” This ubiquity has provided near-constant media attention and plenty of content to share with followers.
On the one hand, Proud Boys are showing up at school board meetings to participate in debates that have become mainstream on the right, protesting Critical Race Theory and mask-wearing in schools. They continue to provide “security” to GOP events, and fight with counter-protesters outside Planned Parenthood buildings. But their agenda is not solely political: their national chairman posted homophobic slurs to his popular Telegram channel on the same day that Proud Boys were allegedly part of a group of violent protesters angry about a spa’s gender-inclusive policy. Hatred, not just politics, is a big motivator for their actions.
While pushing patriotism and solidarity with right-wing causes, perhaps the Proud Boys largest audience exists on Telegram on the channel “The Western Chauvinist” which has more than 50,000 subscribers.
This channel frequently posts white supremacist, antisemitic, and other heinous content and has gained more than 4,000 subscribers since May 2021. The channel currently has more than 51,000 subscribers and is notable because of its staunchly white supremacist content. The content shared on this channel, is virtually indistinguishable from that of neo-Nazi channels on Telegram. The Western Chauvinist channel is run by “3rd and 4th degree Proud Boys in good standing” so while it is not the official mouthpiece of the group, its subscribership, which exceeds the official Proud Boys channel, and authority coming from high-ranking members is certainly evidence that the views this channel purports are accepted by some members of the group. This channel belies the group’s “patriotic” branding and can bring subscribers further into the folds of extremist thought cloaked perhaps by the group’s more public patriotic rhetoric and branding.
Proud Boys continue to gather and organize. National Chairman Enrique Tarrio posted to Telegram on August 9th that a “surprise” would be revealed on the 11th of September. However, on August 23 Tarrio was sentenced to five months in prison for the destruction of a Black Lives Matter banner outside of a historically black church in Washington, D.C. and for the possession of an illegal high-capacity firearm magazine.Tarrio’s 155 days in prison are set to commence on September 6, 2021.
But while Tarrio will be incarcerated during this teased “surprise” event, that hasn’t prevented other members from speaking out. Joe Biggs wrote a letter from prison that was read by Owen Shroyer on his podcast and shared on Telegram. Randy Ireland, president of the Hell Gate Bridge chapter of Proud Boys, spoke at the August 18, 2021 rally in Portland, Oregon, about the condition of incarcerated Proud Boys, and claimed that Proud Boy Chris Worrell was being denied medical treatment in prison. While in Portland, Ireland, who is also the co-founder of the organization “Citizens Again Political Persecution,” advertised another event scheduled for September 18 at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. and organized in conjunction with the mother of Ashli Babbitt – the woman who was killed by Capitol Police while entering the Capitol on January 6, and who has since been cast as a martyr by many on the right.
Given their propensity for violence and their fierce embrace of a right-wing victimhood narrative, it seems clear the Proud Boys will continue their ramped-up organizing efforts into the fall and winter months. Their success to date shows how the group has forcibly re-defined patriotism to fit their ideology – and capitalized on the resulting, explosive mix of political and hate-based violence.