Shaky video footage of screaming “alt-right” members has become so familiar at this point that journalist Sandi Bachom’s video footage of a group of Proud Boys’ violent assault in New York City last week might easily have been ignored as it surfaced. Instead, it has gone viral in what has become another flashpoint in recent white supremacist street violence.
The Proud Boys, a far-right street gang known for their public displays of violence, are seen running to surround counterprotesters on the ground. They hit and kick people, letting their friends edge into the crowd so they can get their pummeling in, all against a flurry of homophobic slurs. “Kick this motherfucker” and “Are you brave now, faggot?” can be heard as they kick a crouched person desperately trying to block what might have become lethal blows. As they start to dissipate, one Proud Boy calls out “Uhuru,” a Swahili resistance word that means “freedom” that has been appropriated by the group in a mocking tone.
Bachom captured the video while following the group down the street as they carried on screaming and insulting their victims, anticipating what was likely to come next after having observed the group’s actions across the US for two years now.
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“They were like frat boys, yelling and taunting people,” Bachom told Truthout, recalling how the event brought back memories of the violent, far-right “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, where she was seriously injured during melees with white nationalists brandishing poles and shields. “They were just roaming the streets, and the cops were alongside of them. They had a police escort.”
The attack that occurred on October 12 came just after the Metropolitan Republican Club hosted an appearance of Proud Boys co-founder Gavin McInnes at their Manhattan clubhouse. McInnes has become a controversial figure after leaving Vice Media to write for white-nationalist publications, like VDare and American Renaissance, and to host a talk show that features white nationalists like Jared Taylor, founder and editor of American Renaissance. As the “alt-right” came into full swing, McInnes hung on the edge of the movement, forming the Proud Boys as a multiracial, far-right crew at the same time as open racialists were mixing with Trumpians.
As the larger “alt-right” fizzled, losing almost all its online platforms after Charlottesville, the Proud Boys managed to grow, in part, because it was no longer restricted to white men. The group’s politics are a confusing mix of civic nationalism, what they call “Western chauvinism“; anti-immigrant extremism; conservative traditionalism; and the veneration of violence as a key component of both masculinity and “Western pride.” This has led to more than two years of confrontations in spaces occupied by leftists across the country, where Proud Boys have continually attacked them in gang-style roundups.
McInnes’s speeches have long been protested. For instance, last year, student groups chased him out of the halls of New York University in one high-profile incident. This year, the night before McInnes’s event at the Republican Club, anarchist symbols were spray painted onto the building. A note was also left, reading, “The Metropolitan Republican Club chose to invite a hipster-fascist clown to dance for them, content to revel in their treachery against humanity.”
McInnes’s talk was on far-right Japanese murderer Otoya Yamaguchi, who stabbed socialist leader Inejiro Asanuma to death in 1960 with a sword. McInnes had promised on social media to re-enact the killing, calling it “inspirational.” Protesters gathered outside the venue, decrying the New York Republican Party leadership’s willingness to allow the Proud Boys in as a part of an acceptable range of discourse.
The Proud Boys, not willing to be one-upped by opponents, responded with aggression, singling out protesters for pointed attacks. McInnes, meanwhile, got out of his car to raise a sword into the air in a clear message to his supporters: The left must be dealt with through violent means – even political assassination.
On October 12, near Third Avenue and 83rd Street, more than a dozen Proud Boys caught up with protesters and unleashed such a display of violence that they didn’t even attempt to hide from the several onlookers and journalists who were shooting photos and videos, demonstrating the brazenness for which the group has become notorious.
This pattern has only intensified as Proud Boy chapters continue to crop up across the country. In Portland, Oregon, the group has become associated with Patriot Prayer, another far-right Trumpian organization with open white nationalists in their ranks. Patriot Prayer members have forced themselves into liberal cities, and once there, link up with Proud Boys who confront counterprotesters and residents with guerilla-style attacks.
In Portland, this has resulted in dozens of clashes, including several where Proud Boys have come prepared with body armor, intentionally rushing counterprotesters and leaving them hospitalized. The violence has spilled over into the larger community, as the gang has made a habit of going into spaces where they might encounter any opposition at all and using even the smallest protest against them as a signal to strike with impunity.
The “New” Street Violence
For places like Portland, Chicago, Minneapolis-St. Paul and other cities, the Proud Boys’ violent pattern rings familiar. In the 1980s and early 1990s, neo-Nazi skinhead gangs claimed entire neighborhoods as their turf, controlling music venues, bars and street corners. The skinhead gang phenomenon grew in the wake of de-industrialization and an effort by the white power movement to create a new line of recruits with a militant attitude ready to engage in “lone wolf” violence. They recruited among the most disaffected areas of the white working class. While their violence was distinct, these gangs signaled where the fascist movement was at the time: alienated but still violent.
Today, the far right has become more complicated, convoluted and disparate than it once was, but has a clearer path to power. The “alt-right” created, first, an intellectual veneer, and then a cultural space for far-right ideas. Far-right populist movements, including the Proud Boys, carved out a large space in the world of trollish blogs that flourished after Trump’s election.
Today, it is not uncommon for far-righters to create a multiracial subculture, even if it seems antithetical to their actual political goals. The rightward wave across US and Europe has allowed for anti-immigrant, anti-liberal and reactionary politics to be shared in a temporary alliance. While hardcore white nationalists will never cross the racial aisle, there remains a large periphery around them who will, making it much easier to grow right-wing populism’s political game while using the cover of plausible deniability for the racism of the far right.
In this new world, we have seen a dramatic shrinking of the neo-Nazi skinhead phenomenon. In Portland, Oregon, the 1988 killing of Ethiopian student Mulugeta Seraw by members of East Side White Pride brought a lawsuit by the Southern Poverty Law Center against White Aryan Resistance, a white-power organization that had been propping up the violent growth of skinhead gangs. The lawsuit, along with anti-fascists’ years of political organizing in its aftermath, proved a critical blow against the movement.
Another factor that led to the skinheads’ decline was the inherent instability inside of the white power community that left many members in jail, out of work or dead. Skinhead organizations were founded entirely on street violence, and while the impulse toward male rage built on resentment still churns, today’s white supremacists have easier outlets than completely dropping out of society, as required by the neo-Nazi movement.
The Proud Boys, with their focus on camaraderie and strengthening male identity through violence, appears to fill the same void while dropping some of the previous barriers to entry so that more men feel comfortable in joining in to the group’s culture of violence. Now the pace of Proud Boys attacks is speeding up, showing a clear pattern of targeting marginalized communities, the larger left and anyone who refuses to give them open access to any space they choose.
Ready to Fight
The Proud Boys have been open about their motivations. In New York, a video posted presumably by a member of the Proud Boys in advance of McInnes’s speech, shows members admitting that they wanted to attack the protesters who were chanting across the street. “I want to go over there and instigate it, but the cops are here so we’ll be nice,” says a man behind the camera. He gets into a physical confrontation with a protester seconds later.
After McInnes’s speech let out, about 30 Proud Boys streamed out of the venue single-file, with bystanders reporting that they seemed drunk and amped-up by talk of the murder of Asanuma. “They wanted to do harm,” Bachom said. “They were an angry mob. They were a gang.” One video shows the Proud Boys taunting protesters as they left along with a police escort leading them away down the street, who then witness the attack. The video continues with the group mocking their victims, and posing for a group photo while flashing a hand signal that many claim is a code for “white power.”
Three fascist skinhead gang members, including Joe Bola and Dennis Davila of the ultra-violent 211 Bootboys crew, were caught joining the fight. Davila is best known for running the hate-music clearinghouse United Riot Records, which publishes compilations from the neo-Nazi skinhead festival “Oi!fest.” The third skinhead in the street fight goes by “Irv,” who often runs with a largely Latino skinhead crew who previously participated in the clashes at Charlottesville. His gang is another testament to the kinds of tacitly multiracial alliances in the skinhead world that target gender minorities, immigrants and Muslims. McInnis himself has been photographed with Bola, suggesting that the collaboration between the Proud Boys and Bola’s far-right skinhead gang is likely more than coincidence.
“They were hyped-the-fuck-up to begin with,” says freelance photojournalist Shay Horse, who caught photos of the attack and the later shot of the Proud Boys flashing hand gestures. “It wouldn’t shock me if we find out about more attacks that happened later in that evening.”
While the Proud Boys’ violence was pronounced and shocking, the mainstream right wing paid it little mind. Fox News ran a report focusing exclusively on the vandalism that occurred the night before while airing footage of McInnes brandishing a sword at protesters but providing no context. New York Republican Party Chairman Edward Cox blamed the violence on the Democratic Party, saying, “Democrats need to cease inciting these attacks,” and alleging some connection between anarchist protesters and the Democratic National Committee. His comments only further extend the GOP’s cover for the street gang.
While the injuries from Proud Boys’ attacks are entirely visible and well-documented, conservatives have become entrenched in a heated contest of victim-blaming counterprotesters. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio have called for video of the incident to be reviewed and for potential prosecutions of Proud Boys based on video evidence. Mayor de Blasio recently tweeted, “Hate is never welcome in NYC and we will punish those responsible.”
The following day after the assault in New York, a separate Proud Boy chapter joined Patriot Prayer in a flash-mob-style action in downtown Portland, Oregon, attempting to subvert local police accountability actions organized by Don’t Shoot PDX. In a suddenly announced rally and march that brought out 40-odd participants, including both suited Proud Boys and flag-waving conservatives, they demanded that Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler step down for what they allege is soft-peddled policing around protesters in the city.
Proud Boys began attacking counterprotesters quickly after taking the streets. Video of the event later showed mass brawls interlaced with police pepper spray. Patriot Prayer members wielded clubs, making contact with protesters being thrown to the ground in what could accurately be called a gang beating, as counter-demonstrators curled themselves into the fetal position while Proud Boys surrounded and stomped them. In the world of the neo-Nazi skinhead gangs, this would have been called a “boot party”; for the Proud Boys, it has been labeled “self-defense.”
“What you saw in NYC was just a warm-up for [that day] in Portland,” said journalist Mike Bivins, whose videos provide a close-up view of the barrage. At one point, the police began a late-stage intervention, firing pepper balls into the crowd while four Proud Boys were doubling down on a trapped anti-fascist protester.
The Proud Boys’ violence reflects both a tone shift in US conservatism and their own importance in the world of street fighting, taking on the mantle that was carried by far more publicly reviled organizations like Volksfront and the Hammerskin nation. While the attacks from Proud Boy gang members have not turned into fatalities yet, there has been a steady pattern of escalation and an internal culture of denial when it comes to the consequences of their incitements.
“All we needed for one gun to go off…. It would have been a bloodbath. That’s what I am afraid is coming,” Bachon says, echoing a common feeling about what could be next if Proud Boy tactics intensify.
While other white supremacist groups have dissipated somewhat after Charlottesville, the Proud Boys are steadily absorbing angry recruits looking for a “fight club” aimed at the marginalized.
While continuing to foster relationships with more traditional fascist skinhead gangs and new white nationalist crews like the Rise Above Movement, the Proud Boys have been given a pass by most law enforcement institutions. The soft approach taken by police to the Proud Boys — in comparison to how they have treated counterprotesters in Portland and at the recent “Unite the Right 2” event in Washington, DC — reveals law enforcement’s belief that the gang poses little threat, and has left many wondering where to turn.
Those involved in last week’s attack were identified quickly, both by law enforcement and anti-fascist organizers, and the NYPD said they were set to charge nine of the Proud Boys involved. As of Monday, three arrests have been made.
While the marginalization of white power gangs has helped leftist activists target and eliminate many of them over time, the cover supplied by the more mainstream conservative right may actually undermine efforts to secure communities against Proud Boy incursions and to halt their attacks before they begin to engender a body count.