As the 2016 presidential elections agitated already sharp political divisions in the United States, a host of far-right groups began to emerge across the country.
With anti-fascist groups also setting up shop in many cities and towns, violent clashes also became part and parcel of protests, particularly in the months following US President Donald Trump‘s inauguration.
One of the many far-right organisations that welcomed opportunities to engage in violence was the Proud Boys, a self-described pro-Western, chauvinist “fraternity” headed by a former media executive.
Established in 2016 by Vice cofounder Gavin McInnes, the Proud Boys boast of chapters in several major North American cities in the US and Canada, as well as places as far away as Israel.
McInnes, who left Vice in 2008 due to what he described as “creative differences”, used his former programme at Rebel Media, a right-wing online Canadian outlet, to promote the Proud Boys.
During 2017, the group participated in a slew of anti-Muslim rallies, joined demonstrations with avowedly white nationalist groups and clashed with anti-fascists from New York to Berkeley, California.
The Proud Boys’ activities landed in on the Alabama-based Southern Poverty Law Center’s (SPLC) list of hate groups, a designation the group has dismissed and decried.
For his part, McInnes has downplayed the group as a “men’s club” that simply meets to drink beer “once a month”, but he has also celebrated the violence as “amazing”, often describing the violence as “self-defence”.
Flirting with the alt-right
Last year, while the Proud Boys joined far-right and white nationalist groups in rallies and demonstrations, its founder also sought to distance itself from the open racism of those groups.
For a period, McInnes seemed to embrace the alt-right, the loosely-knit coalition of white nationalists and neo-Nazis that rose to prominence during Trump’s campaign and celebrated his victory.
There were clear parallels. The Proud Boys demonise Muslims, oppose what they claim is mass immigration and rail against anti-fascists and leftists.
But rifts emerged in the lead up to “Unite the Right“, the deadly rally that brought white supremacists and neo-Nazis from across the country to Charlottesville, Virginia on August 12.
In advance of Unite the Right, McInnes publicly urged Proud Boys not to attend. The protest’s organiser, Jason Kessler, had been a Proud Boy, however.
The rally ushered in a weekend of violence, with participants attacking community members, anti-racist activists and anti-fascists all over the city.
It culminated in tragedy when far-right protester James Alex Fields Jr allegedly slammed his car into a crowd of anti-racist marchers, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer. Fields has been charged with a slew of felonies, including hate crimes and murder.
In the wake of Heyer’s murder, alt-right groups faced a widespread backlash that included cancellations of protests and speaking events.
For his part, McInnes sought to immediately disavowal the alt-right, distancing the group from Kessler and proclaiming that his fraternity rejects anti-Semitism and racism.
The SPLC’s profile of the Proud Boys explains: “Their disavowals of bigotry are belied by their actions: rank-and-file Proud Boys and leaders regularly spout white nationalist memes and maintain affiliations with known extremists.”
The violent clashes that characterised 2017 slowed down significantly this year, with far-right groups struggling to get permits for events and struggling to organise as internal divisions and political infighting exhausted the movement.
‘Just there to fight’
Last month, however, on June 30, some of the most violent clashes of the Trump era erupted in Portland, Oregon, when Proud Boys joined forces with the followers of US senatorial candidate Joey Gibson in the northwestern city.
Gibson heads the far-right Patriot Prayer group, a pro-Trump outfit that has regularly traded blows with anti-fascists and anti-racists in Oregon and Washington.
Videos of the June 30 rally showed Proud Boys, donning their trademark Fred Perry polo shirts, punching and stomping counterdemonstrators in the streets of Portland. The group continued to clash with anti-fascists until heavily armed police declared a riot and revoked the permit of a right-wing march that had started earlier in the day.
Alongside militiamen wearing military garb and Gibson’s supporters, Proud Boys chanted “USA, USA!” as they turned downtown Portland into a battleground.
After the intense violence, McInnes took to his show on the conservative CRTV to praise it.
Referring to one of the Proud Boys who knocked a counterdemonstrator unconscious with a powerful blow to the face, McInnes said: “Check out the turning point in the war against Antifa.”
Describing the assault as “beautiful”, he added: “That is some fantastic stuff, totally inspiring stuff … We’re winning now, I’m not tired of winning.”
On August 4, there will be a “Gibson for Senate Freedom March” in Portland, and Patriot Prayer plans on bringing more out-of-town Proud Boys to bolster their numbers.
According to the Oregon-based Williamette Weekly, Alex Jones, host of the InfoWars conspiracy theory website, has expressed his willingness to potentially attend the event.
With the Proud Boys emboldened and another Patriot Prayer rally approaching, the violence is unlikely to rescind any time soon. In a recent online video, McInnes said: “Fighting solves everything.”
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