The Rise and Fall of the Proud Boys
The extremist group helped mount an insurrection. Then it began to splinter.
“Let’s take the fucking Capitol.” A burly, bearded man in a ballistic vest and a baseball cap that says “God, Guns, and Trump” is trying to rally members of the crowd. The man’s name is Daniel Lyons Scott, but he goes by Milkshake. It’s around noon on January 6th, a frigid day in Washington, D.C., and even though most of the men there are wearing orange ski hats and winter jackets, they’re still shifting from one foot to another to keep warm. ¶ “Let’s not fucking yell that, all right,” someone else
in the video says. Ethan Nordean, who goes by Rufio Panman, after the Lost Boys’ leader from the 1991 Steven Spielberg film Hook, shouts into the megaphone, with the air of an impatient older brother. “It was Milkshake, man. . . . Idiot.” The vlogger shooting the video, Hendrick “Eddie” Block, laughs uproariously. “Don’t yell it, do it,” says someone in the background.
Hours later, according to video footage, they do it. Led by former InfoWars staffer Joe Biggs and Nordean, the men march onto the Capitol grounds, yelling “Fuck antifa” and “Who’s streets? Our streets.” At 1:07 p.m., Biggs and Nordean are seen near the front of a crowd surging toward the barriers, eventually overpowering police. Dominic Pezzola, a Rochester, New York, military veteran nicknamed Spaz or Spazzo, breaks a window using a riot shield he’d wrested away from a police officer, allowing rioters to filter into the Capitol. In the video, Biggs can be seen flashing a grin. “This is awesome,” he says over cries of “This is our house.” One Proud Boy livestreams himself half-singing, “Nancy, come out and play,” as if the speaker of the House was the member of some rival Warriors gang. According to federal filings, Spazzo later posts a video of himself smoking a cigar in the hallowed building’s halls. “Victory smoke in the Capitol, boys,” he tells his audience. “This is fucking awesome. I knew we could take this motherfucker over if we just tried hard enough.”
Nordean, Biggs, Pezzola, and Scott are all members of the Proud Boys, a far-right extremist organization with anywhere between 5,000 and 35,000 members, depending on whom you ask. Prosecutors allege that more than 60 people affiliated with the Proud Boys used an encrypted Telegram channel to plan the events of January 6th, including Biggs, Nordean, and Pezzola; Scott was arrested in May and charged with assault on a federal officer, in addition to other charges. Biggs, who declined to comment through his attorney, was charged with conspiracy, obstruction of an official proceeding, and destruction of government property, among other charges, while Nordean was charged with aiding and abetting injury to government property, obstructing an official proceeding, disorderly conduct, and violently entering a restricted building; if convicted, he could face more than 30 years in prison. (An attorney for Nordean declined to comment; Pezzola’s attorney did not respond to Rolling Stone.)
Defendants have argued in court filings that the Proud Boys are a loosely structured organization, and that the storming of the Capitol was a purely spontaneous act. Indeed, in an interview with Rolling S tone, Proud Boys chair Enrique Tarrio claims the FBI is using the group as a “scapegoat” to account for its own failures and that the Proud Boys had never planned to storm the Capitol, attributing their actions that day as a result of “mob mentality.”
But more than 1,500 pages of Telegram chats recovered by the government indicate otherwise, with prosecutors alleging in court filings that Nordean, in the absence of Tarrio — who had been arrested two days prior for burning a Black Lives Matter banner at a black D.C. church — instructed members to “split up into groups, attempt to break into the Capitol building from as many different points as possible, and prevent the joint session of Congress from certifying the Electoral College results.”
According to court filings, in the weeks leading up to the attempted insurrection, top leaders of the group, including Biggs and Nordean, are alleged to have set up a “Ministry of Self-Defense” to coordinate the plan of attack. “We’re not gonna be doing like a proud boy fuckin’ 8 o’clock at night march and flexing our [arms] and shit,” MOSD member and codefendant Zachary Rehl said during a December 30th video call, according to court documents. “We’re doing a completely different operation.” On January 4th, another MOSD member instructed the group to “drag them out by their fucking hair” if congressional members attempted to “steal” the election.
That day, Proud Boys members eschewed their trademark yellow-and-black colors to go incognito, a way to confuse “antifa” counterprotesters, they said. But staying under the radar had never been the point. For the Proud Boys, the goal of January 6th had always been to make it clear that Trump’s most rabid acolytes weren’t going to stand by as their man went gently into that good night. And if they helped to orchestrate one of the most violent government coup attempts in American history, in this regard, the Proud Boys succeeded.
Before 2020, what the Proud Boys were and what they represented varied depending on whom you asked. If you asked members of the group, chances are they’d describe themselves as nothing more than a boisterous drinking club or “fraternal organization,” a bunch of bearded, tattooed “Western chauvinists” who were not averse to beating the shit out of the occasional lefty. If you asked far-right figures like Matt Gaetz and Roger Stone, they’d probably call the group enforcers, a necessary security detail that protected them from the threat of the far left. And if you’d asked the anti-fascists themselves, they would have told you the Proud Boys were violent white supremacists, or “nerds who thought they could start a gang,” as longtime activist Daryle Lamont Jenkins puts it.
For years, the Proud Boys operated in full view — selling merchandise on sites including Etsy and Amazon, being quoted in mainstream news publications, and spreading hate on social media — under the guise of semi-plausible deniability. The group trotted out its charismatic and media-credentialed leader, Vice co-founder and cable-news pundit Gavin McInnes, as “evidence” that it was a legitimate group simply trying to fight the scourge of political correctness. “McInnes has always espoused misogynistic views, and I think he saw an opening for himself ” with the rise of the men’s rights movement in the 2010s, says Julia DeCook, an assistant professor at Loyola University who studies digital platforms and the far right. The Proud Boys would later play a similar shell game with Tarrio, who is of Afro Cuban descent, citing his leadership role as evidence that it was not a white-supremacist group, despite its anti-immigrant, misogynistic, and Islamophobic rhetoric, and many of its members having neo-Nazi affiliations. “All they have to do is say ‘I’m not racist’ ” to gain credence as a mainstream group, says Jenkins. “It’s one of the biggest things in the conservative playbook.”
For years, the media bought this perception, downplaying the horrific comments and actions of the Proud Boys’ founder and members. And this was by design, with leaders of the organization threatening legal action if they were depicted as violent extremists or white nationalists, even though that is exactly what they were.
“For several years the media has not taken the Proud Boys very seriously,” says Margaret Huang, president and CEO of the Southern Poverty Law Center, which was sued by McInnes for designating the Proud Boys a hate group in 2019 (the SPLC filed to have the suit dismissed in April 2019, according to court filings; the case is still ongoing). “Generally, they were not perceived as a significant problem.” Providing security at rallies for political figures like Matt Gaetz gave them a “brush of legitimacy,” casting them as protectors and enforcers rather than posing a threat of violence, she says.
The Proud Boys somehow managed to hold onto this air of legitimacy even as they openly attacked anti-fascist activists in cities across the country. “Mainstream liberals looked at the warnings of the left and thought that we’re ludicrous, that we were crazy,” says Luis Marquez, a longtime anti-fascist activist in Portland, Oregon. “And then it happened. And even now, I still don’t think that people understand the danger that right-wing groups present.”
In theory, the undercurrent of rage among the far right following Trump’s 2020 defeat, compounded with the success of the Capitol riots, should have fueled the Proud Boys’ recruitment efforts. To an extent, it did: Telegram channels associated with the Proud Boys saw a massive influx of new users in the weeks following the insurrection. But just as the Proud Boys seemed poised to take over the far-right ecosystem, the group started to fall apart. For one,
“Mainstream liberals looked at the warnings of the left and thought that we were crazy. And then it happened. Even now, I still don’t think that people understand the danger that the Proud Boys present.”
Tarrio, the group’s longtime leader, was outed as a onetime federal informant, prompting many chapters to declare independence from the organization.
“We reject and disavow the proven federal informant, Enrique Tarrio, and any and all chapters that choose to associate with him,” read a February statement on one chapter’s Telegram channel. In May, after being designated a terrorist group by the Canadian government, Proud Boys Canada disbanded, issuing a statement denying it was a white-supremacist or terrorist group.
In light of the fracturing of the organization, some of the group’s more openly white-supremacist members started publicly jockeying for power, leading many anti-extremism experts to worry that newly formed splinter groups could become even more radicalized. “This was a group that came out of January 6th super energized,” Alexander Reid Ross, a far-right-extremism researcher and the author of Against the Fascist Creep, told me in February. “But with ensuing stories of conspiracy charges and federal informants, [you] start to see the group deteriorating, one of the chapters splitting off into what’s likely gonna be a more extreme version. I don’t know if it’s the end of the road, but it seems like it might be close to it.” This is the story of where that road began — and of the dark recesses of the internet where it may lead us.
As the mythology of the Proud Boys goes, Gavin McInnes didn’t want to start a violent far-right insurrectionist group. He just wanted to start a drinking club. For two decades, McInnes had carved out a brand as a loudmouthed hipster media mogul, openly and earnestly spouting anti-immigrant, misogynistic, racist rhetoric under the guise of flouting the boundaries of acceptability. In an interview with the New York Press in 2002, he chalked up such rhetoric to Vice’s “punk rock” aesthetic: “We seem really racist and homophobic because we hang around with f--s and n-----s so much. It just becomes part of our vernacular,” he said.
After coming across a copy of Pat Buchanan’s 2002 book, The Death of the West, the already blurry line between McInnes as troll and McInnes as blatant white nationalist became even more ambiguous. “I love being white and I think it’s something to be very proud of,” McInnes told The New York Times in a 2003 profile of Vice. “I don’t want our culture diluted. We need to close the borders now and let everyone assimilate to a Western, white, English-speaking way of life.” McInnes would later cite Buchanan’s book, as well as Jim Goad’s Redneck
Manifesto and discredited race theorist Charles Murray’s Coming Apart: The State of White America, as “required” reading on Western culture.
In 2008, Vice officially parted ways with McInnes, citing “creative differences.” In a statement, a Vice
representative noted the many years between his tenure at the magazine and the creation of the Proud Boys. “Vice unequivocally condemns white supremacy, racism, and any form of hate, [and] has shone a fearless, bright light of award-winning journalism on extremism, the alt-right, and hate groups around the world,” the representative said. The statement did not comment on McInnes’ work published by Vice.
Following his departure, McInnes carved out a role for himself as a commentator on right-wing cable TV and podcasts, including his own video podcast, The Gavin McInnes Show. His brand was “using really transgressive humor to attempt to create plausible deniability about what, in reality, were bigoted beliefs,” says Cassie Miller of the SPLC. That antagonistic streak helped him build a large young, male, extremely online audience. Dante Nero, a comedian who frequently guested on McInnes’ podcast, initially viewed him as a likable contrarian: “He was a funny dude,” he says, referring to McInnes as an “anarchist, ‘I say blue, he says red,’ type of guy. He really liked when you went against the grain.”
The seeds of the Proud Boys seem to have grown from the podcast, with McInnes first using the term in December 2015 while griping about a “little Puerto Rican kid” singing “Proud of Your Boy,” a hit from the Broadway adaptation of Aladdin, while attending his child’s recital. McInnes mocked the child and his musical selection, calling it “the gayest fucking song,” but it eventually became something of an ironic rallying cry, with McInnes frequently evoking the lyrics. “Proud Boys” became an inside joke among McInnes and his audience, and they started hosting meetups.
The far-right leanings of the group were baked into its aesthetic, with members donning black-andyellow polo shirts by the late British designer Fred Perry, whose brand has been worn by generations of subcultures, some with far-right ties. (The brand pulled the color combination in the U.S. and Canada in 2019 due to its association with the Proud Boys.) Combining tattoos and beards with the clean lines of khakis and Fred Perrys, the Proud Boys blended aspects of skinhead and punk style with a retrograde, preppy look. “It hearkens back to Reaganism and unhinged capitalism pretty broadly,” DeCook says. “They play a lot with time in their aesthetics. They’re trying to project the past into the present or future.”
The Proud Boys’ first meeting, in July 2016, reportedly took place at Tommy’s Tavern, a somewhat notorious dive bar in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. Although members would later dispute its penchant for both violence and racism, both were present from the group’s earliest days, according to a 2016 profile of McInnes and the Proud Boys in the local publication Bedford + Bowery, in which McInnes boasted that two members at the first meetup became embroiled in a brawl.
McInnes openly referred to the Proud Boys as a “gang” on a 2017 episode of Joe Rogan’s podcast. And though he now claims to have used that word as a joke, it did have many similarities to a gang, such as tiers of initiation rites. The first degree simply involved stating: “I am a Western chauvinist, and I refuse to apologize for creating the modern world.” The second was to withstand a beating while yelling out the names of five breakfast cereals, ostensibly to demonstrate sufficient “adrenaline control.” The third was to get a Proud Boys tattoo, and the fourth was achieved by getting in a violent altercation “for the cause” — bonus points if you got arrested. McInnes came up with the last degree in 2016 after a Proud Boy was arrested for fighting a lefty, leading McInnes to gleefully bring him on the show and proclaim it a requirement for ascension in the ranks. (In an email to R olling S tone, McInnes claims that Proud Boys were not allowed to “seek out the fourth degree.”)
Despite this seemingly explicit promotion of violence as part of the Proud Boys’ ethos, the rite that got the most media attention was the group’s nomasturbation pledge. In itself, a far-right group advocating for abstinence from self-pleasure is nothing new; there’s extensive history of white-supremacist groups equating masturbation (and the “Jewishowned” porn industry) with loss of masculinity, and the hugely popular subreddit NoFap, which traffics in such ideology, had been founded years before.
But the person who credits himself with planting the seeds of the No Wanks policy is Nero, the black comic who for some time was known as the “Pope” of the Proud Boys, he says. In 2015 and 2016, Nero frequently appeared on McInnes’ podcast to dispense romantic and life advice, positioning himself as a relationship guru of sorts. At one point early on, Nero says, he told McInnes that he avoided masturbating when he was in a relationship, because it desensitized him from forging an intimate connection with his partner. This piqued McInnes’ interest, inspiring him to incorporate an anti-masturbation stance into his burgeoning Proud Boys ideology.
Like many former members, Nero insists that the organization was not meant to be taken seriously. “It was a group of guys drinking and hanging out,” he says. At various bars in New York, he’d attend gatherings with McInnes’ acolytes, who would pepper him with questions about their sex lives, or lack thereof. “They were young guys, all kind of intellectualizing their fear of rejection from women. They were blaming women because they weren’t interesting or attractive enough to get any attention,” says Nero. He saw his affiliation with McInnes and the group as an “opportunity to access these viewers. I also thought that I could reach them.” He jumped straight to the third degree, getting a Proud Boys tattoo on his neck.
Nero doesn’t recall the group being violent at the time, but Jenkins says its inclination toward violence began fairly early. His first memory of the Proud Boys was outside a pro-Trump art show he attended in downtown Manhattan in October 2016, hosted by far-right troll Milo Yiannopoulos. They were wearing black-and-yellow Fred Perrys, so “I immediately thought that they were trying to be like what they consider skinheads to be,” he says. At one point, McInnes threw a protester out and kicked his phone at him, smashing it on the street; the crowd erupted into cheers of “USA! USA!,” followed by a series of self-congratulatory fist bumps and handshakes. At that moment, Jenkins says, his view of McInnes and his followers shifted from race-baiting provocateurs to “stone-cold thugs.”
Donald Trump’s election in 2016 only further emboldened the Proud Boys, providing far-right organizations with license to publicly spout extremist rhetoric. “One of the things you got to understand about the fascist right is that when you’re looking at the Trump years, you’re looking at them seeing the
“The Proud Boys vocally promoted themselves as violent actors, even in their initiation process,” says one former FBI agent. “It’s unusual for any kind of organization to publicly state its intent to break the law.”
last opportunity” to maintain the popular consumption of far-right ideas, says Jenkins. With an openly racist demagogue in the White House, the Proud Boys sought to capitalize on the conservative backlash against the progressivism brought about by the Obama administration. “If you’re the head of the Proud Boys and you’re looking at these mainstream, right-wing circles, you’re looking at an opportunity,” Jenkins says.
In the beginning, the Proud Boys primarily aligned themselves with far-right celebrities like Yiannopoulos, Stone, and Ann Coulter, acting as self-appointed protectors and showing up in force at events where they knew left-wing counterprotesters would appear. After a 2017 talk by Coulter at the University of California, Berkeley, was canceled following outcry from the student body, McInnes called on his “army” of followers to hold a rally on campus. “You fucked up,” he said in a video addressing liberals who protested. “Once again you have created this mythical universe of Nazis on every corner . . . well, we are not allowing that to happen. The show must go on.”
The Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, which ended in the death of counterprotester Heather Heyer, was a pivotal moment in terms of how the Proud Boys presented themselves to the media. A few months prior, McInnes had interviewed Jason Kessler, the rally’s organizer, who would later be filmed undergoing initiation for the group’s second degree. “What’s really under attack is if you say, ‘I want to stand up for white people. I want to stand up for Western civilization. I want to stand up for men. I want to stand up for Christians,’ ” Kessler said on McInnes’ show, as McInnes agreed enthusiastically.
That June, McInnes issued a statement on the Proud Boys’ website disavowing the rally and discouraging members from attending. “I get that it’s about free speech and we want everyone — even white nationalists — to have that right, but I think it’s coming at a time when we need to distance ourselves from them,” McInnes wrote. Nonetheless, some members of the Proud Boys were present at the rally, including future Proud Boys chairman Tarrio, who told a reporter he attended to protest the removal of Confederate monuments but denied attending the infamous tiki torch march.
Following Charlottesville, McInnes was in something of a bind, says Matthew Valasik, a researcher of far-right gangs. “No one wanted to take ownership of it.” Two days after Unite the Right, McInnes brought Kessler on his show to accuse him of using the Proud Boys as a front for recruiting for the alt-right.
But the group had already attracted members with white-nationalist bona fides, such as Brien James, a former member of the neo-Nazi group the Outlaw Hammerskins, according to the SPLC, and current head of the Indiana Proud Boys chapter; and Augustus Sol Invictus, the deputy of the group’s nowdefunct militia wing, the Fraternal Order of the AltKnights (FOAK), who in 2013 slaughtered a goat and drank its blood as part of a pagan sacrifice.
By late 2017, the Proud Boys had also established a presence in the Pacific Northwest, particularly Portland, Oregon, in part because it had aligned itself with Patriot Prayer, another far-right organization that similarly positioned itself as a defender of free speech. “There was a lot of switching and intermingling between the two groups, back and forth,” says Luis Marquez, the anti-fascist activist in Portland. The city has long been a “flash point” for simmering tensions between left-wing activists, far-right protest