Proud Boys attending a December 2020 Stop the Steal march in Washington, D.C. [ ]. Gavin McInnes at the Metropolitan Republican Club in Manhattan in 2018 [ ], an appearance that ended in a brawl between Proud Boys and leftists [ ]. Dante Nero was a frequent guest on McInnes’ video podcast [ ], but the comedian says he stopped after finding racist memes on the Proud Boys’ Facebook page.
“The reality is [McInnes] was spewing this stuff the whole time,” Nero says.
ers, and police, says Hampton Stall, a researcher at Militia Watch: “They knew that when they looked for the enemy, they would find the enemy.” The rallies attracted Proud Boys like Nordean, a Washington native who would later be charged in connection with the Capitol uprising.
The Proud Boys quickly learned to use footage of these violent skirmishes as a recruiting tool by uploading it on YouTube. Members like FOAK founder Kyle “Based Stickman” Chapman, so dubbed for hitting an anti-fascist protester with a stick at a March 2017 Berkeley protest, became mini celebrities on the far-right when footage went viral; similarly, 2018 footage of Nordean punching a counterprotester at a Portland rally was incorporated into a sizzle reel promoted on the Proud Boys’ Twitter account; the clip received more than a million views. Joe Rogan brought up the violent footage on his podcast, which garners 190 million downloads per month, in the context of critiquing anti-fascists’ fighting skills.
Guest appearances on Rogan’s podcast were instrumental to the Proud Boys’ growth, says Juliet Jeske, a student at CUNY’s Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism who has been following McInnes since 2016, and has watched and archived all 407 episodes of his show. On it, McInnes frequently bragged about how many new followers he’d acquired with each Rogan appearance, Jeske says. Though episodes featuring McInnes were deleted from Rogan’s catalog when his show moved to Spotify, Rogan has previously defended his decision to have McInnes on, saying, “I had him on before he was even a Proud Boy. I didn’t even know what the fuck the Proud Boys was” (this despite McInnes having referred to the Proud Boys as a “gang” on a Rogan podcast appearance). In a later interview, Rogan called McInnes “mostly fun.” (Rogan did not return a request for comment.)
Using violence as a public recruitment tactic represented a huge shift from far-right extremist groups in previous years, says Michael German, a Brennan Center for Justice fellow and former FBI agent who went undercover for far-right militia cases. While historically white-nationalist groups had downplayed violence in order to avoid law-enforcement attention, “the Proud Boys came out and vocally promoted themselves as violent actors, even in their initiation process. It’s unusual for any kind of organization to publicly state its intent to break the law,” he says.
Since many of the Proud Boys were traveling across state lines to attend rallies and openly attack protesters, German assumed that the group “would draw FBI attention immediately.” But across the country, law enforcement appears to have enjoyed something of a cozy relationship with the Proud Boys. In Philadelphia, off-duty police officers were captured on camera mingling with Proud Boys after a rally in support of Vice President Mike Pence; last September, a police officer there was seen shaking hands with a member of the Proud Boys and a group of officers was then seen walking with them to a Walmart parking lot after a rally. (In a statement to Rolling Stone, a spokeswoman said that PPD officers “will be found at most demonstrations, following and flanking the crowds as they travel [to ensure public safety.]” She acknowledged that a PPD lieutenant shook hands with members of the Proud Boys, but said it was aligned with the department’s policy to “engage protesters in a respectful manner that fosters communication.”)
In Portland, police would regularly usher Proud Boys in and out of the areas where rallies took place, to the degree that it turned the heads of left-wing activists. Marquez says that one time, after he was arrested at a protest, he saw a police officer ask one of the Proud Boys for a selfie. (A Portland Police Bureau spokesman denied that the Proud Boys received special treatment, adding that he’d never heard of a Portland officer taking a selfie with a Proud Boy. “If anyone wishes to make a complaint, then there is an independent body that does that,” he wrote, linking to the Portland independent police review.)
A friendly dynamic between groups like the Proud Boys and police is not unusual, says German. “Law enforcement treated violent far-right militant groups at public protests differently than it treated nonviolent anti-racism protesters. The Proud Boys fit in that milieu,” he says. “They would commit violence with law enforcement standing by, and in many cases, [police] appeared to be enabling far-right militant groups to come into their communities to commit violence. Then they’d allow them to leave.”
This attitude also apparently extended to the FBI, which — in light of Trump’s election and Attorney General Bill Barr’s directive to fight “antifa” — failed to fully recognize the Proud Boys as a threat. “Historically, the FBI has not prioritized white supremacists and far-right militant violence within its domesticterrorism program,” says German. The FBI’s stance on the Proud Boys was reflected by the fact that, in 2018, when an internal memo from the sheriff’s office in Clark County, Washington, suggested the FBI considered members of the Proud Boys “an extremist group with ties to white nationalism,” a representative for the FBI made a public statement contradicting the report, stating that “the FBI does not and will not police ideology.”
The Proud Boys adopted aggressive tactics to combat any insinuation that they posed a violent threat. Jason Lee Van Dyke, the Proud Boys member who by 2017 had started officially acting as the group’s attorney, says that he set up a Google alert for “Proud Boys” and every morning, when he arrived at the office, he’d send legal threats to news organizations
After the fight at the Metropolitan Republican Club, the Proud Boys “became pariahs overnight. They weren’t attacked; it wasn’t self-defense. It was harder to say, ‘Oh, they’re really a men’s group.’”
that referred to the group as a “white supremacist” or “white nationalist” group. He boasts that they were able to get a significant amount of corrections and retractions from mainstream news organizations as a result. (Van Dyke would later be expelled from the group for, he claims, accidentally doxxing members. He would later be accused of attempting to join the neo-Nazi group the Base in 2019, a claim he refused to comment on.)
It was the organization’s irrefutable bent toward open racism and anti-Semitism that led Nero to ultimately disassociate from the Proud Boys. After joining the Proud Boys’ Facebook page, Nero, saw that it was inundated with racist memes and language, including the n-word. He claims he had no knowledge of any members’ racist leanings prior to this.
Nero confronted McInnes about the racist language on the page. “He seemed as though he was surprised, and that he didn’t know. He said, ‘That’s not what we’re about,’ and blah blah blah,” Nero says. McInnes posted a letter on Facebook discouraging Proud Boys from using such language, but Nero says that after doing a deep-dive into McInnes’ previous podcast episodes, “the reality is he was spewing this stuff out the whole time.” He says he stopped returning McInnes’ calls to go on the podcast, with his last appearance in July 2017. Nero says he has not spoken to McInnes or any other Proud Boys members for years. (McInnes says he was the one who stopped calling Nero, after the latter’s participation in a This American Life exposé of the group in 2017.)
To this day, however, Nero is insistent in his belief that the Proud Boys did not start out as an inherently hateful group. He refers to anti-extremism researchers’ categorization of the group as such as “psychobabble. “It was just a joke,” he says. “That’s really all it was.” In his view, the No Wanks philosophy was designed to empower men, aid intimacy, and help them respect themselves and their female partners. But in developing the group’s ideology, “they cut out whatever they wanted . . . and they left what they didn’t need,” he says.
In October 2018, the Metropolitan Republican Club, a conservative club in an Upper East Side brownstone in Manhattan, invited McInnes to speak, promoting him on the organization’s Facebook page as a “godfather of the Hipster movement” who had “exposed the Deep State Socialists and stood up for Western Values.” The city’s left-wing activists were furious, graffitiing the building with anarchist symbols hours before McInnes was scheduled to appear, and leaving a note that said, “The Metropolitan Republican Club chose to invite a hipster-fascist clown to dance for them, content to revel in their treachery against humanity.”
True to form, McInnes took the controversy surrounding the event as an opportunity to troll. He showed up at the club carrying a katana sword and wearing glasses with exaggerated slanted eyes drawn on them, a reference to Otoya Yamaguchi, an extremist who had become a meme on the far-right
for assassinating the leader of the Japanese Socialist Party in 1960. McInnes left the club sardonically waving the katana at a crowd of 80 to 100 protesters who had assembled outside. Surveillance footage released by the NYPD shows one of the protesters throwing a bottle at some Proud Boys, prompting a group of them to push him to the ground, punching and kicking him. Two members, Maxwell Hare and John Kinsman, were ultimately convicted in 2019 on charges of attempted gang assault, attempted assault, and rioting.
The Proud Boys, Jeske says, “became pariahs overnight,” thanks in large part to footage of the altercation going viral. “They weren’t attacked; it wasn’t self-defense. And it was harder to say, ‘Oh, they’re really a men’s group, they’re not really racist.’ ” The incident left many members scurrying for legal cover, most notably McInnes, who publicly resigned from the group via YouTube a month later. In that video, McInnes positioned his departure as an act of self-sacrifice intended to help his acolytes. “I am told by my legal team and law enforcement that this gesture could help alleviate their sentencing,” he said, adding, “at the very least this will show jurors they are not dealing with a gang and there is no head of operations.”
Despite this, McInnes tells Rolling Stone that he still maintains contact with them: “I talk to them. I love them. I still consider them the greatest fraternal organization in the world.”
The group’s reluctance to publicly align themselves with Unite the Right did not stop them from later installing rally attendee Tarrio as head of the organization. The Florida state director of Latinos for Trump, Tarrio who is of Cuban descent who grew up with family members who attributed their conservatism to living under Fidel Castro. Despite his criminal record (he was sentenced to a 16-month federal prison term in 2014 for his role in a scheme to resell fraudulent diabetes test kits), and his propensity for using racial, ethnic, and homophobic slurs on social media, Tarrio was ambitious, charismatic, and wellliked within the organization, with the high-gloss patina of Republican-establishment credentials, making him an ideal replacement for the more mercurial McInnes.
But there may have been a more important reason why he was installed as leader of the group, says Devin Burghart, executive director of the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights: As a Miami native of Afro Cuban descent, Burghart says Tarrio “provided cover from charges of racism and was often used as a shield to deflect those charges of bigotry within the organization.” Tarrio was often quick to tout his race to defend the organization to the media, telling reporters, “I’m pretty brown, I’m Cuban. There’s nothing white supremacist about me.”
As the group grew, it became increasingly decentralized, with each local chapter adopting its own unique flavor. The Pacific Northwest contingent, for instance, “is obsessed with street fighting, with brass knuckles,” says Stall. “Whereas the Michigan group is increasingly looking like a militia, like they’re showing up with long rifles.” Such fragmentation had the effect of making them seem disorganized and less likely to draw a crowd. “What we’ve seen is a decline in the numbers they’ve been able to draw out,” Effie Baum, the spokeswoman for PopMob, a Portlandbased anti-fascist organization, told Rolling Stone in 2019. But this impression was misleading. “The important thing to remember is that they were making plans and organizing for the past four years,” says Jenkins. The coronavirus pandemic and the subsequent anti-lockdown and BLM protests across the country “was their time to shine,” he says.
In October 2020, during a presidential debate, Trump gave the Proud Boys even more of a boost. When asked to denounce the Proud Boys, Trump first said he didn’t know who they were, then said, “Proud Boys, stand back and stand by.” The shoutout was the shot in the arm the group needed, taking them from “a fledgling group that was barely holding on” to a far-right organization with the apparent endorsement of the president, says Jeske. The members themselves appeared to agree. “Standing by sir,” Tarrio said on Parler immediately following the debate. “President Trump told the proud boys to stand by because someone needs to deal with ANTIFA . . . well sir! we’re ready!!,” Biggs wrote. [
[ Cont. from 129] Following Trump’s loss in November 2020, the Proud Boys started ramping up their rhetoric. After attending Stop the Steal rallies in November and December, according to an FBI filing, Tarrio began encouraging followers on Parler to attend the January 6th rally in D.C., posting that the Proud Boys would “turn out in record numbers” but go incognito, eschewing their trademark colors; he also posted a meme of men in black-and-yellow engulfed in fire, captioning it “Lords of War.”
Tarrio was arrested on January 4th on an outstanding warrant for burning a Black Lives Matter banner in front of a D.C. church last December. (He has pleaded not guilty to all charges, despite admitting to burning the banner on his podcast in December.) An FBI agent later said that Tarrio was arrested because they had intercepted information he was planning to incite violence at the rally, a claim Tarrio dismisses as “complete and total hogwash.” (He has pleaded not guilty to all charges, despite admitting to burning the banner on his podcast in December.) Tarrio maintains that the posts on Parler were intended to fool the media and left-wing counterprotesters.
Despite Tarrio’s protestations, however, charging documents for the individual defendants paint a picture of an initiative that was, if not well-orchestrated, earnest in its attempt to cause genuine chaos. On December 27th, 2020, according to an FBI affidavit, Nordean posted this on his Parler page: “Anyone looking to help us with safety/protective gear, or communications equipment it would be much appreciated, things have gotten more dangerous for us this past year, anything helps,” linking to a fundraising page.
On January 4th, according to the same affidavit, Nordean posted a video on Parler of himself in tactical gear, with the caption, “Let them remember the day they decided to make war with us.” That same day, in an episode of his video podcast Radio Talk With Rufio, he appears to more explicitly allude to the organization’s future plans when talking about fighting what he viewed as rampant voter fraud: “I think they’re relying on complacency. I think they’re relying on the Facebook posts, and that’s all we’re going to do,” Nordean said of the government, declaring that the Proud Boys would “bring back that original spirit of 1776 of what really established the character of what America is.”
“Democracy is dead?” he later asks. “Well, then no peace for you. No democracy, no peace.”
Since the events of January 6th, more than a dozen Proud Boy members and associates have been arrested and charged for their alleged roles in the insurrection. But it wasn’t the FBI investigation that had the most impact on the group, so much as the revelation, reported by Reuters, that Tarrio had served as an FBI informant following his 2013 arrest. In an interview with R olling S tone, Tarrio attempted to spin his involvement with the FBI by claiming he named someone involved in a smuggling ring to save family members from jail time. But within the group’s ranks, the efforts to disassociate from Tarrio — and, by extension, the formal Proud Boys organization — were swift.
“We do not recognize the assumed authority of any national Proud Boy leadership including the Chairman, the Elders, or any subsequent governing body that is formed to replace them until such a time we may choose to consent to join those bodies of government,” a number of state Proud Boys chapters, including Indiana, Oklahoma, and Alabama, posted on Telegram. In March, Joe Biggs’ lawyer wrote in a court filing that Biggs himself, known as the flashy enforcer of the group, had contact with the FBI in 2019 and 2020, which was “intended both to inform law enforcement about Proud Boy activities in Portland on a courtesy basis but also to ask for advice on planned marches or demonstrations.” (The FBI declined to comment on any ongoing investigations.)
Reports of Biggs’ work with the FBI had confirmed anti-extremism experts’ suspicions that law enforcement had largely ignored the Proud Boys’ activities or even implicitly supported them. “The sheer level of what they’ve been able to get away with over the past four years is staggering,” says Burghart. “And it’s in large part because they’ve been able to cultivate that relationship with some in law enforcement and some in the GOP.”
As more information emerges about the FBI’s treatment of the Proud Boys, it seems increasingly probable that their attack on the Capitol could have been prevented, despite the claims of some FBI officials. In congressional testimony following the insurrection, for instance, FBI official Jill Sanborn alleged that because of First Amendment protections, the agency did not have the right to track the public social media posts made by right-wing organizations in advance of the January 6th attack, a claim German, the former FBI agent, finds laughable.
“The FBI and Justice Department prosecutors seem to be trying to present the January 6th attack as spontaneous and original, rather than recognizing it was the culmination of many different violent attacks across the country,” he says, citing stabbings and the arrest of 33 protesters and counterprotesters in D.C. a mere month before. “As long as their violence was targeted at antifa, law enforcement was OK with it. It was only when it turned around and they attacked law enforcement that law enforcement took notice.”
Within the ranks of the Proud Boys, the arrests have arguably served to further fray the ties between factions of the group, as well as carve out space for more extremist members to try to take the reins over its future direction. “We’re at a point where there is some kind of entropy,” says researcher Reid Ross. “There’s a lot of coalitions breaking apart. That will lead to new sympathies down the road, but also the more populist members falling away and deradicalizing. In some cases it will lead to more intense radicalization and the desire to act in more extreme ways.”
One potential challenger is Chapman, the former head of FOAK known as Based Stickman. Though Tarrio says Chapman was kicked out three years ago, he attempted to gain control of the group in the fall of 2020 and steer the Proud Boys toward more open extremism, announcing, “We will no longer cuck to the left by appointing token negroes as our leaders. We will no longer allow homosexuals or other ‘undesirables’ into our ranks. We will confront the Zionist criminals who wish to destroy our civilization. We recognize that the West was built by the White Race alone and we owe nothing to any other race.”
Brien James, the former neo-Nazi who is currently the head of the Proud Boys’ Indiana chapter, also appears to be angling for some form of leadership position within the organization. “We all have this speculation Brien James is simply trying to take over,” says Jenkins. “It may not be under the Proud Boys banner, but he’s definitely going to make use of the momentum that the Proud Boys had.”
On his own Telegram channel, James appears to be actively stoking resentment toward current Proud Boys leadership. “What else do you think these guys are willing to do to avoid the consequences of their own actions?” he wrote in one post about Tarrio, Biggs, and Nordean, the latter of whom he said had submitted Telegram chat logs as part of his defense. “What did their leader do when he got himself in trouble a few years ago?” he added, apparently referring to McInnes’ resignation after the Metropolitan Republican Club incident. “Get the fuck away from these people. Don’t communicate with them. . . . Run for the fucking hills.”
In general, as exiles from far-right pro-Trump movements flock to alternative social platforms like Parler and Telegram, anti-extremism researchers are concerned about cross-pollination, particularly the Proud Boys’ attempts to recruit other disillusioned Trump acolytes with a range of far-right ideological leanings. “They’re looking for a potential new well of recruits coming out of the activities of QAnon,” says Burghart, referring to the farright conspiracy theory positing the existence of a secret left-wing child-trafficking ring. The vacuum left by the anonymous poster Q, who has been silent since the insurrection, “can easily be filled with ideas around the importance of creating a white ethnostate or racial superiority.”
But even though experts say the federal charges may result in many members of the group turning on each other, those who have watched the havoc that the Proud Boys have wrought over the years warn that it would be a mistake to discount them now. “Right-wing extremism is still a threat in this country,” says Jenkins. “We have to recognize it for what it is. If we do not, we’re here again.”
Across the country, members of the Proud Boys are still openly rallying. In April, a Fresno, California, police officer was ousted from the force after he was spotted at a protest with Proud Boys; more than two months after the attack on the Capitol, the Proud Boys and other Trump supporters were reportedly involved in a skirmish with antifascist counterprotesters outside the Oregon state capitol. And in May, Nevada’s Clark County GOP canceled a meeting following leaders’ concerns about a potential right-wing insurgency that included the Proud Boys.
This is, effectively, the Proud Boys’ plan for the future, as Tarrio openly admits to R olling S tone: Rather than retreating from the public eye in light of the organization’s legal issues and reputation for violence, he plans to steer it more toward mainstream politics by running members, including possibly himself, for local office. “There’s a pretty big percentage of people who think like us,” he says, citing the warm reception he and the Proud Boys get from local GOP leaders. “I think we need representation.” Despite the organization’s recent infighting, he says that he, and the Proud Boys, will “be here through fucking sleet or snow.”
Marquez says that for weeks prior to the attempted insurrection, he had watched on Telegram as the Proud Boys had hyped up one another, saying they were going to show up in D.C. and defend the president and overturn the vote. “It’s amazing to me that people would think that they were lying,” he says. Throughout their history, the Proud Boys have “done everything that they said they were going to do. They had shown up for weeks before, prior to January 6th, having open brawls in the street. The intent was clear. So why would you disbelieve them?”