Proud Boys, told by Trump to stand back and stand by, ‘all but guarantees violence’
The far-right organization emboldened by President Trump to “stand back and stand by” got its start four years ago as a “men’s drinking club,” and has morphed into a gang considered a hate group by experts on extremism — one that the Anti-Defamation League says operates in a way that “all but guarantees violence.”
The Proud Boys has become a dangerous element on the streets of Portland, Ore., where its leaders say it is dedicated to thwarting Black Lives Matter and the anti-fascist movement known as antifa. This week, its members embraced what they regarded as Trump’s endorsement during a presidential debate when he avoided condemning far-right and white supremacist groups.
Joanna Mendelson, associate director of the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism, said the Proud Boys is an unconventional far-right faction, bragging of a membership representing a range of ethnic backgrounds.
“Proud Boys have carved out this niche for themselves as both this right-wing fight club and a volunteer security force for the GOP,” she said. “And they purposely organize and act in a manner that will all but guarantee violence.”
Joe Biggs, a Florida-based organizer for the male-only group who helped organize a rally Saturday in Portland, said that vilifying antifa and the social justice protests erupting nightly in that city is key to his group’s national strategy.
“Portland is the main center of insurrection around the country,” Biggs said, adding that his members were prepared to return “if we continue to see these insurrections going unchecked.”
The debate night statement by Trump — who said antifa and left-wing activists were a mounting threat to American cities, and that the Proud Boys should “stand back and stand by"— was celebrated on social media channels frequented by neo-Nazis and white supremacists. Commenters regarded the president’s remark as an endorsement and a call to action.
Trump sought to walk back his statement Wednesday after criticism from fellow Republicans. “I don’t know who the Proud Boys are,” he said, responding to a reporter’s question on the White House lawn before departing on a campaign trip to Minnesota. “I can only say they have to stand down, let law enforcement do their work.”
Started in 2016 by Vice Media co-founder Gavin McInnes as a “men’s drinking club,” the Proud Boys bills itself as a group of “Western chauvinists” who believe in free speech, gun rights and closed borders and oppose what they describe as racial guilt and political correctness.
They have become a mercurial, hard-to-define, flag-waving shock force for conservatives. The Southern Poverty Law Center considers them a hate group, noting their leaders and members “regularly spout white nationalist memes and maintain affiliations with known extremists.”
The group has organized rallies in Portland and other cities, calling on police to be more aggressive against left-wing activists. Members of the group participated in a pro-Trump truck caravan that turned violent in downtown Portland on Aug. 29, when a follower of another right-wing group, Patriot Prayer, was fatally shot.
The unrest roiling Portland, Ore., and other cities this year has been a powerful recruiting tool for organizations like the Proud Boys, Patriot Prayer and the Three Percenters. But not everyone who supports them is draped in camo and AR-15s.
Saturday’s rally in Portland attracted far fewer far-right activists than the thousands the Proud Boys had predicted. Several hundred far-right demonstrators, many in helmets and body armor and some openly carrying guns, turned out in a park.
Biggs claimed that the rally succeeded by forcing Gov. Kate Brown to declare a state of emergency. The U.S. Marshals Service deputized more than 50 Portland police officers on Saturday for a year, giving them powers that enable federal prosecutors to bring charges with stiffer penalties.
“That’s kind of cool because they can do their job now,” Biggs said Wednesday. “We’re just sick and tired of the lawlessness for 100-plus days in Portland. There has to be some accountability.”
Biggs, 36, of Daytona Beach, Fla., has a LinkedIn page that lists him as having served as a U.S. Army staff sergeant for 10 years. Banned along with his organization from Twitter and Facebook, he works for Censored.TV, a subscription channel that features hosts including McInnes.
After Tuesday’s debate, Biggs wrote on the Parler social media platform that “President Trump told the Proud Boys to stand by because someone needs to deal with antifa ... well sir! we’re ready!!”
He spoke with relish of his organization’s role in Portland. “It’s a joke that it took a men’s drinking club to help restore law and order,” he said.
He accused Brown and Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler of failing to crack down. “They’ve emboldened antifa to such a point that it’s now inspiring insurrection around the country,” he said, adding that the left-wing movement is “a great white shark that has a taste of blood and is trying to get more.”
Brown said a day before the rally that the Proud Boys and other participants aimed to intimidate, instigate and inflame. “We have seen what happens when armed vigilantes take matters into their own hands: We’ve seen it in Charlottesville. We’ve seen it in Kenosha. And, unfortunately, we have even seen it here in Portland,” she told reporters.
On Sunday, she thanked citizens of Oregon “for not rising to the bait when the Proud Boys came from out of town to express their hateful views.”
Wheeler said that local and state police had collaborated to ensure a mostly peaceful day. “Our community showed up in great numbers, standing peacefully against white supremacy without giving hate groups the fight they came for,” he said in a statement issued Wednesday.
Meanwhile on Wednesday, Portland police arrested Alan Swinney, a regular at Proud Boys rallies, on suspicion of a dozen criminal counts including assault, menacing and unlawful use of mace and a weapon.
According to an indictment, Swinney, 50, of Texas, pointed a revolver at someone in a crowd of anti-fascist protesters during a Proud Boys rally and used a paintball gun to injure someone.
Times staff writer Brian Contreras in Washington, D.C., contributed to this report.
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