How the Proud Boys Supercharged an Era of Far-Right Extremism -

2022-09-24 09:52:27 By : Mr. Steven Wang

An interview with journalist Andy Campbell, whose new book ‘We Are the Proud Boys’ explains everything you need to know about the violent street gang.

Proud Boys co-founder Gavin McInnes at the 2019 Demand Free Speech Rally in Washington, D.C.

Much of the American public first learned of rightwing hate gang the Proud Boys after the infamous presidential debate between Donald Trump and Joe Biden in which Trump ordered them to “stand back and stand by.” But they were terrorizing communities for years before that. Andy Campbell is one of the few reporters who have been covering the Proud Boys from day one. In his superb new book, We Are Proud Boys: How a Right-Wing Street Gang Ushered in a New Era of American Extremism, Campbell lays out everything you need to know about the gang that helped organize a coup attempt in Washington, D.C. on January 6.

Campbell started out at Huffington Post as a crime reporter. He moved to politics in 2016 and, as with many journalists covering Trump, his job shifted into covering far-right extremism. “The Proud Boys stuck out right from the beginning as something more concerning than the other guys,” Campbell told me when I interviewed him for the article below. He was right, of course, and unlike a lot of the media in those days, he covered them with the skepticism that they deserved. 

Generous media profiles of the Proud Boys’ cool hipster co-founder Gavin McInnes, who also  co-founded Vice magazine, made the rounds on the Internet. Many journalists allowed him to promote the gang on their airwaves and websites as a “drinking club with a patriotism problem.” Unfortunately for the nation, these profiles ignored his regular calls for violence along the way, something that We Are Proud Boys documents extensively. 

The story of the Proud Boys wouldn’t be complete without discussing Trump’s boogeyman: antifa. Campbell’s book, in chronicling the far right, also features interviews with some of the people who investigated and infiltrated the organization at a time when law enforcement was defending them at Black Lives Matter protests. 

We Are Proud Boys does the tough job of delving into the origins and myths that bolstered the gang, including the odd and cruel story behind the source of its name (it’s from the Aladdin musical, but you’ll need to read the book for the messed up part). Even if you’re already familiar with the Proud Boys, this book is a riveting read that reminds you of all the times that we could have stopped them. 

This is an edited transcript—listen to the full audio of my interview with Andy Campbell here or below.

Zach Roberts: Treat me like I’ve been living in a bunker, surviving on food buckets for the past five years. Who are the Proud Boys?

Andy Campbell: Yeah, the Proud Boys are a far-right extremist group who were built on the call-in show of Gavin McInnes, who’s also the co-founder of Vice. Gavin McInnes is, you know, a reactionary, bigoted shock jock type guy who was pushed out of Vice media when his stories and rhetoric were getting too extreme. In fact, when I was writing the book, I reached out to Vice over some of the Gavin McInnes stuff they still had on the site, one of which was essentially a guide to date rape, and they hadn’t removed it until I reached out. 

Now, Vice has removed all of that content—just horrible bile. As Gavin was pushed out of Vice [in 2008], he decided to double down on this sort of misogynist “comedy” rhetoric of the early aughts and created through his audience, a gang, which he started describing as his disciples. His audience were showing up to his studio in Manhattan and partying with him. They would rail lines of cocaine, drink beer, and then they would talk about fighting out in the streets with antifa and whatever leftist opposition that they could find. 

So their tenets, as told by McInnes, were to commit acts of violence for the cause, the cause being Trump’s cause and the GOP’s grievances. But they were super anti-immigrant, anti-women, anti-LGBTQ+ in the beginning. As Gavin lets a little bit loose on the reins, Enrique Tarrio takes over and creates them into a more political machine. [That’s the long] version of that—the Proud Boys are a far-right extremist group who have political violence in their ruleset.

Q: How much do you think the press is to blame for the rise of the Proud Boys? 

Campbell: The media plays such a huge role in the rise of the Proud Boys and all of our extremist movements right now. Mainstream media has often been so bamboozled by the Proud Boys’ positioning of what they do as protected political speech that [they] stay silent and cast the Proud Boys the way that they wanted to be seen. Even today, you’ll see smaller news organizations push forward the Proud Boys as they want to be seen, which is a drinking club that’s political in nature. And law enforcement does this, too. 

And so to this day, we as the digital media, the so-called liberal media landscape, we’re having to be the gatekeepers of this stuff. And it really sucks. I hate finger wagging, but it’s been the only way to shove the mainstream media into a place where they are defining these guys with a baseline of “they’re liars, they’re bigots, and they are harmful.”

Q: When was the moment that the Proud Boys became a thing that people talked about and it wasn’t just “right-wingers” or “MAGA”?

Campbell: I would say that law enforcement and the media started to take notice after the GOP club attack in Manhattan in 2018. I wouldn’t say that everyone did a great job after that, but certainly after that [New York Metropolitan Republican Club] attack, they go, “Oh, you know, these guys are fighting in political strongholds.”

That same weekend, they had one of their most violent events in Portland. And so they did this sort of cross-country weekend of violence. And people started to take notice. But again, the mainstream media’s reaction up until the months preceding January 6 [2021] was to put Proud Boys on the air and say, “Who are you guys?” And allow them to define themselves the way that they wanted to.

By the time these accounts and leaders get deplatformed, they have their own platforms.

Q: One of the biggest problems with the Proud Boys, especially in Washington, D.C., is the fact that the police have such a friendly relationship [with them]. They never seem to get arrested. 

Campbell: You’re speaking to this whole ecosystem. That’s why the difficulty of writing this book was that it’s not just a history of the rise of the Proud Boys, but a primer on this entire ecosystem and how we cover it [and how] we’ve changed our coverage over the last few years. And certainly newsrooms across the country are having new conversations about how to cover the police, whether you take police reports at their word. And increasingly the answer is no, because the police lie for their own gain. 

And certainly we’ve seen that there are members of the military in the Proud Boys, and members of the police in the Proud Boys. There were several Proud Boy police officers at the January 6 riots. And on top of that, there are day-to-day interactions between police and Proud Boys at events. Like you said, the fist bumps, the hanging out, the giving direction, the escorting them in Portland, which they’ve done a number of times, whether the police there believe that they’re friendly with them or not.

The people on the other side, who are generally just locals protesting the extremists in town, are looking at that and going, “Whose side are you on?” And time and time again, we’ve seen that police will stand with the Proud Boys who, by the way, are at the police’s backs with pro-police messaging on their flags and [in their] chants. And part of their tactic is to side with the police there and show them, “Hey, we're on your side.”

All of that taken together has led to the police standing with the Proud Boys at their backs and the locals and activists and protesters at their front, shooting munitions into crowds. And it’s been terrifying and awful to see from a journalist’s perspective. It has absolutely aided in these new conversations about whether we trust police, for sure.

If the mainstream media is just now recognizing the threat posed by the Proud Boys, they have not even begun to put their toe in the water of questioning police motives in these events. And so that’s another facet of how the media needs to make changes [in] the way that they portray what the police are doing. I always say this in every one of my interviews—one of the takeaways [of my book] is that we need to change the way the mainstream media portrays the activism against these extremist groups, because, look, you’re going to be able to find that one clip of, a burning, empty building facade or a black clad protester holding a molotov cocktail. But that’s the tip of the tip of the iceberg of activism. 

And, in fact, activists were the ones who came up with hundreds of dossiers on January 6, which the Justice Department has used to lead to hundreds of prosecutions. It was local activists and researchers who put together the dossiers on the [August 2017, Charlottesville, Virginia,] Unite the Right architects and created a $25 million successful lawsuit against them. This hasn’t been an effort against extremism that’s been led by law enforcement. It’s been led by activists and researchers.

Q: One thing that worries me is that we had warnings before Charlottesville, yet police and the media were saying, “We had no way we could have seen this coming.” And then January 6 happened and everyone was saying “I can't believe this happened!”, including the D.C. Metropolitan Police Department and all the different law enforcement entities that were there. Every single activist that I know knew the documents [about plans for January 6] were posted online. There were even articles written about it in HuffPost. Do you think that January 6 changed things enough that we will be able to get politicians and leadership to pay attention before the next January 6 possibly occurs in 2024? 

Campbell: Well, that’s the thing. I think the big positive change following these big extremist events is that activists have absolutely flooded the zone. I remember before Unite the Right, when it was a handful of us extremism reporters and a smaller handful of researchers keeping an eye on everyone’s Telegram chats. But now that zone is totally flooded. There are researchers and activists all over, in every jurisdiction, watching the extremists around them. And it takes some of the heat off of [the rest of ]us to do that work. The issue is that we still are ten steps behind in terms of law enforcement and our political environment’s ability to respond to that.

Going forward, I think that a lot of the Proud Boys leadership are going to go to jail for a really long time. And I hope that the Justice Department, the federal government, doesn’t sort of wipe its hands clean of the situation after that, because as we’re seeing the Proud Boys latch on to the GOP grievance machine and showing up at abortion rallies and anywhere trans rights are being discussed, including children’s hospitals. They’re showing up at LGBTQ+ events and adding a violent edge to all facets of civic life. So they haven’t slowed down. And I worry that people are going to go back into “Well, it’s done” mode after these guys go to jail for sedition.

Q: What do you think the future is for the group? 

Campbell: Well, Enrique Tarrio told me in an interview that he wanted as many Proud Boys as possible to run for public office and to throw their weight behind individuals who share their ideology. And they’ve absolutely done that. The Proud Boys can work independently—they have chapters all over the country that are allowed to throw their own events, raise their own money, hawk their own merchandise. And they’ve been doing that since their leadership has gone to jail. 

They already have their baseline marching orders, which is to go out and start fighting as soon as Tucker Carlson or Donald Trump and company point their finger at something. They have done that over and over through the summer. So on top of the fact that I don’t think the Proud Boys are slowing down, the playbook that they’ve [assembled]—which is, “Hey, if you go out there and and attack somebody for their political views, say you’re a political group, you’ve got protected speech”—is [now the] embedded ruleset. 

What their playbook has done is show everyday Americans that they can go out there with guns and batons and body armor and fight people and get away with it without getting arrested. Like Libs of TikTok, these sort of rightwing loudmouths online are realizing through Gavin McInnes that [they] can foment violence in the streets and won’t face anything. Gavin McInnes hasn’t faced any legal ramifications for creating this horrible, violent street gang, and Libs of TikTok and company certainly haven’t seen any sort of ramifications other than getting suspended from Twitter.

Q: Deplatforming has been the best way to deal with their organizing online but that seems to be changing in some ways. Kicking them off of Facebook and Twitter isn’t ending it.

A: By the time these accounts and leaders get deplatformed, they have their own platforms. These guys have built such an audience that they can get their message out no matter what. And so going forward, the threat is not just the Proud Boys, but everyday Americans joining in on these acts of political violence—not just at political rallies, but at every civic event in America. And I really think these next two election cycles are going to be just incredibly violent. It’s a scary time, for sure.

Listen to the full interview here:

Zach D. Roberts is a photojournalist covering the far right in America and is a Puffin Foundation artist.

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