PALM BEACH, Fla. — Among the sea of red hats and American flags at President Donald Trump’s rallies, the Proud Boys are easy to spot.
They are the group of men in black Fred Perry polo shirts with yellow trim, flashing the traditional OK hand signal. They gather outdoors rather than inside arenas at Trump rallies and wherever they can find events sponsored by Democrats and anti-Trump groups.
They are rowdy, tattooed and wave some of the largest American and Trump 2020 flags in the crowd. Some use megaphones to broadcast the virtues of their brand of “extreme patriotism.” Antifa, a militant protest movement that opposes fascism and far-right ideology, is the enemy.
Depending on your political persuasion and thresh hold for noise and large gatherings of Trump’s most devoted supporters, the Proud Boys are either a violent white supremacist, anti-Muslim hate group or an enthusiastic, patriotic men’s fraternal organization that promotes “western chauvinism” — a Mad Men-esque type of America where Muslims are vilified, housewives are venerated and Trump is revered.
“We like to call ourselves a men’s drinking club with a political problem,” said a Proud Boy who identified himself as UK2USAPatriot, one of a handful of Proud Boys who gathered with Trump supporters outside an invitation-only appearance by the president at The Villages retirement community in Florida on Oct. 3. “We are sick and tired of being branded homophobic, racist white supremacists.
“Let’s face it, if … you have anything other than a leftist opinion and point of view, you’re a white supremacist — doesn’t matter what color skin you have,” he added.
What is clear is the impeachment inquiry into Trump’s call with Ukraine’s president has ratcheted up the political rhetoric. In this super-heated environment, the Proud Boys are seemingly mainstream. And that worries organizations that keep tabs on groups that are on the fringes of the political spectrum.
To the Southern Poverty Law Center, for example, the Proud Boys are a hate group.
The SPLC is a nonprofit, founded in 1971 as a civil rights group. It has broadened its mission to include migrant justice, criminal justice reform, LGBTQ rights and hate and extremism.
The SPLC argues the Proud Boys’ “anti-political correctness” and “anti-white guilt” agenda and denunciation of the alt-right masks the group’s bigotry.
“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,’ ” according to the SPLC website. “They are known for anti-Muslim and misogynistic rhetoric.”
The SPLC and its findings are vehemently repudiated by far-right groups, however.
The Proud Boys admit it is anti-Muslim but says the SPLC label is dead wrong. It is the SPLC, not the Proud Boys, that is a hate group, they say.
“The misunderstanding comes from the Southern Poverty Law Center, which is a hate group,” UK2USA Patriot said.
UK2USA Patriot added that the group’s current leader, Enrique Tarrio, identifies himself as an Afro-Cuban from Miami. “We have people of every shade and color that (are) Proud Boys,” he said.
To date, the Proud Boys have been absent from the presidential motorcade path from Palm Beach International Airport to Mar-a-Lago, a route along Southern Boulevard that draws pro- and anti-Trump demonstrators each time Trump is in town.
Outside the Amway arena in Orlando arena, where Trump officially kicked off his 2020 campaign in June, a group of Proud Boys left the area where thousands of Trump supporters had gathered and walked a half-mile to the site of an anti-Trump protest organized at a gay bar.
Police in riot gear lined up in front of barricades separating the Proud Boys from hundreds of anti-Trump protesters to ensure the standoff would not turn violent. Nine months earlier, several Proud Boys were arrested in New York City and charged with attacking four, anti-fascist Antifa protesters after a speech by Proud Boys founder Gavin McInnes.
New York City police released a video of the attack that showed Proud Boys dressed in black and yellow polo shirts punching and kicking the protesters. The victims refused to cooperate with police.
In August, a jury rejected claims by Proud Boys members Maxwell Hare and John Kinsman that they acted in self-defense and convicted both on charges of attempted gang assault, attempted assault and riot. The two are scheduled to be sentenced this month and face a maximum sentence of 15 years in prison.
Portland, Ore., has been the site of several violent clashes between Proud Boys and Antifa protesters. Members have appeared alongside other far-right groups at extremist events, such as the Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville, Va., organized by white supremacists.
The group was founded in 2016 by McInnes, a British-born writer, radio host, commentator and co-founder of Vice Media and Vice Magazine. In just three years, the group has spread to eight countries, including Canada, Australia and the United Kingdom.
The organization says its members are vetted and those with white supremacist beliefs or tattoos are not allowed to join, said UK2USA Patriot. The group’s initiation rituals reportedly include reciting the names of five breakfast cereals while being slugged by other members.
The groups have monthly meetings and an annual conference, he added. The only requirements are that you be a man and a “western chauvinist.”
“The west is the best,” UK2USA Patriot said.
Controversy has been constant. McInnes and the group have been banned from Facebook, Twitter and Instagram and in February, McInnes sued the SPLC for defamation.
The Anti-Defamation League recently labeled the group’s hand gesture, the OK sign, a hate symbol. Proud Boys claim there is no meaning behind the use of the hand signal beyond annoying and agitating liberals.
Also in 2018, Australia refused McInnes a visa, judging him to be of “bad character,” according to Australia’a ABC News.
The Fred Perry brand, named after the legendary tennis champion, asked the group to stop wearing its classic polo shirt as its uniform. Slate magazine reported that Square, Chase Paymentech and PayPal pulled their payment processing services from 1776.shop, an online far-right merchandise site associated with the Proud Boys.
A month after the New York City attacks, McInnes announced in a YouTube video that he was “officially disassociating” himself from the Proud Boys “in all capacities, forever.”
McInnes said his quitting was “100% a legal gesture and 100% about alleviating sentencing” for those charged.
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