In March 2018, on a cold, grey Monday afternoon in East Lansing, Michigan, about 500 militant antifascists gathered in a car park with the intention of stopping Richard Spencer, the high-profile white nationalist, from speaking at Michigan State University (MSU). Spencer had not been asked to come by any student group on campus, but had instead invited himself. After the university denied his initial request to speak a few months earlier, Spencer sued. As part of the settlement agreement, Spencer agreed to speak in the middle of spring break at the MSU Pavilion for Agriculture and Livestock Education, a venue more than a mile away from the main campus.
There in the parking lot, the antifascists kept one another warm, dancing to hardcore and hip-hop played over a wheeled-in guitar amplifier, sharing cigarettes and news from elsewhere. Some people talked about the leaked chat logs of the fascist gang Patriot Front, members of which were on their way to campus that very moment. Others discussed the arraignment of one of Spencers followers the night before on weapons charges after he pulled a gun on protesters. About 40 police officers in riot gear huddled at the far end of the car park. Bike cops on patrol swirled by.
Now and then, organisers affiliated with Stop Spencer at MSU a coalition that included the MSU chapter of the Young Democratic Socialists of America, Redneck Revolt, and Solidarity and Defense (SnD) addressed the crowd. Spencer is here because the MSU administration allows him to be here, said Bob Day, a greying local anarchist and member of SnDs Detroit chapter. Spencer is here because the state of Michigan pays all these fucking cops to come out and protect the fascists the same MSU administration and the same government thats allowing Spencer to come in here, and is allowing fascists to attack our communities, and is protecting those fascists.
The day wore on and the light grew harsher. Rumours surged that police planned to deploy a water cannon in the freezing weather. Armoured trucks idled nearby. A caravan of cars and trucks crawled up the road, stopping at a police barricade before inching back. Minutes later, a band of about 50 fascists came marching in a tight column led by Traditionalist Worker party (TWP) chair Matthew Heimbach his tall, heavyset figure recognisable from a distance and Spencers right-hand man, Gregory Conte. They were here. There was a brief pause as the column came up against the amassed antifascists, who swarmed past the barricades to meet it.
Scuffles broke out, and then a brawl. Spencer was nowhere to be seen. Police intervened sporadically, mostly at the periphery, pulling combatants off those who fell. Intermittently, a line of bike cops cut across the melee, which would reconverge elsewhere. I dont know how many times this process repeated itself. In some moments, I felt the whole affair take the shape of an absurd pantomime a symptom of having watched this exact scene play out in person, on YouTube and on Twitter so many times over the past few years.
The sense of absurdity receded as soon as I looked into the fascists eyes, dull with hatred and fear, or listened to their racial slurs and sieg heils, or when I saw, amid it all, Heimbachs delighted smile. You could read in it all the smug arrogance of a man who believes himself untouchable, his victory inevitable, and history his judge only faltering once, at the sight of some brass knuckles heading his way.
We didnt know it then, but looking back to that day, it seems clear that Heimbach and Spencer had already reached the height of their influence. Owing to a combination of relentless antifascist organising and their own hubris, both would soon withdraw to the margins of the movement they had, for a time, led. In time, new leaders would step into their place, experimenting with new tactics. Antifascists and numerous journalists raised the alarm, but it wasnt until after the 2020 election and especially 6 January 2021 that the mainstream recognised the threat posed by the far right.
Over the past few years, far-right groups, whether those growing out of the internet-based mens rights or Gamergate movements, or the lingering remnants of the neo-Nazi movement of the 1980s and 90s the base of what would come to call itself the alt-right have begun publicly and semi-publicly organising under their own distinct banners.
Political and ideological differences aside, groups like the Proud Boys, the Traditionalist Worker party (now defunct), Identity Evropa (now called the American Identity Movement), and Patriot Front (a specific organisation, not to be confused with the older, decentralised Patriot movement) aggressively and self-consciously sought to stake out their own aesthetics, uniforms, rituals and identity markers. In the process of trying to build an autonomous political force, amid the factional jostling and the infighting, the alt-right revealed its true nature. It is a constantly shifting network of personality cults, animated by misogyny, racism and a libidinal desire for violence. Its politics are articulated by the reclusive but influential Andrew Anglin of the neo-Nazi website The Daily Stormer: The core concept of the movement, upon which all else is based, is that Whites are undergoing an extermination, via mass immigration into White countries which was enabled by a corrosive liberal ideology of White self-hatred, and that the Jews are at the centre of this agenda.
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Dwindling enthusiasm for the militias and Patriot movement during the Bush era was transformed by the election of Barack Obama in 2008 and the development of the Tea Party, which according to the journalist David Neiwert, became a wholesale conduit for a revival of the Patriot movement and its militias. This convergence proved fertile ideological ground: the radical libertarianism of the Tea Partiers intermingling with the chauvinism of the militias and their white nationalist allies, bonded with the conspiracy theories of Alex Jones, Fox News propaganda and what the historian Greg Grandin once described as an almost psychotropic hatred of Barack Obama.
Many members of these groups would go on to become staunch Donald Trump supporters, and while the Republican party has traditionally sought to maintain a certain plausible deniability in its relationship with the fringe right, the Trump campaign threw open Pandoras box, welcoming the avowed white supremacists, antisemites and fascists who stalked the ideological fringes of US politics.
In the early years of the Trump administration, the more hardcore elements of the so-called alt-right the neo-Nazis, the neo-Confederate Ku Klux Klan affiliates, the esoteric fascists and white separatists sneered at the Proud Boys, the group founded by Gavin McInnes, who also co-founded the media organisation Vice. They were viewed as insufficiently radical: a drinking club for libertarian nationalists who liked to get into fights. For all their differences, white nationalist leaders like Anglin, Heimbach and Spencer could agree on one thing (other than the necessity of a white ethno-state), which was that the Proud Boys, with their silly initiation rituals and campy aesthetic, were ridiculous.
But as Heimbach and Spencers influence declined, the Proud Boys began to grow into something very few, either in the movement or outside it, had expected: a hegemonic force on the far right able to appeal to mainstream conservatives while also making space for white nationalists and fascists.
Anglin, Heimbach and Spencer built their movements hoping to not just influence the Republican party but wield political power in their own right. But after antifascist activist Heather Heyers murder in Charlottesville in 2017 and the mobilisations across the country that followed, the influence of this revolutionary tendency (while still active) began to wane. Less vigorously ideological groups such as the Proud Boys observed Spencer and Heimbachs mistakes. Their more moderate strategies have, in turn, won them greater appeal by foregrounding ultranationalism and a vicious opposition to leftwing politics.
Insofar as the Proud Boys were closer to the mainstream of American conservatism than Anglin, Heimbach and Spencer, this also made them even more dangerous. Anglin and Spencer werent getting invited to speak at Republican events, but McInnes was; members of the openly terroristic Atomwaffen Division werent running security for Republican Senate candidates, but the Proud Boys were. They received sympathetic media coverage from Fox News, while actively recruiting new members not only from the far right but from racist skinhead groupings across the country. A violently reactionary subculture that had in recent years remained relatively self-contained, racist skinheads (boneheads to leftist skinheads), under the leadership of charismatic demagogues like McInnes on the east coast and Joey Gibson of Patriot Prayer on the west coast, was spilling into the streets of the USs most liberal urban centres. Its no accident that the Proud Boys chosen uniform features black and yellow shirts by Fred Perry a favoured skinhead brand.
The Proud Boys had been courting members of New York Citys skinhead scene for a long time; McInnes himself has a white power tattoo associated with the neo-Nazi punk band Skrewdriver, whose merchandise he has been photographed wearing.
At least three of those who participated in a gang assault in New York in 2018 were affiliated with racist skinhead crews long known to local antifascist and antiracist organisers, like the 211 Bootboys, a far-right skinhead gang based mostly in New York City, and Battalion 49, a predominantly Latino neo-Nazi skinhead gang. Early in 2017, McInnes had defended the 211 Bootboys after some of its members attacked two brothers on the Lower East Side when they noticed an antifascist sticker on one of their phones. Pragmatically sidestepping the question of race, the Proud Boys make their protofascist appeal in the language of patriotic individualism: pro-America, pro-capitalism and pro-Trump.
Around the country, the group has replicated this approach, appealing primarily to peoples class interests as small business owners, for example, or as the children of families who fled socialist revolutions abroad as well as traditionalist gender politics, temporarily deferring the white nationalist project in the interest of swelling their ranks. When a white nationalist podcaster tried to get McInnes to say the Fourteen Words, a totemic slogan on the far right We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children he did not refuse outright but replaced white with western.
This strategy has allowed the Proud Boys to gain entry into the Republican mainstream such as when McInnes was invited to speak at the Metropolitan Republican Club in upper Manhattan, the state GOPs home base in New York City, in October 2018. McInnes is part of the right, said Ian Reilly, the executive committee chair of the club when talking to New York-based website Gothamist, and went on to compare him to previous guests Tucker Carlson and Ann Coulter. We promote people and ideas of all kinds from the right, Reilly continued. We would never invite anyone who would incite violence.
Except this is exactly what they had done. McInnes had come to the Metropolitan Club to celebrate the 58th anniversary of the assassination of Inejir Asanuma, the leader of the Japan Socialist party, by the ultranationalist Otoya Yamaguchi, on live television in 1960 an inspiring moment, McInnes wrote on Instagram, which he reenacted with his employee (and fellow Proud Boy) Ryan Katsu Rivera. Never let evil take root, McInnes later told his audience, referencing a meme involving Yamaguchi that is popular with fascists online.
Outside, antifascist and antiracist demonstrators gathered to protest against McInness appearance. As guests began to leave, a score of Proud Boys hung back and prepared for the coming brawl. Scuffles and beatings followed, as they seemed to wherever the Proud Boys went. A dozen members of the protofascist gang stomped demonstrators who had been caught in the open. Do you feel brave now, faggot? one yelled, according to the documentary film-maker Sandi Bachom and the photojournalist Shay Horse, who witnessed the attack. Bachoms footage shows one assailant screaming Faggot! as he kicks someone curled up on the ground. Other footage includes a Proud Boy bragging, Dude, I had one of their fucking heads, and I was just fucking smashing it in the pavement! That son of a bitch! he continues. He was a fucking foreigner. One of his friends yells the Proud Boys slogan: Fuck around, find out!
Later, in an email to journalist Christopher Mathias, McInnes celebrated his fellow Proud Boys, writing that one of their victims had stolen one of their Make America Great Again hats and was immediately tuned up. Throughout all of this, the NYPD declined to arrest a single one of the violent reactionaries roaming the citys streets. They did find time, however, to arrest three antiracist protesters. I have a lot of support in the NYPD and I very much appreciate that, the boys in blue, McInnes claimed on a podcast released soon after.
At a press conference a few days later, New York City councilman Donovan Richards, chair of the Public Safety Committee, described the NYPDs response and specifically that of the strategic response group tasked with keeping the peace as inept, incompetent and derelict in their duties. The police subsequently released photographs of three persons of interest all of whom were immediately identified as Proud Boy affiliates by antifascists, their addresses and contact information posted online and announced that they intended to arrest 12 people altogether, including nine Proud Boys. (The following month, McInnes publicly quit the Proud Boys, saying, I am told by my legal team and law enforcement that this gesture could help alleviate their sentencing, referring to those nine, and that This is 100% a legal gesture, and it is 100% about alleviating sentencing.) New York Republicans, meanwhile, committed to their decision to welcome McInnes into the fold. We want to foster civil discussion, but never endorse violence, Metropolitan Club officials said in a statement. Gavins talk on Friday night, while at times was politically incorrect and a bit edgy, was certainly not inciting violence.
This dynamic Proud Boys and their allies careening through some unprepared urban centre, spoiling for a fight has played out time and again in cities across the country, though nowhere more frequently or more violently than in Portland, Oregon, where every few months hundreds of ultranationalists, white supremacists, Trump supporters and other reactionaries come looking for a fight under the guise of protecting free speech, protesting against domestic terrorism, or campaigning for Joey Gibson, a notorious provocateur running for US Senate in Washington on a platform of Trump-inflected libertarianism backed by the street-fighting Proud Boys.
Since 2016, under the banner of Patriot Prayer, Gibson had been gathering together a coalition of evangelical Christians, Maga cultists, Qanon acolytes and fascist brawlers. One morning in the summer of 2018 long before that same coalition, more or less, would storm the US Capitol as riot cops fired flash-bang grenades at protesters, injuring at least two people and arresting four, Gibson led his supporters back and forth along the banks of the Willamette river, escorted by another contingent of armoured police. I asked him how his Senate campaign was going. Youre looking at it, Gibson replied.
His crew was visibly frustrated: the sheer size of the counterprotest on this day had foiled their plans to march through the city, so cheering on the police would have to suffice. USA! USA! they chanted. A bagpipe on the antifascist side droned, accompanied by a snare drum and the intermittent booms of police ordnance.
For all the digital chaos wrought by the so-called alt-right, open-air political violence remains the most immediate way to radicalise and recruit young men into far-right movements. Videos and gifs of Proud Boys beating up antifa, in turn, become digital propaganda. And, to broaden their appeal, groups sympathetic or adjacent to the far right are ditching racist rhetoric for more mainstream political language. This allows them to appeal to a bigger group of Americans who wouldnt dream of joining the Ku Klux Klan, but harbour deep resentment toward immigrants and approve of other parts of Trumps agenda.
Theyre also shifting from ethnically defined nationalism to a version that purports to target outsiders based on their legal status, not the colour of their skin. Significantly, the presence of people of colour in this coalition allows Gibson and the Proud Boys to prove that they arent racists at all. Gibson, for starters, identifies as Japanese American. His deputy, Tusitala Tiny Toese, is American Samoan. Both vehemently deny that either Patriot Prayer or the Proud Boys are white-supremacist organisations, though local antifascist and antiracist organisers have identified neo-Nazis and other organised white supremacists in their midst.
One masked Proud Boy I met at a rally in Portland, ostensibly there to support Gibsons Senate bid, told me that anyone in their crew who expressed racist views would be stomped out but not literally, the Proud Boy, who said his name was John, quickly added. But for every John, theres a General Graybeard an older man who led members of the Freedom Crew and Hiwaymen, two patriot groups from Arkansas, wearing tactical gear and bearing shields emblazoned with the Confederate battle flag. He explained that the imagery was about honouring the souths history. We fly it so people know its not racist, the self-proclaimed general said. Its about heritage. Its about the constitution. When I asked John whether he accepted this explanation, he shrugged. I gotta take that at face value, he said.
Were here to support the constitution of the United States of America, which is all about free speech and being able to assemble peaceably and talking about the things that we support, a Patriot Prayer supporter also named John told me. What exactly those things are proved more difficult to articulate: Its a call to action. We believe this is a time to act in our country. The second John kept gesturing at Lionel, a recent immigrant from Cameroon, to prove his point. I believe in peace, freedom and everything else, Lionel concurred. Me, Im Black. We are also human. We have our voice, too.
While the majority of uniformed and armoured Proud Boys and Patriot Prayer affiliates were white, half a dozen people of colour (including Lionel) were happy to explain what brought them to the Freedom March. One 40-year-old Black man named James had been supporting Joey Gibson for about a year. I admire people like Martin Luther King when they fought for civil rights and stuff like that, he said. These guys, they look like theyre taking a stand, and I want to take a stand with them.
There are no white supremacists here, James told me. I get nothing but love. White supremacists dont let minorities into their ranks. And about those Confederate battle flags? All it represents is the southern states. Its just a flag. The left, he continued, was being paid by George Soros to spread disinformation. Im not getting paid for this. Im here of my own accord. Were a diverse group, he continued. Were all Trump supporters.
Leonor Ferris, a 75-year-old immigrant from Colombia, laughed when I asked about the accusations of white supremacists in Patriot Prayers midst. Im a Latina! How could they be white supremacists? she asked.
Nearly everyone at the march seemed as worried about the threat of the rising left as they were about immigrants. We dont want communists, Ferris told me. I came here legally and I dont want to see what happened to Venezuela. She continued: The only thing communism brings is poverty. They cant even eat over there. They have nothing in Venezuela.
Toese, Gibsons deputy, and several others sported T-shirts reading Pinochet Did Nothing Wrong, referring to the Chilean dictator under whose rule tens of thousands of socialists and other dissidents were murdered and tortured. Make Communists Afraid of Rotary Aircraft Again, read the back of the shirt. (Pinochets soldiers were notorious for throwing enemies of the regime out of helicopters.) On one of the sleeves, in red, capital letters, was the acronym RWDS, or Right Wing Death Squads. The Proud Boys sold these shirts to raise money through their online store.
According to the Cuban-American Enrique Tarrio, current chairman of the Proud Boys, small-business values were what drew him to the group in the first place. Most of the Miami chapters members run their own companies, he told me, and one of the fraternitys primary tenets is Glorifying the Entrepreneur. My family came from a communist country, Tarrio said. The only way to true freedom is entrepreneurship. Then he invited me to follow him on Instagram. His page featured a link to his companys website and posts about killing communists.
Tarrio would later be named Florida state director of Latinos for Trump. As one Republican operative later said, The Trump campaign is well aware of the organised participation of Proud Boys rallies merging into Trump events. They dont care. Staff are to treat it like a coalition they cant talk about.
What is confounding about groups like the Proud Boys is also what gives them their potency: using illegal means (brawling with antifascists, beating up passersby, harassing nonviolent civilians, and calling for undocumented peoples heads to be smashed on concrete) to defend the status quo, including, in theory, at least, the forces of law and order. We even obey traffic laws! I heard one Proud Boy joke as he and his crew waited to cross the road after a Portland rally.
From one perspective, an organisation like the Proud Boys is dangerous because it functions as a pipeline to even more violent ideologies. In a 2018 survey conducted by the Southern Poverty Law Center of users on the Right Stuff forums (long a haven for online fascists and white nationalists) 15% of respondents mentioned Gavin McInnes as either an important influence on their political development or as useful in converting others. While the top two sources of far-right radicalisation were the chaotic and anonymous /pol/ forum on 4chan and Jared Taylor of the race realist website American Renaissance, McInnes ranked fifth out of 24 ahead even of Richard Spencer.
But treating membership in the Proud Boys as a transitional phase to something worse risks ignoring the threat that the Proud Boys themselves pose, especially given that on certain issues, like gender and immigration, there is little to no daylight between the alt-right (or racial nationalists) and the alt-lite (or civic nationalists). Moreover, there is little to no daylight between the far right and large swathes of the Republican party: even after the storming of the US Capitol, polling indicates that Donald Trump remains immensely popular with the Republican base, who still support his claim to the presidency and would no doubt cheer his candidacy in 2024.
Meanwhile, it is now becoming clear that the battle-hardened Proud Boys, told to stand back and stand by by Trump at a presidential debate last year, and their allies, acted as something like a disciplined cadre amid the chaos of the Capitol siege. In the face of a belated federal crackdown, these experienced exponents of political street violence are likely to beat a tactical retreat before making their next push. The movement they fight for now finds itself on new terrain: more organisationally developed than ever before, even with Trump out of office; a fracturing and reforming Republican party creating new alliances and coalitions to leverage and exploit; the multiplying pressures of the pandemic, the economic crisis, and the climate continuing to build. When or where, it is impossible to say but soon enough, something is going to crack.
Adapted from Blood Red Lines: How Nativism Fuels the Right by Brendan OConnor, published by Haymarket Books
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