“Never in my head did I think of the Proud Boys as a hate group,” says Lark Tattoo owner, Tom “T-Bone” Martin. “Now, they’re being painted as that, and labeled as that, and I didn’t see that.” Martin sighs, defeated. He leans back in his chair. “But now it seems they’re heading down that road, because they’re becoming more violent.”
Martin found himself in a public relations nightmare last week when an anonymous contributor to the Love and Rage media collective revealed that one of Lark Tattoo’s long-time employees, Kirby Kyle, belonged to the ultra-nationalist, western-chauvinist, all-male, Islamophobic, right-wing Proud Boys–founded by political commentator and VICE Media co-founder Gavin McInnes–and that another employee, Erica Christine Cocca, belonged to the women’s auxiliary of the organization, the Proud Boys’ Girls. A social media storm ensued when the article was posted on July 5.
Martin’s initial reaction, in which he labeled the unknown author of the article a “nameless coward” who chose to publish at an “extremist blog,” did him no favors. The attention shifted to Martin and his shop, with Martin’s social media critics accusing Martin of being aligned with a hate group. Martin has since disavowed his initial response, calling it “defensive,” and “reactive.” Martin has publicly apologized several times and Kyle and Cocca have since both resigned from Lark Tattoo, and have no further affiliation with the shop. The Alt attempted to contact Kyle and Cocca for an interview, but they both declined to speak with any media.
Although Martin had no idea of his employees’ affiliation with the group prior to the Love and Rage article, Martin first heard of the Proud Boys a few months ago, when he heard Gavin McInnes, iconoclastic founder of the right-wing group, speak on a podcast, which piqued his interest in the organization. “They were describing these rituals they do,” said Martin, and he laughs, incredulously. “The beating, and the cereal, and the no-wank thing, and the different degrees, and I was like, ‘This is bizarre, this is some weird frat boy stuff.’”
Some explanation is in order. The beatings? In order to get their “second degree” as Proud Boys, initiates must run a gauntlet of their fellows; they are pounded by punches as they shout out the names of various popular cereal brands. The no-wank policy? The Proud Boys have a rule against self-pleasure, with an important caveat—they’re allowed to masturbate within one yard of a woman. And then there are the degrees. The first degree is simply declaring your Proud Boy affiliation. The second is the cereal gauntlet. The third is getting a Proud Boy tattoo, and the fourth—it’s a new one, the fourth—involves “enduring a major conflict related to the struggle,” popularly interpreted as beating up a member of antifa member at a protest or rally. (Antifa is shorthand for an antifascist; someone who might engage in so-called “black bloc” tactics at protests and rallies, brawling with police and right-wingers alike.) Kyle is an admitted third-degree proud boy—it was listed on his Facebook profile, as reported in the original Love and Rage article.
The fourth degree is the one that concerns left-wing activists. “If I book a tattoo with you, will there be a chance the artist or receptionist will later try to attack me and/or my leftist friends in order to become a fourth degree Proud Boy? Because that’s how this group works,” reads the top-rated comment on one of Martin’s posts on the Lark Street Facebook group. The Proud Boys have, in fact, made headlines for brawling with antifa and left-wing protesters in Berkeley, in New York City, and have most recently been in the news in Canada, where about five Proud Boys (who were in the Canadian military) interrupted a Day of Remembrance religious service held in Halifax by members of a native community with patriotic, chauvinistic rhetoric. (Said service-members are being investigated by their employer.)
But are the Proud Boys as dangerous as the commenter on Lark Tattoo’s Facebook page thinks they are? The most important hate group watchdog in the nation, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), famed for helping to dismantle the Ku Klux Klan decades ago, is more nuanced about the Proud Boys than local leftists seem to be, and in fact agrees with Martin about the nature of the group.
“The Proud Boys are not a hate group, they’re a fraternal organization,” says Lecia Brooks, SPLC’s outreach director. “They’re a men’s club.” Brooks mentions that McInnes “goes out of his way to point out that he’s not a racist, or an anti-Semite.”
“What we’re seeing is this particular iteration of white male weirdness which you see in some of the more exaggerated alt-right groups,” explains Brooks. This includes “people who are just gamers and nerdy and create a satirical air about themselves.”
“The weird thing about them,” says Brooks, “is that [the Proud Boys] are open to inviting anyone born male of any race who identifies as pro-male and pro-western.”
It’s true — the Proud Boys do not technically discriminate based on race, says Will Sommer in a blogpost on Medium. (Sommer is an editor at The Hill who also serves as a one-man right-wing media observer.) “The Proud Boys welcome gay and non-white members—as long as people of color who hope to be Proud Boys ‘recognize that white men are not the problem,’” Sommer writes.
Are Proud Boys members of the alt-right, the new faction of white nationalists typified by Richard Spencer and Milo Yiannopoulos, with their bizarre symbology of Pepe the Frog memes and Kekistan flags? Not according to the Proud Boys, while the Proud Boys have “become emboldened by white nationalism and the growth of the far-right,” according to Brooks, they are mostly seen as “cucks” by the alt-right. (“Cuck” is short for “cuckold”, and is a popular, if crass, alt-right shorthand for anyone slightly to the left of Joseph Goebbels.) Instead, McInnes refers to the Proud Boys as “alt-lite,” because they are not white supremacists, they are so-called “Western-supremacists,” who “will not apologize for creating the modern world,” as an anonymous Arizona Proud Boy told SPLC’s Hatewatch blog last month.
So if a group like the Proud Boys aren’t a hate group, what makes a hate group, according to the SPLC? “The definition of a hate group is one that not only has hateful beliefs, but practices them as well,” explains Brooks. “As long as [the Proud Boys are] couching their rhetoric in being pro-West, and they aren’t particularly targeting Muslims for being Muslims,” says Brooks, they will remain off of SPLC’s infamous list.
Not everyone agrees with the SPLC’s decision-making process.
For one, there’s Aaron Murray, local leftist, who supported the doxxing of Kyle and Cocca. “I think people tend to make the mistake of underestimating the threat posed” by groups like the Proud Boys, Murray told The Alt via e-mail. “I believe there is a liberal myth that says that the best thing to do is to write off these groups as a joke, ignore them, and in the end they’ll go away.” As Murray says, the current political environment, in which extreme right-wing views have gained a toehold on the mainstream, belies that myth. “Everyone thought this country was too progressive and post-racist to elect the ‘joke’ of Donald Trump, and now we have a president who admitted to sexually assaulting women, and whose views are so aligned with white nationalism that more well-known hate groups like the KKK, NSM (National Socialist Movement), and (TWP) Traditional Worker Party, openly endorsed him.”
In Murray’s view, groups like the SPLC have a responsibility to be proactive about movements that, while not fitting the narrower definitions of a hate group, have the potential to evolve into just that.
Alexander Reid Ross, an independent journalist and college professor based in Portland, Oregon, who studies populist movements, is also sounding the alarm about the Proud Boys. “The Proud Boys seem like a deliberate effort to reproduce the conditions that led to the emergence of fascism,” says Ross. “It seems that what Gavin [McInnes] is doing is trying to insert authoritarianism and totalitarianism into the mainstream.”
The frat boy aesthetic does not fool Ross, who instead points to the goofiness of the Proud Boys as an argument for how dangerous they are. “Their whole thing is that they can transform and extend frat boy culture into the real world, to break down some of the professionalism that keeps people copacetic.” Don’t be duped, says Ross. The Proud Boys are “creating a fighting force of white nationalists who are passing off their racial hatred as civic hatred and national chauvinism.”
Daryle Lamont Jenkins, prominent antifascist activist of the One People’s Project, an organization founded to expose (“doxx”) right-wing extremists, white supremacists, and fascists, takes a dim view of the Proud Boys (“They’re ultimately just a bunch of knuckleheads who want to be thuggish against people they politically disagree with,” he says), but he refuses to underestimate them—just like Ross. “I’m not writing them off,” says Jenkins, seriously. “This is similar to the origins of the Klan.”
Yes, Jenkins sees direct historical parallels between the origins of today’s extreme right-wing movement(s) and earlier expressions of white-supremacist, fascistic organization in this country.
“When you see folks swinging around the Kekistan flags with the green frog, they all make it seem like they’re dying to do jokes,” he says. “The Klan, it was a fraternal organization, just like the Proud Boys. The Klan, they acted the fool, just like the Proud Boys. The kooky titles. ‘Grand Dragon. Grand Wizard.’ These were all joke names, joke titles that they all gave to each other. Then it got serious, and people got hurt.”
“It’s exactly what the Proud Boys are doing now,” he tells The Alt. “Except now, in the case of the Proud Boys, they already know what they’re doing.”
The extreme right-wing, from the Proud Boys to the more white supremacist alt-right, certainly possesses a keen clarity about their own aims and missions; they are explicit in their desire to transform the culture-at-large. “The Alt-Right is focused on culture,” writes Hunter Wallace, an alt-right commentator with Occidental Dissent, a white-supremacist blog. “It believes in changing the cultural terrain which underlies ‘mainstream’ politics, which opens up new possibilities.” Wallace continues. “The only thing that matters is breaking the ‘mainstream’ cultural consensus.”
And there’s good reason to believe that the Proud Boys pose a threat to marginalized communities (especially Muslims) right here in Upstate New York. On Saturday, July 15, Proud Boys from around the country, along with 3%ers, Red Elephants, Oath Keepers, and Alt Knights — all various extreme right-wing and alt-right organizations — descended upon Islamberg, in order to protest “radical Islamic terror,” and “ride for national security.” (Islamberg is a small community about two hours south of Utica, founded by African-American Muslims in the 1970s, who largely belong to an organization called Muslims of America (MOA). According to Reuters, local law enforcement has said that the community harbors no ties to known or suspected terrorists.)
The Alt witnessed a caravan of about 30 cars, trucks, and motorcycles travel through the small town, many festooned with American flags. Joseph Glasgow, an organizer of the rally and co-founder of the right-wing organization Everything Patriot, stated in a Facebook live video put up on Sunday evening that the rally was “more successful than we ever imagined it to be,” and that despite the “intimidation factor” put up by MOA (residents of Islamberg filmed the caravan as it went by), they believe they made their point, which was to “let citizens know, who don’t already know, that these places” — they believe Islamberg is actually a front for a terrorist training camp — “exist.”
So if McInnes and the Proud Boys really harbor white-supremacist views, why do they allow non-white and gay members into the club? These are mere tokens, who don’t fundamentally change the racially and culturally chauvinistic nature of the organization, argues Ross. “In order to create a milieu, they have to do things that seem normative,” explains Ross. “They have one guy who’s half-Colombian.” (Ross is referring to Salvatore “Sal” Cipolla, who is a prominent, fourth-degree Proud Boy.)
What about McInnes’s claim that the Proud Boys aren’t racist or anti-semitic, like their alt-right cousins? Let’s ignore, momentarily, the claims made by It’s Going Down and echoed by Ross that McInnes is friends with and shares the views of Mike Peinovich, aka Mike Enoch, host of The Right Stuff website, an alt-right hub (which hosts podcasts such as “The Daily Shoah” and “Fash the Nation”); let’s take at face-value McInnes’s desire to remain free from neo-Nazism and white-nationalism. The fact is, it soon might not matter what McInnes wants for the organization, because it doesn’t appear that the Proud Boys much care for McInnes’s media-savvy caution anymore. What started as a kind of fan club for McInnes’s various media ventures has evolved into something else, entirely — a genuine, extreme right-wing movement. As baldly stated by Proud Boy Magazine writer Pawl Bazile: “At this point the Proud Boys has [sic] grown beyond McInnes’s control.”
And as to the claim that the Proud Boys do not practice violence — well, the Proud Boys, under the leadership of Kyle “Based Stick Man” Chapman, have developed a military arm, called the Fraternal Order of the Alt-Knights (FOAK). This development was reported in the official Proud Boy Magazine, and Chapman is, according to his Facebook post announcing the move, operating with the full approval of McInnes. The FOAK is developing its own charter and sub-chapters, but will remain a part of the larger Proud Boy organization.
But here, too, is evidence of a split between McInnes and the organization he birthed. On Saturday, Gavin McInnes published a missive on the Proud Boys website and on Facebook, entitled “Some Clarification on the 4th Degree,” in which he argued that the fourth degree was not meant to be interpreted as licence to “[kick] the crap out of antifa,” as McInnes has said, before. Instead, Proud Boys are only supposed to defend themselves. (As McInnes says, “we don’t start fights, we finish them.”) Any Proud Boy who commits violence that falls outside of what could reasonably construed as defense will have the consequences fall “100 percent” on them. McInnes promises, essentially, to disavow them. While McInnes acknowledges that “Based Stick Man has a slightly more aggressive stance on [violence],” than he does, he argues that they agree on the necessity for prudence.
Surprisingly, McInnes, in the Saturday post, expresses discomfort with the Islamberg action, calling it “incredibly risky.”
The SPLC isn’t locked into defining the Proud Boys as something other than a hate group. Indeed, the group is very much taking a wait-and-see approach to the organization, and has, with their Hatewatch blog, taken an aggressive stance, in reporting on them. Sooner or later, the Proud Boys “will slip into who they really are, and we’ll be able to nail them,” says Brooks. The question remains: are they already there?