Before their shout-out on the national debate stage earlier this week, the Proud Boys had previously made a name for themselves with incendiary social media posts and street brawling at protests in cities like Portland and New York.
The small, but loud, right-wing group also has roots in Florida, where they have made appearances at marches and rallies and gained notoriety for their connections to high-profile political figures.
The Proud Boys were founded in 2016 by Gavin McInnes, a co-founder of Vice Media. They call themselves a “fraternity," “social club” and “men’s drinking club,” according to members.
In their words, their ideology revolves around being “Western chauvinists” who believe in free speech and the inherent superiority of the West.
They claim to oppose fascism, communism and authoritarianism. They have also gone to great lengths to disassociate themselves with white supremacist ideology, despite the fact that some current and former members have been known to hold such views.
Their presence in Florida began to take shape once McInnes stepped down as leader of the group and named Henry “Enrique” Tarrio as chairman in 2018.
Tarrio lives in Miami today, and various chapters of the Proud Boys have gone on to operate in Florida, in hopes of gaining a foothold.
Since 2018, members have made appearances at various rallies and campaign stops for Republican politicians. Their presence is often made known by waving a large, black and gold Proud Boy flag. Many of their members also wear faux militia gear and hats supporting President Donald Trump.
In March of 2018, members of the group appeared as counter protesters at a March for Our Lives rally in Orlando attended by survivors of the Parkland school shooting and the Pulse nightclub shooting. At one point, officers intervened when marchers and the Proud Boys briefly exchanged words and insults.
In September 2018, Proud Boys members showed up at a Ron DeSantis campaign event in Sarasota. Their presence drew questions from the media, as some speculated whether DeSantis, elected Florida’s governor that year, was aware of their support for his campaign.
At a news conference days later, DeSantis denied knowing the group. “If I have a crowd with 500 people, how the hell am I supposed to know who is in the crowd?” he said.
In October 2018, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi attended a campaign event for Donna Shalala in Coral Gables. Members of the Proud Boys showed up along with other protesters and pounded on the doors outside of the event and shouted insults.
On Friday, Shalala told the South Florida Sun Sentinel that she condemned the group, calling them “far-right, misogynistic, anti-immigrant extremists.”
“The Proud Boys and white supremacy do not belong in South Florida, nor anywhere else in this country,” she said. She also called President Trump their “chief enabler.”
Direct connections between President Trump and a Proud Boys group have not been established. But right around the time that Trump’s 2016 election campaign was in full swing, Florida members of the Proud Boys became affiliated with a longtime Trump ally, Roger Stone.
A network tied to both Stone and the Florida Proud Boys had fake accounts post about local politics in Florida, as well as Stone’s books, websites and media appearances, according to a cybersecurity firm who did an analysis helping Facebook.
The network was most active between 2015 and 2017, the analysis showed.
In 2018, the Proud Boys were banned from Facebook and Instagram, but supporters of the organization got around the ban by creating new pages or accounts.
In July of 2020, Facebook once again removed dozens of accounts linked to the Proud Boys, as well as accounts linked to Roger Stone.
On Friday, Stone downplayed any connection to the Proud Boys.
“I have no affiliation with the Proud Boys,” he said in a text message to the South Florida Sun Sentinel. He said he knows individual members, the majority of whom are African-American and Latino.
Stone is not the only political figure the group has been linked to. Proud Boy members have also snapped photos with high profile members of Florida’s Republican party in the past, including Senator Rick Scott, Miami Congressman Mario Diaz-Balart and U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz, the Miami Herald reported.
Members of the Proud Boys also have been linked to Laura Loomer, who recently won the Republican Primary to challenge Lois Frankel for Florida’s 21st congressional seat.
In August, Proud Boy members were seen alongside Loomer and Stone at a party celebrating her primary victory. Loomer herself is a far-right figure who has been banned from social media sites. Her campaign did not respond to a request for comment.
Tarrio, the Proud Boys current leader, briefly ran for a congressional seat earlier this year. He dropped out of the race before August’s primary after having raised less than $2,000 for his campaign.
Accused of 'hate’
In 2018, the Southern Poverty Law Center designated the Proud Boys a hate group. Howard Graves, a senior research analyst with the SPLC said the group had been on its radar since 2016 — largely because of McInnes' views.
In comments on podcasts and interviews as well as in written articles, Graves said McInnes shared views that are misogynistic, Islamophobic and anti-Semitic. He said the SPLC’s research shows many Proud Boys members echoed these views. He said there also is a record of the group being involved in violent street protests and public associations with white nationalist organizations and events.
In 2018, police arrested several Proud Boys members and associates who brawled with antifascists after McInnes delivered a speech at New York’s Metropolitan Republican Club. Two members are currently serving time in prison.
After the brawl, some questioned if the FBI would view the Proud Boys as an extremist group. But the FBI says it has done no such thing.
“When it comes to domestic terrorism, our investigations focus solely on criminal activity of individuals — regardless of group membership," said James P. Marshall, an agency spokesman. "The FBI does not and will not police ideology.”
Although the SPLC does not officially categorize the Proud Boys as a white nationalist group, Graves said the group’s “Western chauvinist” ideology is a clever way of dancing around outright white-supremacist views. "They believe that it is no coincidence that white people built what is considered to be the ‘best’ society.”
In 2019, McInnes challenged the SPLC’s label in a federal lawsuit that is still being litigated. In the complaint, McInnes said he is an “avowed and vocal opponent" of discrimination and white supremacy.
He claims the Proud Boys were targeted by the SPLC to achieve their own “political and financial” means and that Proud Boys don’t let anyone in the group who believes in the “inherent supremacy of any one race over another."
On Parler, a social media site popular with conservatives, Proud Boy accounts have fought back on the white supremacist label by sharing images of Tarrio, who identifies as Afro-Cuban, as well as other non-white members of the Proud Boys.
Peter Simi, a professor of sociology at Chapman University, said modern day right-wing extreme groups like the Proud Boys often break with the image and structure of previous groups before them by emphasizing diversity within their ranks and labeling themselves as “patriots” fighting against communism and authoritarianism.
“They understand that there is a real problem with being labeled a white supremacist,” said Simi, who has been studying right-wing extremism since the early 1990s.
For many, the first time they heard of the Proud Boys was when Trump told them to “stand back and stand by” this week. The high-profile shout-out came after debate moderator Chris Wallace asked Trump to condemn white supremacists and Joe Biden asked Trump to condemn the Proud Boys.
Proud Boys members celebrated in response. On Parler, Proud Boy members say they have had more people reach out with interest in the group. They also are selling T-shirts with the slogan, “Proud Boys standing by.”
Simi said groups like the Proud Boys are small when it comes to physical members. Outsize media attention is what they desire. “We are giving them exactly what they want,” he said.
Almost immediately after the debate, Trump distanced himself from the group.
“I don’t know who Proud Boys are. But whoever they are they have to stand down, let law enforcement do their work,” Trump told reporters as he left the White House for a campaign stop in Minnesota.
Despite these claims, Simi said Trump can be credited as breathing life into groups like the Proud Boys.
Simi said Trump’s prominent role in the birtherism movement that sought to discredit President Barack Obama made him a popular figure among right-wing extremists. When Trump began his run for president, Simi said many right-wing groups felt emboldened. “He was like a magnet for far-right extremists in a way that no other presidential candidate has been in recent history.”
Trump and the Proud Boys have pushed back against these claims. This week they also have highlighted antifa as a group that should be scrutinized instead of the Proud Boys.
“Now antifa is a real problem,” Trump said in Minnesota earlier this week. “The problem is on the left. And Biden refuses to talk about it.”
“Portland is the main center of insurrection around the country,” said Joe Biggs, a Daytona Beach-based member of the Proud Boys. Violent protests and riots have plagued the city for months, and antifa members have played central roles in the disorder, according to authorities.
Last week, Biggs and other Proud Boys organized a rally in Portland to condemn the nightly protests in the city. Biggs said the Proud Boys were prepared to return “if we continue to see these insurrections going unchecked."
On the debate stage, Biden said, “antifa is an idea, not an organization.”
According to the Anti-Defamation League, antifa are violent counter-protesters who often oppose far right-wing movements. Their name is short for “antifascist” and they are considered a “loose collection of groups, networks and individuals” according to the ADL.
The SPLC does not list antifa as a hate group. Graves said that is because antifa is a decentralized movement without established membership. He also said their views do not demean individual groups because of characteristics like race, class, religion or gender — which factors into how the SPLC designate hate groups.
Roger Stone bristled at this. “The SPLC is not a credible source,” he said. “Who made them the legitimate arbiter of anything.”
Information from the Orlando Sentinel and the Associated Press was used in this report.
Andrew Boryga can be reached at 954-356-4533 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @borywrites.