Among the hundreds of violent demonstrators who stormed the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday were members of alt-right extremist group Proud Boys. The self-described “Western chauvinists” (who also traffic in white nationalism, Islamophobia, anti-semitism, conspiracy theories, and super ugly polo shirts) got a major PR boost during the 2020 U.S. election cycle when President Donald Trump told them to “stand back and stand by” — his answer to a debate question about whether he was willing to condemn white supremacy.
No question, this week’s violence represented a horrifying (if predictable) culmination of the Trumpification of America. But for anyone feeling snug (and/or smug) in their Roots track pants: Proud Boys was founded by a Canadian, and its racist, misogynistic subculture is alive and thriving in our home and native land. So much so that NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh has called on Justin Trudeau to officially declare Proud Boys a terrorist organization. Might that actually happen? Who are the Proud Boys exactly? And why were they wearing disguises to this week’s riot?
Here, everything you need to know about the outgoing POTUS’s pet hate group — one that is definitely not just an American problem.
I’ve heard of Proud Boys, but isn’t it American?
Most people assume that’s the case, especially after Trump’s shoutout last year. But in fact, the group has roots on both sides of the border. As mentioned, the founder of Proud Boys is a Canadian: Gavin McInnes, who grew up in Ottawa and founded the group in 2016. (In the '90s, McInnes co-created Vice, one of Refinery29’s sister brands, with which he no longer has any association.) A year after its launch, Proud Boys made national headlines when five Canadian Armed Forces officers (and proud members of Proud Boys Halifax) interrupted an Indigenous protest ceremony on Canada Day. The group’s promotional materials include a John A. Macdonald type under the headline “West is Best.” While McInnis says he’s not involved with Proud Boys today, the CanCon remains strong. Though it’s fair to say the true home of Proud Boys and groups like it is online.
“When you look at the people who were in Washington [Wednesday], they were from all over the world — it’s not like that spread by word of mouth,” says Barbara Perry, a professor from the University of Ontario Institute of Technology who studies hate groups. Perry says that online platforms have been “a gift” to alt-right groups, known for disseminating conspiracy theories via video clips. Proud Boys has now been banned by Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube for the last couple of years, but there are other, less-policed online spaces such as Parler, Telegram, and 4Chan where its conversations continue.
Was Proud Boys behind Wednesday’s shitstorming of the Capitol?
It’s hard to say that any one group was fully responsible given the scene on Capitol Hill was a who’s who of modern hate groups, including QAnon, Three Percenters, and your garden variety neo-Nazis. Typically, Proud Boys are easy to spot in black and yellow polo shirts (read here for a rundown on the Fred Perry connection), but this time around, they went in disguise, following a directive from PB chairman Enrique Tarrio to go “incognito” by wearing black.
Tarrio, who joined in 2017 and heads the Miami chapter, had to skip the big day after he was arrested by Washington police on Tuesday on suspicion of burning a Black Lives Matter flag at a different Stop the Steal “protest.” But his brethren were most definitely in attendance (and there are selfies to prove it). One PB account described the action on the ground: "For several hours, our collective strength had politicians in Washington in absolute terror… The treacherous pawns (cops) were also terrified.”
What is the Proud Boy ideology exactly?
According to its pledge, its members are proud Western chauvinists who “refuse to apologize for creating the modern world.” Like a lot of people in the MAGA crowd, they believe that Western culture and white men are under siege and call for a return to traditional (read: racist, sexist, xenophobic) values. Oh, and they love to drink beer, which is why they sometimes call themselves a drinking club rather than a violent misogynist movement.
“There is a lot of piggybacking and cross-pollination between the various hate groups,” says Perry, explaining how the Proud Boys has evolved over the last five years. “When I first saw the first few videos, they just looked like a bunch of over-age frat boys out on a lark having some drinks and saying really offensive things,” Perry says. “At that point, I don’t think even they had a sense of themselves as an organized hate group.” The man-child vibe is still evident in a lot of its rituals: wearing Fred Perry polos (obv), but also the initiation (getting beat up by other members until you can say the name of five different breakfast cereals), the fact that its name comes from a song in Aladdin, and its #NoWanks pledge, which was a vow against masturbating.
How scared do we need to be of a bunch of pissed off, over-jizzed preppies?
As anyone who watched Wednesday’s events unfold should know by now, the answer is very. Yes, there is a lot to mock in the Proud Boys playbook, but the bro-ish-ness of its branding actually helps to disguise its true malevolence. “There is a goofiness that we often see attached to the toxic behaviour of young white men,” says Cicely Belle Blain, an activist and diversity consultant in Vancouver. The result is their behaviour is not treated as seriously as it should be, “which is the exact opposite of what we see afforded to people of colour,” Blain adds. (The harmless white boy narrative may in part explain the blatant and racists discrepancies between the treatment of a violent white supremacist mob breaking into a government building and the Black Lives Matter protesters over the summer.)
On the subject of exactly how dangerous this group is, it was a Proud Boy (an American neo-Nazi named Jason Kessler) who organized the 2017 Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville, VA. (It’s
hard impossible not to connect the dots between Gavin McInnes’ supposedly semi-ironic ramblings — a video called “10 Reasons Why I Hate the Jews” — and the chants of “Jews will not replace us” that rang out in Charlottesville.)
Were Canadian Proud Boys in Washington this week?
Hard to say for sure since they’re probably not sewing flags on their backpacks. With help from the public, U.S. authorities are slowly putting names to the faces captured in footage of Wednesday’s riot. (Various alt-right leaders and one Britney Spears ex-husband are among those ID’d so far).
“I think it’s safe to assume there were Canadians in Washington this week,” says Perry, noting that Canadians on Twitter were among those who responded to Trump’s standby order in the affirmative. Just as importantly though, is that alt-right hate groups are operating in Canada — over 300 of them, according to Perry’s research, a number that has tripled since 2015.
So, we’re not safe here in our cozy northern bubble?
Nope. Canada is often cast as some kind of post-racial oasis, but the reality is that we are not so different from our southern neighbours. Better on guns, yes, but you see the same underpinnings of white supremacy in everything from our track record of racially motivated police brutality to dog-whistling politicians to the fact that known racist Faith Goldy got more than 10,000 votes in the 2018 Toronto mayoral race. “The same rhetoric, the same ideologies, the same potential for a right-wing uprising exists here. It’s dangerous for people to look at the States and think, I can’t believe that’s happening there,” says Blain, pointing to MAGA protests in several Canadian cities this week.
In Canada, we haven’t had a Trump figure hold federal office yet, but it’s not like his messaging stops at the Canadian border. “He has emboldened a lot of people to come out of the woodwork,” they say. NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh is calling on Justin Trudeau to officially declare Proud Boys as a terrorist organization in response to Wednesday’s events.
That sounds like a good idea, right?
According to Perry, adding Proud Boys to Canada’s list of terrorist organizations “would be an important symbolic gesture in that it signals that there is no tolerance for the sort of xenophobia and violence they promote.” There is currently a petition Canadians who support Singh’s request can sign, though some legal experts warn that this action may not be the best solution to combatting hate groups.