(Originally Published on Medium)
Who the Proud Boys are and what they stand for is far from the binary thoughts that have recently been published across many media platforms. Here’s what you need to know.
Some of you may know the history of the Proud Boys going back to its founder Gavin McInnes. Also a co-founder of VICE Media, McInnes was forced out by co-founders in 2008 amid what they called creative differences. In reality, the split was driven by McInnes spouting racial epithets, homophobic and transphobic rants, Islamaphobia, xenophobia, and what he refers to as Western Chauvinism. The ideologies that would later become the basis for the Proud Boys as he began to more openly associate himself with the far-right fringes of American society.
McInnes joined forces with other far-right personalities in an effort to bring the ideology of right-wing extremism into the mainstream. Which he and Richard Spencer, among others, were successful at doing. You don’t have to look very far to see just how mainstream their Naziesque beliefs are. By using somewhat benign language, they are able to draw in and recruit men from the farthest corners (and the deepest holes) in American society.
It’s worth noting that the Proud Boys adamantly deny any connections to the racist and xenophobic alt-right. They also insist they are nothing more than a fraternal group that spreads “anti-political correctness” ideas and an “anti-white guilt” agenda. While they disavow any notion of bigotry within the group, their actions speak louder than their words.
From spreading anti-Muslim hate and misogynistic rhetoric to appearing alongside hate groups across the country — including an appearance at the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville that was organized by then active member Jason Kessler — bringing together Klansmen, antisemites, racist groups, and militia — leaving three people dead.
Many prominent members of other far-right groups have expressed that the western chauvinist label is simply a PR term crafted by McInnes in order to gain mainstream notoriety. They also argue that if the Proud Boys were pressed on the issue, that roughly 90% would use rhetoric along the lines of “Hitler was right, gas the Jews.” While the Proud Boys publicly denounce white nationalism, they espouse and promote many of its core principles.
McInnes himself has declared that it is fair to call him Islamophobic. In 2002, while still at VICE, he responded to a New York Press reporter who asked him what he thought about his neighbors saying, “Well, at least they’re not ni — ers or Puerto Ricans. At least they’re white.”
He would later tell New York Times that he meant the statement with a degree of sincerity saying, “I love being white and I think it’s something to be very proud of. I don’t want our culture diluted. We need to close the borders now and let everyone assimilate to a Western, white, English-speaking way of life.”
While much has been said about McInnes no longer leading the Proud Boys recently, there are plenty of reasons to question that narrative. The vast majority of articles focusing on the group in recent days rely heavily on excluding McInnes as head of the group and have shifted to the self-proclaimed chairman of the Proud Boys, Enrique Tarrio. Tarrio is also the leader of the grassroots Latinos for Trump in South Florida by the way— not to be confused with Trump’s Latinos for Trump group.
Soon after Trump’s failure to denounce the group and white supremacy in the first debate with Joe Biden, the Proud Boys began a social media campaign using images of Tarrio, an Afro-Cuban American, in an attempt to prove they aren’t a hate group. However, Tarrio regularly shares the same beliefs that became the basis for the creation of the hate mob that it is.
As a Cuban myself, seeing racist and xenophobic Cubans — including Afro-Cubans — is not new. It’s actually rather common. Tarrio’s bold arrogance, misogyny, Islamophobia, and homophobia are also telling of what we see among bigots in general. It’s a commonality among them. It’s abhorrent.
As Gavin McInnes continues to suggest that he is no longer the leader of the Proud Boys, he continues to speak for them and frames narratives that the group adopts as talking points. In a recent interview on the Anthony Comia Show at Compound Media, McInnes brags about his meeting Trump and asking him to take over the group because “Tarrio is exhausted.”
When Trump claims he doesn’t know who the Proud Boys are, we already know he does. Now it’s more evident than most people had previously thought — including the media. Tarrio is simply a token frontman for the group taking attention away from McInnes. A narrative the media has adopted just as McInnes and the group had planned.
The modus operandi of the Proud Boys is to sow confusion about themselves allowing them to operate more openly. As someone who tracks hate groups and far-right extremists, it appears McInnes still leads the group. His argument saying otherwise is a narrative that is being used to provide cover for him and to help him avoid charges in 2018 after major altercations in New York City where several people were injured. In that incident, which forced him to declare he’s stepping down, the group benefitted from police protection despite provoking the attacks much as they do now.
After watching McInnes’ interview on the Anthony Comia show and hearing the social media narrative, along with the campaign to exhibit racial inclusivity using images of Enrique Tarrio, it becomes clearer who is really running the show for the group. While not a prominent figure in discussions concerning the Proud Boys until very recently, McInnes’ covert leadership is much more conspicuous within the group. His declarations of stepping down are simply for his own protection as he profits from members bearing the burdens of illegal activities for him. This oversight structure allows for McInnes to easily deny his leadership and involvement while diminishing his association with the group he founded. But enough about McInnes.
Like many other hate groups, their leadership structure is more fragmented and localized. Much like the KKK of old — with regional and local leadership-based chapters — the Proud Boys mimic the same operational structure. Doing so clouds who the actual leaders are providing the guise of a more splintered group with varying ideologies on a chapter by chapter basis.
Tarrio himself told the local CBS affiliate in Portland that, “Portland is the epicenter for all the issues we’re having across the country,” further validating this idea. Those of us who track white nationalists monitor the local Portland chapter for the same reasons described by Tarrio. Essentially, what happens with the Proud Boys in Portland is later echoed across the country leading researchers such as myself to believe that McInnes may be in direct contact with the local branch as well as having a direct connection to Tarrio in South Florida, among others.
In Portland, Tarrio took the stage with leaders of the Patriot Prayer group and Oregon Women for Trump leader, Carol Leek, who used a talking point of the Klan in the 1960s and declared onstage that they had to fight against “Black supremacy.” Leek continued, “This is a war folks, and we have got to fight back.” Words that are taken seriously by many extremists
Using white nationalist rhetoric at public events and in online groups, the Proud Boys’ message is clear. Despite their declarations denouncing racism and their use of updated bylaws meant to question the hate group’s narrative, they are precisely who they portray themselves to be through their actions and rhetoric. We’ve seen what they do and all they do is provoke violence.
From brutal assaults all over the country to people’s lives being threatening by heavily armed members of the group, they are not about seeking a resolution to anything. They’ve disrupted and attacked Black Lives Matter events almost continuously since George Floyd’s death. Events held to address growing systemic problems within American society have also been targeted. What they’re fighting against is progress. Progress to them is an attack on western civilization. On their white-dominant manhood.
To be clear, “western civilization” is a dog-whistle that really means Anglo-European America. It means women are supposed to be subservient to men. It means people of color should know their place in the pecking order. It means protecting a white dominating society to the detriment of everyone else.
This is why they celebrate and use Augusto Pinochet on various merchandise sold online. Pinochet, as you may or may not know, was a far-right dictator in Chile from 1973–1990. He was responsible for many atrocities including dropping his opponents out of helicopters and disappearing thousands more.
Protecting western civilization with what Gavin McInnes calls “western chauvinism” is their end goal. They promote the “white extinction” conspiracy theories. They dismiss trans lives as wasted. They denounce immigrants who they claim refuse to assimilate because by their view, don’t act white enough or speak English well enough to suit their tastes. In other words, the Proud Boys is a group run by elitists who use poorer members to do their bidding. Just like the Confederacy once did.
The Poster Boy
So let’s talk about the arrogant poster boy, Enrique Tarrio. He is the current frontman after attorney Jason Lee Van Dyke briefly held the position when Gavin McInnes “stepped down”. Van Dyke currently holds the copyrights and trademarks for Proud Boys merchandise but is no longer considered a member of the group. Tarrio, who refers to the Proud Boys as: “pro-Western fraternal organization for men” and a “men’s drinking club,” once tried to run for Florida’s 27th Congressional District. He dropped out due to his inability to raise funds.
Tarrio is also a successful businessman after two incidents where he was arrested. At 20 years old (2004), Tarrio was convicted of theft and served three years probation. In 2013 he served 16 months after being arrested for rebranding and reselling stolen medical devices. It comes as a bit of a surprise that becoming a successful businessman after being in prison isn’t enough of a success story for Tarrio that he became a hatemonger. But here we are.
Tarrio got his start with the Proud Boys through a friendship with Alex Gonzalez that culminated after Tarrio volunteered to work an event held by far-right commentator Milo Yiannopoulos in Miami in 2017. There, they became friends and Gonzalez recruited him to sign up. Now, as chairman, according to Tarrio, his role is to act as a tie-breaking vote on altering rules or deciding to attend a rally.
Despite his limited role in the group, the idea of him identifying as Afro-Cuban while aligning himself with a crowd that promotes many different types of hate is appalling to many and not surprising to others; particularly Cubans like me. When Tarrio said, “I’m pretty brown, I’m Cuban. There’s nothing white supremacist about me,” most reacted to the truthfulness of the statement and blew it off. The reality is, he supports and defends a group that has been exposed time and again via social media posts and messages harboring neo-Nazi views and spreading race-based hate.
Gavin McInnes, their leader and someone who Tarrio idolizes, has used hateful racist language on many occasions and Tarrio doesn’t denounce it. Despite Tarrio declaring, “I denounce white supremacy. I denounce anti-Semitism. I denounce racism. I denounce fascism. I denounce communism and any other -ism that is prejudice towards people because of their race, religion, culture, tone of skin,” to Miami 7 News, promoting the transphobic, homophobic, misogynistic, intolerant ideology of “western chauvinism” is precisely why the Proud Boys are considered a bridge to white supremacy.
Tarrio knows this as well as anyone else does. He simply doesn’t care.
The views held by Tarrio or any other bigot never hold up to scrutiny. If you prod them about their beliefs long enough and dig just beneath the surface, their ideology falls apart and they know it. Tarrio’s involvement seems to be motivated by the same factors that drive other Latino Trump voters: self-interest. Money. Tarrio is making a lot of it selling Proud Boys merchandise.
People like him don’t give a damn about community, about unity, or about our collective socio-political power. They’re concerned with giving power to the few. To the purveyors of hate, they idolize so much. To the Donald Trumps of the world. Enrique Tarrio is just like any other Latino Trump supporter but on an extreme level and you don’t have to be Cuban to be disgusted by it. This behavior is not just common in the Cuban community but in many others as well and it should never be acceptable.
Whiteness, and by extension white supremacy, has been trying to court the Latino community for decades. Much like it did when it adopted other European cultures (Irish, Italian, Spaniards, Northern Europeans) into American whiteness. We can’t let people like Tarrio take hold in our communities and we must take it upon ourselves to call it out every single time. No bigotry should be acceptable. Latinos are too diverse for all that.
What To Watch Out For
The Proud Boys are a relatively small group but they are growing fast. There are no doubts that the recent attention brought to them by Trump’s “stand down but stand by” order at the first presidential debate is boosting their recruitment numbers. Social media campaigns promoting inclusivity while disguising the hateful nature of the group are in full force and we must be aware of the problem in order to address it.
A small and seemingly benign group, it’s not just the Proud Boys America has to worry about. A recent FBI bulletin states that violence from far-right groups, including the Proud Boys, is imminent. Beginning around election day and continuing through the inauguration. In the bulletin, the FBI points to many hate groups that could be taking part.
Chatter about a civil war is at a high online. And if what the FBI says holds true, America is looking at over two months of violent unrest. That’s a scary prospect to consider if you’re a member of a minority group. The Proud Boys are but a representation of many more groups like them that have much larger membership numbers.
The Proud Boys say they’re right-leaning libertarians who support free speech, gun rights, and traditional gender roles. A so-called men’s club of “Proud Western chauvinists who refuse to apologize for creating the modern world,” according to their tag line. But their associations and partnerships with white nationalist groups make them a violent group to watch out for.
The Miami New Times Meg O’Connor writes: “To academics who study extremists, the Proud Boys are a bridge to white supremacy, a group that launders extremist ideologies under the guise of Western pride and free speech, making hateful rhetoric palatable and acting as a conduit for bona fide white supremacists seeking to establish ties to the Republican Party.”
The Proud Boys will be a force to be reckoned with among members of the Latino community as they make a push to recruit Latinos using Tarrio’s poster boy image. We must also be watchful and aware of our surroundings. Should something happen on or about Election Day, Black, Latino, Indigenous, or other marginalized groups could become targets of the Proud Boys or one of many other active hate groups threatening violence should Trump lose.
Stay vigilant and much love.
Arturo is an anti-racist political nerd. He is an upcoming author, journalist, advocate for social justice, and a married father of three. He is a top writer on Medium and a regular contributor to several news media outlets. He writes educational and informative material about systemic racism, white supremacy, and racial injustice. He collaborates with many in Academia in discussing the issues mentioned here. If you’d like to learn more, follow him on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. You can also support his work here.