Proud Boys remain an active menace across the U.S., even amid significant hurdles this year such as infighting, their top brass facing serious federal seditious conspiracy charges, prominent members flipping on the gang, and a terrorist designation in New Zealand. Despite unprecedented scrutiny, the far-right street-fighting gang has continued to act as brazenly as ever and sought legitimacy through the illusion of civic engagement.
Dozens of uniformed members have marched through the streets of Long Island in broad daylight. Others shook hands with Trump-endorsed Republican candidates ahead of the midterms. Some have battled college students on university campuses.
But overwhelmingly, since June, the biggest focus for the Proud Boys this year has been anti-LGBTQ activism, a hard pivot from its actions in the first half of the year. Proud Boys in at least 11 different states showed up to venues such as libraries and restaurants to intimidate drag shows, especially events touted as “family-friendly” such as drag brunches or the popular reading series “Drag Queen Story Hour.” VICE News has tracked Proud Boy activity since dozens of their members, including leadership, were implicated in the violent riot at the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. Our database of Proud Boy activity for the last two years offers insight into their priorities, regional strongholds—and their resilience. While Proud Boy activity took a slight downturn this year compared to last, it remains on track to outpace their activity in 2020. What’s more, members of the group or their allies are increasingly more likely to be armed at public events compared to last year, according to data compiled by the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED). And 20 percent of all demonstrations involving Proud Boys since 2020 turned violent, compared to 2 percent of demonstrations in the U.S. overall, per ACLED.
Want the best of VICE News straight to your inbox? Sign up here.Prior to Jan. 6, under the leadership of former “chairman” Enrique Tarrio, who is in jail awaiting trial for seditious conspiracy charges, the gang became known for large, high-profile rallies that brought together hundreds of members from chapters around the country in one place like Washington D.C. or Portland, Oregon. The results were black-and-gold quasi-paramilitary spectacles, that reeked of beer and testosterone, regularly descended into violence, and attracted media and law enforcement scrutiny. If you have any information about Proud Boys’ activities in your community, please contact Tess Owen on Wire at @testess or by email at Tess.Owen@VICE.com.But after Jan. 6, partly at the urging of Tarrio, the group switched tactics. Local chapters burrowed into their communities, and forged alliances with other right-wing activists around whatever the culture war issue du jour was. “While the Proud Boys used to largely host rallies where they were the headliners, now they come in to act as the muscle for other reactionary groups,” said Cassie Miller, a senior research analyst with the Southern Poverty Law Center. In 2021, that meant Proud Boys showing up to local anti-vaxx rallies, or storming school board meetings along with right-wing parents over issues like masking requirements or “Critical Race Theory.”
At the outset of 2022, a few chapters of Proud Boys half-heartedly joined forces with the anti-vaccine “Trucker Freedom Convoy,” which made its way across the country from California to Washington D.C. to demand that nonexistent vaccine mandates be rescinded. Unsurprisingly, that movement fizzled. Then, Proud Boys started joining the fray of other far-right extremists who were trying to build inroads into the well-established anti-abortion movement, which was energized by a flurry of regressive state bills rolling back reproductive rights and a newly-conservative majority on the Supreme Court. Both sides of the abortion debate were animated in early May, when Politico published a leaked draft opinion signaling that the Supreme Court was poised to gut Roe v. Wade, the 1973 ruling that legalized abortion nationwide. A month later, the Supreme Court confirmed the pro-choice movement’s worst fears by making that leak official in a ruling. Proud Boys’ response to the news did little to suggest that their interest in the abortion issue was based in anything other than misogyny. “Hahaha fuck you whores,” wrote Tulsa’s Proud Boy chapter on Telegram, after the draft opinion was leaked. In some places, such as Florida, Arizona, California, New Hampshire, and Georgia, they took to the streets to intimidate and troll pro-abortion protesters.
Earlier this year, with vaccine and mask requirements becoming a thing of the past, the right were left directionless and in need of a new culture war to stoke grievances over. So in April, when Disney publically opposed Florida’s controversial “Don’t Say Gay” law (which bars teachers from educating kids under the age of 12 about anything related to sexual orientation or gender identity), the far-right pounced. The right quickly coalesced around a baseless narrative claiming that any kind of family entertainment or education involving pro-LGBTQ themes was tantamount to “grooming” or pedophilia. That included LGBTQ characters in Disney movies, LGBTQ teachers wearing Pride badges to school, and especially drag events that were branded “family friendly.” It also became a smokescreen to justify ongoing attacks against the LGBTQ community, particularly young transgender people, and inspired a record number of bills targeting the LGBTQ community. This multi-pronged attack against the LGBTQ community came as the Christian right, having been handed a big W on abortion, began setting their sights on overturning the national right to gay marriage.
THE BIG SHIFT
When Pride Month rolled around in June, this rhetoric became turbocharged—and was reinforced by right-wing media and fringe lawmakers alike. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene declared straight people on the verge of “extinction” and asserted that Pride month “needs to end.”Meanwhile, Libs of TikTok, a social media account run by a former New York real estate agent that mockingly reposts content from liberals and leftists, switched gears from downplaying COVID-19 to attacking LGBTQ people. They increasingly started posting locations for upcoming family-friendly drag or pride events around the country. And the Proud Boys were listening. One ”drag queen story hour” they flagged at a library in San Lorenzo, California, in June attracted the attention of Proud Boys who stormed the event shouting homophobic and transphobic slurs. One of them wore a T-shirt saying “Kill your Local Pedophile.”
Proud Boys continued to target pro-LGBTQ events even after a 22-year-old gunman stormed a drag queens birthday party at a gay club in Colorado Springs and opened fire last month, leaving five dead and dozens injured. Weeks after that shooting, around 50 Proud Boys, joined by white nationalists from Patriot Front and neo-Nazis, showed up to a church in Columbus, Ohio and intimidated organizers of a drag queen story hour into canceling the event. It was the largest number of Proud Boys who had gathered publicly in a single space for years.
Overall, Proud Boy involvement in anti-LGBTQ events tripled this year compared to last, according to ACLED. VICE News’ data found that almost 80 percent of abortion-related events that Proud Boys attended this year took place between January and May. By contrast, 100 percent of anti-LGBTQ actions involving Proud Boys took place between late May and December. The Proud Boys’ efforts to insert themselves into anti-LGBTQ activism might also explain why chapters in some areas saw significantly more activity compared to last. In 2021, VICE News found that the majority of Proud Boy activity was concentrated in coastal areas, such as the Pacific Northwest, California, and Florida. We logged next to no activity in the South and Southwest. This year, Proud Boy chapters in Texas, Tennessee, North Carolina, and Arizona became very active.
That may have something to do with the emergence of grassroots right-wing networks comprised of “parental rights” activists and Christian nationalist groups that mobilized around anti-LGBTQ sentiment as well as abortion. “I think this reflects their [Proud Boys] increased willingness to partner with other far-right organizations,” said Miller. “Where these groups have popped up around the country this year, the Proud Boys have followed.”
The fact that the Proud Boys so seamlessly move between different issues is a salient reminder that they’re more craven opportunists seeking alliances over targeting a particular group (and fights where they can get them), rather than ideologues in and of themselves. “It’s a strategy, post Jan. 6, to move into these areas that they can see as being potentially an opportunity to insert themselves into the wider right-wing activist space and then into the political mainstream,” said Sam Jones, communications director at ACLED.
The battles they wage are a direct reflection of whatever the GOP and Fox News’ Tucker Carlson are talking about at any given moment.“Over the last two years, we’ve seen the Proud Boys act in lockstep with the GOP.” said Miller. The group’s “ideological flexibility,” as Miller described it, may be partly the key to Proud Boys’ resilience, especially when it comes to surviving reported infighting. Simmering rivalries and divisions in the group were laid bare at the Proud Boys’ annual convention, WestFest, earlier this year in Las Vegas, according to The Daily Beast. The gang’s founder, Gavin McInnes, found that chapters had divided themselves into two factions: “Standard” and National.” Each side was consumed by suspicion of the other. (Disclosure: Gavin McInnes was a co-founder of VICE in the mid-1990s. He left the company in 2008 and has had no involvement since then. He founded the Proud Boys in 2016.) Despite the infighting, the group has managed to stay afloat writ large. That’s mainly because their differences are largely surface-level and petty. “Most clashes are interpersonal or related to how chapters are managed,” said Miller. “Members get kicked out, and the organization moves on.”
They aren’t plagued by deep, ideological differences—largely because their self-ascribed collective identity as “Western Chauvinists” is really an umbrella for all sorts of right to far-right persuasions, from Libertarians, to fascists, to white nationalists, and antisemites. “As far-right groups go, the Proud Boys are unusually resilient,” said Miller. “A lot of that durability comes from the fact that they have always been able to uphold some degree of plausible deniability about their extremist views, which has allowed them to continue growing for all these years.” Some Proud Boy chapters have also been on a mission to whitewash their reputations in their local communities by engaging in “charity work.” In Dec. 2021, some chapters in New York and Florida were seen organizing “toy drives.” A soup kitchen in Connecticut recently rejected 855 pounds of food donated by a local Proud Boy chapter. On one hand, Jones of ACLED sees their charitable work as part of a broader strategy used by extremist groups, gangs and rebels around the world to demonstrate that “they can assume the role of the state and assert control over areas in competition with the state.” One key difference, however, is that unlike many militant or rebel groups in other countries, Proud Boys often operate with the tacit support of local authorities (a police officer in Columbus, Ohio, is currently under fire after he was seen high-fiving a Proud Boy during the protest against the scheduled drag event at a church). Proud Boys’ “charity work” may be a tactic to “deepen connections with an existing base in the community, expand local networks, recruit, and draw lines separating the potentially allied in-groups they aim to ‘protect’ from the demonized out-groups that they target,” said Jones.
In some places, Proud Boys have actually had success in gaining a foothold in local political organizations: members of the group won spots on Republican Executive Committees in Florida’s Miami-Dade and Sarasota Counties earlier this year. The resilience of the Proud Boys is especially stark when compared to the Oath Keepers—the only other extremist organization whose members have been accused of conspiring to overthrow the government on Jan. 6. Stewart Rhodes, the Oath Keeper’s founder and leader, was recently found guilty of seditious conspiracy. And in the last two years, the footprint of the Oath Keepers has shrunk considerably, according to ACLED. One explanation might be the way that the Oath Keepers are structured, compared to the Proud Boys. “If you cut off the head of the snake and take down the leadership of the Oath Keepers, it’s harder for them to maintain the brand,” said Jones. “Compared to some of these more traditional militia-style groups, [the Proud Boys] are less reliant on a really strict paramilitary hierarchy. With the Proud Boys, you have these decentralized factions, where they can take it on themselves to take on these kinds of actions.” Tarrio claimed in an interview with VICE News earlier this year that the Proud Boys had abolished their sovereign leadership chapter, which granted full autonomy to individual chapters (which already operated with semi-autonomy to begin with). The two groups’ reactions to the aftermath of Jan. 6 might also offer some explanation, says Miller. While the Proud Boys leaned into fringe GOP rhetoric painting jailed Jan. 6 rioters as martyrs or patriots, the Oath Keepers tried to distance themselves from the event altogether. “That attitude has allowed them to not only withstand the criticism and charges brought against them, but to actually use it in their favor,” said Miller of the Proud Boys. The Proud Boys will once again find themselves under legal scrutiny once the seditious conspiracy trial involving five prominent members — Tarrio, Ethan Nordean, Joseph Biggs, Zachary Rehl, and Dominic Pezzola—gets underway later this month. The trial, which will include former leaders’ testimony, is expected to expose some of the group’s innerworkings. What we don’t know yet is whether rank-and-file Proud Boys will rally around the defendants, or seek distance from the trial in order to go about business as usual.