Former Fresno police officer Rick Fitzgerald palled around with Proud Boys, wore their uniform (including their unfortunate black-and-gold kilt), protested alongside members of the far-right street-fighting gang—and was found out.
The 18-year veteran of the police department was fired by the police chief in April after an investigation concluded that he’d engaged in off-duty misconduct when he attended protests with Proud Boys.
But now, in a lawsuit filed earlier this week against Fresno officials, Fitzgerald’s attorney is arguing that the ex-cop’s civil rights have been violated, and that he was a victim of a “woke witch hunt.”
Fitzgerald’s involvement with the group came under scrutiny back in March, when he appeared in a Proud Boy’s YouTube livestream at a protest outside the Tower Theater, which has become a flashpoint for political violence since it was sold to an anti-LGBTQ church.
In the livestream, Proud Boy Eddie Block signaled familiarity with Fitzgerald, calling him “Rick” and implying he was a member of law enforcement. Fitzgerald was wearing sunglasses and a jersey emblazoned with the numbers 76.
Antifascists were able to identify Fitzgerald by a tattoo on his left arm, and tracked him to an earlier “Stop the Steal” rally in Sacramento in November. At that November protest, Fitzgerald was in full Proud Boy battle rattle.
The Fresno Police Department launched an investigation into Fitzgerald’s ties to the group in March and fired him the following month.
Fitzgerald claimed to ABC30 that he left the Proud Boys after seeing their behavior in Sacramento. "I saw how some conducted themselves and said this is not something I want to be a part of, because there's no honor or integrity,” Fitzgerald told ABC30. “I left the next day and started my own group, The Sons of 76. We just do community and charity.”
Posts he made online suggested a very different story. The Fresno Bee had reported that he bragged on a podcast that he was with the Proud Boys for about a year and reached the third degree within the group (which means that they’ve gotten a Proud Boy tattoo).
Despite Fitzgerald’s attempts to distance himself from the group, Proud Boys showed up in Fresno to protest his firing in April (that protest descended into violence, and resulted in a pregnant woman getting knocked to the ground).
Investigators with the Fresno Police Department also identified other examples of Fitzgerald allegedly engaging in off-duty misconduct: They found photos on his Instagram showing him wearing the Punisher mask (popular among far-right pro-police advocates), holding an AR-15 with the caption “shit is lot easier when you can kill people.”
Bradley, Fitzgerald’s lawyer, shrugged this off as “just cosplay.” “Are we at the point where if you quote something from TV that’s enough to create a leftist firestorm and get you fired?” Bradley said.
Fitzgerald’s lawyer is arguing that firing a police officer for what he does in his spare time violates the First Amendment and the police Bill of Rights. “At no time prior to his termination had Fitzgerald been told or warned that membership in Proud Boys was inconsistent with his employment with the City,” Bradley wrote, according to The Fresno Bee. “At no time had the United States federal government, the government of the State of California, or the City designated that Proud Boys as an unlawful or illegal organization or made unlawful statements in support of America, patriotism, race neutrality, and pride in America.”
The Proud Boys group, which is known for political violence and misogyny, has come under intense scrutiny since many of its members were implicated in the attack on the Capitol on January 6. Since then, they’ve shifted focus to local politics, inserting themselves into culture war dramas, like the dispute over the Tower Theater in Fresno.
(Disclosure: Gavin McInnes, who founded the Proud Boys in 2016, was a co-founder of VICE in 1994. He left the company in 2008 and has had no involvement since then.)
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