The Proud Boys Changed Tactics After Jan. 6. We Tracked Their Activity.

The far-right street-fighting gang looked to whitewash their reputation in 2021 by latching onto hyperlocal right-wing culture war issues.
January 5, 2022, 5:07pm
Members of the Proud Boys march in Manhattan against vaccine mandates on November 20, 2021 in New York City.
Members of the Proud Boys march in Manhattan against vaccine mandates on November 20, 2021 in New York City. (Photo by Stephanie Keith/Getty Images)

Buhl, Idaho, is a city of just 4,000 people, best known for the abundance of rainbow trout in its hatcheries and as the birthplace of a famous cigar-smoking televangelist. 

Yet despite its small size, the Proud Boys, a neo-fascist street-fighting gang, thought that this “sleepy red town,” and in particular, its annual Fourth of July Sagebrush Days Parade would be a good opportunity to promote their brand. 

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The theme of the 2021 parade was “Celebrate the Good Old Days.” Kids stayed cool with sno-cones on the side of the road, trucks advertising local businesses rolled by, and the current title holder of Miss Magic Valley Stampede waved to onlookers from atop her heavily accessorized horse. 

Then came the Proud Boys parade float, decked out with yellow and black balloons and flanked by uniformed members with their faces completely covered by gaiters emblazoned with their logo. 

“I heard one mom tell her kiddos it was just a ‘drunk uncle drinking club,’” remarked one reader in response to an article in the local Times-News about the Proud Boys’ involvement. 

But to others in attendance, just six months after the Jan. 6 insurrection and the arrests of many of their members who stormed the Capitol that day, the Proud Boys were patriots who had every right to participate in Buhl’s annual event. 

“I did not see these guys doing anything but supporting our country with flags and marching in a parade,” commented another reader of the Times-News. “I don't belong to the group, but I have read what they are about and it seems like they support our country and liberty.”

Proud Boys Go Local

After the deadly Capitol riot, the Proud Boys appeared to retreat from the national stage amid intense scrutiny, a flurry of serious federal charges (nearly 50 members have been charged so far), and rumored infighting. Then came the bombshell report that their “chairman,” Enrique Tarrio, was at one time a “prolific” police informant. All this prompted speculation from some media outlets that the group was on the brink of collapse. 

But around the spring of 2021, VICE News noticed a trend that hinted at a different and potentially quite troubling story about the Proud Boys’ reach, resilience, and ground-level support. It seemed that they were flying under the national radar, and eschewing large-scale, high-profile appearances in favor of quietly solidifying alliances around hot-button political issues and community activism. 

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We spent the last year closely tracking and documenting this trend, and found that Proud Boys made at least 114 uniformed appearances across 73 cities in 24 states between Jan. 6 and Dec. 21, 2021. 

“Over the past year, the Proud Boys have worked to embed themselves amongst local activists who haven’t been tarnished by the Jan. 6 insurrection,” said Devin Burghart, executive director of the Missouri-based Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights (IREHR). “They’ve enmeshed themselves into local efforts to push back against vaccine mandates, or critical race theory, and other local conflicts, which has allowed them to steer clear of the national discussion about the insurrection and provide them with a base of support that they didn’t have prior to Jan. 6.” 

For example, they organized an Easter egg hunt in a Chicago suburb, serenaded a crowd of anti-vaxxers outside California’s Capitol in Sacramento with a nationalist ballad, and posed a menacing presence at school board meetings where “critical race theory” was being discussed. They’ve put together Christmas toy drives for terminally ill children in places like Seattle, Long Island, and Miami. They’ve provided security for the “Church at Planned Parenthood,” led by an evangelical anti-abortion pastor, in Salem, Oregon. 

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“We have the Proud Boys across the street,” said Pastor Ken Peters in a livestream from the Salem event in July, turning the camera to a group of men in the group’s uniform. “Oh my goodness, thank God for the Proud Boys.” 

“They’re out to make the case for the Proud Boys, show that they’re not bad people, that they’re here to help the community,” said Daryle Lamont Jenkins, an antifascist researcher who has tracked the far-right for decades and runs One People’s Project, which monitors hate groups. They’re on some sort of publicity tour. It's pretty much them trying to sell themselves to the American people.”

Their PR drive might be paying off. VICE News found scant evidence that Proud Boys encountered any pushback from fellow right-wingers when they showed up to their 2021 events in uniform. Burghart sees the lack of pushback as consistent with a recent survey by the Public Religion Research Institute that  found that 68% of Republicans believe the baseless conspiracy theory that the 2020 U.S. presidential election was stolen from Donald Trump. 

“In many camps, the Proud Boys are viewed as the militant wing defending that position,” said Burghart. “That they, along with the Oath Keepers and other groups, were willing to step forward and fight.” The same survey found that 30% of Republicans (and one in five Americans) agreed that “true American patriots may have to resort to violence in order to save our country.” 

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Strategy

VICE News’ dataset offers key insight into ground-level Proud Boy activity in 2021—and a better understanding of their goals headed into a crucial midterm-election year. Burghart says the Proud Boys are a bellwether for the direction and focus of the far-right more broadly. 

“The important thing to remember about the Proud Boys is that they’ve always been remarkably opportunistic,” said Burghart. “If you want to know where the momentum is on the far-right, watch where the Proud Boys are going.” 

The Proud Boys’ shift toward local politics and coalition-building has been encouraged by Proud Boy leadership, with the apparent goal of whitewashing their reputation, avoiding the national media spotlight, and bolstering their political cachet. 

Prior to Jan. 6, when Proud Boys gathered in public, they were largely a chaotic, beer-swilling mass of yellow and gold itching for a fight.

And even though violence has pretty much been an inevitability of Proud Boy appearances for years, their leaders have insisted that their public appearances are almost always carefully strategized. “When we set out to do an event, we go, OK, what is our main objective?” Proud Boy organizer Joe Biggs, who is currently facing conspiracy charges for his alleged actions at the Capitol, said on a podcast in December 2020. “That’s the first thing we discuss. We take three months to plan an event.” 

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According to internal chats obtained by federal prosecutors, Proud Boys were under an organization-wide “stand down” order for three months in the immediate aftermath of the events at the Capitol. Not all chapters complied with the top-down directive, but our dataset does show that there was a relative lull in Proud Boy activity between January and March 2021—just nine uniformed appearances in total during those three months, in four different states—compared to the rest of the year. 

After that three-month hiatus, scattered Proud Boy activity began popping up around popular right-wing issues like gun rights and mask mandates—as well as more nebulous causes, like “freedom.” 

Proud Boy leader Tarrio, who is currently serving a 155-day jail sentence for vandalizing property belonging to a historically Black church in D.C., told VICE News in September that he hoped “the guys would focus on local elections, local candidates, and things like that.” Tarrio, who has made several failed political bids, also discussed this strategy in one of his podcast episodes over the summer. ‘We’ve been doing things on a national level for quite some time,” said Tarrio, a Miami native. “A lot of my guys are now focusing on their local communities. A lot of stuff with the school boards. A lot of my guys, not even just here in Florida but across the country.” 

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Their decision to “go local” is in keeping with the broader trajectory of the GOP and far-right. The intense anger around the conspiracy-driven “Stop the Steal” movement, which culminated with thousands of Trump supporters storming the U.S. Capitol, has since bled into suburbs and towns nationwide. Typically less-than-exciting settings like school board and city council meetings have turned into ground zero for culture war issues like vaccines, mask mandates, and the supposed teaching of critical race theory, the catchall term for any socially progressive education.

And like a culture-war edition of Where’s Waldo, in the sea of disgruntled locals, QAnon moms, and rabid anti-vaxxers crowding into meeting rooms, you can often find the Proud Boys, in their gold-and-black uniforms. Here’s some of the main takeaways from our dataset and what it says about the future of the group.  

Geography 

We found that Proud Boys last year were most active in Florida, California, and Oregon, and there was an uptick in uniformed activity in New York in the last few months of 2021. 

There were quite a few instances where Proud Boy activity spiked in a particular city but was short-lived as the momentum around their chosen issue faded away. 

In Modesto, California, Proud Boys showed up to city hall meetings in uniform on three separate occasions over a six-week period last summer to protest against police reforms and the city’s decision to charge a white cop who fatally shot an unarmed Black man. 

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“The left has created this atmosphere to promote hatred for police,” Proud Boy Sean Adam K said at one of those meetings—and accused the newly established police oversight committee of being “antifa,” to applause from others in the room. 

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Proud Boy Sean Adam K speaking at a Modesto city council meeting.

Similarly, when protests against the Cuban government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic materialized on the streets of Miami last summer, Proud Boys saw an opportunity. Not only did they have some legitimate claim to the movement via their leader, Florida resident and Cuban-American Tarrio, but the core issues of the movement (a Communist government and harsh lockdown restrictions) fit neatly into the far-right’s efforts to paint public health orders as fundamentally anti-American. In less than one week in July, Proud Boys made four uniformed appearances. On at least one of those nights, they showed up with a huge flag that encompassed the Proud Boy logo, with the words, “TRUMP WON; TAKE AMERICA BACK.” 

There were some perplexing geographical gaps in our dataset, especially in the Deep South, excluding Florida. Though Proud Boys have typically been more coastally focused (and active in areas where simmering urban-versus-rural tensions create ripe conditions for political violence), they do claim to have a presence in most states. A VICE News analysis of Proud Boy telegram channels found that the group claims to have at least 157 active chapters in the U.S., in all states apart from Delaware, Vermont, Wyoming, plus Washington, D.C. (It’s hard to say for sure how many official Proud Boys there are in the U.S.; Tarrio has claimed there are tens of thousands of members around the world. Membership estimates by extremist group leaders should always be taken with a grain of salt. However, their national reach and ability to turn out significant numbers to large-scale events would suggest that there are at least thousands of members in the U.S.) 

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Some of the gaps in our data could be explained by the criteria we applied to this project. Each entry had to have corresponding photo or video evidence, meaning we relied heavily on the work of local news outlets (which have been systematically gutted in recent years), concerned residents, and antifascist researchers. 

For example, the majority of our Florida entries were sourced to Twitter posts from a group of activists working under the umbrella of Miami Against Fascism. They regularly post detailed threads mapping out connections between various far-right actors in Florida and documenting their presence at events in the Miami area. 

Violence

Our other criterion was that at least one Proud Boy had to be wearing the group’s uniform (which they refer to as “colors”) or insignia. This rule also resulted in a skewed perception of Proud Boy activity in 2021, especially when it comes to violent acts committed by members of the group. 

Different chapters have different rules about wearing colors, but often the decision to don the uniform at a particular event is made by local or national leadership, depending on its scale. Ahead of Jan. 6, Tarrio instructed members of the group to forgo colors, with the goal of blending in with the crowd in D.C. 

Similarly, Proud Boys from northern Illinois used Telegram to plan their presence at an “Italian Unity Day” rally in Chicago last August to demand the reinstatement of a Christopher Columbus statue. “Hope to see you out there, Proud of your Boy—we Need Soldiers,” wrote one Proud Boy on the channel. “No Colors.” 

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“When they’re in the field getting into something and they don’t want Proud Boys pegged, they don’t wear colors,” said antifascist researcher Jenkins. “If they don’t want to incriminate the club, as they put it, they’re not gonna wear their colors.” 

Los Angeles and its surrounding suburbs emerged as a hotspot for this type of political violence in the last year. Repeated clashes over a handful of culture war issues resulted in stabbings and beatings in broad daylight. Researchers have identified some of the repeated perpetrators in those clashes as known Proud Boys. However, those individuals have tended to show up in LA with their faces entirely covered, without any Proud Boy insignia.

Still, at least a fifth of the events in our dataset did involve violence, particularly in the Pacific Northwest. 

One particularly chaotic showdown, between Proud Boys and antifascists in Oregon City in June, was described by reporters who were there as “open warfare” and “medieval clashes.”

An even bloodier confrontation took place in Portland two months later, where hundreds of Proud Boys and their allies descended on the famously liberal city and battled local leftists for hours. Many who were involved in those clashes traveled over state lines to Olympia, Washington, a few weeks later, which resulted in assaults, and ultimately, an antifascist opening fire on a well-known Proud Boy. 

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“Good Neighbors”

Many of the Proud Boys’ in-uniform activities fell under old-fashioned PR exercises. In addition to the Easter egg hunt in a Chicago suburb (which descended into violence when they encountered counterprotesters), a chapter of Proud Boys in Montana were asked to withdraw as sponsors of a veterans poker night once word got out about their planned involvement. Similarly, a Proud Boy chapter in South Dakota, citing unspecific “safety concerns,” withdrew as the sponsors of a 12-hour music festival in a small town called Scotland. 

Last month in Long Island, New York, a group of Proud Boys in a yellow pickup truck delivered Christmas presents to a children's hospital. A man dressed as Santa Claus rode atop the truck—with a Proud Boy logo sewn onto his red hat. 

Proud Boys also participated in a toy drive in Miami last month to benefit the Joe DiMaggio Children’s Hospital, and threw up the white-power “OK” sign while posing for a photo with a woman in a red hat saying “We the People” and a man in a Santa suit. 

Public Comment Sessions Run Wild

About a quarter of the uniformed Proud Boy appearances in 2021 that we logged were at school board meetings or city council meetings. 

In mid-December, a group of Proud Boys with their faces covered showed up to a city council meeting in Woodbridge, a township in New Jersey often considered a bedroom suburb of New York City. Woodbridge leans Democratic but also has a large population (41%) who voted for Trump. 

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“It’s not a racist town, really, but you do have some smatterings of people who wish it was —and they have a loud voice,” said Jenkins, who’s based in Philadelphia and is especially familiar with far-right groups active in Pennsylvania and neighboring New Jersey. 

During the meeting’s public comment session, Proud Boys verbally sparred with local activists who identified themselves as being affiliated with Black Lives Matter.

Some locals chastised the board and mayor for allowing the Proud Boys to be there in the first place. One woman spoke directly to the Proud Boys, calling them “disgusting.” 

One man who had come to the meeting with a yellow folder full of paperwork to discuss a zoning and redevelopment issue in the township also felt compelled to weigh in on the evening’s drama—striking a surprisingly sympathetic chord with the uniformed Proud Boy guests in their presence. 

“By the way, I just wanna say something in response to all this commotion tonight,” he said. “People talk about the far-right and all that, you know, Black Lives Matter? Yeah, all lives matter, not just yours. You got your opinion, this is America, you don’t have the right to everybody's opinion.” 

A Proud Boy who gave his name as “Burt” said he was there to say “we will not have our children fed sexual degeneracy or rewriting of history.” 

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School board meetings in Washougal, Washington, located about 20 minutes outside of Portland, have also become the backdrop to tense confrontations between uniformed Proud Boys, their allies, and parents who have kids attending the schools. Wendi Moose, a concerned parent who teaches in another district, shared photos and videos of uniformed Proud Boys at at least two meetings over the fall. 

In one of those meetings, a uniformed Proud Boy addressed the other men in the room. “I’m a father, a husband, a combat veteran—and I’m also part of the greatest brotherhood in the world,” he said. “All you men have been put on notice that you are cowards. You have the power to stand up and end the CRT [Critical Race Theory], end the sex ed, get rid of the masks, quit all this bullshit.” 

All the allies 

We also tried to keep track of the groups or individuals who showed up at the same events, and found that their peers ran the gamut from brazen white nationalists to militia types to antivax moms to aspiring politicians or even local officials. For example, Proud Boys provided security at an event in Salem, Oregon, that featured speeches by a local gun and tactical gear store, as well as the “Stolen Voices Foundation,” which advocates against abortion. Uniformed Proud Boys rallied in support of a school nurse in New Jersey whose employment wasn’t renewed after she refused to enforce a mask requirement. Wellness influencer and anti-vaxxer Stephanie Locricchio was among the speakers at that rally. 

Proud Boys also joined a protest outside a hospital in Meridian, Idaho, alongside members of Peoples Rights, a network of anti-government activists led by Ammon Bundy. In Sacramento, California, uniformed Proud Boys provided security at an antivax rally where city Supervisor Sue Frost participated. 

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At least one uniformed Proud Boy attended a rally against the removal of Confederate monuments in Palatka, Florida, held by a right-wing activist who is running in the 2022 primary against Republican Sen. Marco Rubio. Other attendees included a local pastor who was later arrested for his role in Jan. 6, and members of the League of the South, a violent neo-Confederate group. 

They’ve also made a friend in Jo Rae Perkins, a QAnon conspiracist who’s running for Senate out of Oregon. At a February rally in Salem that was attended by uniformed Proud Boys, Perkins took the stage and publicly thanked members of the group. 

“For those of you who don't know the Proud Boys, they’re a great group of men,” Perkins said. “They love this country and they love this state. They are there to make sure we don't lose our rights.” 

And in Sanford, Florida, Tarrio and members of the Proud Boys held a rally outside the federal jail there to demand justice for Jan. 6 defendants, including Florida organizer Joe Biggs (who is being detained pending the outcome of his conspiracy trial). A bunch of “White Lives Matter” activists joined the fray. 

Where do they go now?

The Proud Boys were founded in 2016, in the shadow of Trump’s ascent to the White House. They almost immediately gained a reputation for hipster racism, misogyny, and brutality, especially in political-violence hotspots like Portland, Oregon. When they occasionally appeared in uniform at MAGA rallies, their presence would receive heavy scrutiny. (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.)   

Since then, they’ve engaged in bloody brawls at protests and rallies around the country. Despite the mounting pile of evidence, and their own rhetoric, proving them to be a group that prides itself on violence, they’ve continued to build credibility on the political fringes and in right-wing activist circles. They got a massive boost of legitimacy when, during a presidential debate in 2020, Trump appeared to address the Proud Boys directly, telling them to “stand back and stand by.” Though Trump later tried to walk back his comments, many saw them as a tacit endorsement of the Proud Boys’ actions—past and future. 

When thousands of angry Trump supporters took to the streets of Washington, D.C., for two large protests in November and December that year, the Proud Boys were there too, moving around the city like a small army as people in MAGA hats cheered for them, shouting things like “We love you, Proud Boys!” When night came, there was bloodshed, and Proud Boys were documented brawling with counterprotesters and police, and vandalizing historically Black churches. 

None of that seemed to harm their reputation among the MAGA crowd when Jan. 6 rolled around. The violence at the Capitol that day only helped further establish the Proud Boys as a household name. Dozens of members have since been charged—and some leaders are facing serious conspiracy charges and years in prison.  

The idea that they’ve focused their energies on establishing alliances and legitimacy in right-wing activist circles and themselves as the militant wing of the GOP should be cause for concern, especially in a tense election year where the country is as polarized as it was a year ago. 

“Heading into 2022, and as we get closer to the election, we anticipate seeing the Proud Boys return to the street violence that they’re so well known for,” said Burghart. “Whether it’s engaging in the street brawls they're known for, or engaging in more attempts to harass and intimidate voters.”