Supporters of a far-right group called the Proud Boys were filmed kicking and punching three men curled up on the pavement in Manhattan’s Upper East Side on the evening of October 12. In the videos, some of the assailants can be heard yelling homophobic slurs and cheering. The incident, which was caught on camera by several people, reveals the group’s violent tendencies, according to some experts who study the far-right in the United States.
The incident took place moments after the end of a speaking event featuring the Proud Boys’ leader, Gavin McIness, who was one of the founders of VICE media, but left the company in 2008. McIness founded the Proud Boys in 2016, following Trump’s election. The Proud Boys self-describe as “Western chauvinists” and say they are a fraternal organization promoting “anti-political correctness” and “anti-white guilt”. They deny all accusations of racism and distance themselves from the “alt-right”.
However, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), which monitors extremists in the United States, has classified the Proud Boys as a hate group, “because of its frequent denigration of Muslims and Islam, misogynistic rhetoric and its role as a ‘gateway’ group to other extremist groups,” said Keegan Hankes, senior research analyst for the SPLC.
On the evening of October 12, McIness had been invited by the Metropolitan Republican Club to give a lecture about Otoya Yamaguchi, a teenaged Japanese ultranationalist who assassinated a Socialist leader with a sword in1960. (On his Instagram page, McIness called this an “inspiring moment”). The night before the lecture, the club was vandalized with anti-fascist graffiti; police say that vandals dressed in black also threw bricks through the club’s windows and glued the locks on its doors.
On the night of the lecture, protesters gathered across the street from the venue, with dozens of police officers standing watch. Shay Horse, an independent photojournalist who covers the far right across the United States, was present at the scene. He told the France 24 Observers what he saw:
After the event ended, the Proud Boys and their supporters all went in the same direction. I followed them down the block, so I didn't see that Gavin McIness stayed behind and waved his samurai sword in front of the crowd of protesters before getting into a car and leaving.
I’ve noticed he often does this at events – he leaves right away. He doesn’t stay for the fighting. The only time I’ve heard he was in an altercation was at the DeploraBall [Editor’s Note: an event held on the eve of Donald Trump’s inauguration].
I followed the others around the corner, and when we got to 82nd street, I saw bodies on the ground. I saw Proud Boys running over and punching and kicking them. The three guys on the ground were a few feet away from each other, so some Proud Boys ran from one group to another, to kick each guy. I was taking photos – and they were just running around me like water.
A video journalist I was with filmed all this, too [see video below].
Video by Sandi Bachom.
Then three police officers pulled up on scooters. I said, “do something,” and one of them ran into the crowd, saying “that’s enough”. The police let them leave, and the Proud Boys walked away like it was their idea. One of the three guys on the ground had already managed to bolt; the other two seemed in pretty bad shape, with one helping the other get up, before they walked away.
I followed the Proud Boys to the 77th Street subway station. On the way, I asked one of them what happened, and he said that antifa [Editor’s Note: a term for antifascist protesters] started it. He had a Proud Boy tattoo that showed he was second-degree [Editor’s Note: There are four possible degrees Proud Boys can attain, which include steps like declaring they are “Western chauvinists”, enduring beatings while trying to recite the name of breakfast cereals, and giving up masturbation. This Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) page on the Proud Boys explains the first three degrees; the fourth, which was added last year, is explained further along in this article].
Another journalist and I kept trying to ask more questions, but they got cagey and stuck to their motto, ‘f**k around and find out.’
Horse said that it was not just Proud Boys members who were involved in the incident – he recognized members of local skinhead groups, too, as did researchers from the SPLC.
The police released a surveillance video, taken from a residential building, which shows how the incident started. Masked protesters were walking slowly in the direction of Proud Boys supporters, who are off-screen when the video begins. One of the protesters throws a plastic bottle in their direction. A Proud Boy supporter then runs into the frame and throws the first punch.
The incident, which lasted nine and a half minutes, was also captured during in a video livestreamed by one of the Proud Boys’ supporters.
The video starts with the supporter narrating the scene in selfie mode as the group leaves the club; the crowd of protesters can be heard in the background. At 1 minute 49, the incident begins. He then films the group walking away, in high spirits. They chant “I like beer” and “Beers for Kavanaugh” – references to the newest US Supreme Court justice, Brett Kavanaugh. Toward the end of the video, one of them endorses Donald Trump for reelection in 2020.
Criticism of the police’s reaction
Three protesters were arrested in a separate incident that night, in which police said a man associated with the Proud Boys was threatened and robbed of his backpack.
No Proud Boys supporters were arrested on the night of the event.
Over the weekend, the videos of the incident stirred anger online, and the police’s actions were criticized by several local officials.
On Monday, October 15, the police announced that they were seeking nine people affiliated with the Proud Boys and three additional protesters on riot and attempted assault charges. A few days later, on October 19, they said that they had arrested a man affiliated with the Proud Boys.
"The Proud Boys have always embraced violence"
Hankes, of the SLPC, says that while McIness claims to reject white nationalism, he espouses many of the central tenets of this ideology.
“The Proud Boys and white nationalists are motivated by the same status anxiety over the supposed decline of so-called ‘western civilization’,” he said. “These include non-white immigration and the decline of white birth rates, as is evidenced in their reverence for Pat Buchanan’s Death of the West, a text notable for its role in radicalizing a number of white nationalists.”
Hankes says that Proud Boys members have frequently appeared alongside other groups that the SPLC classifies as hate groups, including at the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, where a white nationalist killed a protester by running her down with his car (though McIness had officially barred any Proud Boys from attending).
“While the Proud Boys have always embraced violence and even reserve the ‘fourth degree’ of membership for those who have engaged in a fight with an anti-fascist, in recent months they have been noticeably more eager to get into the streets and battle counter-protesters,” Hankes said. “Violence is the Proud Boys’ most effective recruiting tool. With the uptick in the number of violent rallies this summer – most of which took place in Portland but received nationwide attention – the number of men looking to join the Proud Boys increased markedly.”
Hankes believes that the Proud Boys’ claims that they are not racist are disingenuous.
“When defending the Proud Boys against numerous, documented examples of members holding racist and xenophobic beliefs and/or participating in events organized by hate groups and their members, McInnes frequently deploys the rhetorical strategy of conflating all extremist views with Nazism,” he said. “This allows him to claim that because members of the Proud Boys aren’t literal Nazis they must not be racists or xenophobes. By extrapolating bigoted beliefs to their most extreme forms, it allows him to deny charges that members of his organization are extremists.”