Proud Boys versus Antifa: Who are these extremist groups clashing in Washington DC?
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On December 12, two days before the Electoral College’s formal vote confirming Joe Biden’s presidential victory, thousands of protesters rallied in Washington DC in support of President Trump’s attempts to invalidate his defeat. As night fell, violent clashes broke out on the streets between two sides known for their mutual animosity: the Proud Boys, a far-right “Western chauvinist” group, and Antifa, a far-left activist movement. Who are these groups, and what lies behind their repeated clashes?
The 2016 election and the controversial Trump presidency that followed sparked an increase in the visibility and popularity of fringe political groups, with two names emerging from the fray.
The Proud Boys describe themselves as a “fraternal organisation” promoting “anti-political correctness” and “anti-White guilt” and distance themselves from racist “alt-right” groups. The group was founded in 2016 following President Trump’s election. Civil rights groups like the Southern Poverty Law Center have classified the Proud Boys as a hate group due to their anti-Muslim and misogynistic rhetoric, their espousal of white nationalist ideas and their affiliations with known extremists.
Antifa, short for “antifascist”, is a “politics or activity of radical left opposition to the far right”, according to Mark Bray, historian and author of “Antifa: The Anti-Fascist Handbook”. Although Antifa isn’t an organisation, but a politics that predates the Trump presidency, the emergence of alt-right groups like the Proud Boys sparked the formation of local “Antifa” groups to confront far-right activities through physical disruption, sometimes combining forces with activist groups like Black Lives Matter.
After clashes during high-profile events like the 2017 Charlottesville rally, the groups came to national prominence in the social movements of 2020, facing off at protests and rallies in cities like Portland and in Washington D.C. following the November election.
“Both the Proud Boys and Antifa had been aware of each other’s anticipated presence ahead of time and prepared accordingly.”
Brendan Gutenschwager, an independent reporter, was present at December 12’s pro-Trump rally in Washington DC and recorded clashes between the groups. He tells us what he saw:
The Proud Boys had been in the city throughout the day, mostly hanging around the Freedom Plaza, the Supreme Court and the US Capitol. Their presence was meant to support the president and act as a sort of ‘security’ against agitators or counter-protesters.
A Twitter video from the December 12 rally shows Proud Boys demonstrating in their signature black and yellow colours, chanting “F**k Antifa” and “U.S.A.”
As night fell, the Proud Boys stayed out in the streets, while a large group of Antifa and Black Lives Matter protesters gathered a few blocks away. Both groups came prepared, some armed with weapons like mace/pepper spray and knives. The groups tried to confront each other, but police intervened, preventing a large-scale brawl.
Police preventing the Proud Boys from marching to meet Antifa in Black Lives Matter Plaza, keeping the groups separated across the intersection #DC #ProudBoys #Antifa #DefendDC #MarchForTrump pic.twitter.com/Yb8v8VxrpS— Brendan Gutenschwager (@BGOnTheScene) December 13, 2020
However, some people managed to make their way over to the other side, and clashes occurred — people pepper-spraying and macing each other, swinging sticks and other objects, a few stabbings at one point in one of the larger clashes.
This December 13 Twitter video shows the Proud Boys ganging up on and punching a black man, who stabbed four of his assailants in return. The Proud Boys can be heard yelling “F**k Antifa”; however, it is unclear if the man was a part of an Antifa group.
Here you can see a black man get surrounded by aggressive Proud Boys, is punched in the head, then he pulls out a knife and continues to get repeatedly assaulted. The man defends himself with the knife while trying to flee but is surrounded by the mob and beaten on the ground. https://t.co/eqNpPKrHEU pic.twitter.com/Xjl0Kt11wG— Garrison Davis (@hungrybowtie) December 13, 2020
In their rampage through the city, the Proud Boys also tore down and set ablaze Black Lives Matter banners belonging to local churches, as seen in the video below. While the banner burned, group members laughed and chanted “F**k Antifa.”
“What we see in the physical confrontations between these groups is just the tip of the iceberg.”
Clashes aside, Dr. Bray explained that the strategies and confrontations between the groups go beyond the sensational images:
The Proud Boys, like many far-right groups, have tried to distance themselves from aspects of fascist politics that became taboo. They say they’re not racist, they’re “Western chauvinists” — even though they don’t disavow racists or white supremacists.
However, they’re still trying to harness discontent with aspects of the culture wars around feminism, queer and trans liberation movements, and what they perceive as the shaming of masculinity. They also try to present themselves as half serious, half a joke (the name “Proud Boys” was taken from a song in Disney’s Aladdin stage musical adaptation). So the group becomes a fun space of sociability for alienated and discontented, predominantly young white men who argue that leftists can’t take a joke.
A Twitter video of the December 12 pro-Trump rally shows Proud Boys members wearing yellow kilts flashing the crowd, with the message “F**K ANTIFA” written on their buttocks.
As for the Antifa movement, Dr. Bray said that antifascists organise to prevent the Proud Boys and other far-right groups from normalising their politics in local communities, whether it be through physical disruption or less showy tactics.
Antifascists may work to shut down events by far-right organisers by calling venue owners and encouraging them to cancel. Boycotts and physical occupation/confrontation have also been used. However, most of their work revolves around researching figures of the far right in order to organise doxxing: revealing their member identities, which increases the social cost of belonging to these groups.
Antifascists have a notion of preemptive self-defence. Even when they physically confront a far-right group, it’s a facet of a larger strategy to reduce the risk of attacks ever occurring.
A December 12 Twitter video shows frontline Antifa protesters, separated from pro-Trump protesters by a police line, chanting “Go home Proud Boys” and “F**k the Proud Boys”.
Confrontational tactics from both sides have caused mainstream politicians of both parties to condemn the groups. After being accused of emboldening the Proud Boys during the first presidential debate, President Trump went back on his word a few days later in a Fox News interview where he condemned the group as well as White supremacists.
Incoming President Joe Biden has condemned Antifa and the use of violence from protesters on the left and the right.
Dr. Bray says that although both sides espouse illiberal and confrontational politics, their vision of political violence differs.
The far right argues that because of the bureaucratic, liberal red tape around the state, state forces can’t do their job, so they need to use militia and vigilantes to supplement this deficiency — transcending law and order in order to restore it.
Antifa groups are also skeptical of the state as a vehicle for justice, so they delegitimise the police and the state and encourage self-defensive community mobilisation. It’s about what kinds of violence people feel comfortable with — inside or outside the state — and whether they have faith in the sovereignty of the state to deal with problems or not.