Extremists who embrace the accelerationist aesthetic of skull masks showed up with the Proud Boys at last month's Defeat the Mandates rally in Washington, DC

The weekend of Jan. 21-23 brought the annual anti-choice March for Life to Washington, DC, followed two days later by the Defeat the Mandates rally to oppose vaccine mandates. The two events brought thousands of conservatives to the nation’s capital, along with throngs of far-right extremists looking to recruit from their ranks.

A phalanx of members from the avowedly fascist group Patriot Front formed their own column along the March for Life, under heavy police protection as antifascist counter-protesters confronted them. Patriot Front’s appearance, in turn, appeared to act as a magnet for other extremists. Two young men wearing khaki pants, camouflage jackets, work boots and skull masks, as captured in a video by a team member of the veteran-owned open-source intelligence firm Sparverius, showed up and heckled the counter-protesters as Patriot Front members marched past.

One of the men signaled his white power beliefs in ways that were both subtle and blatant: a patch with the red-and-white checkered insignia of the Croatian Legion, a division of the German Army during World War II; stickers on his helmet depicting the image of American Nazi Party founder George Lincoln Rockwell and the slogan “White Lives Matter”; and a Confederate battle flag patch on his military-style backpack.

Two days later, the two men joined members of the Maryland DC Proud Boys chapter at the Lincoln Memorial for the anti-vaccination rally. Among the group of more than a dozen men, about half wore skull masks. Their coats concealed bulky tactical vests, and they carried heavy backpacks. After marching from the Washington Monument, the Proud Boys entourage gathered at the end of the reflecting pool, holding a position at the edge of the large anti-vaccination crowd and near a handful of counter-protesters clumped together at a nearby knoll. At one point, some of the Proud Boys went over to confront the counter-protesters, but then walked off without incident.

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“These accelerationists — the guys wearing skull masks, they wear that because they… were signaling to each other that they are extremists, but to the general public they are telegraphing that they are tough, something to be feared, masculine,” Kristofer Goldsmith, Sparverius’ CEO, told Raw Story. “They’re attracting people who think it’s a drinking and street brawler club, and they’re putting them in a pipeline to extremism that ends in domestic terrorism.”

Goldsmith, who is also a senior fellow at the Innovation Lab of Human Rights First, said the Proud Boys’ public presence in DC last month marked a significant turn, following a year in which members across the country have mostly focused on flashpoints of local controversy like school board meetings.

“That weekend Friday through Sunday, between the anti-choice and anti-vax events, was the first major return to DC after the attack on the Capitol,” Goldsmith said. “Though it wasn’t the same numbers and there wasn’t violence the way there had been the year prior, what it did establish to these groups in their psychology is that it is now safe to return to DC in an election year.”

Accelerationists at March for Life youtu.be

Members of the Proud Boys group also distributed stickers at the anti-vaccination rally with the Proud Boys logo and text, “We are watching.” When a journalist posted a photo of herself holding up the sticker in front of the crowd gathered at the Lincoln Memorial on Twitter, the Proud Boys chapter confirmed responsibility with a post of its own on its Telegram channel that read: “Local antifa scum wanted a business card. That’s right, we are watching.”

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Matthew Kriner, the managing director of the Accelerationist Research Consortium, told Raw Story that he views the text as a signal that the Proud Boys and their affiliates who attended the rally “are looking for circumstances to insert themselves to instigate further violence and destabilize the political system.” Kriner is also a senior research scholar at the Center on Terrorism, Extremism and Counterterrorism at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey.

“After January 6th, this stands out to me as something that shows they’re not afraid to engage in instigator behavior, because we saw them do that on January 6th,” Kriner added. “They instigated a crowd at a right-wing event that became a riot.”

The Maryland DC Proud Boys chapter commemorated its appearance at the anti-vaccination rally by posting a photo of a member nicknamed “Ghost” posing with a plate carrier in front of the Washington Monument, accompanied by the text, “We’re back!” Another heavily stylized photo posted on Telegram shows a handful of members, including the neo-Nazi wearing the Croatian Legion patch, marching away from the Washington Monument. A variation of the image posted on Telegram shows the members superimposed on a war-ravaged urban landscape with the chapter logo slapped in the middle.

Members of the chapter did not respond to requests for comment for this story. Raw Story was able to reach Brandon Heffner, who was identified as the recipient of funds from a GiveSendGo campaign to raise money for a recent Christmas toy drive. Heffner told Raw Story that he is not involved in the chapter, but agreed to handle the funds for the toy drive.

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Raw Story also left a voicemail at a phone number listed on the Telegram account for a user named “Joe Bonadio,” eliciting no response.

Notwithstanding Heffner’s claim to not be involved in the chapter, a Telegram user named “HEFF,” along with the “Joe Bonadio” account expressed enthusiasm for a planned White Lives Matter rally in the DC-Maryland-Virginia area last March. In a channel set up to promote the planned rally, “HEFF” commented, “#f*ckantifa proudboys will be the there [sic] in plain clothes or not,” while “Joe Bonadio” wrote, “I’m with ya.” The person behind the “HEFF” account also appears to have a family member involved in the chapter. A user named “LadyHeff” periodically comments on content on the chapter’s Telegram channel, including a post last month blaming people of color for urban decay in which she wrote, “They can take their diversity and shove it up their ass.”

The ethno-nationalist content shared on the chapter’s Telegram channel echoes the white power symbols displayed in public by some of its members. Since December, the channel has forwarded at least two posts from Greyson Arnold, a podcaster who has spoken approvingly about Nazi Germany and who once duped a Republican National Committee member into saying that white nationalist Nick Fuentes should have a voice in picking candidates to run for office in Republican primaries. Later that month, the channel for the Maryland DC chapter forwarded a post by Lauren Witzke, a former US Senate candidate from Delaware who has retweeted posts from VDARE, a white nationalist website.

Beyond forwarding content from other white nationalists, the channel has contributed its own white power messaging. Without specifying the target, a Dec. 29, 2021 post declared, “Special place in hell for these people. Day of the rope mutha fuka.”

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“Day of the rope” is an explicit reference to The Turner Diaries, a novel written by neo-Nazi William Pierce that inspired the Oklahoma City bombing and numerous other acts of terrorism and racist violence by perpetrators seeking to emulate the novel’s protagonist by “stockpiling biological weapons, engaging in a racist shooting spree, robbing banks, and assembling pipe bombs with Jewish and Black targets in mind,” according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.

“I would portray the Proud Boys as antisemitic, racist bigots; they would not see themselves as such,” said Michael Loadenthal, an advisory board member at the Accelerationist Research Consortium. “It’s undeniable when they start sharing content that is explicitly racist and antisemitic.”

Loadenthal and Goldsmith both said the barriers between Proud Boys and hardcore neo-Nazi groups, always permeable, are becoming increasingly porous.

Goldsmith said antifascist researchers have identified current members of the openly fascist group Patriot Front who had previously been identified as Proud Boys, indicating a migration between the two groups and a radicalization path towards more extreme violence and racism.

Last week, the Maryland DC Proud Boys chapter reshared a propaganda video produced by the fascist media outfit Media2Rise, which was embedded with Patriot Front during its surprise march through DC in December 2021 and produced high-quality video from the event. Goldsmith told Raw Story that one of Patriot Front leader Thomas Rousseau’s lieutenant’s, Graham Whitson, operates Media2Rise’s online store. Whitson was arrested with Rousseau in August 2020 for plastering Patriot Front stickers on the grounds of the county courthouse in Grapevine, Texas.

“Here, we’re establishing the skeleton of how the Proud Boy-fascist pipeline works,” Goldsmith said.

Proud Boys Telegram channels, including the Maryland DC chapter, routinely share content from the “Western Chauvinism” channel, which is named after a primary tenet of Proud Boys doctrine.

“Western Chauvinism produces high-production quality video that is targeting Proud Boys,” Goldsmith said. “It’s shared in Proud Boys channels. It’s encouraging people to embrace fascism as the true law-and-order ideology. I recognize the propaganda videos are deadly serious, and they’re created by people who are deadly serious.

“The actual absurdity of trying to whitewash Hitler and put Hitler himself on a pedestal and the rise of the Nazis is deliberately too far,” he continued. “It’s part of the Proud Boys’ claim that ‘we’re not actually Nazis, just edge lords; we’re just trolling the libs.’ The reason we had kids in their early twenties showing up in Charlottesville is they started out on the internet making jokes about the Holocaust, and then they started to believe in it.”