These days, most people — at least who follow the news at all — know who the Proud Boys are. After all, the far-right street gang was at the center of organizing the January 6 insurrection at the Capitol, a crime that that many members have been facing serious federal charges for. But it wasn't long ago that they mainstream media was largely portraying the group as relatively harmless, more like a conservative drinking club than evidence of the resurgence of violent fascism that was inspired by Donald Trump.
Some journalists, however, were always certain that the Proud Boys were not harmless and were trying to raise the alarm early. (Including, ahem, yours truly.) Among those was investigative reporter Andy Campbell of HuffPost. His new book, "We Are Proud Boys: How a Right-Wing Street Gang Ushered in a New Era of American Extremism," offers an in-depth look at this group, their ideology, their tactics, and their goals — the kind of coverage that was sorely missing from much of the media in the months leading up to January 6. "We Are Proud Boys" is an essential investigation of a group that has done so much to tear at the fabric of democracy while mostly being ignored by the mainstream press.
Campbell spoke with Salon about his book and how the Proud Boys are a lot savvier than their image would suggest. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
I wanted to kick this off by commiserating with you, because I was writing about the Proud Boys in 2017, 2018, and it was hard to get people to care. I got a lot of [reactions like], "Who cares? You're being hysterical. None of this matters." What has your experience been? Has it been hard to get people to take this seriously?
Not only is it hard to get the general public to take it seriously, but it's hard to get Congress, police, anybody affected by extremism to take this seriously. The first question you always get is like, "Well, how many Proud Boys are there? What are the odds that a Proud Boy's going to show up and punch me in the face?" The threat of the Proud Boys and the threat of extremism is not necessarily that you are going to get a house call — though that happens, and would happen more if we allow it to. But, really, they are responsible for fomenting this crisis and showing others how to do it, and how to get away with it by creating relationships within the GOP, infiltrating the media and infiltrating the police.
"People need to understand that this is part of a big, big web. It's only growing more acute. The extremism crisis doesn't end after Charlottesville or January 6. That's just part of this bigger web."
After January 6, the outgoing Department of Homeland Security officials said that they thought the Proud Boys were just a drinking club. Come on, man. They've been on a fascist march on the country for five years.
It's absolutely insane that the government — the investigatory agencies — just aren't paying attention. We've been screaming this from the hilltops for years, and it's really hard to get people to pay attention until something huge happens.
Well, January 6 was pretty huge, and it's becoming very clear that the Proud Boys were central to organizing what happened that day. Do you think that's changed the way that the public, the government, and the media now react to the Proud Boys?
Absolutely. Now we know Enrique Tarrio got that "1776 Returns" document on December 30, well before January 6. It turned the investigation on the head for everybody. There was no smoking gun that this had been planned until that document came out. And so yes, I think it's changing hearts and minds about the Proud Boys.
But I also think people don't really know what to do with it still. I mean, certainly the government doesn't. People are starting to wake up to this crisis, and Congress is just starting to acknowledge it, but we have a long way to go to actually responding to it in any meaningful way.
I have a lot of anger at people in power for ignoring this story. But reading your book, I really saw how Gavin McInnis, the founder of the Proud Boys, and their leadership has been incredibly clever and strategic at simultaneously building up this violent gang while making it difficult for people to cover them as what they are. How do they do that?
The Proud Boys are fantastic at walking the line between extremist gang and legitimate political faction, because they built relationships in the GOP, in the media and in law enforcement to give themselves this air of credibility. They've got friends in the GOP. They've got friends in the media who are going to defend them and position what they do as protected speech and protected demonstration. They have police in our ranks and claim they are pro-police. Anything that they do now is positioned as protected speech, rather than what they've been doing, which is wasting taxpayer dollars and beating the shit out of people for political gains. On top of that, a number of them are running for office. A number of them have tried to take over smaller jurisdictions, and that creates another way for them to escape this idea that they're a violent gang, rather than a political arm.
They were also adept at using similar tactics to get out of being publicly labeled as racist or white supremacist, or anything of that nature. Can you talk about that a little?
"They are absolutely a gang with white supremacy embedded in their rule set."
Gavin McInnes has embedded white supremacy into the Proud Boys' rules. He is supremely racist. Many of his top officers are very, very racist. They have neo-Nazis in their ranks. But they've been able to bamboozle the people who would be critical of this by installing people of color in their ranks. Enrique Tarrio is a Cuban American with brown skin and a position as chairman. Just by doing that, the media becomes so bamboozled that they can't call them racists and white supremacists. They then end up being described on mainstream news as what they want to be described as, which is an all-male fraternal nationalist drinking club. They've made it hard to define them in one pull quote. On TV news, it's hard to offer a succinct description of the Proud Boys.
But they are absolutely a gang with white supremacy embedded in their rule set. Gavin McInnes believes that white men have been the greatest contributors to the world society and that members have to respect that, even though he'll allow members of color. Like with their crimes, they've been very good at running interference when the media comes asking about racism, so they can position themselves as something else entirely.
It's not just that they bamboozle people and they play these semantic games, either. There's more direct intimidation. When I was reporting on Gavin, he kept calling me at home. He kept calling my partner on his cell phone.
Like I said — you, the reader, are probably not going to get a house call from the Proud Boys. But they do send people to people's houses. They sent someone to Vic Berger. He's a guy who made funny videos online about Gavin McInnis. They sent a Proud Boy to intimidate him and his wife. In my case, Gavin likes to — in fact, he did it just the other day — likes to let me know that he knows who my wife is. He sent a message saying congratulations to us on our pending nuptials, but it was obviously just intimidation.
One of the takeaways here is Gavin's responsibility. Throughout the Proud Boys' life, he's taught them to intimidate and threaten and also craft a narrative around what you're doing that makes it look like you are not responsible or that you're acting in self-defense. In Gavin's case, his threats are always veiled. He acts like, "I'm talking to you, right?" But he also wants you to know, "I'm a gang leader, and I know who you are, and I know where you are, and I'm just going to let you know that."
Now that the mainstream media is actually paying attention, there's a lot of focus on white supremacy, but less on the gender issues that, actually, I think attract a lot of people to the Proud Boys. They are obviously a male-only group. If you watch Gavin's shows, he's selling this idea that, if they embrace traditional gender roles, it'll improve their sex lives and their dating game, and they're just going to be hotter to women. But you report that there are female researchers who have gone undercover to be near the group, and they find that there's actually not a lot of interest from Proud Boys in dating.
It turns out that when you never hang out with a group of people as a rule, you don't know anything about them. With the Proud Boys, they essentially aren't allowed to be around women. When they do get around women, they just don't know what to do with themselves, and there's just no real flirtation. I interviewed a woman who embedded with the women who hang around the Proud Boys. She said they made jokes about women and bragged about how virile they are, but she never actually had to fend off anybody, because they were too awkward. They're dudes who don't know how to converse with women. I think that helps fuel their misogynist rage.
I'm glad you mentioned the researchers that I spoke to. One of the most surprising things in my research is how many anti-fascist researchers are women. They put their safety on the line, put their bodies on the line and their mental fortitude on the line to do this research. They do it without any sort of expectation of kudos or thanks, or even identification. They just do it because they see a gap in response to this extremist crisis.
I was glad to see that you mentioned Juliet Jeske in the book. (Side note: Jeske helped Salon heavily, when she was still working anonymously, with researching McInnes.)
Juliet has been doxxed, and harassed after she came out. I absolutely applaud her on that, but a lot of women can't do that. A lot of women in this space don't have the support network behind them to do that. I can't imagine, for example, even me jumping into this world without the promise of HuffPost or Hachette backing me up when they come harassing me. It's just a really powerful thing, when you start to think about what it takes to jump into this world without a baked-in support network.
Certainly, I know a lot of our readers want to know what ordinary people can do. Our readers are very aware that this is real. I have communicated with a lot of people online who are alarmed by this threat and worried about it not being taken seriously, but they don't know what to do.
A lot of people are going to be in the street throughout the next year and throughout the next three years, because our rights are being taken away as this sort of tidal wave of extremism takes over. Some of the anti-fascists and progressive activists in the street have done it well, which is that they support their local communities when fascists have taken the streets. They're fighting back in many different ways. Sometimes it's online. Sometimes it's providing food or medicine. But engaging in local communities fighting back against fascism is the best way to go.
I don't recommend necessarily trying to infiltrate the Proud Boys, but engaging in protest movements and getting the word out about the reasons why people are out there is really going to help. It wasn't law enforcement or government that got all the dossiers together on the January 6 defendants. It was researchers. It wasn't the government who put together a $25 million successful lawsuit against the architects of Unite the Right.
The best way is to consider the idea that the government and law enforcement aren't going to be the ones to help. That doesn't mean that you have to go commit crimes, but engaging in your local community of activism is really important right now. Showing the world that the people who show up to oppose fascism aren't just the black-clad Molotov-throwing guys that Fox News shows over and over and over again. It's local community. Showing that lowers the chance that there's going to be violence because police and fascists don't want videos of themselves attacking local community members.