BIG VALLEY: Proud Boys turned on the cops -- but members are rebuilding ties with rank-and-file officers
Former Fresno police Officer Rick Fitzgerald in Fresno (left) and Sacramento (right)

In December 2020, the Proud Boys, a nationalist street gang that surged in popularity with Donald Trump's order to "stand back and stand by," began to turn against the police.

Up to then, the relationship had been cordial, with police amplifying the group's false claims and providing an escort to the Proud Boys as the gang meted out violence against antifascist adversaries, among other favors.

But on the night of Dec. 12, Proud Boys responded with fury as police blocked them from attacking a much smaller group of antifascists. "Do your job," they yelled at the police line, as shown in video published by journalist Ford Fischer. "Why do you f***ing protect them when they want to kill you?" "Oath breakers!"

Less than a month later, the epithet "oath breakers" would be hurled at police again. Only this time, law enforcement officials were not preventing a mob from attacking antifascists in the streets, but preventing them from laying siege to the US Capitol and attacking the vice president and members of Congress.

What might have been a rupture was complicated by the fact that almost a dozen current and retired law enforcement attack participated in the Capitol breach, including at least five who were actively employed at the time. Nor does the vaunted blue brotherhood appear to have prompted rioters with police ties to show any particular respect for fellow law enforcement at the Capitol: Thomas Webster, a retired New York City police officer is reportedly seen in a video shouting profanities at an officer, and then using a metal flag pole to strike one officer and tackling them to the ground.

Ongoing interactions between police and Proud Boys in California's Central Valley, one region of the country where the nationalist gang has remained active since Jan. 6, suggests little has changed in the relationship. Proud Boys continue to agitate for police to crack down on their left-wing adversaries, selectively decry enforcement action that goes against them, and work hard to build alliances with rank-and-file officers.

This is the second installment in a four-part series focused on post-Jan 6. MAGA activity in California's San Joaquin Valley. You can read other installments in the series here.

Following the November 2020 election, as continued resentment towards COVID prevention measures and false claims of election fraud helped cement the coalition of Proud Boys and MAGA activists, the California Proud Boys claimed at least one police officer as one of their own. Video from a Nov. 21 rally in Sacramento shows then-Fresno police Officer Rick Fitzgerald dressed in Proud Boy gear and wresting a flag away from an antifascist counter-protester during a melee.

Fitzgerald acknowledged in an interview with a right-wing podcaster that the Proud Boys had been the aggressors in the clash. He said the Proud Boys' purpose that day was to provide security for a right-wing rally at the Capitol, but after the speeches concluded the Proud Boys and their allies marched over to Cesar Chavez Plaza, a traditional gathering space for left-wing activists.

"I think they were just trying to make a point," Fitzgerald said of the Proud Boys. "I did not agree with that at all."

The day after the rally, Fitzgerald said he left the Proud Boys. He told Cotta that he decided to start his own group, Sons of '76. Despite leaving the Proud Boys, Fitzgerald showed up at a rally in Fresno in March while off duty to counter-protest a group of residents campaigning to preserve the Tower Theatre as a LGBTQ-friendly space. The changeover from Proud Boys to Sons of '76 might not mean much to protesters on the opposite side of the barricades: Proud Boys showing up in group colors and tactical gear often create an intimidating vanguard at rallies that emboldens unaffiliated allies on the ground to act more aggressively.

Fitzgerald was fired by the Fresno Police Department over his involvement with the Proud Boys in April. Chief Paco Balderrama said he strongly "disapprov[es] of any police officer affiliating with hate groups, or any group known for engaging in violent criminal behavior. Such ideology, behavior and affiliations have no place in law enforcement and will not be tolerated within the ranks of the Fresno Police Department. Public trust and accountability are paramount in our ability to fairly police this community. The integrity and legitimacy of our police department must be maintained."

Fitzgerald told Cotta he decided to join the Proud Boys after watching an interview with Chairman Enrique Tarrio on CNN, and feeling that he was being treated unfairly by the interviewer.

"And I think I just got mad — well, I don't want to say mad — but I was concerned," Fitzgerald said, "because I felt like if everybody just lets the left determine what the narrative is, then we're just going to be defined by that. And if we don't ever say anything or unite, then we're just going to be called whatever — and that's it, and canceled."

Fitzgerald said he was approached after the Jan. 6 insurrection by FBI agents who wanted to talk to him about the Proud Boys. He surmised that agents had rifled through the archives of a Parler account he had shut down months before.

"I haven't run with those guys in a while," Fitzgerald said he told the agents. "I'm not with them."

"We don't care," Fitzgerald said one of the agents responded. "We wouldn't care if you were with them now."

A spokesperson for the FBI confirmed that position to Raw Story in a July 2 email, writing, "Our focus is not on membership in particular groups, but on individuals who commit violence and criminal activity that constitutes a federal crime or poses a threat to national security."

In contrast to left-wing critiques of police as enforcers of deeply rooted structural racism throughout society, the Proud Boys' situational hostility towards law enforcement is focused on the degree to which the police pose as an impediment to right-wing insurrection.

Jeremy Bertino, who was among the Proud Boys challenging the police line in DC on Dec. 12, scorched law enforcement in a post on Parler following the Dec. 21 assault on the Oregon State Capitol.

"So all these people who scream 'Back the blue' constantly, how do you feel about what happened at the capitol in Oregon yesterday?" he wrote. "The police protected big daddy while he decided what rights to give us. I back good police who will protect your rights over their pensions. But don't get it twisted. They will be the first line of defense for the maggot politicians in office. Some will lay down the badge and join us; others will blindly defend the corrupt politicians who aim to enslave you. To POLICE EVERYWHERE, pick a f***ing side. This war is inevitable. You will find yourself at a crossroads and when you do, you will know. Will you follow the unconstitutional orders of your superiors? Or will you protect and defend the PEOPLE? The choice is yours. But it's coming."

Beyond the former officer Rick Fitzgerald's one-time involvement, a member of the Fresno chapter has claimed that the Proud Boys received assistance last year from the California Highway Patrol, which has not been previously reported.

Referencing a previous conversation with the chapter's "chaplain" — apparently referring to Chongo, the sergeant at arms, podcaster Todd Cotta asked chapter president Mark Mazzola about a "Lodi incident" that took place shortly after George Floyd's murder. Raw Story was not able to independently confirm the incident, but Chongo described it as a "BLM march" and said he was present.

"You guys have people inside of California government, and you guys have friends inside the CHP that help keep you in the know, right?" Cotta asked.

Mazzola nodded, although it's not clear whether he was confirming Cotta's statement or merely indicating that he was listening.

"Gavin Newsom [the state's governor] signed for CHP to escort three tour buses from Oakland to Lodi to do a BLM rally," Cotta continued. "So, the guys from the Modesto and Merced area over there got together and they formed a 300-person-with-citizens-and-the-Proud-Boys line where the buses were to stop."

"Wow," Mazzola said.

"And the buses stopped where they were supposed to stop," Cotta recounted. "There were 300 citizens of Stanislaus and San Joaquin counties, standing at the bus stop. The buses [sic] looked out, looked forward, got back on the [Highway] 99 and went northbound."

"Good, good," Mazzola responded.

While many of their far-right allies in California were rallying in early June to honor Ashli Babbitt, the Air Force veteran and QAnon follower from San Diego who was killed by a Capitol police officer on Jan. 6, the Central Valley chapter of the Proud Boys kicked off a campaign to support Joe Lamantia, a Modesto police officer who was fired from the force and charged with voluntary manslaughter for killing a 29-year-old man experiencing a mental health crisis.

Body camera capturing the deadly encounter with Trevor Seever shows Lamantia getting out of his car and running towards him near a church in Modesto on Dec. 29, 2020. The Associated Press reported that the video shows Lamantia fire several shots at Seever in broad daylight even after Seever had complied with commands to put his hands up. According to the Modesto Bee, Lamantia had been involved in three other fatal shootings that were all ruled justified since 2010, along with one non-fatal shooting.

Kyle Seever, Trevor's brother, told city council last month that the family wants the city to implement an independent civilian review board with subpoena power and to appoint an independent police auditor. They want the city to field a mental crisis response team as an alternative to armed officers showing up. And they want officers to be tested for drugs and alcohol after every incident involving a physical altercation or discharging their service weapon. Based on public input during a listening session in late May, city leaders agreed to set up a working group to consider accountability, changes to policies and practices, and an alternative response model.

While the city's response to demands for reform might seem measured and noncommittal, the Central Valley chapter of the Proud Boys has seized the issue as an opportunity to strengthen ties with rank-and-file officers.

"The PD here has always been fantastic," chapter president Sean Kuykendall, who owns an appliance, air-conditioning and heating repair business in Modesto, told council on June 8. "And I'll say that they are underfunded, not overfunded. And I've had multiple officers tell me — because I have a lot of police officer friends — that they can't do their job, and they worry that they're going to be defunded, okay?"

Before council voted to approve the working group, four separate members took pains to explain that the council has never discussed defunding the police, with one calling it "misinformation."

"The goal is to make the community safer and to make policing more effective," Council member Chris Ricci said. "That's not anti-police, at all. And the fact of the matter — if you want facts — the fact of the matter's no one on this council has ever mentioned defunding the police."

At the next meeting, council chambers were split down the middle, with Proud Boys filling the seats on the right side, and the Seever family and a coalition of supporters and antiracist activists occupying the other side.

"We know what Sean is, and we know the violence that his group engages in has a clear goal: to get everyday working-class people to shut up and stop organizing for change," said one speaker, who called in to city council remotely under then moniker "Jail Killer Cops." "The fact that he can stand here and claim to have direct contact and support from local law enforcement should trouble everyone, and it's exactly this violent fascist-to-police crossover that is causing so many people to assert their rights to police the police in the first place."

This is the second installment in a four-part series focused on post-Jan 6. MAGA activity in California's San Joaquin Valley. You can read other installments in the series here.