With dozens of Proud Boys facing federal charges in connection with the Jan. 6 attack on the US Capitol, energized members of the right-wing paramilitary group have plunged into the movement to oppose public health measures designed to control the resurgent pandemic.
Proud Boys have interjected themselves into controversies over masking and the coronavirus vaccination over the past month, showing up at school board meetings and joining protests at government buildings, hospitals and, in one case, a local pizzeria. A group with a violent track record of its own, the Proud Boys are helping to build a coalition in a volatile movement that has seen a threat to forcibly remove school board members who uphold a masking mandate in Pennsylvania, and an anti-vaccine activist in Los Angeles publicly shared city council members' home addresses while calling on supporters to "sharpen your knives, get your guns," and prepare for "civil war."
"The anti-masking organizing is extremely widespread in numerous states and up to top leadership," Stephen Piggott, a program analyst at the Western States Center who monitors right-wing extremism, told Raw Story. "We've seen Enrique Tarrio, the national chairman, engaged in these efforts. It's widespread throughout the organization."
In early August, Proud Boys clashed with antifascists activists in downtown Portland after an appearance by a right-wing pastor, Artur Pawlowski, who has garnered attention for an arrest in Canada when he defied COVID restrictions. Jeffrey Grace, who faces charges related to the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol and who has been identified as a member of the Proud Boys by the FBI, was captured on video shoving another man, according to a court filing.
A man dressed in Proud Boy colors reportedly unfurled the group's banner during an anti-vaccine rally outside the Ohio Statehouse in Columbus on Aug. 24. The Columbus Dispatch reported that members of the Proud Boys attended anti-vaccine protests outside hospitals in Columbus and in the Dayton area, and outside a suburban pizzeria that announced it would require masks or proof of vaccination from employees and customers.
Proud Boys took part in a protest against measures to control the coronavirus in South Carolina, and on Aug. 18, Tarrio, the Proud Boys' national leader, joined an anti-mask protest outside the Miami-Dade School Board Building, the second time he had done so in as many months.
Richard Schwetz, a Proud Boy from Reading, Pa., expressed his opposition to masking to the Exeter Township School Board on Aug. 17. His remarks appropriated the language of reproductive justice, a common rhetorical tactic in the movement to resist COVID restrictions.
"My eight-year-old, who was seven last year, came home crying hysterically because she was told that it's not her body, her choice anymore," Schwetz angrily complained. "It's your choice and my children's body, and I don't think that's the way it works. I can take care of my own children. I can take care of my own self. And I can take care of my kids as well. I do not need your assistance. And I don't need you to feed them BS to reduce my child to feeling that she has no choice anymore. I taught my children, my daughters to stand up for themselves, to stand up for what they believe in, and not let people boss them around and bull them around. And that's how they felt when they had to put a diaper on their face last year. For what reason? What diaper protected someone from getting corona?
"If you try and put a mask on my child, it will not happen," Schwetz continued.
Reinforcing Schwetz's defiant stance in his recent remarks to the school board, video from a French news outlet captured him intimidating a reporter following an assault during the Million MAGA March in Washington DC last November.
"Back the f*** up," Schwetz can be heard saying after another Proud Boy repeatedly punched the reporter in the face. "Get the f*** out of here."
Cassie Miller, a senior research analyst at Southern Poverty Law Center, told Raw Story that the Proud Boys' exploitation of grievance surrounding COVID restrictions reflects the group's tendency to latch on to culture-war issues to "drum up political tensions." It's no surprise, she said, that they would seize on the issue since the pandemic remains at the forefront of public discussion.
"Joining the anti-mask and anti-vaccine resistance is a way for the Proud Boys to undermine faith in the government and health experts," Miller said in an email. "It's also a way of reinforcing their own political reality — in which authoritarian forces are taking over the country, and 'patriots' like the Proud Boys need to step in and set things right. These are also spaces where the Proud Boys can build up coalitions across the far right, uniting sometimes disparate constituencies into a united right-wing movement."
Online, some of the Proud Boys' rhetoric has gone beyond undermining faith in the government to the kind of insurrectionary rhetoric that preceded the assault on the Capitol.
"Be prepared," Jeremy Bertino, a North Carolina Proud Boy wrote on the social media app Telegram on Aug. 24. "The end of civilization as we know it is near. Stack food, ammo and water. The war will soon commence." (Bertino threatened to "exterminate" left-wing counter-protesters in North Carolina in November 2020. He was stabbed in Washington DC the following month. On Jan. 6, he lamented that the insurrectionists didn't complete the mission.)
Bertino's apocalyptic call to arms captions a video purporting to show the Australian government's response to the pandemic.
"Have you heard about what's happening in Australia?" the narrator asks. "Children are being taken from their parents to go get the shot." (Both the Associated Press and Reuters have reported that, contrary to the claim, children are not being forced to take the coronavirus vaccine against their parent's wishes.)
"So, for everyone who called us exaggerators for comparing our current reality to 1930s Germany, are our concerns starting to make sense now?" the narrator asks. "Do you realize that a constant state of emergency only serves as an excuse for global tyranny? How do you think the Holocaust began? Do you think that mass genocide begins with public hangings? Or does it start with the systematic disarming and segregation of public citizens?"
The video concludes with the narrator literally dehumanizing government officials.
"There's honestly no crueler tyranny than that which is perpetuated under the shield of the 'greater good for the greater number,'" she says. "So, this is really just a friendly reminder that government officials aren't these benevolent leaders with your best interests at heart. They're power-hungry, perhaps semi-human creatures capable of any evil to pursue their sadistic [agenda]."
Comparing coronavirus restrictions to the atrocities committed by Nazi Germany is "offensive to the memory of those who died in the Holocaust," Emily Kaufman, an investigative researcher with the ADL Center on Extremism, told Raw Story.
"But we're also concerned that when presenting the vaccination as an inherent evil akin to the Holocaust and the Nazis, it's the type of tactic that animates extremists," she said. "It's a tactic that demonizes something in a way that animates people to action."
In Los Angeles, anti-vaccine protests have turned violent. Anti-vaccine extremists stabbed an unidentified man in the neck, and then assaulted KPCC/LAist reporter Frank Stoltze outside City Hall on Aug. 14 after he attempted to interview one of the men involved in the melee. Members of the Proud Boys were reportedly involved in the rally, but Kaufman said it's difficult to confirm because none of the participants seen in the video are wearing the Proud Boys customary colors and gear.
"There are right-wing protesters who could have been Proud Boys who are wearing black," she said. "We have seen people who might have more local knowledge identify specific people. But with the available footage and the fact that they're not wearing Proud Boys markers, it's difficult to make that determination."
Kaufman said the Proud Boys' involvement in confrontations with counter-protesters this summer mirrors their strategy during the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol.
"Leading up to the insurrection, they told their members not to wear colors and to dress like 'antifa,'" she said. "We've also seen that in Los Angeles, and to a certain extent in other places. It's difficult to tell who was Proud Boys and who was an unaffiliated right-wing extremist, so that muddies things. That was strategic."
While none of the assailants are wearing gear that clearly identifies them as Proud Boys, video by live-streamer Andrew Kimmel shows anti-vaccination activist Jason Lefkowitz thanking the police when they showed up after the Aug. 14 assault, and then telling other right-wing supporters: "Let the cops do their jobs." Two weeks later, Lefkowitz was addressing an anti-vaccination crowd in Santa Monica and telling them: "Sharpen your knives, get your guns, get your food…. Get your neighbors. Find a stronghold. Find out who the men are, and then make a plan…. This is global tyranny. They're coming for all of us."
Miller, from Southern Poverty Law Center, cited another recent incident that took place on July 17 when anti-trans extremists, including Proud Boys, squared off against leftist counter-protesters as an example of the police in Los Angeles deploying lopsided force.
"Groups like the Proud Boys read police inaction as tacit approval," Miller told Raw Story. "Without police interference, they feel they have license to maintain 'law and order' however they see fit. And that creates extremely dangerous situations for communities like Portland, as we saw when the most recent rally there ended in gunfire. The way police have handled right-wing violence hasn't appeared to change since Jan. 6. Law enforcement has continued to follow the same pattern: taking a hands-off approach to right-wing demonstrations while using far greater force against leftist demonstrators, like they did recently in LA."
Kaufman and other extremism experts interviewed for this story expressed a shared view that violence is at the heart of the Proud Boys' ideology. But Kaufman cautioned that a violent response from left-wing counter-protesters "perpetuates cycles of violence."
Piggott said he wants to see civil society rally behind democratic institutions to counteract the threat from the Proud Boys and allied groups.
"Democratic institutions need to be supported because there really is a concerted effort by the Proud Boys and other far-right, anti-democratic groups to target these institutions," he said. "What is needed is support for these institutions, be that libraries, be that school boards, or elected officials. All these institutions need to be supported by the state and federal government. These threats are real. They're not going away. The way to push back against that is to really support and buttress these institutions so they have the support to combat this, and they can close the political space."
Miller echoed other analysts who said that rather than being hobbled in the aftermath of Jan. 6, the Proud Boys appear to have built momentum from the attempted insurrection.
"The Proud Boys have spent years normalizing the use of political violence," she said. "And unfortunately, we've seen the larger political right increasingly embrace the same tactics, something demonstrated by the increased threats and violent plots targeting lawmakers and elections officials. There is an emerging far-right political bloc that embraces violence as a way of achieving political goals, and we saw it at work during the insurrection. That movement has not gone away, and it won't unless we actively confront it."