Pride & Prejudice: The Violent Evolution of the Proud Boys.

AuthorKriner, Matthew

On January 6, 2021, videos and images broadcast worldwide showed an individual--later identified by the U.S. government as Proud Boys member Dominic Pezzola--using a stolen U.S. Capitol Police riot shield to shatter windows of the U.S. Capitol and leading fellow rioters into the building. (1) A month later, the Canadian government proscribed the Proud Boys as a terrorist organization, citing an "escalation towards violence for this group" since 2018. (2) Allegations set forth by federal prosecutors identify members of the Proud Boys as having played a central role in the degeneration of the January 6 "Stop the Steal" rally into a riot intended to prevent the certification of the 2020 U.S. general election. As federal investigations continue into the various individuals, networks, and movements alleged to have been present, this article assesses the scope of the Proud Boys' involvement in the planning, organization, and execution of the January 6 Capitol Hill siege and examines its history of instigating and perpetrating politically motivated street violence.

This article will begin with a brief overview of the Proud Boys and how the political context in which it emerged impacted the group's identity formation. It will then explain how its leadership and organizational features have contributed to the radicalization of its members and their use of violence. Through an analysis of both primary and secondary sources including court records, as well as insights shared by Proud Boys expert and ethnographic researcher Samantha Kutner, the article will explore the history of political violence by some Proud Boys members, assess the role of Proud Boys in the January 6 Capitol Hill siege, and discuss the group's evolution in the aftermath of January 6.

Who Are the Proud Boys?

Gavin Mclnnes, a Canadian-American extreme far-right commentator, founded the Proud Boys in New York City in 2016. (3) McInnes announced the group's formation in Taki's Magazine, a self-described libertarian webzine that previously employed white nationalist Richard Spencer as its managing editor. (a) According to McInnes, the group's existence was necessary due to the inability for society to let men (b) be proud of Western culture. (c) Since that publication, the Proud Boys have continued to describe themselves as "Western chauvinists (d) who refuse to apologize for creating the modern world" (4) and claim to be primarily a libertarian-oriented fraternal drinking club. In reality, the Proud Boys serve as a radicalization to violence vector that seeks to 'red pill' (e) recruits and sympathizers from mainstream conservatism. The group's narratives amplify latent anti-Marxist and anti-communist sentiment in certain ideographs of American patriotism, and distorts those sentiments by mixing in misogynistic, fascistic, and ethno-nationalist worldviews. (5) The group has long held a "permeable barrier" (f) with white supremacist groups like Identity Evropa (g) and the Rise Above Movement, (11) as well as neo-Nazi accelerationist terror groups like Atomwaffen Division and the Base, fighting alongside them at protests and sharing members. (6)

The political climate in which the Proud Boys was forged has played a crucial role in its outgroup formation and adoption of violent tactics as a solution to these motivating topics. (i) Since its formation in 2016, the Proud Boys have acted as a physical wedge for societal polarization in America, engaging in politically motivated street fighting to purportedly defend Western society from forces the group views as degenerate and threatening Western values, such as Islam and immigration into the West. (7) Doggedly focused on opposing what the group perceives as far-left movements, the Proud Boys have regularly stood in opposition to immigration, feminism, social justice movements such as Black Lives Matter (BLM), LGBTQ+ movements, and most notoriously anti-fascist (herein referred to as antifa) mobilization. (j) Proud Boys and their leadership have vilified each of these spaces as "cultural Marxism" or communism, and regularly leverage conspiracy theories that view Democrats and liberals as evil and corrupt. (8) Members of the group have engaged in targeted acts of violence, predominantly against left-wing protesters and protest movements and Democrat-heavy municipalities like Portland, Oregon. (k) Strategically, these targets represent symbolic and physical manifestations of the existential threats purportedly facing Western culture. Practically, these actions provide a visceral mechanism for radicalization to violence that tie the group's successes and survival to the diminishment of its adversaries via hostile actions. (9)

True to their overt championing of 'traditional' Western society and 'conservative' values, the Proud Boys are deeply supportive of former President Trump and his Make America Great Again (MAGA) political agenda, routinely wearing red MAGA hats and carrying Trump flags in their street-level activities. (10) The group was heavily galvanized by President Trump's stated desire to label antifa as a domestic terror organization and his "Proud Boys, stand back and stand by" comments during the first presidential debate before the 2020 general election, with many members viewing it as an endorsement by the president of their actions and beliefs. (11) Throughout its existence, the Proud Boys have latched onto conservative movement narratives, iconography, and campaigns, corrupting them to their own purposes and using them to recruit and mainstream their radical views. For years, the organization heavily promoted the "Blue Lives Matter" narrative and movement, framing itself as pro-police and as standing side-by-side against their perceived shared adversary (antifa and Marxism) only to turn on police just before the January 6 rally in Washington, D.C., stating "the police are starting to become a problem," even though "we've had their back for years." (12)

Despite assertions to the contrary by McInnes, the group's violence and its views are inextricably linked with emergence of the so-called alt-right movement and so-called 'men's rights' (111) narratives that gained notoriety leading into the 2016 election cycle. In a similar way to the European Identitiarian movement, which was deeply influenced by the 2015 immigration crisis, American "alt-right" views on immigration, socialism, and other culturally divisive topics deeply informed the Proud Boys' hyper-masculine and xenophobic aesthetic, as well as its intrinsic belief in the utility of violence as a means to a political end. To that end, the so-called alt-right movement served as a mechanism to radicalize and organize within a new generation of men, as well as a convenient obfuscation of the Proud Boys' deeper connections to extreme far-right organizing. This dynamic is best illustrated by the presence of Proud Boys members at numerous "alt-right" organized protests and violent street clashes throughout 2017, which was capped off by the Unite the Right event in August of that year. (n) The event was organized in large part by Jason Kessler, a former member of the Proud Boys, and a leader of the so-called alt-right movement. (13) After the murder of Heather Heyer at the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, the Proud Boys leadership attempted to publicly distance the group from the "alt-right" movement and made concerted efforts to diminish the perception of the group as racist. (14) Yet, despite the distancing efforts from Charlottesville's fallout and the alt-right label, members and chapters continued to engage in street-level provocations, politically motivated violence against leftist demonstrators, and persisted in utilizing narratives that heavily overlap with "alt-right" principles and views. (15)

Like the "alt-right," the Boogaloo movement, and other contemporary extreme far-right hate movements born of the internet's troll factories and echo chambers, social media has played a crucial role in the organizing and evolution of the Proud Boys brand. (16) The Proud Boys have leveraged evolutions in digital culture to generate iconography and narratives, often through memes, that can have multiple meanings and manifest offline in the form of apparel, flags, and more. (o) Online, the group's racist, fascist, and misogynistic beliefs are often hidden behind a veneer of irony and trolling in its larger forums and social media groups. (17) This has allowed the group latitude in their attempts to reframe negative reporting and coverage of their activities as biased expressions of a corrupt media and the product of a leftist agenda seeking to undermine them as patriots. (18)

Following their ban from mainstream social media sites--Facebook, Instagram, (19) and Twitter (p)--the Proud Boys embraced Telegram and alternative platforms such as Gab and Parler. On Telegram, the group's more explicitly white supremacist and accelerationist factions increasingly took center stage. (20) In some Telegram channels, the group's deep-seated hate mongering, racism, and fascist proclivities are on full display with memes and references frequently overlapping with content found in deeper neo-Nazi accelerationist communities. (11) In recent years, the QAnon movement and other conspiracy theories have increased influence in the Proud Boys' ideological pantheon, as evidenced by the Proud Boys' central role in promoting and aiding the "Stop the Steal" campaign, which culminated in the January 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol. (r)


The leadership of the Proud Boys has been instrumental in driving the group's embrace of political violence. Despite explicit calls for violence as a tool to push a political agenda, the group's leadership, particularly at the national level (sometimes referred to as the Elders Council), has stopped short of embracing terrorism. (21) Instead, national leadership has assumed a loose command and control position...

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