The Proud Boys are a violent, nationalist street gang that formed in 2016 amid now-President Donald Trump’s election campaign. Though the group was always known for plotting and carrying out attacks on protesters at political rallies, it gained new notoriety after Trump acknowledged them during a presidential debate with Democratic candidate Joe Biden on Tuesday.
Initially the Proud Boys were a small group of self-described “Western chauvinists” under Vice magazine co-founder Gavin McInnes, and made a name for themselves in right-wing circles by fighting with leftist protesters at pro-Trump rallies in and around cities like Portland, Oregon, and New York City. After Trump’s election, their numbers grew, as did their reputation for violence.
By 2017, it was a full-blown gang, complete with a uniform — a black and yellow Fred Perry polo that the company recently discontinued in North America due to the group’s adoption of it — and a ranking system whose rules included forgoing masturbation and beating up leftists and anti-fascists. McInnis himself (who hadn’t worked at Vice since 2008) was a rising reactionary talk show host on YouTube, spewing his racist and misogynist ideology to millions of viewers, and regularly inciting violence among his gang members. “Fighting solves everything,” he has said.
But while McInnis has remained insulated from the consequences of his speeches, his Proud Boys continue to get exposed and arrested for assaults, threats and other crimes and gaffes.
Ten Proud Boys were arrested and charged after beating protesters in the street following a GOP event in Manhattan in late 2018. Two of them were sentenced to four years in jail, and the incident led McInnis to step down as their leader (though evidence suggests he’s still involved). Their former lawyer, Jason Lee Van Dyke, was investigated as part of an assassination plot against a man he was involved in a legal battle with, had previously been arrested on domestic violence and weapons charges, and has repeatedly threatened to kill his and the Proud Boys’ opponents online. Their leadership was caught on video admitting that they exist solely to fight and waste government resources. More recently, Proud Boy Alan Swinney was arrested on weapons and assault charges in Portland after he was seen in photos and videos pepper-spraying, paintballing and pointing a gun at protesters. He was previously known for helping the group plot attacks at events on the East Coast.
The number of active Proud Boys remains unclear, though their influence and ability to rally their own seemed to wane after the 2018 arrests. For example, the group expected “thousands” to attend a rally they held in Portland last weekend, but only hundreds showed up for an event that was ultimately described by reporters as a dud.
But the group gained new notoriety during the debate this week when Trump, asked to disavow white supremacy and militia groups, told the Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by.” While it’s not quite clear what Trump meant by “stand by” in that context, it certainly resonated for the Proud Boys, who interpreted the statement as marching orders.
“This makes me so happy,” said Proud Boy Joe Biggs on a group messaging channel, according to New York Times correspondent Mike Baker. “Trump basically said to go fuck them up!”