There were at least a dozen Proud Boys lined at the bar in their black polos with yellow trim, fully buttoned up to their necks. Most of them wore jeans rolled to expose Doc Martens and sported “Make America Great Again” hats.
On the evening I found myself surrounded by this group of weirdos and losers, I was reporting on the Kavanaugh hearings and stopped off to meet a friend for a beer at a Capitol Hill bar. It’s undiscussed but common knowledge in Washington that the Proud Boys, a burgeoning far-right, pro-Trump gang, hold court at a pub within sight of the Capitol dome. Their leader, Gavin McInnes, co-founder of Vice Media turned far-right troll, records his talk show in a studio nearby. There were even scattered word-of-mouth reports that they were beating each other into bloody messes in an alley behind the place.
McInnes wasn’t there on the night that I bumped into them, and I sparked what became an hours-long chain-smoking conversation with his followers by asking if he would be stopping by. They said that he wasn’t. He was in London or New York or somewhere that there were more of his disciples.
They grew comfortable with me, largely because it looked like I might be buying what they were selling—McInnes’ band of brotherhood tied together with bigotry. They were surprised to learn that I’m a journalist. I spent most of my life as a wrestler, a career that stretched through college and they commented on my cauliflower ears and my nose, flattened and wide from being broken countless times. Those calling cards seemed to further set them at ease.
A few weeks after I met them, the Proud Boys were involved in a pair of disturbing street fights. In New York, they assaulted protesters outside a Republican club and hollered slurs. In Portland, they clashed with anti-fascist activists.
But on the night that I encountered them on Capitol Hill, they did their best to present a reasonable case for their matching outfits and ugly beliefs. They wore lapel pins with numbers denoting their status in the group—a 4th degree Proud Boy holds the highest rank, and that status is only achieved by getting in a fight with somebody adhering to different beliefs, often members of Antifa. When I asked those wearing “4th Degree” pins who they scuffled with to elevate their status, they claimed that they never instigated fights and that starting a fight would have made them ineligible for the highest rank. But I’ve seen videos showing otherwise.
McInnes has made a number of disturbing remarks that should be recognized as the words of a second-rate gang leader, not a viable voice of “controversial ideals.”
They had an answer to every criticism I could offer. When I noted that they’re considered a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, they reasoned that the SPLC groups them as “general hate” and that shouldn’t be taken seriously. When I pointed to their racist beliefs, they pointed to an African-American among them. When I pointed to their homophobic beliefs, they introduced a gay member. When I mentioned their misogynistic tenets, they found some way to spin those as benign as well.
I’d read dozens, maybe hundreds, of reports about the Proud Boys. I knew that they’d gotten into a bar fight in Los Angeles and were behind a bloody conflict in Berkeley, California. I knew that they stood beside neo-Nazis at the deadly alt-right rally in Charlottesville and that McInnes has repeatedly instructed his members to be violent. But I was stunned by how appealing they could frame themselves as. How easy it would be to rationalize joining this group to a young man feeling a little lost and open to compromising his ideals. They claimed that all the media reports about their violence have actually boosted their numbers.
McInnes has made a number of disturbing remarks that should be recognized as the words of a second-rate gang leader, not a viable voice of “controversial ideals” deserving of a place in America. He’s promised critics “we will kill you, that’s the Proud Boys in a nutshell” and told his followers “choke a tranny, get your fingers around the windpipe.” But some writers still shy away from recognizing him as the caricature of bigotry that he is—The New York Times profiled him this week as a simple “Far-Right Provocateur.”
A “2nd Degree” Proud Boy has been “beaten in” to the organization. Being “beaten in” or “jumped in” is a common initiation tactic for gangs, but the Proud Boys’ version is different—they continue beating the new member until he names five breakfast cereals. The videos I’ve seen of this ritual amount to a few geeks slapping a newly-minted Proud Boy around for a few moments.
These aren’t the Hell’s Angels or Aryan Brotherhood, and that’s the reason they’ve been accepted as nothing more than eccentric Trump supporters by a large swath of the Republican party. They’ve been closely associated with Roger Stone, who is one of the main men behind Trump’s rise to the Oval Office. Most of them claimed they’d never been arrested. One said he worked at a law firm.
These were largely boys who wanted to “fit in” and had adopted a disgusting series of beliefs in exchange for a few friends.
Somebody asked if I was writing a story about them. I said I didn’t know, but that if I did, it probably wouldn’t make them look good. They nodded and another reasoned, “that’s okay, nobody writes anything good about us.”
I discovered that becoming a Proud Boy is a rather simple task. At one point in the night, they mentioned a Facebook page called their “vetting group,” which was easy to track down. The page for the Virginia chapter has 236 members and instructs potential recruits “this is a men's club, and you need to have full ownership of your gonads.” It was another normalizing factor to their existence—violent gangs don’t advertise on Facebook. I told a friend who is intimately familiar with biker gangs about the Proud Boys’ Facebook group and he burst into laughter.
The vilest one of their ranks wasn’t wearing one of their polo shirts—but a Washington Capitals t-shirt. Throughout the night, he peppered his conversations with the n-word. But he wasn’t the type of inked up gym rat that you spot in dive bars in the tougher, more exciting parts of town. He looked like he just got off work selling used cars.
A few hours later, I met up with an old friend and when one of the Proud Boys tried to sit near us, my companion told him to get lost. He looked confused and a bit saddened. It was a moment of reality that confirmed my suspicion that these were largely boys who wanted to “fit in” and had adopted a disgusting series of beliefs in exchange for a few friends.
Eventually, they climbed into a string of Ubers headed to the Trump International Hotel, only blocks from the White House, for a “MAGA Meetup.” The events are regular occurrences at the hotel bearing the president’s name.
At some point between that evening and the time I began writing this article, Gavin McInnes heard that I’d been with his followers and told them not to talk to me. I’d met his producer at a party and let it slip that I was considering a story on the gang. She defended McInnes as a leader and iconoclast and said that he made a lot of money for CRTV, where his show is broadcast. Eric Bolling, the former Fox News anchor who was fired amidst sexual harassment claims, also has a show on the network.
In New York, police are currently searching for nine Proud Boys after a group of them were seen in a video kicking a victim on the ground. It’s becoming increasingly clear that, at some point, one of these altercations with the Proud Boys is going to end with a dead body. McInnes has told his followers “get ready to blow someone’s fuckin’ head off.”
And as they gain more attention in the media, you will hear them portrayed by some as a testosterone-fueled gang of racists on a constant rampage. But up close, they are only confused men, looking for something that makes sense and McInnes’ ideology makes a lot of sense if you’re feeling like the world has passed you by. All you have to do is slip on a black-and-yellow polo, get in a few fights, and not talk to Playboy.