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US With Trump in the rearview mirror, Proud Boys offer muscle at rallies against vaccine mandates, masks

12:15  08 september  2021
12:15  08 september  2021 Source:   usatoday.com

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After lying low for months since the Jan. 6 insurrection, members of the far-right street gang the Proud Boys have been showing up at protests against mask mandates and coronavirus vaccine requirements.

In recent weeks, Proud Boys have been spotted at rallies against masks and vaccines in at least five states. From Los Angeles, California, to Columbus, Ohio, members have scrapped with counterprotestors after gathering for events branded as pro-freedom, pro-patriot or anti-COVID restrictions.

a car parked in a parking lot: A member of the far-right group Proud Boys aims a paintball gun while leaving a demonstration with a Statue of Liberty replica in the bed of the truck on Aug. 22, 2021, in Portland, Oregon. The Proud Boys and other far-right extremists fought with left-wing activists in Portland on the anniversary of a similar fight in 2020. © Nathan Howard/Getty Images A member of the far-right group Proud Boys aims a paintball gun while leaving a demonstration with a Statue of Liberty replica in the bed of the truck on Aug. 22, 2021, in Portland, Oregon. The Proud Boys and other far-right extremists fought with left-wing activists in Portland on the anniversary of a similar fight in 2020.

They've even appeared at school board meetings to protest the teaching of "critical race theory," a controversy fanned by conservative activists and media.

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"They've been piggybacking on other people's events," said Jared Holt, a fellow at the Atlantic Council's Digital Forensic Research Lab. "They go where they believe the culture war is being fought, because they see themselves as potentially violent enforcers in a broader culture war."

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Anti-mask protests become violent

Throughout August, members of the Proud Boys attended protests against COVID-19 restrictions in California, Oregon, Ohio, South Carolina and Kentucky. Some of those events became violent.

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On Aug. 14 in Los Angeles, a group of Proud Boys and other far-right agitators attacked counterprotesters and journalists outside City Hall. Frank Stoltze, a veteran reporter for LAist, was shoved and kicked by men in the crowd.

Though members of the mob weren't dressed in the Proud Boys' signature gold and black colors, local activists identified several of the men as members of the extremist group.

Videos from the protest show members of the crowd chanting "Uhuru," a Proud Boys slogan. Some wore orange armbands and carried orange water bottles, the same color that Proud Boys used during the Jan. 6 insurrection to help identify one another.

A week earlier in Portland, Oregon, members of the Proud Boys attended an event supporting Sean Feucht, a conservative pastor who has railed against vaccines and has become known for holding concerts at which the audience is encouraged not to wear masks.

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The evening ended with Proud Boys brawling with antifascists in downtown Portland.

In other cities, including Frankfort, Kentucky, Proud Boys simply flashed white power signs and shouted the occasional slur at photographers and reporters.

Far-right 'security guards'

From its inception in 2016, it's never been quite clear what the Proud Boys stand for, what they want, or what they hope to achieve.

The group rallied around former President Donald Trump when he was in office. Chapters around the country found a niche acting as security guards at GOP rallies and other public events, sometimes at the invitation of politicians.

The group, which has deep associations with white supremacists, got more exposure when Trump told them to "stand back and stand by" during a presidential debate in September.

At least 29 people associated with the Proud Boys are among the more than 500 arrested in connection with the Jan. 6 insurrection, according to a USA TODAY analysis.

But without Trump to rally behind, and with their chairman heading to prison this month after pleading guilty to destruction of property and weapons charges, the Proud Boys have been left rather rudderless, said Samantha Kutner, a fellow at the Khalifa Ihler Institute who has studied the group for years.

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a group of people standing on a sidewalk holding an umbrella: Members of the Kentucky chapter of the Proud Boys display the © Jon Cherry, Getty Images Members of the Kentucky chapter of the Proud Boys display the "OK" hand signal, a white power symbol, during the Kentucky Freedom Rally at the Capitol building on August 28, 2021 in Frankfort, Kentucky. Demonstrators gathered on the grounds of the Capitol to speak out against a litany of issues, including Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear's management of the coronavirus pandemic, abortion laws, the teaching of critical race theory and the 2020 presidential election. (Photo by Jon Cherry/Getty Images)

The Proud Boys are gravitating toward public protests and causes that will get them the attention and notoriety they crave, Kutner said.

"It's part opportunistic, but it's also a reflection of the conspiratorial worldview that they're embracing and have embraced through the 'red pill' movement," Kutner said, referring to a term popular with the far right to describe when people suddenly realize white supremacists and conspiracy theorists have been correct all along.

"They're a reactionary movement," she said. "They haven't really thought things out, but they will seize opportunities where they can."

Daryle Lamont Jenkins, an activist and founder of One People's Project who has been tracking the far-right for decades, said the Proud Boys have embraced the idea that they're now a security service for any far-right group that might raise the ire of counterprotesters and antifascists.

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"The first time I ever came across the Proud Boys, they were doing security for Milo Yiannopoulos, and that was back in 2017," Jenkins said. "The far-right definitely sees them as their security."

Glomming onto new causes

The Proud Boys' support for the anti-mask and anti-vaccine movement is its latest attempt to attach itself to far-right causes, several experts said.

Kutner pointed out that in 2019, Proud Boys in Canada, where the government has officially declared the group a terrorist entity, marched in support of the "Yellow Vests" movement — a hodgepodge of largely far-right activists.

This year, Proud Boys have even shown up at school board meetings to decry the teaching of "critical race theory," or CRT, in schools. Most schools don't actually teach critical race theory, but many teachers have started incorporating historical narratives from oppressed people and cultures – which education and history scholars say is a good thing.

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Like many of the movements the Proud Boys glom onto, Kutner is sure most of the men have little idea what they're actually protesting.

"CRT has become synonymous with anything the boogeyman wants, like communism for example," she said. "But if you ask the average Proud Boy, 'What is critical race theory?' everyone will give you a different answer because they don't actually know.'"

Contributing: Erin Richards, Ryan Miller

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: With Trump in the rearview mirror, Proud Boys offer muscle at rallies against vaccine mandates, masks

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