A US-based far-right group called the Proud Boys was brought to the world’s attention after President Donald Trump urged the group to “stand back and stand by” during his first presidential debate against Democratic contender Joe Biden.
Trump’s refusal to explicitly denounce the violence caused by white supremacist and militia groups during Tuesday’s debate sparked widespread outrage across the US. Faced with growing backlash, the President later claimed that he was unfamiliar with this particular group and its activities.
“I don’t know who the Proud Boys are. You’ll have to give me a definition because I really don’t know who they are. I can only say they have to stand down, let law enforcement do their work,” he said at a White House press conference on Wednesday.
However, many feared that the President’s comments at the presidential debate would further bolster the far-right group and others like it.
Who are the Proud Boys?
The all-male neo-fascist group was founded in 2016 by Vice Media co-founder and Canadian-British right-wing activist Gavin McInnes. According to the Southern Poverty Law Centre, the Proud Boys are known for their “anti-Muslim and misogynistic rhetoric” and have been classified as an ‘extremist group’ by the FBI.
To be inducted into the fold, a Proud Boy must first proclaim that he is a “a Western chauvinist who refuses to apologise for creating the modern world”. According to the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), the group is also known for anti-transgender, anti-immigration and anti-Semitic views.
However, members of the group insist that they are not, in fact, racist. The group’s current leader Enrique Tarrio, an Afro-Cuban, recently said that the group has “longstanding regulations prohibiting racist, white supremacist or violent activity”, USA Today reported. They claim that they do not support white supremacists, and merely banded together to oppose the activities of the anti-fascist movement known as Antifa.
But members of the group are often seen at rallies carrying guns and bats and a few have even been convicted of violent crimes against left-wing groups and activists. The group is known to show up bearing arms at right-wing and liberal leaning protests across the United States.
The name of the group was inspired by a song from the musical version of the Disney film ‘Aladdin’. Members usually don a fixed uniform of red ‘Make America Great Again’ caps from Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign and black and yellow polo shirts by the apparel brand Fred Perry.
Incidentally, the brand recently withdrew the design after it came to be associated with the far-right group, CNN reported.
What did Trump say about the Proud Boys at the presidential debate?
At the first presidential debate on Tuesday, the moderator, Fox News anchor Chris Wallace, repeatedly asked President Trump to denounce white supremacist and militia groups. A visibly defensive Trump answered, “Sure, I’m willing to do that, but I would say almost everything I see is from the left wing, not from the right wing.”
When Trump asked who he should condemn, Biden chimed in and suggested the Proud Boys. The president then said, “Proud Boys — stand back and stand by. But I’ll tell you what… Somebody’s got to do something about Antifa and the left because this is not a right-wing problem.”
At a press conference later that day, President Trump claimed he was not aware of the group at all.
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How did the Proud Boys react to Trump’s comments?
Members of the Proud Boys began sharing memes and posts celebrating Trump’s comments within minutes of the debate. The group’s leader Enrique Tarrio, however, told CNN, that while he was happy about the president’s comments, he didn’t see them as an endorsement.
Tarrio said he saw Trump’s message to “stand back and stand by” merely as encouragement to keep doing what they have been doing for the last four years.
Shortly after the debate, the group began selling merchandise with the message printed on it, CNN reported. Some even added the phrase to their official logo. One social media user, who claimed to be a member of the group, posted, “Standing down and standing by sir.”
The Proud Boys’ history of violence
Amid nationwide anti-racism protests triggered by the custodial killing of African American George Floyd earlier this year, the Proud Boys have become a regular feature at protest marches across the country. They have been known to intimidate anti-racism protesters and in some places have incited violence and fighting.
For instance, members of the group clashed with demonstrators in Kalamazoo, Michigan in August. The tensions between the two groups eventually escalated to a point where law enforcement authorities were forced to step in.
Even before the recent spate of protests across the United States, the group has been known to show up wherever they may be able to confront far-left activists. Last year, two Proud Boys were jailed for assaulting anti-fascist activists in New York.
The Proud Boys have also been associated with other far-right gatherings and protest marches that have turned violent, such as the infamous ‘Unite the Right’ rally in Charlottesville, North Carolina in 2017. A former member of the group, named Jason Kessler, helped bring together members of groups like the Ku Klux Clan and other neo-nazi and militia groups for the event.
The protest resulted in the death of Heather Heyer, a 32-year-old civil rights activist, after a car rammed into a group of counter-protesters.
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