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FBI considers Proud Boys extremists with white-nationalist ties, law enforcement officials say

Gavin McInnes, center, founder of the far-right group Proud Boys, is surrounded by supporters after speaking at a rally in Berkeley, Calif., in 2017. (Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP)

The male-chauvinist group Proud Boys has been described by federal authorities as an “extremist group with ties to white nationalism” — and has been the subject of warnings to local police agencies by the FBI, according to a report issued by a Washington state sheriff’s office.

The report, from the office of Clark County Sheriff Chuck E. Atkins in southwestern Washington, was issued as the office analyzed the dismissal of a deputy who was fired after her affiliation with a female offshoot of the group, Proud Boys' Girls, came to light.

“The FBI categorizes the Proud Boys as an extremist group with ties to White Nationalism,” noted the report, which was acquired and published by Property of the People, a nonprofit focused on government transparency. “The FBI has warned local law enforcement that the Proud Boys are actively recruiting in the Pacific Northwest and that some in the group have contributed to the escalation of violence at political rallies held on college campuses.”

The Proud Boys are one of many predominantly male, right-wing groups to come to the fore since President Trump’s election. They describe themselves as a “Western chauvinist” fraternal group that believes in ending welfare, closing the borders and adhering to traditional gender roles.

But critics point to other statements and behavior to argue that these aims are a subterfuge for racist and hateful beliefs.

“Their disavowals of bigotry are belied by their actions: rank-and-file Proud Boys and leaders regularly spout white nationalist memes and maintain affiliations with known extremists,” the Southern Poverty Law Center, which considers the Proud Boys a hate group, wrote in a report. “They are known for anti-Muslim and misogynistic rhetoric.”

The group captured national media attention for its involvement in a fight that broke out on the streets of New York after it was invited to a Republican club in town. Police sought to charge nine people who were affiliated with the group after the incident.

The Proud Boys, who did not respond to a request for comment sent to their New York chapter, have pushed back on assertions like those made by the Southern Poverty Law Center. Founder Gavin McInnes, who was also a co-founder of Vice, has argued that his ideology is not motivated by racism.

“When pestered about their pedagoguery, the politically correct left insists they need to police our language because ‘words are powerful’ and ‘words have meaning,’” he wrote in a 2011 essay. “It is not racist for white people to be unashamed of their race. Few people mind hearing ‘Navajo Power,’ but there’s this implication that for whites to show any kind of pride means they want to extinguish other races. That’s as absurd as saying a Dallas Cowboys fan wants all the other teams to die. To say black people are totally responsible for their lot in life now that it’s 2011 is not racist."

The FBI’s field office in Seattle referred inquiries about its designation to its headquarters in Washington. In a statement distributed by spokeswoman Kelsey Pietranton, the FBI said it did not regulate political ideology or any other rights guaranteed by the First Amendment.

“Our focus is not on membership in particular groups but on individuals who commit violence and criminal activity that constitutes a federal crime or poses a threat to national security,” the statement said. “When it comes to domestic terrorism, our investigations focus solely on criminal activity of individuals — regardless of group membership — which appears to be intended to intimidate or coerce the civilian population or influence the policy of the government by intimidation or coercion. The FBI does not and will not police ideology.”

As is its practice, the bureau declined to deny or confirm whether the group was the subject of an investigation.

The author of the Clark County Sheriff’s report, Cmdr. Michael S. McCabe, told the Guardian, which first reported on the documents, that the FBI’s classification was revealed in an FBI briefing in August.

As the Guardian reported:

The briefing included agency heads from local law enforcement, and in it the FBI said that they “have been warning [local law enforcement] for a while” about the Proud Boys, “not just in Washington, but around the nation.”
The briefing including the Proud Boys was delivered by an FBI analyst, according to information forwarded to the Guardian by McCabe.
It touched on topics including “How the FBI tracks hate/extremist groups”, “Brief history of these groups in the Pacific NW”, “A description of currently active groups with a focus on the Portland/Vancouver area”, and “Current trends or concerns over law enforcement officers/employees involvement with these groups”.

McCabe’s report found that Deputy Erin Willey’s participation with the Proud Boys and the Proud Boys' Girls violated two of the office’s policies, governing off-duty conduct and nondiscrimination and harassment, as well as her oath of office.

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