Neither Trump nor the White House knew he was in attendance, Tarrio told The Washington Post. Rather, he said he scored the prime seat simply by showing up early at Florida International University.
“I got there at 7 a.m., so I got to pick my seat,” Tarrio told The Post. “I was the second person in line. I stood in the hot Miami sun.”
The White House didn’t immediately respond to a message about Tarrio’s appearance.
The Proud Boys leader’s prominent placement at Trump’s speech could give new fuel to critics who say the president has failed to distance himself from the far right in the years since he claimed there were “very fine people on both sides” at the deadly “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, which was organized by a man who once attended Proud Boys meetings. Tarrio also attended the rally, though he claims to have left before the violent attacks began.
Tarrio disputes the Southern Poverty Law Center’s claim that his organization is a hate group, an allegation that also led Proud Boys founder Gavin McInnes to sue the SPLC earlier this month.
“I’m not a white supremacist. I’m not an extremist. I’m a regular dude,” said Tarrio, a small-business owner who identifies as Afro-Cuban and who served nearly a year in federal prison for his role in a scheme to resell stolen medical equipment.
McInnes, a co-founder of Vice who left the company in 2008, started the Proud Boys in 2016. He has argued that the group, which forbids women at its formal meetings, is a fraternal organization focused on celebrating Western culture. McInnes has decried white nationalism and his group expelled Jason Kessler, the primary planner of the Charlottesville rally, after counterprotester Heather Heyer was murdered by an attendee.
But in its report on the Proud Boys, the SPLC argues that the group’s “disavowals of bigotry are belied by their actions.” The SPLC accuses the group of spouting “anti-Muslim and misogynistic rhetoric” and notes that McInnes has called Muslims rapists and used derogatory language for black leaders like Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), now a 2020 presidential candidate.
Proud Boys members have also been involved in bloody clashes with counterprotesters in Portland, Ore., and New York, where 10 members of the group have been charged in connection with brawls that broke out in the streets after a speech by McInnes in October. Prosecutors say videos show Proud Boys initiating the violence.
Prominent New York officials targeted the group after that outburst. “Hate cannot and will not be tolerated in New York,” wrote Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo on Twitter last year. “Here’s a message from a Queens boy to the so-called ‘proud boys’ — NY has zero tolerance for your bs.”
The following month, FBI warned local authorities that the Proud Boys are an “extremist group with ties to white nationalism.” The FBI later clarified that it does not consider the group to be extremist, but instead focuses on anticipating violence by individuals.
In November, McInnes announced he was “officially disassociating” from the Proud Boys, in hopes of reducing legal pressure on the members charged in New York. A Texas lawyer briefly took the group’s reins, but then stepped away after old tweets resurfaced in which he sent a photo of a noose to a black man and wrote, “It’s where I’m going to put your neck,” using a racial slur.
On Nov. 24, Tarrio became chairman of the organization. Tarrio, whose family is Cuban, grew up in Miami’s Little Havana neighborhood. When he was 20, he got three years probation for stealing a $55,000 motorcycle, Miami New Times reported; in 2013, he was convicted in federal court for his role in a criminal enterprise reselling stolen diabetic test strip kits, eventually getting a 16-month sentence.
Tarrio made headlines last month by visiting Stone at his home in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., clad in the same pro-Stone shirt he wore Monday.
In interviews, Tarrio has said he only supports violence as self-defense and has claimed racist and misogynistic postings by Proud Boys members are jokes meant to test the limits of free speech. His appearance at Trump’s rally was meant to back a president who Tarrio argues is also falsely labeled as racist.
“I feel, and most Proud Boys feel the same way, that he’s getting these unfair monikers and this unfair rhetoric that he’s a racist,” Tarrio said. “I saw these guys outside the speech with a sign that said, ‘Make racists afraid again,’ and I went up to them and said . . . ‘I agree with you.’ He was stunned because I was wearing a Proud Boys hat.”
But as New Times reported, Tarrio’s own social media accounts included posts denigrating transgender people and calling African American actress Leslie Jones an “ape.” (Tarrio told New Times the post had nothing to do with her race, saying, “She just looks like an ape.”) Other members of his chapter shared posts with homophobic slurs and rape jokes, which Tarrio defended as free speech.
After the arrests in New York, the Proud Boys were banned by Facebook and Instagram. Tarrio said he’s also been kicked off social media platforms and his bank accounts have been closed. Proud Boys members have repeatedly lost their jobs after anti-fascist groups posted their identities online.
But Tarrio said he has found a new company to process payments from his website. He’s using it to hawk the pro-Roger Stone shirt that got national airtime at Trump’s Monday rally, promising that some proceeds will go to help the embattled political operative.
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