Street fighters and militia: Understanding the Oath Keepers and the Proud Boys

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    Armed protesters are slated to start a days or weeks long demonstration in front of a congresswoman’s office today in the name of the Constitution.

    The Oath Keepers are just one of two right-wing groups that are planning public protests today and in the coming weeks, each with distinct philosophies and procedures.

    The other group is the Proud Boys, a group who have been connected to violent protests in the past year, who are planning a rally in Portland, Oregon, on Aug. 4.

    But the narrative that both groups paint of themselves, unsurprisingly, differs at points from that of outside hate group experts and religious advocates.

    “The difference is that the Proud Boys are racist street fighters and the Oath Keepers are an anti-government militia,” said Heidi Beirich, the director of the Intelligence Project at the Southern Poverty Law Center which tracks hate groups, though the head of the Proud Boys disputes that definition.

    Here is a breakdown of the two right-wing groups.

    The group defines themselves as “a non-partisan association of current and formerly serving military, police, and first responders, who pledge to fulfill the oath all military and police take to ‘defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic,'” according to their website.

    They directly state that they “will not obey unconstitutional orders, such as orders to disarm the American people, to conduct warrantless searches, or to detain Americans as ‘enemy combatants’ in violation of their ancient right to jury trial.”

    The group is planning a protest outside the office of California Rep. Maxine Waters today. Waters is warning her supporters to avoid engaging with the group, which she says has a history of attempting to provoke violence. She released a statement ahead of their protest, calling them “an anti-government militia that has staged armed protests in cities across the country.”

    “The Oath Keepers have a history of engaging in violent and provocative behavior. The group is known to protest in military-style clothing while carrying various assault rifles. The Oath Keepers would like nothing more than to inflame racial tensions and create an explosive conflict in our community,” Waters’ statement reads.

    For their part, the Oath Keepers call Waters a “terrorist inciter” and they have coupled their protest with a rally in support of the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), as well as Border Patrol.

    Beirich said that the coupling of their demonstration against Waters combined with immigration concerns is “a classic example of them taking advantage of a political moment to promote their message.”

    She said that the group was much more focused on the idea that the federal government was out of control during the Obama administration, stressing government overreach, but the relatively new addition of immigration and border control as a cause is “a little bit different than in the past.”

    Beirich reiterated that the traditional target of the Oath Keepers protests tend to be the government or what they see as government overreach, and she likened them to a militia.

    “They’ve shown up at a lot of instances where anti-government activists have refused to comply with the law,” Beirich said, noting that while typically armed, “we haven’t seen violence break out between Oath Keepers and counter protesters.”

    One of the most high-profile examples of their involvement in such a stand off was the when they gathered in Ferguson, Missouri, to protect the businesses of the town when they were in the midst of protests in the winter of 2014.

    Another came earlier that year when they showed up in support of rancher Cliven Bundy in his standoff with the Bureau of Land Management.

    “They’re often heavily armed, and they show up at moments of sort of social unrest,” Beirich said.

    Gavin McInnes, the founder of the Proud Boys, specifically addressed the differences between the Oath Keepers and his group, saying the Oath Keepers “are almost PC.”

    “These guys are very, very careful about any Jewish s—. They won’t go to the same rally if someone who’s anti-Semitic’s going to be there. They’re the [Social Justice Warriors] of the fringe right, as they’re called,” McInnes said in a video posted on his group’s website.

    According to McInnes, who was one of the co-founders of Vice Media before leaving the organization years ago, the Proud Boys are a “multi-racial group made up of straight guys — there’re some homos in there, there are plenty of Jews. The only pre-requisite is that you’re a dude — born a dude — and you accept the West as the best,” he said in a video posted on their group’s website.

    A sticking point for the group that identifies as “Western chauvinists” is the colloquial understanding of chauvinism as being sexist. They interpret the word with the traditional definition which means someone who is aggressively patriotic.

    “Yes we’re chauvinist. Chauvinist doesn’t mean sexist. Chauvinist means extremely patriotic,” Mcinnes said, adding that “we’re mostly pro-Trump.”

    Ibrahim Hooper, the communications director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said that groups including both the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers have seen their presences grow in the wake of Trump.

    “What we have seen in recent years is that convergence between Islamaphobic groups and racist and white supremacist groups,” Hooper told ABC News.

    “All of these groups have been empowered and emboldened with the rise of Donald Trump both as candidate and as president, in our opinion,” he said.

    One distinction that the group makes an effort to distinguish themselves from is neo-Nazis, and in larger part they argue that they are not racist.

    In a video titled “We Don’t Let Nazis in Proud Boys,” McInnes says that he “danced around” the idea of allowing Nazis, who he says exist in far fewer numbers than publicized, into his group for two reasons: “the Jews and the blacks.”

    He says in the video: “I don’t mind talking about Jews…but you can’t stop talking about it but why are you so obsessed with Hitler. He’s one guy. You don’t hear people talking about Stalin or Mao all the time.”

    The “bigger” reason for separating themselves from Nazis is, he says, in defense of the black men who join the Proud Boys, who he says have had to make a concerted effort to get out of the “mass conformity that black people push on each other” which he says relates to the belief “that America is a racist hellhole.”

    “When a chosen one wanders through the desert and ends up with us, I’m in no way allowing him to feel uncomfortable in this last little vestige of sanity where we encourage western chauvinism,” McInnes says.

    While the group themselves draws a line, Beirich notes that the “Proud Boys have shown up at events that feature a lot of white supremacists,” and adds that “the thing about them is [that they participate in] street fighting, which is kind of shocking.”

    One thing they don’t deny being is violent.

    There are videos online that purport to show members of the Proud Boys punching members of the left-wing antifa, or anti-fascist groups, at various protests in the past year.

    For his part, McInnes said in a video on their site, “Of course we’re drifting into violence. I’m sorry we bring a stick to a rally where people are trying to kill us because you told the police to stand down. I’m sorry we don’t enjoy being pepper sprayed.”

    Portland, Oregon, was the site of multiple violent clashes between warring protesters in the past year, where one of the incidents included a video-taped punch.

    In September 2017, the protest in Portland wasn’t limited but included members of the Proud Boys, and it prompted the city’s mayor Ted Wheeler to issue a warning.

    “Portland rejects racism, bigotry, and xenophobia. We reject white supremacy. Messages of hate are not welcome in Portland. We have seen – far too often – how these words of hate can quickly turn to acts of violence. Portland also rejects violence,” Wheeler said in a statement at the time.

    Beirich echoed the Proud Boys’ connection to violence.

    “We hadn’t really seen serious street fighting since Charlottesville,” Beirich said referencing the alt-right protests in Virginia in August 2017.

    “This group is becoming very radical and they’re getting really in the face of left wing protesters or antifascists, antifa,” she said.

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