Inside a rundown
A helicopter hovers above the protesters, who are flanked by camera gear, TV reporters, and police officers wearing bulletproof vests. White paper signs with "Free Speech Zone" printed in black lettering are taped to poles. "Get Up, Stand Up" by Bob Marley hums in the background from a speaker that a protester brought to the lot.
A tall man wearing sunglasses and a hat emblazoned with "Proud Boys" in block letters walks through the crowd while holding an empty brown box with "Democrat Votes" scrawled in Sharpie across the side. "Look, more votes just turned up!" he says.
Nearby, Alex Gonzalez laughs. He's a member of the Proud Boys, a fraternal organization of militant Trump supporters that has made headlines in recent months for brawling violently with anti-fascist protesters across the nation. Gonzalez is wearing a Trump flag as a cape and smoking a cigar. Minutes earlier, the Cuban-American from Miami was dancing to Latin music that blared over the speaker.
"Brenda, turn yourself in. Sneaky Snipes belongs in jail!" Jacob Engels shouts into a megaphone as he walks through the crowd. Some people cheer; others look on in frustration. Engels is captured on video by his satellite, Tyler Whyte, the founder of the Florida Proud Boys, who often films Engels' antics at rallies and protests. "How many votes are you stealing in there?" Engels continues. "When are you going to come out, you old hag?"
"Proud of your boy," a man says to Engels as he gets the crowd chanting: "Lock her up! Lock her up! Lock her up!"
These days, America feels more divided than ever. President Trump's penchant for trolling and spewing hateful rhetoric only exacerbates the situation, emboldening neo-Nazis in Charlottesville and focusing the MAGA bomber's wandering rage on the commander-in-chief's enemies. Trump's tenuous relationship with the truth has bewildered the left, but his tell-it-like-it-is attitude has inspired Proud Boys such as Gonzalez, Engels, and Whyte.
Wherever the Proud Boys go, violence seems to follow. In February 2017, a fight broke out between anti-fascists and Proud Boys after their founder, Gavin McInnes, gave a speech at New York University. Local news reported that a Proud Boy urged others to beat up the "faggots wearing black." Months later, in June, Proud Boy Ethan Nordean punched a charging protester who had struck him with a baton in the head, rendering him unconscious at a rally in Portland. Nine Proud Boys face criminal charges in New York following a fight on the streets of Manhattan this past October that occurred after a historic Republican club invited McInnes to reenact the assassination of a Japanese socialist leader.
The Proud Boys say they're right-leaning libertarians who support free speech, gun rights, and traditional gender roles — a men's club of "Proud Western chauvinists who refuse to apologize for creating the modern world," according to their
"They are information launderers," says CV Vitolo-Haddad, a University of Wisconsin-Madison researcher who analyzed the Proud Boys' social networks. "They take much more extreme ideologies and launder them into the public eye under the guise of irony."
Over the past two months, New Times has conducted 20 hours of interviews with four Proud Boy leaders, including the new chairman, Enrique Tarrio; reviewed dozens of online profiles as well as a cache of private Proud Boys posts; and sorted through members' criminal records. The results reveal a group that, more than anything, is unflinchingly dedicated to President Trump, loathes political correctness, loves traditional gender roles, and dismisses criticism of their hateful sentiments by claiming anything they say is just a joke.
This past November 24, Tarrio, a Miami-born first-generation Cuban immigrant and business owner who has spent almost a year in federal prison, replaced McInnes as the group's chairman. In his "stepping-down gesture," as McInnes called it, he downplayed the group's involvement in far-right politics, saying, "We're not an extremist group, and we don't have ties with white nationalists." But screenshots of posts shared by Proud Boys in private groups show there's a good reason that white-nationalist label has been so hard to shake. And Tarrio has big plans for refocusing their message and using humor to mainstream the Proud Boys — even running some for office.
"We're not going anywhere," Tarrio said December 4. "You'll see us at protests, rallies. I have no doubt that Trump will win in 2020. If you want to see who Trump really is, you wait until those last four years, when he has nothing to lose."
The Proud Boys were founded by Vice Media cofounder-turned-far-right-provocateur Gavin McInnes in September 2016. The then-46-year-old Canadian native announced the group's launch in Taki's Magazine, a publication for which neo-Nazi Richard Spencer was managing editor. McInnes described the group as men who "long for the days when girls were girls and men were men," adding, "being proud of Western culture today is like being a crippled, black, lesbian communist in 1953."
At various points on his Conservative Review TV show, Get Off My Lawn, and in interviews with the media, McInnes has described the group both as a gang and as a fraternal organization that preaches Western pride and abhors racial guilt. There are thousands of members across the United States, Canada, and a handful of other countries. They have four degrees of initiation: First, publicly declare you are a Proud Boy; second, name five kinds of cereal while being pummeled by other members; third, get a Proud Boys tattoo (and abstain from porn and masturbating); and fourth, endure some sort of hardship for the cause — fighting with Antifa, being doxxed, or getting fired.
The Proud Boys recruit members through social media, but between August and October, McInnes and his followers were banned from Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram for violating the platforms' rules against hate speech (many have since simply made new Facebook profiles). For a time, they moved to Minds, a platform that does not censor speech.
It is on Minds that Vitolo-Haddad, the Wisconsin-Madison researcher, gained access to a private Proud Boys group. Though all four Proud Boys interviewed by New Times said they oppose racism and disavow white supremacists, screenshots Vitolo-Haddad shared with New Times from the private group show something very different.
"Zuckerberg is a Nigger-faggot!" one Proud Boy named Adam Richard declared this past October 30. The next day, another group member, who goes by Joey the Rhodie, posted a photo of a Hasidic Jewish man dancing. It was captioned, "When the UN adds another million to the Holocaust death toll." On November 2, KaiserW shared a photo of Elliot Rodger — a violent misogynist who killed six people and himself in Isla Vista, California, in 2014 — captioned, "Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything."
When Dante Nero, a Brooklyn-based comedian and the inspiration for the Proud Boys' no-masturbation policy, was admitted to a private Proud Boys group on Facebook, he was appalled by what he saw, he told NPR in 2017. Nero, who is black, said the page was filled with "nigga this, nigga that, Nazi this, there was all this white-supremacist stuff... pictures of old cartoons of the black dude with the big lips and the bone." After Nero brought it up to McInnes, he told members to stop the racist posts. "But you've already done everything to get these guys to that point," Nero said. "How do you make a left turn off of that once you're already there?"
In February 2018, the Southern Poverty Law Center, a nonprofit that tracks extremists, classified the Proud Boys as a hate group in its annual report, stating, "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. They are known for anti-Muslim and misogynistic rhetoric."
McInnes, who has been the group's public face for most of its existence, is known for his incendiary remarks. In November 2017, he told Wisconsin Public Radio: "Women are letting their ovaries dry up for some stupid career in blogging" and "Feminism was done in maybe 1979, and since then, it's just been women inventing problems and lying." On his CRTV show this past April 24, 2018, McInnes said, "Muslims have a problem with inbreeding. They tend to marry their first cousins... When you have mentally damaged inbreds... and you have a hate book called the Koran... you end up with a perfect recipe for mass murder."
He has called for violence time and time again, including saying, "We will kill you. That's the Proud Boys in a nutshell. We will kill you," on his show in 2016. Though McInnes has repeatedly claimed the Proud Boys condone violence only in self-defense, he said, "Can you call for violence generally? 'Cause I am," in a February 2017 show. Some Proud Boys clearly heeded McInnes' call, given the violent clashes that have broken out at rallies across the nation.
The FBI has taken note. In an August 10 report, Commander Michael McCabe of the Clark County Sheriff's Office in Washington relayed information from a briefing with an FBI analyst in a memo, stating the bureau had labeled them "an extremist group with ties to white nationalism."
But the FBI has since backed away from that characterization. On December 4, the bureau's Oregon special agent-in-charge, Renn Cannon, told reporters the FBI didn't intend to designate the Proud Boys as an extremist
Two days after the FBI's classification was made public, on November 21, McInnes shared a video saying he was stepping down. He claimed he was doing it to alleviate the pressure for long sentences for the Proud Boys in New York, but he often contradicted himself, referring to the Proud Boys as "we" and calling it a "stepping-down gesture, in quotation marks."
While the Proud Boys scrambled, Texas lawyer Jason Lee Van Dyke acted as head of the organization. In 2014, Dyke tweeted a photo of a noose at a black man and wrote, "Look good and hard at this picture you fucking nigger. It's where I am going to put your neck." That same year, he told another Twitter user: "I will kill both you and your family." He has since stepped away from the group.
On a recent scorching-hot Wednesday afternoon in Orlando, Tyler Whyte stood outside the former location of Pulse nightclub, where 49 mostly LGBTQ people were gunned down June 12, 2016. Wearing a red Make America Great Again cap and puffing pumpkin-cheesecake-cupcake-flavored nicotine from a yellow VooPoo vaporizer, the 24-year-old founder of the Florida Proud Boys, now president of the Central Florida chapter, hid in some shade.
Also present was Jacob Engels, conservative provocateur and publisher of the Central Florida Post. "So what are we going to be today?" he asked as he pulled a bronze coin out of his gray suit pocket. On one side, the words "Be Good" stood out above the head of a woman with flowing hair and a halo; on the other, the words "Stay Evil" surrounded a man with a crown, a scepter, and horns. Engels flipped the coin. "Ah, today we're gonna be good."
Whyte and Engels chose this location to explain their involvement in the Proud Boys. Engels doesn't consider himself a Proud Boy; he says he's a journalist embedded with the group, but given that he's been following them for nearly two years, received his second-degree initiation, and says "we" when he explains what the Proud Boys are about, it seems like a flimsy distinction.
Like many Proud Boys, Whyte (who asked New Times to use a pseudonym because he has received threats) says he heard about the group through Gavin McInnes' show. "I thought he was really funny," Whyte says. "I started the Florida chapter because I was seeing old men in MAGA hats get maced. I was sick of all the violence; I wanted to engage in more civil debate."
Whyte claims that he's become friends with the local leader of Antifa in Orlando and that they're "trying to work together to make a
Whyte says he founded the Florida Proud Boys in 2016, right around election time, and grew it into six chapters across the state: Central Florida, South Florida, Jacksonville, the Panhandle, Naples, and Tampa.
Its members, he says, are "people who don't feel like we have to hold our breath around each other." He says they mostly get together just to hang out and talk, watch UFC fights, and get the occasional tattoo together. He adds they are right-leaning libertarians who believe in minimum government and maximum freedom.
Besides the MAGA hat, Whyte doesn't really look like a huge Trump supporter. He has small holes in his ears from gauges and used to have a septum ring. He removed all of them so they wouldn't get ripped out at protests. He loves guns and fishing, which he learned from his parents, and has a boat named Swamp Donkey. Whyte bristles at the term "white privilege" because he believes that was something he never really had. He grew up in a working-class family just barely making ends meet, he says. Neither parent had a degree.
He was born in Orlando, moved to Palatka as a kid, then to DeLand. His dad was Republican and into Bill O'Reilly, while his mom was a "Kennedy Democrat," he says. Voter registration records show his mother has been a registered Republican since 1996. Asked about this discrepancy, Whyte says, "She's a registered Republican, but she's like a blue dog... kind of a moderate."
Whyte credits one of his childhood teachers with encouraging his contrarian side and helping him figure out his own beliefs. He hasn't gone to college. He is evasive when asked what he does for work, perhaps because anti-fascists are fond of getting Proud Boys fired.
Whyte believes in global warming; he just doesn't think it's caused by man. The Proud Boys want to "secure the borders" because they "just want to know who is coming in and out of the country," he says. They "don't condone violence," but they have thousands of members scattered across the United States and "can't control every single person."
What happened in New York, Whyte says, is "a response to two years of being ostracized and beat on, since the alt-left has been very radical and violent for two years." The Central Florida Proud Boys are big on the First and Second Amendments, against racial guilt, and think modern feminism is bad. And nothing you say could piss Whyte off more than calling him a white nationalist.
Suddenly, Trump's voice blares as the ringtone from Whyte's cell phone: "I wanna make America great again!" the president shouts.
Whyte says his goal for the Florida Proud Boys is to "bring people together, stop fighting, and find a middle ground," but his actions often contradict his words. At one point, it becomes evident he has been secretly recording everything on his phone for several hours, which is illegal in Florida. Whyte says he didn't know it was illegal and was just trying to protect himself. Engels tells him to delete it and says he didn't know Whyte was recording, though earlier in the evening, Whyte had asked Engels to use his phone to show photos and screenshots because "it's bigger," which it isn't.
Whyte first met Engels in June 2017 at the March Against Sharia protest in Orlando, which attracted white nationalists such as Identity Evropa. The two kept showing up at the same events, and eventually, at an October 2017 protest against Westboro Baptist Church in Orlando, Whyte introduced himself to the guy with a megaphone in his hand.
Engels doesn't make much eye contact when he talks. His hands are often folded with his fingers intertwined. He speaks calmly and evenly but is prone to proselytizing. He is well-dressed, incredibly thin, and wears his hair neatly slicked to the side. He wears two rings and two bracelets, all gifts from his boyfriend of five years, a filmmaker and Democrat whom Engels says voted for Hillary Clinton. On his lapel is a pin with an insignia that Trump used when he ran for president as the Reform Party candidate in 2000 — a gift from Roger Stone, whom Engels, now 26, met on his 21st birthday. Like Stone, who has a tattoo of President Nixon on his back, Engels has a tattoo of Andrew Jackson's face on his arm.
He often responds to questions with answers that veer off into inscrutable philosophical tangents. "It's really anti-Semitic to say just because we support Trump we're Nazis," he says at one point.
After several hours of conversation, Engels and Whyte are asked to explain some of the Florida Proud Boys' online posts. One photo posted on Facebook this past August by Al Torna of the Miami chapter shows actress Ashley Judd saying, "I'm a nasty woman." Judd, along with scores of other women, said she was sexually assaulted by Harvey Weinstein. In a photo below Judd's, Weinstein smirks over the caption: "Yeah she is."
"Ashley Judd went out there and put herself into the political realm," Engels says. "She was a willing participant on the casting couch; now she wants to say she didn't have any participation with Harvey Weinstein in that activity?"
"These days, it's trendy to say that you were the victim," Whyte says. "It's weird to hold onto it for 30 years."
(Judd was anything but a willing participant. "I said no, a lot of ways, a lot of times, and he always came back at me with some new ask," she told the New York Times.)
Engels is then shown a post from Miami Proud Boy Jimmy James. It's a video of a man shrieking with joy as he unwraps a Christmas gift; then
"Fuck that guy," Engels says. "I don't like anybody using that word. It's cheap."
Seconds later, Engels is shown a post from Enrique Tarrio, whom Engels has met. It was one of
"I'm not someone who tells a person of color how they can use words," Engels says. "If Enrique wants to use those words, it's none of my business."
When Enrique Tarrio walks into Cuban Crafters Cigar Bar on a recent Thursday afternoon, he's wearing removable gold grills on his bottom teeth and a black T-shirt that reads, "Pinochet did nothing wrong." Tarrio arrived late in an insanely impractical Batmobile-like car with an American flag flying in the back. He's a Proud Boy, yet he gushes about his girlfriend any chance he gets and identifies as Afro-Cuban.
In person, he is careful and well-spoken — a stark contrast to his brash online persona, having once referred to Saturday Night Live actress Leslie Jones as a gorilla and called Islam a "shitstain religion." He looks like someone you wouldn't want to get in a fight with, has spent time in federal prison for a nonviolent crime, chain-smokes Marlboro reds, and has a tiny brown Chihuahua with missing teeth named Macho.
He can often be seen wearing a dozen colorful necklaces — gifts from his mother, who practices Santería and with whom he is close. Each represents a saint. One is oak; one is coral; some have little skulls. "It keeps my family and my culture close," Tarrio says, lighting a cigarette.
At Cuban Crafters, Tarrio slings a black messenger bag over a chair and sits next to co-president of the Miami Proud Boys chapter, Alex Gonzalez, who's drinking a
Lately, the Proud Boys have been especially active in South Florida politics. Tarrio appeared in photographs alongside Gov. Rick Scott, which Tarrio posted on Facebook this past May. Two Florida congressmen, Matt Gaetz
"I feel like the Proud Boys work as a team to help make America great again," Tarrio says while taking a drag from a Marlboro red. "Trump is the president we need right now. We need an America-first president to get us out of the hole Bush and Obama put us into."
Tarrio grew up in a conservative family of business owners and attributes his parents' conservatism to their experience under Fidel Castro in Cuba. "We don't want socialism," he says. "We feel the individual should control their own destiny. We do still support some safety nets, like if you're disabled, but welfare is a slippery slope."
His parents divorced when he was young but remained friends and continued to raise him together. Growing up, Tarrio says, he began "hanging out with the wrong people" when he was 15. In 2004, when he was 20, he was convicted of stealing a $55,000 motorcycle and sentenced to three years of probation, community service, and ordered to pay restitution. He later married and moved to a small town in North Florida to run a poultry farm before getting divorced and returning to Miami.
In 2013, he was sentenced to 16 months in federal prison for involvement in a scheme that rebranded stolen diabetic test strip kits and sold them online, which Tarrio says forced him to face his mistakes.
In May 2017, he volunteered to work at a party thrown by far-right commentator Milo Yiannopoulos. The commentator's Miami mansion was decorated with signs that read, "Deport Your Local Illegal," and "Feminism Is Cancer." There, he ran into Gonzalez, who had joined the Proud Boys several months earlier. The two hit it off, and Gonzalez suggested he sign up.
"I kind of liked Gavin McInnes," Tarrio recalls. "I do think conservatism is what's going to save America."
Tarrio says he was attracted to two of the Proud Boys' central tenets: glorify the entrepreneur and abolish prisons. Since leaving prison, Tarrio has started two businesses, one installing security equipment and the other using GPS tracking for businesses. He says what he saw in prison showed him the system isn't helping to reform anyone.
There weren't many Proud Boys in the Miami chapter when Tarrio joined, but the group has since grown significantly. What members of that group have posted publicly online is offensive: For instance, they've made rape jokes, called people "faggot," and referred to transgender people as "it." Tarrio brushes these off, saying he loathes how little he feels people are free to say nowadays. He claims
"We can't keep silencing what we can say. We can't keep creating a world where we need to keep people safe from jokes," he says.
Tarrio and Gonzalez are both fourth-degree Proud Boys. Tarrio achieved that rating in Portland this past
Tarrio says the group condones violence only in self-defense, though the email signature for the Miami Proud Boys is "Fuck Around and Find Out." He has also shared a meme of himself captioned, "In 2024, American mercenary Enrique Tarrio was asked what it felt like to take a human life. 'I wouldn't know, I've only ever killed communists.'"
After the brawl with Antifa protesters in New York this past October, Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, denounced the Proud Boys as a hate group and blamed Trump and Republicans for the violence. That's not how Tarrio sees it.
"They're just using us as a tool for their political bullshit," he says. "We are not a white-power group, and I am not a victim. I don't believe there's a war on men. I have a badass girlfriend, and I'm a successful business owner. I just think I should be able to say what I want and to express my support of Trump without being called a Nazi."
Tarrio is the new face of the Proud Boys leadership. He became chairman this past November 24, when the organization's eight "elders" chose him. (He eschews being called a leader, saying the Proud Boys chapters have always been self-organized.) Tarrio says they won't be doing anything differently, and in his role, he will simply act as a tie-breaking vote on altering rules or deciding to attend a rally.
Asked about the private posts other Proud Boys made on Minds glorifying hatred against women and Jewish people, Tarrio says they were offensive. But he adds members were simply seeing what they could post without being banned after moving from traditional social media to Minds this past October. He claims they are not a reflection of regular posts in private groups, but he declines to show such posts, saying they are mainly about beer and "trannies."
Tarrio sees his job as chairman as one that "brings false stories to light." By
Though Proud Boys publicly reject hate-group and white-nationalist labels, a glance at their private online groups and recent history shows there's a reason people continue referring to them that way. They aren't being called Nazis because they support Trump. Their chats are filled with praise for the Holocaust, misogynist mass murderers, and other hateful things that are delivered as
The Proud Boys draw men who, for reasons both real and imagined, believe they have been aggrieved and find in the group emotional support and a chance for redemption in fighting an unjust society. Some Proud Boys plan to run for office in 2020, says Tarrio, who is the Florida director of Latinos for Trump.
Proud Boys idolize the president, whose fondness for inflammatory rhetoric and aversion to the truth gives weight to conspiracy theories like the one that George Soros and other Jews are funding the migrant caravan, which motivated Robert Bowers, who allegedly murdered 11 people at the Pittsburgh Tree of Life synagogue this past October. The group's ascent comes at a time when hate crimes and far-right extremist violence are on the rise in the United States — and when the Trump administration has moved to end government programs that counter right-wing domestic terrorism. FBI data shows hate crimes jumped by 17 percent last year. A 2017 report by the Government Accountability Office shows that in the past 15 years, far-right extremists have killed 106 people in America.
By refusing to denounce far-right groups such as the Proud Boys and defunding programs to counter domestic terrorism, the Republican Party isn't just flirting with violent extremism — it's encouraging it. This is how hate goes mainstream.
The Proud Boys have taken Trump's advice not to "believe the crap you see from these people, the fake news." During the meeting at Cuban Crafters, Gonzalez, who is prone to conspiracy theories, said, "Gillum is a puppet for Soros," and referred to women who "abuse" welfare as "professional breeders on assistance who keep pumping them out."
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Many of the Miami members' online posts are misogynistic and show an intolerance toward shifting gender roles, but the most obvious trends are animosity toward liberals, Antifa, and the media. There is also an affinity for conspiracy theories, including saying the bombs sent by Cesar Sayoc were fake. One member, Gilbert Fonticoba, believes QAnon — the bizarre theory that alleges a person named Q, who claims to be a government insider, is trying to expose efforts by the so-called deep state, filled with child-sex traffickers, to undermine the president and his allies.
In some ways, the Miami Proud Boys are like any other group. Some members appear to be family men fond of sharing photos of their loved ones. At least three military veterans. A handful
Samantha Kutner, a researcher who studies violent extremism at the University of Nevada, has been interviewing Proud Boys and documenting their activities for years. She found that many joined the group during transitional periods in their
"The most important takeaway from my research," Kutner says, "is that we must find a way to absorb these members back into a healthy, functioning society while also holding them accountable for their hateful rhetoric and violent actions. As harmful and upsetting as their behavior may be, we must try to understand that these are people who were in a vulnerable place in their lives. Instead of getting the help and support they needed, they got recruited into a violent, crypto-fascist, extremist organization."