When members of the far-right Proud Boys marched through Rockville Centre Saturday, waving "Don’t Tread On Me" banners and American flags and flashing white power and "Heil Hitler" gestures, onlookers had every reason to be alarmed.
The group’s messaging, as leaders often deny charges of racism even as members scorn and attack minorities, is confusion itself. And its relationship with neo-fascism is often purposely camouflaged, even as the Proud Boys’ loyalty to "Make America Great Again" is celebrated.
So why did this chapter of the Proud Boys, headquartered in St. James and designated a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, march in Rockville Centre last week, and Bay Shore and Patchogue last month?
For attention, mostly.
And why do we have to give these two dozen sad stragglers that attention?
Because this is a legitimate national hate group, openly admiring of and dedicated to violence. One leader, Jason Kessler, organized the "Unite the Right" rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, that started out ugly and turned deadly. Two other national leaders, Ethan Nordean and Joseph Biggs, have been charged for their alleged planning and participation in the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol.
The name "Proud Boys" derives from a puzzling anecdote from the group’s founder, Gavin McInnes. He claims that upon hearing what he took to be a gay young man sing "Proud of Your Boy," from the stage version of "Aladdin," he decided that he and his brethren, who aspire to a hyper-macsuline pose, should claim the song for their own. McInnes is known for cofounding VICE Magazine, for his since-removed YouTube rant "10 Things I Hate about Jews," for declaring himself an "Islamophobe," and for saying, "I cannot recommend violence enough … it’s a really effective way to solve problems."
According to the Proud Boys placards, the group wants less government, no political correctness, no War on Drugs, closed borders, and an end to "racial guilt." Its platform includes "anti-racism," although members are frequently hateful toward Black and brown people. It also cites support for the First Amendment, although the group first gained fame trying to silence and intimidate those protesting police violence against Black people.
Proud Boys posters urge others to "Glorify the Entrepreneur," "Venerate the Housewife," and "Reinstate the Spirit of Western Chauvinism."
Whatever that means.
Full members must undergo an initiation that involves both taking a beating from other members and physically attacking opponents. That, and their laundry list of criminal exploits, makes them sound more like street toughs than a political organization, and members and leaders sometimes refer to the group as "a gang."
Even so, they are allowed to express themselves fully, to march and speak and debate, and it is through them doing so that we see the genius of that constitutional right.
Because the way a worthy nation deals with such poisonous and hateful messages is by giving groups like the Proud Boys every opportunity to explain themselves fully.
And then rejecting them.
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