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President Donald Trump declined to clearly condemn white supremacist groups and their role in violence during Tuesday’s first presidential debate, at one point telling the neo-fascist group “Proud Boys” to “stand back and stand by.” (Sept. 29)

AP Domestic

The Proud Boys, a far-right group with a history of violent confrontations, is gaining increased national scrutiny as academics, advocates and law enforcement have warned the group has ties to white supremacy.

The Proud Boys were catapulted to the forefront in a debate Tuesday night when President Donald Trump dodged a chance to condemn them. 

That’s worrying to Amy Cooter, a Vanderbilt University senior lecturer who studies nationalism, race and ethnicity. Cooter told USA TODAY on Wednesday that the Proud Boys have a history of tolerating racism among their ranks, associating with overtly racist figures and are becoming increasingly armed as they mingle with other right-leaning groups.

The Proud Boys publicly deny supporting white supremacy and style the group as a counterbalancing force against the loosely organized anti-fascist movement known as Antifa, Cooter said.

The Proud Boys were founded in 2016 by Vice Media co-founder Gavin McInnes and described themselves at the time as a politically incorrect men’s club for “Western chauvinists.” 

Current Proud Boys leader Enrique Tarrio, who is Afro-Cuban, says the group has “longstanding regulations prohibiting racist, white supremacist or violent activity,” Ronald D. Coleman wrote in an email to USA TODAY. Coleman said he is a spokesman for the Proud Boys.

“We do not care what color you are or what your background is … if you love America … we consider you a brother,” Tarrio said in a written statement provided by Coleman. The group condemns racism, fascism, communism and socialism, the statement says.

The group is known for its “anti-Muslim and misogynistic rhetoric,” according to The Southern Poverty Law Center, a legal advocacy organization that has designated the Proud Boys as a hate group. 

The Proud Boys have become an increasingly visible part of ongoing social unrest as the group’s demonstrations have frequently devolved into fights and violence. When the Proud Boys met with counterprotesters in Kalamazoo, Michigan, in August, the tensions boiled over into fights requiring law enforcement to step in.

Last weekend in Portland, Oregon, hundreds of people – dozens of them wearing militarized body armor – gathered for a rally organized by the Proud Boys. Although law enforcement said the rally ended without serious violence, videos showed an assault after a suspect kicked a man who was livestreaming at the rally.

“The Proud Boys have had a yearslong reputation for not only violence but very clear ties to white supremacy,” Cooter said in an email to USA TODAY.

The group remains dominated by white men while being “more to the right than most constitutional militias” and “more prone to physical violence,” Cooter told USA TODAY. But they seemed committed to attempt to publicly separate themselves from neo-Nazi groups.

Their reputation for violence was a subject on the debate stage Tuesday night.

When presidential debate moderator Chris Wallace asked Trump whether he was willing to condemn white supremacists and militia groups and urge them to stand down from adding to violence and social upheaval, Trump asked Wallace to name a specific group. Democratic rival Joe Biden interrupted to cite the Proud Boys.

“Proud Boys, stand back and stand by,” Trump said. 

Megan Squire, a professor of computer science at Elon University in North Carolina who studies online extremism, told USA TODAY that the comment led the group’s organizers to feel “validated.”

Tarrio said in his statement the group did not consider Trump’s mention an endorsement.

In recent years, law enforcement agencies have expressed concerns about the group.

In 2018, a report from a Washington State sheriff’s office revealed the FBI called the Proud Boys “an extremist group with ties to White Nationalism.”

The designation appeared in an internal affairs report from the Clark County Sheriff’s Office in Vancouver and was posted online by the government transparency nonprofit Property of the People.

The Proud Boys’ founder has been one of the most vocal critics of such characterizations.

An ongoing lawsuit filed by McInnes claims SPLC’s characterizations of him as a “‘hate’ figure” are “defamatory, false and misleading” as well as “purposefully deceitful.”

McInnes quit the Proud Boys after an October 2018 clash between members of the Proud Boys and Antifa that followed a McInnes speech at a New York’s Metropolitan Republican Club.

Contributing: John Bacon, Courtney Subramanian, Jordan Culver, Phillip M. Bailey and Rebecca Morin; Gabriel Rom and Jorge Fitz-Gibbon, Rockland/Westchester Journal News; The Associated Press

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