The "Proud Boys", a self-described "Western chauvinist" group founded by Vice Media co-creator Gavin McInnes, has officially been labeled by the FBI as an "extremist group with ties to White Nationalism". News of the classification (which had previously not been made public) was broken by the Guardian, which reported that disciplinary action taken against a female sheriffs deputy in Clark County, Washington led to the designation.
In a warning issued to police departments in Washington state, the FBI described the Proud Boys as "contributing to the escalation in street violence" at political rallies and noted that they are "actively recruiting" in the area. The report was first issued two months ago.
"The FBI has warned local law enforcement agencies that the Proud Boys are actively recruiting in the Pacific north-west," and: "Proud Boys members have contributed to the recent escalation of violence at political rallies held on college campuses, and in cities like Charlottesville, Virginia, Portland, Oregon, and Seattle, Washington."
Of course, this isn't the first time that a conservative or "alt-right" group like the Proud Boys has been lumped in with overtly racist, white supremacist or otherwise extremist groups. The Proud Boys have repeatedly insisted that they condemn bigotry in all of its forms (though their embrace of traditional gender roles has led to them also being labeled "misogynist".) However, the involvement of the FBI represents a troubling escalation. In recent years, organizations like the ACLU and SPLC have started lumping in socially and politically conservative groups like the Family Research Council with overtly racist groups, effectively opening the door to the criminalization of conservative groups. Meanwhile, groups like Antifa, which regularly participates in street violence and vandalism, have evaded this classification, despite warnings from the Department of Homeland Security.
The firing of Erin Willey, a sheriffs' deputy who was photographed in a "Proud Boys Girls" sweatshirt, reportedly precipitated the internal law enforcement inquiry that led to the classification. Willey was fired last July after the photo was published by the Vancouver Columbian.
The document, provided to the Guardian by the government transparency non-profit Property of the People, was part of an internal affairs investigation into a probationary deputy in the Clark county sheriff’s department.
The former clark county deputy, Erin Willey, was fired last July after a photo of her wearing a “Proud Boys Girls” sweatshirt was published by the Vancouver, Washington newspaper the Columbian. The Proud Boys Girls is the female auxiliary of the men-only group founded by McInnes in 2016.
The author of the document, headquarters commander Michael McCabe, is in charge of internal affairs, training, background investigation and courthouse security in the Clark county sheriff’s department.
The internal affairs commander who led that investigation said the classification was first disclosed to him back in August during a meeting between local law enforcement and the FBI.
After confirming the authenticity of the document, he told the Guardian in a telephone interview that the FBI’s classification of the Proud Boys as an extremist group was revealed to him in “a briefing we were given by the FBI” on 2 August, at Clark county’s west precinct.
The briefing included agency heads from local law enforcement, and in it the FBI said that they “have been warning [local law enforcement] for a while” about the Proud Boys, “not just in Washington but around the nation”.
The briefing including the Proud Boys was delivered by an FBI analyst, according to information forwarded to the Guardian by McCabe.
It touched on topics including "How the FBI tracks hate/extremist groups," "Brief history of these groups in the Pacific NW," "A description of currently active groups with a focus on the Portland/Vancouver area," and "Current trends or concerns over law enforcement officers/employees involvement with these groups."
According to the FBI report, Willey was an active member of the organization for roughly a year beginning in late 2016, helping it to distribute merchandise. Her membership, according to the bureau, violated the CCSD's oath to "protect the laws of the US" and also constituted a "Brady violation" - meaning that defense attorneys could potentially cite Willey's membership in the extremist group as evidence to have criminal charges against minorities arrested by Willey thrown out (based on claims of bias).
The document says that Willey was an active Proud Boys Girls member between November 2016 and October 2017, and in February 2017 she "actively participated in the manufacturing, advertising and selling of Proud Boys Girls’ merchandise on a website."
The document concludes that membership in the Proud Boys may constitute a violation of the Clark county sheriff’s department oath to support and protect the laws of the United States, since Proud Boys “members have been documented as having called for the closure of all prisons, the issuing of firearms to everyone, the legalization of all drugs, the deportation of all illegal immigrants and the shutdown of the government”.
Another concern expressed in the document produced by McCabe – which was handed to the sheriff, Chuck E Atkins, so he could make a decision on Willey’s future in the department – was the possibility that the deputy’s membership in the group would constitute a so-called “Brady violation”.
The Brady doctrine requires prosecutors to disclose any potentially exculpatory evidence to defenses in the discovery phase of criminal trials.
Hate crimes in the United States are on the rise generally. The Southern Poverty Law Center has uncovered 953 registered hate groups across the United States.
You will find more infographics at Statista
But there's no evidence that the Proud Boys have contributed in any way to this increase. In fact, according to a Daily Beast article published earlier this year, several African Americans and other minorities have become heavily involved with the Proud Boys, even rising to lead local chapters of the group.
Perhaps the FBI, while conducting its investigation into the group, neglected to do a simple Google search.