The appearance of recruitment fliers in downtown Bellingham for the Proud Boys, a group involved in recent violent protests, has raised concern among organizations that monitor and combat hate group activity.
Devin Burghart, Western alumnus and president of the Institute of Research and Education on Human Rights, has studied and monitored hate groups since 1993. He said the Proud Boys have been involved in white nationalist activity around the country, including attacking counter-demonstrators.
“While [the Proud Boys’ ideology] is more diffused than the very narrowly defined brand of white nationalism that alt-right figures like Richard Spencer promote, it has, in many ways, been successful in tapping into a larger generation of disaffected white males,” he said.
Burghart said the Proud Boys cater to white males by emulating fraternity culture’s initiation rituals and sense of brotherhood.
The Proud Boys have gained national attention for their recent involvement in violent skirmishes at protests in New York City and Berkeley, California.
Lecia Brooks is the outreach director for the Southern Poverty Law Center, a national civil rights advocacy group specializing in tracking hate groups. She said the Proud Boys are more violent than typical white nationalist groups.
“They’re nothing more than a street gang trying to recruit members to engage in violence at these protests–to defend alt-right speakers against anti-fascist protests,” Brooks said.
Bellingham resident and Proud Boys member Aaron Laigaie said he could see how the group would get the reputation of being violent from the protests around the county, but said their goal was to defend free speech.
“We’re not afraid of violence. But we don’t want violence,” Laigaie said.
Political science professor Vernon Johnson helped found the Whatcom Human Rights Task Force with Burghart and served its board of directors chair from 1997 to 2000. He said the group’s protest-related violence could potentially affect campus.
“If they were to get more members around here, for instance, they might show up when progressive speakers speak on campus here or in the community and create turmoil,” Johnson said.
Laigaie said while he doesn’t believe in institutionalized racism, potential Proud Boys are vetted to ensure they are not racist or white supremacists.
“There’s black Proud Boys, Hispanic Proud Boys, gay Proud Boys, we don’t have any rules about any of that,” Laigaie said. “We don’t let Nazis in, we don’t let racists in.”
This kind of argument has been common among white nationalist circles as long as Burghart has been studying the groups, he said.
“No matter what claims they make regarding that they’re not racist, the arguments that they’re putting forward, and the ideas that they’re promoting are in fact grounded in racism,” he said. “No matter who decides to become a member and decides to go along with this idea of white, Christian male superiority, the ideas are still problematic at their core.”
The recruitment fliers
Local community organizer Edgar Franks found a flier for the Proud Boys at the intersection of East Holly Street and Railroad Avenue, near the Starbucks, on April 30. A second poster was found that night at the intersection of Railroad Avenue and East Magnolia Street by The Western Front.
Franks shared an image of the flier on his Facebook page.
“I think it’s important to let the community know what’s happening,” Franks said. “A lot of people don’t expect groups like this to be organizing here in Bellingham since it has a progressive, liberal image.”
The flier read: “The West is the best! We want you to be a Proud Boy. We are western chauvinists who refuse to apologize for creating the modern world. We glorify the entrepreneur. We venerate the housewife. We cherish free speech. We love our guns.”
Franks said he’d been involved in documenting hate crimes and groups for a while. He said he recognized some of the language on the poster from tactics other white nationalist groups use to organize in communities without appearing blatantly racist.
Burghart said using coded language is common among white nationalist groups who talk about “Western Culture” being under attack from immigration, Islam, LGBTQ rights or feminism.
“It is the same argument, it just has patched into it a kind of pseudo-intellectual facade to make the same claims white nationalist have been making for decades,” he said.
Burghart said while the Proud Boys may claim to be just a fraternal or social organization, he’s found groups like these seldom stay that way. He said part of the mission of the Proud Boys is to provoke and silence those who disagree with them, whether it’s through hate crimes or harassment and intimidation of social justice groups.
“I want it be very clear, that violence is at the core of this movement. It has been from day one, part of the ethos of the Proud Boys,” Burghart said. “No matter what they try to deny, I think the evidence is pretty clear.”
Proud Boys in Bellingham
The Proud Boys were founded in New York City in September 2016 by VICE Media Co-Founder Gavin McInnes and have since formed chapters around the U.S. McInnes left VICE in 2008 and now has an internet show where he promotes the Proud Boys.
Laigaie said he is only aware of one other Proud Boy in Whatcom County, although he said there are around three in the Mount Vernon area and more in Seattle. A Facebook page claiming to be a Washington chapter of the the Proud Boys contains 74 members.
Laigaie said he put the fliers up with the other Proud Boy in Bellingham, Anthony Edward Bell, in an effort to spread awareness about the group.
“We’re looking to just get attention right now. I realize Whatcom County is not going to be the most Proud Boys-friendly place. We’re just looking for more like-minded people,” Laigaie said.
Burghart said fliering is an indication of Proud Boys organizing.
“They’ve been successful at moving that kind of racist culture from the online world into real communities,” Burghart said. “That’s our real concern right now, how it’s manifesting in these communities.”
He said his institute takes reports of fliering or similar activity seriously, and reach out to local human rights groups to discuss how to handle it.
“Fliering is always seen to organizations like ours as the tip of the iceberg,” Burghart said. “It means that at minimum you have an activated individual, or cadre of individuals, who are looking for new member and being open about their allegiance with this organization and being willing to go public about it.”
The Seattle Police Department voiced concerns about the group leading up to May Day protests, according to an article published by The Seattle Times on May 1. They said the group has been actively recruiting in the Northwest.
“We have to do what we can to expose groups like this and let them know we aren’t going to allow organizing like that to happen in our community,” Franks said.
He said he believes the police will often not take groups like these seriously and downplay the situation.
Detective Sgt. Dave Johnson of the Bellingham Police Department said the first report they received of the Proud Boys fliers was when they were contacted by The Western Front. He said there have been no reports of any hate-related crimes recently.
“Anytime we have any sort of information from the public with any type of concern, we certainly take it seriously,” Detective Sgt. Johnson said.
Burghart said hate crimes are often underreported and police departments are likely not ready to identify the Proud Boys as a hate group.
“Until they have some level of stability, or some level of organization, the likelihood that they’ll commit crimes is lower,” he said. “That’s why it’s important to identify it early.”
Burghart said the community should organize and speak out against bigotry.
“Bigotry spreads in silence. The longer communities are silent, the more likely it is for this stuff to spread and take deep roots, which makes it much more problematic down the road and increases the likelihood of hate crimes or other incidences in the community,” he said.
Vernon Johnson agreed.
“Stand up and be counted early so that they recognize that this isn’t acceptable behavior in our community,” Johnson said.
The Institute of Research and Education on Human Rights will launch a smartphone app to report hate activities and provide an early-warning system this spring, according to Burghart.
History of Hate Groups in Whatcom County
Vernon Johnson said Whatcom County has a history of white nationalist and hate groups.
“This county has a history of neo-Nazis, skinheads, anti-government militias. Those people are still around,” Johnson said. “They’re still gathering and collecting firearms to defend themselves against government overreach and all that sort of thing. They’ve been on the political defensive for many years now.”
Johnson said there was a case in the ‘90s where neo-Nazi skinheads, who were living in the York neighborhood and had recruited on campus, attacked two Western students of color as they were leaving a party. They ended up being convicted of hate crimes, Johnson said.
Johnson has been in Bellingham since 1986. He said a cross-burning incident in 1994 led to community organizing, as there were concerns the sheriff wasn’t investigating it seriously.
“It was in that context that people started meeting to talk about human rights problems and we learned that there were all of these well-armed people around the county,” Johnson said.
He said the Washington state Militiamen in the area targeted him for his involvement in the organization.
College Campuses Targeted
Brooks said this was the first she had heard of Proud Boys’ fliers being found near a college campus. She said there have been over 100 campuses targeted with fliers from hate groups since the 2016 election, so she was not surprised by the flier found in Bellingham.
The University of Washington has been targeted with fliers from two white nationalist groups, The Seattle Times reported in March. In a February blog post, UW president Ana Mari Cauce told students to report such fliers to university police.
Brooks said the Southern Poverty Law Center, along with other groups, have tracked an uptick in hate crimes since the election.
“The proliferation of fliers on college campuses is something that we are monitoring closely and find disturbing,” Brooks said.