A leader of the Proud Boys, the far-right organization emboldened by President Trump to “stand back and stand by,” said the group’s mission is to combat left-wing insurrection in the increasingly volatile culture wars leading to the November election.
Joe Biggs, a Florida-based organizer for the male-only group known for street violence, said in a phone interview Wednesday that he was encouraged by Trump’s comments during Tuesday’s presidential debate when the president avoided condemning far-right and white supremacist groups.
Biggs, who helped organize a rally Saturday in Portland, Ore., said that condemning the social justice protests erupting nightly in that city is key to his group’s national strategy of thwarting Black Lives Matter and the leftist, anti-fascist movement known as antifa. Members of the Proud Boys, considered a hate group by organizations that track the far right, have battled leftists there repeatedly in the last few years.
“Portland is the main center of insurrection around the country,” Biggs said, adding that his members were prepared to return “if we continue to see these insurrections going unchecked.”
The statement by Trump — who said antifa and left-wing activists were a mounting threat to American cities — was celebrated on social media channels frequented by neo-Nazis and white supremacists. Commenters regarded the president’s remark as an endorsement and a call to action.
Trump sought to walk back his statement Wednesday after criticism from fellow Republicans. “I don’t know who the Proud Boys are,” he said, responding to a reporter’s question on the White House lawn before departing on a campaign trip to Minnesota. “I can only say they have to stand down, let law enforcement do their work.”
Started in 2016 by Vice Media co-founder Gavin McInnes as a “men’s drinking club,” the Proud Boys bills itself as a group of “Western chauvinists” who believe in free speech, gun rights and closed borders and oppose racial guilt and political correctness. They have become a mercurial, hard-to-define, flag-waving shock force for conservatives.
The group has organized rallies in Portland and other cities, calling on police to be more aggressive against left-wing activists. Members of the group participated in a pro-Trump truck caravan that turned violent in downtown Portland on Aug. 29, when a follower of another right-wing group, Patriot Prayer, was fatally shot.
Joanna Mendelson, associate director of the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism, said the Proud Boys is an unconventional far-right faction, bragging of a membership representing a range of ethnic backgrounds.
“Proud Boys have carved out this niche for themselves as both this right-wing fight club and a volunteer security force for the GOP,” she said. “And they purposely organize and act in a manner that will all but guarantee violence.”
Saturday’s rally in Portland attracted far fewer far-right activists than the thousands the Proud Boys had predicted. Several hundred far-right demonstrators, many in helmets and body armor and some openly carrying guns, turned out in a park.
But Biggs said the rally succeeded by forcing Gov. Kate Brown to declare a state of emergency. The U.S. Marshals Service deputized more than 50 Portland police officers on Saturday for a year, giving them powers that enable federal prosecutors to bring charges with stiffer penalties.
“That’s kind of cool because they can do their job now,” Biggs said Wednesday. “We’re just sick and tired of the lawlessness for 100-plus days in Portland. There has to be some accountability.”
Biggs, 36, of Daytona Beach, Fla., has a LinkedIn page that lists him as a U.S. Army staff sergeant for 10 years. Banned along with his organization from Twitter and Facebook, he works for Censored.TV, a subscription channel that features hosts including McInnes.
After Tuesday’s debate, Biggs wrote on the Parler social media platform that “President Trump told the Proud Boys to stand by because someone needs to deal with antifa ... well sir! we’re ready!!”
He spoke with relish of his organization’s role in Portland. “It’s a joke that it took a men’s drinking club to help restore law and order,” he said.
He accused Brown and Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler of failing to crack down. “They’ve emboldened antifa to such a point that it’s now inspiring insurrection around the country,” he said, adding that the left-wing movement is “a great white shark that has a taste of blood and is trying to get more.”
Biggs would not comment on how many members the Proud Boys has. A recruiting website of the organization features a “win an assault weapon” offer, saying that “we understand that some patriots are unable to afford adequate weaponry, therefore we’re giving away a chance to win a FN SCAR 20S” semiautomatic rifle.
Biggs said the Proud Boys has no plan yet for election day, when Trump has called on supporters to watch polling places for potential fraud. Biggs said he would accept the result if the president were defeated. He said that if left-wing protest abated, he would welcome staying home with his family, riding his motorcycle and going to the beach, and seeing Proud Boys return to a drinking club.
Biggs denied that his group was racist, saying it included Black, Cuban and Asian members as well as gay and transgender people. “I’ve never come into Portland and tried to burn a federal building or shoot and kill anyone or try to run anybody over with a car,” he said, “so I think it’s kind of funny that we get called the bad guys.”
Meanwhile in Portland on Wednesday, police arrested Alan Swinney, a regular at Proud Boys rallies, on suspicion of a dozen criminal counts including assault, menacing and unlawful use of mace and a weapon.
According to an indictment, Swinney, 50, of Texas, pointed a revolver at someone in a crowd of anti-fascist protesters during a Proud Boys rally and used a paintball gun to injure someone.
Staff writer Brian Contreras in Washington, D.C., contributed to this report.