This morning Allison forwarded me a post from a group she belongs to which alerted people to the fact that my town, New Albany, Ohio, was about to get some visitors. The post reproduced this, which originally appeared on a right wing Facebook group:
I was vaguely aware of the “Trump Train” thing — Trump supporters who deck their vehicles out with flags and signs and drive around in what amounts to a mobile rally — but a little Googling revealed that it wasn’t just them:
The Coalition for a Safer Web, a nonprofit group that advocates for technologies and policies to remove extremist content from social media, called Telegram a particularly problematic platform used widely by white supremacists, neo-Nazis and other far-right groups. The group said it was tracking 13 Proud Boys Telegram channels, including one advertising an event in Ohio on Saturday, saying, “Proud Boys will be standing back and standing by in New Albany, OH.”
The Proud Boys were coming to my little town.
The Proud Boys are a self-described group of “western chauvinists” who claim that they are all about promoting “western culture” and traditional social values such as women staying home as housewives. They are far more than just that, however. As described by the Southern Poverty Law Center, whose mission includes the investigation and tracking of hate groups, the Proud Boys are clearly a white nationalist group:
Proud Boys leaders regularly spout white nationalist memes and maintain affiliations with known extremists. They are known for anti-Muslim and misogynistic rhetoric. Proud Boys have appeared alongside other hate groups at extremist gatherings like the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville. Indeed, former Proud Boys member Jason Kessler helped to organize the event, which brought together Klansmen, antisemites, Southern racists, and militias. Kessler was only “expelled” from the group after the violence and near-universal condemnation of the Charlottesville rally-goers.
The group made the news just this past week when, during the debate between President Trump and Joe Biden, Biden demanded that Trump denounce the Proud Boys. Trump answered by telling the group to “stand back and stand by,” a message the organization took as an endorsement. The fact that this exchange occurred at a time when Trump has repeatedly attacked the legitimacy of the upcoming election and has encouraged supporters to “police” polling places made most observers believe that Trump was signaling his desire for the Proud Boys or likeminded groups to take action to interfere with voting.
I have no idea what Trump was really doing, but after learning of the march, I decided that I needed to see the Proud Boys up close. Though it was a decision that seemed like much less of a lark later this morning when this news from the other side of town hit the wire:
Dublin police are searching for a shooting suspect involved in a pro-Trump auto parade Saturday morning.
Shortly before 11 am, police got a call that a participant in the parade shot into the window of a semi-tractor trailer on I-270 east just north of Tuttle Crossing Boulevard. No injuries were reported. Police are looking for a black pickup truck with Trump and American flags and a U.S. Marines sticker.
Notice of the I-270 car parade began to circulate on social media yesterday, and included plans for a Pro-Trump march through New Albany, picketing the home of Les Wexner and the site of the Facebook data center.
My first impulse was not to go. But then I changed my mind, thinking that if some shit was going to go down in my neighborhood there should at least be some witnesses.
I wasn’t sure of their route, but I assumed they’d want to walk around the Market Street area, which is New Albany’s defacto downtown. I walked down there at around 12:30. The Proud Boys arrived not long after:
If you didn’t get to the end of the video or if you had your sound off, one of them said to me “if you’re wearing a mask outside you’re probably voting for Biden. What’s the chances?” I didn’t intend to interact with them at all — there was a shooter loose still — but I reflexively said “I’d vote for Trump, but he’s gonna die of COVID.” There was no immediate response. I regret nothing, but from then on I decided I’d be more observer than participant.
You’ll note that many if not most of the Proud Boys were themselves wearing masks. As I’ll mention later, I ended up talking to one of the Proud Boys near the end of the march and asked him about that. He said that they do not wear masks because they’re concerned about COVID. They do it to hide their identities so people don’t report them to their employers in an effort to get them fired or report them to their families, friends or neighbors in an effort to shame them. I asked if that was something akin to the KKK wearing hoods. He said “no, it’s not like that,” but didn’t say anything else.
Not that they were all wearing masks. Soon after they marched by me they stopped in a public park across the street from the Starbucks and Mellow Mushroom Pizza. I walked over and started taking pictures. They weren’t shy:
The Proud Boys have repeatedly attempted to push back against the idea that they’re white supremacists. Indeed today many of them shouted about how The Southern Poverty Law Center has defamed them by classifying them as a hate group. I used to litigate defamation cases, but it doesn’t take an expert to conclude that flashing the “white power” hand signal undercuts that argument a smidge. I saw this many times, by the way, including in the video above. I also saw one of them flashing the “88” hand signal, though I wasn’t fast enough to get a photo.
Part of the “we’re not white supremacists” pushback involved that fellow in the middle of the photo, by the way. Whenever I or others attempted to take photos or videos of them, someone would try to get him as close to the front as possible so he’d be visible. Right after this photo was taken someone yelled at me “how can we be racists if we have African-American members?!” I did not think it was wise to ask the guy in the middle about his life choices but I imagine it’s an interesting story.
The most dispiriting thing about this portion of the march were passing drivers beeping their horns and giving thumbs-up symbols. Not people from the Trump Train, mind you. These were people in Audis and Range Rovers going to and from Starbucks or the pizza place. There weren’t a lot of them — maybe a half dozen over the course of an hour or so — but it still made me sad. New Albany is a mostly wealthy, mostly white, and largely conservative place. I am under no illusions that a town so full of beneficiaries of institutional racism and white privilege does not have at least some overt white supremacists, but in 15+ years of living here I’ve never seen one publicly endorse the ethos like they did today. It disappointed me greatly.
Based on the sign, I think it’s safe to say that they were very pleased to have been mentioned during the debate on Tuesday. Later I asked the Proud Boy I spoke to what he thought about that. He said, “It was GREAT! We didn’t think Trump knew who we were. He knows now. That’s really awesome.”
They began coordinated chanting at this point. The two most common were “The West is the best!” — speaking to that whole western culture thing — and “Save our children!” which strongly suggests some heavy cross-pollination between the Proud Boys and Qanon. They also chanted “USA! USA!” like a 1985 WCW crowd during a match between the Koloffs and the Rock and Roll Express:
They soon began walking again, turning east down Dublin-Granville Road, past Rose Run Park. I trailed the guys in the back by about 15-20 feet. One of them was on his cell phone, telling someone “no, no one. No one’s here. No press. No Black Lives Matter people or anyone.” His tone was one of disappointment. He sounded like he had hoped for a confrontation. Apart from the occasional horn-honkers, though, they had virtually no audience. There were some people who were clearly affiliated with them taking photos and video and maybe 3-4 observers like me taking photos and videos, most of whom left while the Proud Boys were still back by the Starbucks.
There’s a large brick footbridge over a creek in Rose Run Park. They stopped there to get a group photo:
I was the only non-affiliated person there at this point — the photographer they were posing for was one of their own — so their comments to the effect of “see, we’re not destroying anything” were aimed at me. I hadn’t said anything to them since my joke about Trump and COVID, but they kept trying to get a rise out of me. I would’ve rather had a dialogue with the bridge, frankly. For the record, though, I’ll note that there were multiple Black Lives Matter marches in New Albany over the summer. They had many, many times more marchers than the Proud Boys did today. There was no violence or property damage of any kind.
After the photo, someone held a megaphone up to a cell phone which was playing a recording of a Ronald Reagan speech. The amplification wasn’t great so I couldn’t make it out well enough to peg which speech it was, but it referenced “the American way of life” and those who oppose it a couple of times. After it was over they wandered into the parking lot on the other side of the bridge, their march seemingly over. I heard this exchange:
“Where we goin’ now?”
“No idea. Nowhere I don’t think.”
I wanted to tell them that they were more right than they realized, but I figured the point would be lost on them.
The Proud Boys milled around. Eventually, they’d be getting on the Proud Boy Express:
This is the owner of the bus:
If he’s a day over 22 or 23 I’d be shocked. Here he’s showing my neighbor, who I met up with in the parking lot, the mission statement of the Proud Boys as a means of proving to her that, no, they were not white supremacists at all. Not far down the list, though, he came to the bit about how they strongly support traditional marital roles, with women staying at home to raise children and be housewives while men worked. My neighbor is a mother who owns her own business and, like me, is probably old enough to be one of this kid’s parents. Her poker face while he Proud Boy-splained the world to her was a thing of beauty.
I began talking to him too. He put away the phone at this point and began speaking about the purpose of the Proud Boys off the cuff. I asked him why they came to an overwhelmingly white, overwhelmingly conservative place like New Albany. He said “mostly because of Les Wexner and Jeffrey Epstein.” I’ve written about those two at length before so I know exactly what he was referring to. It had not occurred to me that the Epstein scandal might be something that appeals to people like the Proud Boys or their comrades in Qanon, but it makes some amount of sense. It was not a topic I wanted to delve into, however, at least not with a Proud Boy, so I let it go and asked more questions about what they was trying to accomplish here.
He didn’t have anything to say about “western chauvinism” or anything, though. He just kept on coming back to how for him it’s mostly about the camaraderie. He called it “kind of a fraternity and said that he loves “drinking beer and camping.” Which, by the way, is what this group of Proud Boys did last night and would be doing again tonight. I asked where they were camping. He said, “Nice try. Unless you really wanna come out . . .” He seemed to actually want to me to go out.
Indeed, while most of the people in the group were outwardly odious people, this kid could almost be described as . . . nice? At least not hardened. Certainly polite in the way that twenty-somethings with some semblance of manners are when talking to people significantly older than them. I don’t want to take that point too far — he is, after all, a uniformed member of a hate group — but it was almost disorienting. The most Proud Boy-esque thing he said outside of reading their manifesto from his phone came when he was talking about how it’s very important for him to protect businesses from “Black Lives Matter and ANTIFA rioters.” I asked him who appointed him the police and he said “no, not other people’s businesses, I mean my dad’s cigar store.” The last thing I asked him was what he planned to do if Biden defeated Trump in the election. He said, “Nothing I guess. Keep drinking beer and camping.”
The milling about Proud Boys began to come closer to the bus at this point. They began another chant, but this one was not as sinister as the earlier ones. “WE LOVE BEER! WE LOVE BEER!” they shouted. They seemed to have lost the plot some time after crossing the bridge. They all wanted to go back to their campsite, wherever it was, and get drunk. I had had enough of the Proud Boys for the day, so I went home.
So, what to make of the Proud Boys?
The vibe one gets from watching them is that they are absolutely elated that they have been given permission by Trump and all he has wrought to be openly racist and shitty. It all comes off as “YES! We LOVE that we have mainstream representation for our views! We need not live our lives in the shadows anymore!” When you see that enthusiasm — and it’s almost glee — you can imagine them turning into a genuinely organized brownshirt organization that could commit violence, spread hate, and could, possibly, upend the election.
On the other hand, they come off as extremely dumb, extremely disorganized, and extremely lazy. They had that glee about their new lives as fully out-there hate-mongers, yes, but they were far more enthusiastic about wanting to leave to go drink than they were about “taking back America” and the other things they blathered on about.
Which puts them, and all of the rest of us, at something of a crossroads, I suppose.
Does someone, like Hitler did with the dumb, violent beer hall thugs of 1920s Germany, whip the Proud Boys and their ilk into something truly cohesive or does the energy peter out soon? Trump is too unfocused and feckless to do it, I think. He himself is a white supremacist but he doesn’t understand anything outside of his own self-interest. He has led a horrible movement in this country and has leaned on people like the Proud Boys in doing so, but for him that movement ends with the achievement of his own personal glory. He has no higher aim than the continued maintenance of his narcissism.
Someone else, though, might fully appreciate how badly the Proud Boys and people like them are people begging to be led. They might take what I saw today and harness it into something much more dangerous and energetic than it already is. They may take my young interviewee’s enthusiasm about camping and drinking beer and forge it into something far more useful for their sinister ends.
The ground has been prepared. The seeds have been planted. There are fresh shoots emerging through the soil. All they need now is someone to water and care for them.