“White supremacists” came to recruit members on New Haven’s Green. Or did they?
New Haven is wrestling with that question as officials reexamine why a visit by six members of a new national alt-right — or “alt lite” — group called the Proud Boys ended up in four arrests, minor brief violence and a massive police presence last Saturday after 150 mostly local anti-racism counterdemonstrators showed up.
New Haven’s not alone. Nationwide, law-enforcement officials and left-of-center activists are researching and debating how to characterize a new crop of violence-prone far-right groups looking to boost their numbers and create mayhem in the Age of Trump — while some bandana-clad “antifascist” or “antifa” activists join in the battle.
Mayor Toni Harp huddled with the police chief and two assistant chiefs late Wednesday as they sought to get in front of public outcry over the handling of last Saturday’s incident and prepare a public review, with a planned public release on Friday.
That review may touch on several questions, including:
• Why, even though organizers took pains to urge counterdemonstrators to keep their distance from the Proud Boys and refrain from violence, a pair of out-of-town “antifa” activists concealing their faces were able to hijack the event by kicking the Proud Boys, setting off smoke grenades, and tossing paint-filled balloons.
• Why city cops, despite their best planning efforts, were caught somewhat unaware of how the event unfolded.
• Why two nonviolent New Haven activists were arrested as well. (Police said they disobeyed orders to keep a distance at key chaotic moments; they deny it.)
• Whether the police under- or overreacted to a highly challenging, fast-developing situation.
Also prominent in the review mix is the question of how to characterize the Proud Boys. Police officials agree with the Proud Boys leaders that the group is not “white supremacist” — and argue that a misunderstanding about that label led to the problems Saturday. Others look at the group’s words and actions to draw an opposite conclusion, and argue that splitting hairs about an allegedly obviously racist movement distracts law enforcement from more germane questions about how to handle similar events in the future. Because, people on all sides agree, more such events are probably on the horizon.
Rumbling “Alt Knights”
Police knew in advance of Saturday’s event that some sort of right-wing activists planned to hit town to recruit members. They saw social-media postings by local antiracist groups calling on supporters to mount a counterdemonstration against “white supremacist” “KKK” groups.
But the cop didn’t immediately know which right-wing recruiters planned to show. Because the group in question doesn’t appear on “KKK” or “white supremacist” lists. And they couldn’t confirm the time or actual location of the event.
They knew finally a few hours before the event that the recruiters were members of a group called the Proud Boys, some of them based in East Haven. Cops got to work, trying to dissuade the Proud Boys from showing up — and learning what they’re about.
In their own words, the all-male group is about promoting “western chauvinism” and a renewed male model that eschews masturbation (except within a few feet of a woman). Here’s a more extended self-description of the group’s agenda on its Facebook page: “minimal government, maximum freedom, anti-political correctness, anti-racial guilt, pro-gun rights, anti-Drug War, closed borders, anti-masturbation, venerating entrepreneurs, venerating housewives, and reinstating a spirit of Western chauvinism during an age of globalism and multiculturalism.”
Through a paramilitary wing called the the Fraternal Order of Alt Knights, Proud Boys have been crashing left-wing anti-Trump protests throughout the U.S. and Canada with the intention— often fulfilled — of getting into physical fights. Leaders regularly declare the the group includes some Latino members, as well as gays, and that Nazis and Ku Klux Klanners oppose them. The cops did see firsthand last week that the East Haven group included at least one Latino.
In New Haven, the six Proud Boys who arrived on the Green last Saturday did not provoke violence. They planned to hear a recruitment speech by one of the group’s national leaders, Augustus Invictus. Invictus never showed. The 150 counterprotesters did, and while many engaged in peaceful debate with the Proud Boys, the two out-of-town face-concealed “antifa” activists provoked the violence. Cops ended up shooing the Proud Boys away to safety.
In the aftermath, the police department issued a statement urging the press not to refer to the Proud Boys as “white supremacist.”
“The group is NOT affiliated with the Ku Klux Klan or a white-supremacist movement, as was reported by some news outlets and those who represented themselves as members of the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement and other protest groups,” read a department press release, rightly urging the press to exercise caution in labeling the group. “Rumors that a white-supremacist group were scheduled to rally at the NH Green prompted a rallying of counter-protesters including Black Lives Matter.”
On Tuesday night, Police Chief Anthony Campbell sounded a similar theme in reporting to the Board of Police Commissioners about Saturday’s event. He blamed the chaos of the day on the fact that counterdemonstrators labeled the Proud Boys as “white supremacist” and “KKK” in social-media calls to supporters.
The Proud Boys are “no KKK, no white supremacist group,” Campbell told the commissioners Tuesday night. He also blamed the outbreak of violence on misinformation about the group spread by counterdemonstrators in advance of the event. He said his department tried to convince the counterdemonstrators that they misunderstood the Proud Boys. One lesson he drew: the police need to communicate more with local counterdemonstrators not to exaggerate their targets’ views.
Pepe The Frog
A search through the Internet can also produce another narrative for what the Proud Boys represent: that it and similar groups are cleverly parsing words to seek to conceal (to opponents, not to their supporters) an old-fashioned violent white-supremacist agenda.
So while some of the group’s videos and social-media postings deny any connection to racism, other postings and public comments communicate the opposite.
For instance, consider Augustus Invictus’ own tweets of recent days. One, posted at the top of this article, uses the flag of the Sons of the Confederate Veterans group (pictured at the top of this story).
Others use the image of Pepe the Frog — which the “alt right” has appropriated as calls to mass attacks on Jews and African-Americans and women over the past year — as a wink to followers, like the posting above ...
... and the retweet below:
Proud Boys founder Gavin McInnes has (on TV) referred to Jada Pinkett as a “monkey actress.”
Invictus also slips at times from his denials of racism and anti-Semitism and homophobia. For instance, at the 1:27 mark in the above video, he puts air quotes around “Holocaust” when referring to the Holocaust Memorial Museum.
At the 4:44 mark in the same video, he can be heard referring to transsexuals as “gender niggers.”
He has been quoted calling Asians “slopes” and “riceballs.”
Some of Invictus’ web followers interpret his statements as out-and-out white supremacy. “Commies/Muds want to kill Whites who don’t want to be near them. Sociopathic Leeches. Embrace Your Ethno-States!” wrote a follower calling himself Angry Ice Wolf2 in a comment posted to an Invictus YouTube video. “Diversity is our death. Non whites don’t think like us.”
Activists and journalists on both the left and the right brand the Proud Boys as white supremacists.
For instance, the Daily Caller, a conservative web daily, acknowledged in an article otherwise devoted to bashing New Haven’s counterdemonstrators last Saturday that the event itself was “organized by local white nationalist groups with ties to ‘Proud Boys,’ a new political movement helmed in the U.S. by the Canadian Vice Media-cofounder Gavin McInnes.” Even the Daily Caller acknowledged in that article that Invictus “has openly advocated for eugenics and a civil war while attracting a following of mostly neo-Nazis and white nationalists.” It didn’t see a need to sugarcoat the conservative demonstrators in order to take aim at the violent actions on this particular day taken by some left-wing counterdemonstrators.
From the left, ““antifa” groups have devoted time to documenting the Proud Boys’ neo-Nazi and otherwise white supremacist affiliations, and the group’s participation in “the DIY Division, or ... Rise Above Movement,” “a loose collective of violent neo-Nazis and fascists from Southern California that’s organized and trains primarily to engage in fighting and violence at political rallies.”
One researcher of U.S. hate groups, New Haven’s Henry Fernandez, noted a danger in efforts to portray the Proud Boys as non-white supremacist.
“In the racists’ world and in the world of some people who research these groups there are distinctions between being ‘white nationalist’ and ‘white supremacist.’ However in reality, I have found that there is no distinction,” Fernandez, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, stated in an email message. “This is along the lines of your simple Google searches. White nationalists invariably believe things that involve protecting their race from other races and want to do so because they denigrate other races. Some have shortened their term from white nationalist to just ‘nationalist,” but this is a game.
“There have long been fights (physical and online) between different factions of white supremacists. So the fact that these groups fight is not particularly informative. For instance some Klan members hated neo-Nazis because their fathers fought the Nazis. Some skinheads fight other racists because they are basically thugs who like to fight. But in the real world racists tend to move between these groups based on geography and which group has the most members or the best club house or whatever. There are different ideologies among white supremacists but these are distinctions that would matter little to you or me.”
Fernandez argued that “getting wrapped up in the distinctions that white supremacists make among themselves is ridiculous. They are all white supremacists. The Proud Boys are not racist because they say they are not racist? This particular group appears to exist to get in street fights, apparently including provoking them. “
That doesn’t mean the half-dozen young white Proud Boys attacked anyone last Saturday on the Green. They didn’t. They were attacked.
It doesn’t mean that it made sense for two out-of-towners who crashed last Saturday’s counterdemonstration to kick the Proud Boys and throw paint balloons at them. People on all sides of the New Haven incident condemned those actions. (And those actions did not reflect the fact that the New Haven organizers of the counterdemonstration specifically instructed marchers not to make contact with the Proud Boys.)
And the police inevitably got hit from both sides in such circumstances — criticized for doing too little and for overreacting.
Meanwhile, the cops plan to step up communications efforts.
On Thursday, Chief Campbell said the department plans to create a more active presence on sites like Instagram and Snapchat and Twitter — “things that I don’t even know about, but my 15-year-old daughter does” — to “alleviate a lot of misinformation.” He said he hopes to have an officer staff a social media unit.
Meanwhile, how to talk about hate groups will pose just one of many tough challenges New Haven faces in figuring out ways to deal with provocative visits to New Haven. The words, all sides agree, have real-life consequences.
Christopher Peak contributed reporting.