The FBI says the far-right nationalist group the Proud Boys, who have figured into incidents of political violence around the country, are actively recruiting in the Northwest and are seen as an extremist group by the federal agency, according to documents from the Clark County Sheriff’s Office.
“The FBI categorizes the Proud Boys as an extremist group with ties to white nationalism,” the sheriff’s office said in an internal affairs investigation obtained by good-government nonprofit groups Property of the People and The Sparrow Project. “The FBI has warned local law enforcement agencies that the Proud Boys are actively recruiting in the Pacific Northwest and that some Proud Boy 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.”
The internal affairs investigation was prompted by The Columbian’s reporting on a sheriff’s deputy’s ties to the Proud Boys group. The FBI’s description of the Proud Boys was first reported by The Guardian, which confirmed the authenticity of the document, and that the sheriff’s office learned of the designation in an August briefing with an FBI analyst regarding area extremist groups.
The Proud Boys were labeled a hate group by extremism watchers at the Southern Poverty Law Center. Members of the Proud Boys, which was founded by Gavin McInnes in 2016, were seen during a rally in Charlottesville last year, where a right-wing extremist is accused of killing an anti-racism activist.
Locally, members were implicated in an attack on an African-American teen in the Vancouver Mall parking lot in May after the boy allegedly swore at them. In June, Proud Boy members allegedly assaulted a man on the street in Portland, after he swore at them while they drove around town yelling at strangers in support of President Donald Trump’s proposed border wall.
The group has called itself a “pro-Western fraternal organization.” Members reject white nationalist, extremist or “alt-right” labels, but they have a history of misogyny and glorifying violence, both on- and offline.
Proud Boys members have also been regular fixtures at Patriot Prayer-organized rallies over the last two years, many of which have devolved into violence, and also drew members of other far-right, even openly white nationalist, organizations.
In August, the sheriff’s office fired Deputy Erin Willey for her involvement with the Proud Boys, finding she had violated department policy regarding nondiscrimination, harassment and off-duty conduct.
An anonymous source shared with The Columbian photos of Willey wearing Proud Boys-affiliated clothes, and the sheriff’s office opened its investigation following the newspaper’s inquiries about the images.
Her affiliation with the group, and the fact she didn’t disclose it during her time with the sheriff’s office, violated the agency’s policies around off-duty conduct, harassment and nondiscrimination, internal affairs investigators concluded.
“As a deputy sheriff, Erin was obligated to disclose information that could diminish the sheriff’s office’s public image and/or erode trust with the citizenry,” the report says. “The sheriff’s office concluded that Erin Willey either knew or should have known that any affiliation with or promotion of a group which openly discriminates and is openly anti-government, may undermine or erode the public’s confidence and trust in the sheriff’s office.”
The FBI didn’t directly address its description of the Proud Boys, but FBI spokeswoman Kelsey Pietranton said in an email the agency “can never initiate an investigation based solely on an individual’s race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, or the exercise of First Amendment rights. Our focus is not on membership in particular groups but on individuals who commit violence and criminal activity that constitutes a federal crime or poses a threat to national security. … The FBI does not and will not police ideology.”
She added the FBI “regularly assesses intelligence regarding possible threats and works closely to share that information with our federal, state, and local law enforcement partners.”