As Election Day looms, tensions linger over the influence that extremist groups might try to exact on the vote. Fears were exacerbated last week with the words of President Donald Trump, who in the first presidential debate was asked if he would disavow white supremacists and militias.
The president mentioned one group, the Proud Boys, by name, and called on them to “stand back and stand by.”
The incident created a surge in interest in the Proud Boys. A nationwide group, they’re particularly active in Florida and have made appearances at events in the Tampa Bay area. But they’re far from alone in the Sunshine State.
The Southern Poverty Law Center lists the Proud Boys among a handful of entities it deems to be hate groups with a presence in the Tampa Bay area. On its nationwide “Hate Map," the center has Proud Boys sharing Tampa Bay area space with the Nation of Islam, which has a presence in both Tampa and St. Petersburg. In Hernando County, there is a group called Sharkhunters International, which is described as a company that offers tours to European sites that were historically important to Hitler’s Germany as a way to “relive history.”
Although the Proud Boys often are lumped in with white supremacists, they deny racist motivations. Indeed, their membership is multiracial. The man pegged as their national leader, Enrique Tarrio of Miami, has described himself as Afro-Cuban. Tarrio assumed the leadership role after the group’s founder, Gavin McInnes, quit in 2018.
“We accept people from all walks of life,” Tarrio told a Tampa Bay Times reporter Tuesday. “We don’t ask what your religion, cult background is when you join the Proud Boys. All it takes to become a Proud Boy is that you love America, and you’re born with a penis. And if you’re not born with a penis, we have a Proud Boys women’s group.”
They call themselves “Western chauvinists." They believe, according to their website, that America’s borders should be closed, welfare should end, drugs should be legalized, and that they should venerate the housewife. What places them among hate-oriented groups, according to organizations that monitor extremism, is their attitudes toward women, Muslims, Jewish people, transgender people and immigrants.
Tarrio denies that the group is hateful. He blames the Southern Poverty Law Center for coloring their image.
“I denounce antisemitism,” he said. “I denounce racism. I denounce any ‘isms’ that have to do with prejudice toward somebody because of their race, religion or skin color. It doesn’t matter to us.”
While they disavow violence, the Proud Boys went to recent demonstrations in Portland, Oregon, carrying bear spray and body armor. They’re known for taking aggressive stances toward those who oppose their views.
“They’re dangerous. They interfere with speech. Their chief enabler is the president of the United States,” U.S. Rep. Donna Shalala, D-Miami, told the Miami Herald last week. “The local Republican Party must stop them from aligning with the mainstream Republican Party.”
The Proud Boys are distinct for their generally clean-cut appearance. When they appear at political rallies, they don black and yellow, most often in the form of Fred Perry polo shirts.
They are also distinct for their proximity to mainstream politics. Tarrio was once pictured with Florida Sen. Rick Scott, who when questioned about the photo in recent days denounced the group. Their supporters include Roger Stone, the close friend of President Trump. Tarrio, the leader, is listed as a state director of Latinos for Trump, an organization unaffiliated with the Trump campaign. He also headed a short-lived campaign for Congress, running as a Republican. Another member of the Proud Boys ran this year and lost in a Republican primary for state representative in Miami.
Tarrio says the group is “very active” in the Tampa Bay area. The Proud Boys website lists several chapters in Florida, including one that includes the Tampa Bay area, which is dubbed “Trigger City.”
The group’s presence in Florida is well known. The exact size is less so.
“While the exact number of Proud Boys in any given part of the country is difficult to estimate, there are indications that this group is active in the greater Tampa and central Florida area,” Sheri Zvi, the Florida regional director for the Anti-Defamation League, said in a statement.
The league cited three Proud Boys gatherings in Florida. One occurred in June 2019, when about 20 Proud Boys marched in Tampa. A few months later, a small group of Proud Boys gathered for a visit by Trump to the Villages.
In April, the group organized a three-city protest against the pandemic lockdowns in Miami, Orlando and Tallahassee. In August, news reports noted a small group of Proud Boys amid a counter-protest against a Black Lives Matter march in New Port Richey. Photos published in Creative Loafing depicted men clad in Fred Perry polo shirts raising their middle fingers toward a photographer.
There appeared to be no Proud Boys in a rally Saturday in St. Petersburg, though there was plenty of polarizing political rancor. In South Straub Park, and later at the Pier, a group of Trump supporters bearing American flags and pro-police signs confronted a Black Lives Matter group.
As some declared the Trump crowd “fascists,” one man from their group ventured to make clear where he stood. Gary Snow, bearded and donning a biker vest with police patches, held a flame to a Nazi flag.
“I am not a white supremacist,” he said. “I don’t believe in Nazis.”
When the flag wouldn’t burn, he used a knife to tear it apart, then threw it on the ground.
He then pulled out an “anti-fascist action” flag and did the same thing.
“This is what I think of antifa,” he said.
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