As protests over police brutality and racial justice broke out this summer, often resulting in harsh responses from law enforcement, police officers across the country have been accused of favoring a violent extremist group that took to the streets to oppose those demonstrators.
The latest example of a cozy relationship between law enforcement and the far-right Proud Boys happened in the nation’s capital last week when the Metropolitan Police responded to a stabbing involving members of the Proud Boys and an associate.
Provocateur Bevelyn Beatty and the chairman of the Proud Boys, who was with her, told police they were both stabbed by people associated with Black Lives Matter in a street fight early the morning after the presidential election. The Metropolitan Police Department repeated their claim to media outlets, leading to headlines around the country claiming Black Lives Matter had attacked the Proud Boys.
There’s no evidence Black Lives Matter had anything to do with the incident. Police officials have since walked back their initial statements, saying it’s unclear whether anyone involved was affiliated with political groups.
The department’s willingness to echo the accusations of the Proud Boys is another example of law enforcement’s deference to the group, said Michael German, a former FBI special agent who is now a fellow with the Brennan Center for Justice’s Liberty and National Security Program.
“This group has been involved in all kinds of violent activities, and it seems that law enforcement’s response to them has been reluctant,” German said. “That sends a message to far-right groups that their violence is sanctioned by the police.”
Meanwhile, law enforcement has clamped down on protests organized by Black Lives Matter and similar groups, he said.
Extremist group doesn’t often draw strong police response
The Proud Boys, which champions a mishmash of prejudicial ideas tied to its slogan of “Western chauvinism,” has gotten more attention since it was mentioned in a presidential debate in September.
Many Proud Boys espouse white supremacist and white nationalist views, though the group has some nonwhite members. Members – all male – are proud of their tough-guy image. Events promoted by the Proud Boys often end in brawls, and they’ve been seen attacking people.
The group ramped up its activities this year in response to the police accountability protests spurred by the May killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer. Energized by its leaders’ claims that radical leftists were engaged in a “Marxist takeover,” Proud Boys took to the streets to oppose the protesters and arranged their own pro-police and “patriot” marches.
In September, a group of Proud Boys protesting in Philadelphia was given a police escort, according to The Daily Beast. Video of the rally shows members of the group shaking hands with a police officer.
Philadelphia’s police commissioner said the claim that the city’s police are overly friendly with the Proud Boys is “ridiculous.”
In Portland, Oregon, police were criticized for allowing Proud Boys to descend on the city for an August rally, wearing body armor and carrying weapons. Last month in Salem, Oregon, police allowed Proud Boys to flout a law against drinking alcohol in public as they carried weapons in a park.
There have been hints of deeper connections between the Proud Boys and law enforcement. Last year, a Connecticut police officer retired after his membership in the organization became known. In 2018, a sheriff’s deputy in Washington state was fired for being photographed wearing a Proud Boys sweatshirt.
Police drove Proud Boys around to look for alleged assailants
On Nov. 4, hours after the department’s initial statements on the stabbing, Metropolitan Police Chief Peter Newsham said there was no evidence the assailants were associated with Black Lives Matter.
“At 2:30 in the morning, when our officers are trying to gather information on the scene, that information is preliminary in nature and oftentimes, unfortunately, it changes,” Newsham said.
By then, news outlets around the country had spread the allegation, sparking outrage from the local Black Lives Matter chapter.
A video of the altercation, posted to social media, shows members of the Proud Boys and Beatty scuffling with unknown individuals.
During the fight, at least two people and Beatty were stabbed and taken to a hospital for treatment, according to the police department.
Beatty gained notoriety this year after vandalizing Black Lives Matter murals in New York.
When police officers showed up at the scene of the fight, they quickly loaded members of the Proud Boys into a cruiser and began searching for the suspects, according to Beatty and Enrique Tarrio, the chairman of the Proud Boys. He claimed he was stabbed too.
“I got in a cruiser with a police officer because I was trying to identify the suspects,” Tarrio said in an interview. “We drove up and down the street trying to find them.”
German, the former FBI agent, said it’s astonishing that police drove around with Proud Boys after the stabbing. “It’s poor police procedure,” he said. “You don’t put witnesses in a car and drive around; you’re just damaging the case you have.”
But a Metropolitan Police spokesman said it’s not unusual at all. “Identifying all parties involved is part of the investigative process, and it is not uncommon for officers to canvass an area with the victim of a crime,” spokesman Dustin Sternbeck wrote in an email.
“Your allegation that we favor any individual during a criminal incident is not accurate and dangerous rhetoric,” he wrote.
Proud Boy boasts of relationship with police
Some of the news outlets that reported Black Lives Matter was implicated in the stabbing have deleted or rewritten those stories. But headlines across the country portrayed it as a clash between far-right and far-left extremist groups.
In the tense hours after the polls closed, when the winner of the presidential election was not yet known, that’s exactly the sort of unfounded claim that could have sparked larger clashes, said J.J. MacNab, a fellow at George Washington University’s Program on Extremism.
“It’s inflammatory and that’s a problem,” MacNab said. “When you have two sides itching for violence, you have to be really careful.”
Tarrio and other Proud Boys have long sought to portray the group as friendly with law enforcement. In an interview, he boasted about his close ties to the police, saying it’s only natural that police officers communicate with the group.
“We’re not screaming, ‘What do we want? Dead pigs!’ at protests,” he said. “There’s no conspiracy here. We’re open to working with law enforcement, whereas the other side wants to kill police.”
German said the cozy relationship between the Proud Boys and the police spells trouble for future clashes.
“There’s still a perception among law enforcement that this is a friendly group,” he said. “That just means even more violent people will be attracted to engage in these protests, and that will end badly.”