Proud Boys Are A City Problem, Expert Says
Steamer's, a Charlotte sports bar, made news this week. Not for breaking COVID-19 protocols, but because members of the extremist group the Proud Boys recently gathered there. The Proud Boys have been labeled as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, and some members have been arrested for their involvement in the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol earlier this month.
This recent sighting in Charlotte raises the question: How many members are in the region and how are they organized?
When it comes to the Proud Boys, UNC Charlotte professor Shannon Reid puts the group in this specific category:
"I refer to them as an alt-right gang," Reid said.
Much of Reid's research focuses on gangs.
"They follow a lot of the same patterns that we see in more traditional street gangs," she said of t Proud Boys. "We refer to them that way to avoid some of the mystique that they are trying to pretend that they are either highly organized or a domestic terrorist group."
Founded in 2016 by VICE Media co-founder Gavin McInnes, the Proud Boys are self-described “western chauvinists” with ties to white supremacy. Reid said people are being recruited all over the country, including in the Charlotte region.
"The issue is that people think it’s like in the mountains, like, 'Oh, this is a hillbilly or redneck issue,'" she said. "That’s not what it is. Like other gangs, it’s a city issue."
But it’s hard to put an exact number on how many members there are locally. She calls it a “research black hole.”
"A lot of it has to do with how poorly agencies have been keeping track of these individuals," she said. "So what we are really kind of reliant on is different self-identifications, which is a mix of online presence and offline presence, but it makes the number very foggy."
Reid says other gangs are better tracked. She uses the example of the Hidden Valley Kings, known for spreading violence and crime in Charlotte’s Hidden Valley neighborhood.
"If I was curious [about] how many members were still in Hidden Valley, I could ask CMPD to go into their gang database," Reid said. "They say it’s not 100% accurate, but they could say, 'We have x number of gang members,' or whatever. But because of a combination of (the Proud Boys) individuals' race and how they have ... interacted with police, no one is keeping track of who these individuals are."
In the case of the Hidden Valley Kings, a judge granted the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department’s request for a civil injunction back in 2013. That meant authorities could arrest police-identified gang members who were spending time together in public — unless in a setting like a school or church.
Reid says an alt-right gang such as the Proud Boys should be treated the same.
"If we as a city want to stop these individuals from congregating, private space is always tricky, but you have to go with what we did with gangs which is the [civil] injunctions," Reid said. "If we've been willing to do that with other gangs, that gives teeth to this."
Reid added that when a group of Proud Boys gathers at a bar such as Steamer’s, business owners need help. Unless an individual threatens violence or breaks establishment rules, business owners are in a tough spot.
Steamer’s posted on social media that they've heard there have been calls to boycott the bar. The establishment’s owner did not immediately return WFAE’s request for comment.
"I feel bad that this restaurant has gotten caught in the middle of that," Reid said. "They are just going to go someplace else. So, to shut this restaurant down doesn’t solve the problem of we don’t want these individuals congregating in Charlotte."
Reid says it's important for schools to be involved in preventing gang membership. She wants schools to survey students to identify individuals who could be successfully recruited by the Proud Boys.
"If we can ask some better questions to younger adults and school-age children, like high school kids, we'll be able to get that information through these surveys whether they are former, current, their dad or their parent is a part of it — things like that," Reid said.
It’s tricky she points out. The Proud Boys are a relatively new hate group compared to others. So it’s important, Reid says, to research who they are successfully spreading their message to — and why that message appeals to some.
"Why somebody joins the KKK or whatever at 55 or joins a militia, is vastly different than say why a 15- or 16-year-old would join a Proud Boys group or a skinhead group," she said.
Reid keeps coming back to that important tool of research she says that's much needed in schools — to connect the dots between the why and who, to prevent the Proud Boys' numbers from growing.