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FBI Categorizes Proud Boys As Extremist Group With Ties To White Nationalism


An organization known as the Proud Boys has been at the center of many high-profile and sometimes violent political protests. The FBI has now categorized the Proud Boys as an extremist group with ties to white nationalism. That designation was just made public through an internal report from law enforcement in Washington state. Molly Solomon of Oregon Public Broadcasting joins us now to tell us what this all means. Hi there.

MOLLY SOLOMON, BYLINE: Hi. Thanks for having me.

SHAPIRO: To begin with, explain who the Proud Boys are and what they believe in.

SOLOMON: So the Proud Boys are a self-described Western chauvinist fraternal organization for men. They were founded in late 2016 by Gavin McInnes, who's probably most known as the co-founder of Vice Media. McInnes has been very vocal, though, that the Proud Boys are not an "alt-right" white nationalist group. But they have a well-documented track record of using anti-immigrant rhetoric, a history of misogyny and violent activities. Earlier this year, I should say, the Southern Poverty Law Center actually elevated the Proud Boys to an official hate group.

SHAPIRO: And now the FBI has designated them an extremist group. How did that come to light?

SOLOMON: So the document was obtained by a nonprofit called Property of the People. It was part of an internal affairs investigation into a deputy sheriff in southwest Washington named Erin Willey. She was fired this summer after a photograph was leaked to the local newspaper of her posing in a Proud Boy Girls sweatshirt. The Proud Boy Girls are an offshoot of the Proud Boys.

In the report, local law enforcement described the Proud Boys being classified by the FBI as an extremist group with ties to white nationalism starting in 2018. It also went on to say that the FBI has warned local law enforcement agencies that the Proud Boys are actively recruiting in the Pacific Northwest and that Proud Boy members have contributed to escalating violent activities at political rallies held on college campuses and in cities like Charlottesville, Portland, Ore., and Seattle, Wash.

SHAPIRO: Does this designation have real-world consequences, or is it more of just kind of like a heads up from the FBI?

SOLOMON: I think it does a little bit of both. It certainly changes the language in how we classify these groups. In terms of how it might have an impact beyond that, we spoke with former federal agents who told us that there definitely is a process in place for making these designations. So it's important that this happened, and it's significant. They also said that this could signal that perhaps the FBI is doing an investigation locally. But I think it certainly shows that the FBI is definitely tracking the Proud Boys' activities more closely than they have in the past.

SHAPIRO: The pushback here from groups like the Proud Boys is that law enforcement is regulating political ideology. What do current and former FBI officials say about that?

SOLOMON: So the FBI did respond to a statement that we sent, you know, asking them about why this happened. They didn't necessarily address that directly in their response but really looked at the broader issue of rights here guaranteed by the First Amendment. A spokesperson with the FBI sent over a statement basically saying that the agency is not in the business of labeling groups like the Proud Boys and regulating political ideology. The focus for them is more on individuals who commit violence or criminal activity.

SHAPIRO: The FBI and other law enforcement organizations have been criticized for not taking as seriously the threat of white extremist nationalist violence as they do Islamist extremism. Is this a sign that that might be changing?

SOLOMON: You know, some people that we spoke with say it could be. They say that this is important that this designation has been made. And I think the choice that they've made to refer to Proud Boys as extremists, whether it's the FBI or local law enforcement, I think that's significant and certainly shows that they're paying attention to this group at a much higher level.

SHAPIRO: Molly Solomon of Oregon Public Broadcasting, thanks so much.

SOLOMON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Molly Solomon joined HPR in May 2012 as an intern for the morning talk show The Conversation. She has since worn a variety of hats around the station, doing everything from board operator to producer.

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