The Proud Boys are going local.
The last six months have seen dozens of alleged members of the far-right extremist group charged with actions related to the Jan. 6 insurrection. This was followed by even more marginalization of the group by corporate America. And a late January revelation that the national chairman of the organization was once an informant for law enforcement led some chapters to threaten to splinter off.
Founded in 2016 as a self-described "Western chauvinist" organization, the Proud Boys is defined as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. The SPLC's Cassie Miller described the Proud Boys ideology as focusing on the principles "that politics should be practiced by force, that the country is full of internal enemies, that the United States needs to be reborn or renewed in some way."
With the law enforcement spotlight on the group, Proud Boys Chairman Enrique Tarrio envisions his organization focusing on local political races rather than national ones.
"I've always said my goal for this year ... was simple," Tarrio said. "Start getting more involved in local politics, running our guys for office from local seats, whether it's a simple GOP seat or a city council seat."
Tarrio will be going local himself. Following a year in which he admits his organization has "been through the wringer," he told NPR he plans to step down as national chairman in September to focus on his chapter in Florida.
Tarrio dismissed signs of turmoil within his organization, claiming that hundreds of Proud Boys recently met in Georgia. He added that he has met with chapters that threatened to splinter off, to assuage their concerns, and that "we're all on the same page." The Proud Boys has a national membership of some 30,000, he claimed, though he could not provide any evidence, as there is no central repository of membership.
A Wall Street Journal investigation into the group's struggling finances recently revealed that Tarrio secretly ran a T-shirt business that was selling Black Lives Matter merchandise. Tarrio claimed that it was not a sign of financial desperation but a sly prank in which he and the Proud Boys were earning beer money by selling BLM T-shirts.
The Proud Boys' new goal of pivoting to local politics appears to be a reaction to the group's marginalization on the national stage. An NPR project tracking the hundreds of individuals prosecuted in the U.S. Capitol riot showed that more than 30 people have alleged Proud Boys connections. Tarrio said his organization had been banned from many major U.S. businesses, including Airbnb, Uber, credit card processors and major banks.
One person seeking local office is Joel Campbell, a former Proud Boy running for City Council in Topeka, Kan. Campbell, however, said he left the organization after the Jan. 6 insurrection because he believed it had become too far outside the mainstream. In particular, he disagreed with the Capitol riot and members of the Proud Boys who "were going out looking for fights during ... protests."
"I knew that if I wanted to actually seriously pursue a political career, that I could not be associated with them anymore," Campbell told NPR.
A 34-year-old who got a Proud Boys tattoo on his forearm after former President Donald Trump famously told the group's members to "stand back and stand by," Campbell said he joined because he felt that news outlets and politicians were attacking "straight white men" such as himself.
His association with the far-right organization has drawn attention in his community, especially after The Topeka Capital-Journal profiled him this year. The notoriety has been a boost for his campaign, Campbell argued.
"The truth is, I haven't spent one campaign dollar. I haven't asked for one donation yet. And I'm probably the most well-known person in Topeka," Campbell said. He describes his views as seeking "minimum government, maximum freedom," and added that he is "very anti-drug war" — views that are similar to what drew him to the Proud Boys in the first place.
Regardless of whether or not he wins his City Council race in November, Campbell doesn't rule out ever rejoining the group. He said that he hasn't "given it much thought" and that he chooses "not to change anything at this point."
As for his Proud Boys tattoo — necessary to become a "third-degree" member of the group — he said he doesn't yet have a plan for removing or covering it up.
AILSA CHANG, HOST:
Since the Capitol riots in January, the Proud Boys have been struggling. The NPR investigations team has tracked hundreds of individuals charged for actions in the riots. This far-right extremist group played an outsized role in the insurrection. And NPR Washington investigative correspondent Tim Mak examines what's next for this five-year-old movement.
TIM MAK, BYLINE: In order to attain the third degree of membership in the Proud Boys, Joel Campbell had to get a tattoo.
JOEL CAMPBELL: It is a rooster with stars around it and then a laurel underneath and then an arrow with a W on the end. That signifies west. And it says Proud Boy underneath.
MAK: West - signifying the, quote, "Western chauvinism" that is the hallmark of the group's identity. Campbell is a 34-year-old who left the organization after the insurrection. He had been a member since 2018. And he said he sympathized with the Proud Boys in part because he said the mainstream media was propagating a negative image of people like him.
CAMPBELL: You know, they talk about domestic terrorism being the biggest threat to America. And when they say domestic terrorism, they mean straight white men.
MAK: In fact, experts and top government officials say their biggest concern is violent white supremacists and anti-government extremists. The Proud Boys were founded in 2016 and is identified as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. Here's Cassie Miller, a senior research analyst there, describing the core of Proud Boys ideology.
CASSIE MILLER: That politics should be practiced by force, that the country is full of internal enemies, that the United States needs to be reborn or renewed in some way.
MAK: While Campbell learned about the Proud Boys by watching online videos, he got even more fired up about the group during the 2020 election campaign.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
DONALD TRUMP: Proud Boys, stand back and stand by. But I'll tell you what. I'll tell you what. Somebody's got to do something about Antifa and the left because...
MAK: That Trump shoutout inspired Campbell, who decided to get his tattoo after that debate. He wasn't the only one. After the debate, the national organization claims its membership doubled, with interest coming in to such an extent that they had to pause recruiting. And then came the January 6 riots. Some 30 people charged for crimes on that day have alleged links to the Proud Boys. So Campbell, who was not present at the Capitol, walked away from the organization, in part because he had a new goal - running for local office.
CAMPBELL: So I knew that if I wanted to actually, seriously pursue a political career, that I could not be associated with them anymore.
MAK: He's running for city council in Topeka, Kan., and he describes views that he claims are what drew him to the Proud Boys in the first place.
CAMPBELL: OK. Yeah, so the things that drew me to it the most - minimal government, maximum freedom, the anti-drug war. I'm very anti-drug war.
MAK: But he realized it would be toxic to remain associated with the Proud Boys in the aftermath of the insurrection.
CAMPBELL: You know, I got in contact with the local press and said, hey, I really want to pursue my political career, and it's something that I feel like I need to do. And he had no hard feelings.
MAK: He's not the only one to step away, for one reason or another. Despite increasing notoriety, the organizational structure of the Proud Boys has been hobbled in recent months.
ENRIQUE TARRIO: Well, I will tell you this. We've been through the wringer.
MAK: That's Enrique Tarrio. He's the national head of the Proud Boys. The organization was shaken in January with the revelation that he had been an informant for federal law enforcement about a decade ago. This triggered some chapters to revolt, but Tarrio says they fell back in line.
TARRIO: I've met with those chapters multiple times, and we're all on the same page. I just don't see the disruption.
MAK: Tarrio said hundreds of Proud Boys had recently met in Georgia. He admits the January 6 riots were a challenge, but says his group was already so marginalized by corporate America it didn't really have much of an effect.
TARRIO: Yeah, we got banned off more things, but we're already banned on anything you can think of. I can't tell you it got worse because you run out of things to ban us from.
MAK: Tarrio told NPR that he plans on stepping down as chairman in September to focus on his local chapter. He does plan to emphasize one thing this year, though.
TARRIO: Start getting more involved in, like, local politics, running our guys for office for the local seats, whether it's, like, a simple GOP seat or a city council seat. We've been doing pretty good across the country.
MAK: For Campbell, whose run for city council in Topeka will culminate in an election in November, his former membership in the Proud Boys has been a central topic of conversation.
CAMPBELL: Truth is, I haven't spent one campaign dollar. I haven't asked for one donation yet. And I'm probably the most well-known person in Topeka.
MAK: And he doesn't rule out ever rejoining the group.
CAMPBELL: I don't know. And actually, no one's ever even asked me, so I haven't given it much thought. I think that I'm happy with my life the way it is right now. And I choose not to change anything at this point.
MAK: And for now, he doesn't have a plan for removing or covering up his Proud Boys tattoo.
Tim Mak, NPR News Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.