This piece has been adapted from “We Are Proud Boys: How a Right-Wing Street Gang Ushered in a New Era of American Extremism,” by Andy Campbell.
The House’s Jan. 6 committee concluded its final public hearing this week, but the fallout of the Capitol riot is far from over. Indeed, leaders of the Oath Keepers and Proud Boys extremist groups face seditious conspiracy charges over what the Justice Department believes is an outsize role in the planning and execution of the insurrection. But while law enforcement is still attempting to unravel what happened on Jan. 6, 2021, there have long been brave and anonymous activists and researchers — many of them women — working to counter these extremist groups from the inside.
On Nov. 14, 2020, following a day of violent demonstrations among Trump supporters in Washington, D.C. for the Million MAGA March, familiar clashes broke out as Proud Boys attacked antifascist demonstrators outside Harry’s Bar, their favorite local haunt. In an interview with me, one of the antifascists, a woman who supports medics in the field at demonstrations, recalled a harrowing scene in which a group of Proud Boys had her crew cornered and outnumbered, when one of them lunged at her:
The Proud Boys started spraying something into the crowd. I had my respirator on, so I wasn’t affected, but one girl near me got it directly in the eyes. So I’m looking at the medics, trying to get her some attention, but there wasn’t much room.
He punched my arm, or at least that’s what I thought, that he was punching me. And 15 minutes later, after my adrenaline settled a bit, I realized he’d actually stabbed me.
Usually if you’re trying to treat someone in the field, you try to take them to a safer spot, but at that point there was no safer spot. So we were in a corner. Our shield line had been doing a fairly OK job up to that point of trying to keep the Proud Boys separated from the rest of the group, but they got overwhelmed. The shield line ended up breaking. And that’s when they started charging into the crowd.
I looked at the medics and I was like, “We have to move this person, we have no choice, we have to go.” As we started trying to move, that’s when a Proud Boy — who had to have more than 100 pounds and a foot of height on me — grabbed me and held me. He punched my arm, or at least that’s what I thought, that he was punching me. And 15 minutes later, after my adrenaline settled a bit, I realized he’d actually stabbed me.
She broke away and ran before he could land more blows. She wrapped the wound, but didn’t immediately go to the hospital, until another medic, whom she described as a combat veteran, took a look.
“He said, ‘You don’t have an option, that needs stitches, go to the hospital,’ which I was severely in denial of at the time.”
She showed me a picture of the gash in her arm. The knife had gone deep, well past her muscle tissue. It required stitches and weeks worth of “sobbing pain” to heal. She never did file a police report or speak openly to the press, saying she feared what officers and other Proud Boys might do with her identifying information if they found out she was antifascist.
Those concerns are paramount for all antifascist activists, but especially among women fighting back against misogynist groups like the Proud Boys. One often overlooked facet about antifascist action is that it involves the work of a lot of women, both online and in the street, though it’s not often clear due to the anonymity requirements inherent in the job. Though there are still issues with misogyny and inequality within leftist protest movements, these women tell me it hasn’t stopped them from embedding in every single facet of antifascist activism: women are opposing extremists online and in the field in a variety of roles — including infiltration — at great risk to their own safety, against forces that want to kill them.
Ashley, an antifascist activist from the New York tristate area, has infiltrated the Proud Boys. She’s not a member — the gang vehemently rejects women in its ranks — but she has inserted herself into a group of women who follow the Proud Boys to bars and rallies, which she describes as a kind of roving fan club that reveres the gang for their patriotism and the protection they offer from antifa. She didn’t join them to admire the gang but to record as much as she could from the Proud Boys’ side of rallies and at their planning meetings to send back to her comrades.
“I wanted to keep the people that I love safe,” she said.
She described herself politically as a Democrat-turned-anarchist, one who never voted until she cast a ballot against Trump during his re-election campaign in 2020. The threat posed by Trump and the far-right groups around him was so great, she said, that she got into antifascist work to directly oppose them.
She went to counterdemonstrations in black bloc, where she said she faced down extremists in the street. But she always had her eye on infiltration work, which she said was dominated by men.
“I wanted to prove that women could be just as impactful and effective as men in that space,” Ashley said. “I wanted to open the door for other women and encourage them to step up and push to the front if they have to, riot-girl style.”
She got her chance at a bar in New York state during a night out with her activist friends. They set their sights on a crowd of Proud Boys in uniform at the bar, and Ashley made her move to get closer to them, by “striking up a conversation and flirting a bit,” she said. That’s all it took. She exchanged numbers with a member, and soon enough, she was getting invites to Proud Boys events where women were allowed, which usually meant bars that were friendly to the gang or the very back of marches and rallies, where women were expected to stay throughout the day.
“They told us that physical combat is not a place for women,” she said. “It was a lot of very patronizing ‘we’re here to protect you’ kind of language.”
To blend in among them, Ashley said, she had to create a character for herself, whom she described as a bubbly, over-the-top “idiot” drenched in spray tan.
It was frustrating to be sidelined because Ashley was there to get dirt on the Proud Boys, but she took the opportunity to get to know some of the women on the outskirts of the movement. To blend in among them, Ashley said, she had to create a character for herself, whom she described as a bubbly, over-the-top “idiot” drenched in spray tan. As she told me this, she pitched her voice upward and added a heavy dose of vocal fry, to the degree where her tone would have been a danger to a crystal wineglass.
“I’m not going to tell you her real name, but let’s just call my character Candy,” she said with a giggle. “She’s really f—— annoying. She’s absolutely obsessed with [former Trump adviser] Kim Guilfoyle, who is, like, a total style icon, and she’s just really friendly and ditzy and really just wants to get out there and hold a flag and support the troops.”
The character worked, she said, but not because it was convincing to the other women — they could see right through the act. But that wasn’t a danger to Ashley’s cover because they were all playing it up in the same way, to impress members of the Proud Boys. She said her character was the stereotype for the Proud Boys’ perfect woman: willing to dumb herself down below their level (a difficult task, Ashley argued) and be subservient, with an understanding that misogyny was baked into the rules, like McInnes’ “venerate the housewife” mantra.
What’s interesting about the dynamic between the men and women in that space, she said, is that nobody ever seemed to make it past flirting, despite the fact that the women were there to “get a Proud Boy boyfriend.” The groups were segregated most of the time, and women would get close to the Proud Boys who caught their eye by acting as their beer maids, walking to and from the bar with booze for the opportunity to strike up a conversation. But she never saw a situation where any of them won each other’s affections. Even if that did happen, she said, most of the Proud Boys were too hammered by the end of the day to get out a sentence, much less an eloquent pickup line. This was all fine and dandy for her because she never had to worry about fending off anyone’s advances. The Boys generally stuck with the Boys, and the girls with the girls.
When she was able to attend rallies, she was constantly recording video and audio. She recorded fights between the Proud Boys and antifascists, initiation ceremonies, speeches and marching orders (all on a burner phone), and sent them back to her activist community. She showed me several of them: she had new angles on various Proud Boys moments in recent history, including a shot of the gang burning a Black Lives Matter flag outside a historic Black church in Washington, D.C., on Dec. 12, 2020.
Ultimately, she said, the surveillance was the most impactful work she was doing. The Proud Boys were a threat to not just her antifascist community but the national one, and she wanted evidence of their violence and their plots. The job came with some scary moments. She witnessed several fights she wishes she could have intervened in but couldn’t — either because her cover would have been blown or because the Proud Boys wouldn’t have let her anywhere near them — but getting photographic evidence was paramount.
“If someone was stabbed, I wanted to get it on camera. If some of these Proud Boys were planning serious, high-level attacks or if they were drunk and they were going to give me information that could help my friends live, I wanted to make that happen,” she said.
Excerpted from “We Are Proud Boys: How a Right-Wing Street Gang Ushered in a New Era of American Extremism by Andy Campbell. Copyright © 2022 and reprinted with permission from Hachette Books, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc.