Since early April, protests aimed at rapidly reopening the economy have exploded across the country. Images of armed protesters screaming at masked police officers at a Michigan “American Patriot Rally” shocked many. The arrest of Bradley Bunn on explosives charges, and evidence that he discussed using pipe bombs at a May 1 “reopen” rally in Denver, Colorado, demonstrates the potential for violence emerging from these protests.
Much media coverage and punditry have cast these events as “Astroturfed” – i.e., elite-manufactured mobilizations hiding behind the guise of a popular uprising. This framing, however, fails to account for the autonomous trajectory of the groups and political tendencies that populate the COVID-19 insurrection. Even as well-heeled groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council and Heritage Foundation have amped up efforts for a rapid reopening alongside conservative economic policies, on-the-ground events evidence a coalition of Trump supporters, Tea Partiers, nationalist paramilitaries, anti-vaccination activists and far-right groups like the Proud Boys.
As IREHR reported today, the Facebook presence of such COVID-19 insurrectionists presently consists of some 562 groups and more than 2 million members.
In this article, IREHR starts an examination of groups and factions involved in the on-the-ground COVID-19 insurrection.
We start with the Proud Boys.
Who Are the Proud Boys?
The Proud Boys are a self-described “Western chauvinist” organization that couples libertarian economics to a reactionary and racist brand of national identity. Formed in 2016, the group’s early rituals consisted of getting drunk and reading Patrick Buchanan’s Death of the West, at least according to its founder, Gavin McInnes. Buchanan’s book is an ode to the idea of white dispossession that has animated political movements from the Tea Party to white nationalists.
In keeping with these roots, the Proud Boys official Telegram account posts messages from leaders of the “groyper” mobilization, including white nationalists Nick Fuentes and Patrick Casey. The Proud Boys promoted the “groyper”-organized America First Political Action Conference (AFPAC), while Gavin McInnes and current Proud Boys chair Enrique Tarrio were slated to appear with Nick Fuentes at a National File “summit” the same weekend as AFPAC.
As such, the Proud Boys have walked a line between Tea Party reaction and harder brands of racism and bigotry. Gavin McInnes has endorsed the idea of biological determinism, spewed racial slurs, crudely disparaged Muslims, and displayed crass misogyny to match the group’s racism. While McInnes nominally stepped down from the organization in late 2018, the group’s current by-laws set aside a day each year to honor the founder and grant him authority to award “fourth-degree” status to Proud Boys – a status achieved by engaging in a violent conflict for the movement. In such a vein, in June 2016 McInnes would post to Instagram:
The Proud Boys are perhaps best known for street-level violence and confrontations with anti-fascists, for which several members have faced legal problems.
Proud Boys and the COVID-19 Insurrection
The Proud Boys have been a steady presence in the COVID-19 insurrection. This involvement has come from the top. Proud Boys Chairman Enrique Tarrio promoted April 25 “Operation: Reopen Florida” events in a Telegram post stating “We Floridians are tired of the Democrats push to destabilize our economy in order to rig an election against our President…Join us as we promote the reopening of our state. Tallahassee Miami and Orlando will be holding the official #Reopen campaign. Share this flyer far and wide.”
The web address used to promote the events links to an online business run by Tarrio, according to The Daily Beast. The 1776.Shop site sells Proud Boy gear, including AR15 and AR16-compatible rifle magazines bearing the group’s logo. The site also has an “Official 1776 Line” of products under the heading “The Boogaloo” – the widely used militia term for the civil war some among them view as imminent.
The Proud Boys’ presence at such events emerged even before Tarrio’s Florida promotions. The group’s official Telegram account posted that members had attended an April 13 Ohio “reopen” event. Apparent attendees appear below with faces blocked and displaying the “OK” sign that the Anti-Defamation League has included in its Hate Symbols Database:
In their eagerness to play a role in the COVID-19 protests, the group’s official Telegram account boasted in mid-April that the “Vegas Proud Boys organized 1000 people to protest the lockdown, re-open Vegas, and recall their governor. @ProudBoysOfficial.”
Proud Boys were present at mid-to-late April “reopen” rallies in at least Lansing, Michigan; Denver, Colorado; Olympia, Washington; and San Diego, California, promoting the latter on its official Telegram account the day before the event. Proud Boys also held their own, smaller, protests related to the coronavirus. This including one on a Portland, Oregon overpass, and another in front of city hall in Miami, Florida.
The Proud Boys have been seen at a number of “reopen” events in May. In Portland in early May, Proud Boys joined members of Oregon Women for Trump and Q-anon conspiracy “theorists.” The group’s official Telegram account boasted: “PNW Proud Boys bring giant American flag to anti-lockdown rally.” The individual holding the upper left corner of the flag is a Proud Boy, pictured blow in front of the group’s flag flashing the “OK” sign.
Proud Boys were present at early May events in Carson City, Nevada; Salem, Oregon; and Sacramento and Laguna Beach, California. Proud Boys held their own event in downtown Seattle, pledging that staying at home will end for them on May 4, as reported by KIRO 7 News. The group was also reported staging an event in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The weekend of May 10 the Portland Proud Boys took part in an Oregon City “Open the Parks” rally, also supporting “one of their own,” Dan Tooze Sr., who is running for a 40th District state legislative seat.
Proud Boys fellow-traveler Joey Gibson of Patriot Prayer gave a speech at a May 2 reopen rally in Salem, Oregon. Patriot Prayer, like the Proud Boys, blends libertarian economics with anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant politicking, a combination that has seen both groups appear at anti-Muslim rallies. Like the Proud Boys, Patriot Prayer is known for engaging in street violence with anti-fascists. Gibson had spoken at a previous April 17 Olympia, Washington “reopen” event where he was apparently photographed by Glen Morgan of the Citizens Alliance for Property Rights (CAPR). Morgan has a history of anti-Indian activity, and CAPR has hosted longtime Citizens Equal Rights Alliance leader Elaine Willman. Longtime Washington State-based anti-tax activist Tim Eyman was also present.
 Beckett, Lois. “Armed demonstrators demonstrate against COVID-19 lockdown at Michigan capitol.” The Guardian. April 30, 2020. https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/apr/30/michigan-protests-coronavirus-lockdown-armed-capitol; Affidavit in Support of Criminal Complaint. U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado. May 2, 2020; Arrest Warrant for Bradley Bunn. U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado. May 2, 2020; United States Attorney’s Office. District of Colorado. Northern Colorado Man Arrested for Possessing Pipe Bombs. May 3, 2020. https://www.justice.gov/usao-co/pr/northern-colorado-man-arrested-possessing-pipe-bombs; Sandell, Clayton. “Colorado man planning armed protest against state’s coronavirus restrictions arrested for pipe bombs.” ABC News. May 4, 2020. https://abcnews.go.com/US/colorado-man-planning-armed-protest-states-coronavirus-restrictions/story?id=70491370; Salinger, Rick. “FBI Arrests Bradley Bunn After 4 Pipe Bombs Found Inside Loveland Home.” 04CBSDenver. May 4, 2020. https://denver.cbslocal.com/2020/05/04/fbi-arrests-bradley-bunn-after-4-pipe-bombs-found-inside-loveland-home/
 Forthcoming IREHR book on the Proud Boys. References available upon request.
 Proud Boys. Telegram. https://t.me/ProudBoysOfficial. January 31, 2020. https://t.me/ProudBoysOfficial/970, multiple posts; National File. Emergency Save the First Amendment Summit in Washington D.C. https://nationalfile.com/summit/
 See, for instance, Moynihan, Colin. “2 Proud Boys Sentenced to Four Years in Brawl With Anti-Fascists in Republican Club.” New York Times. October 22, 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/10/22/nyregion/proud-boys-antifa-sentence.html; Levinson, Jonathan. “Proud Boy Member Sentenced to 10 Days in Jail In Multnomah County.” Oregon Public Broadcasting. October 24, 2019. https://www.opb.org/news/article/proud-boy-tusitala-tiny-toese-parole-violation-sentencing-multnomah-county/
 Weill, Kelly. “How the Proud Boys Became Roger Stone’s Personal Army.” The Daily Beast. January 29, 2020. https://www.thedailybeast.com/how-the-proud-boys-became-roger-stones-personal-army-6
 1776.SHOP. The Boogaloo. https://1776.shop/product-category/1776-official/boogaloo/page/1/. Accessed May 1, 2020.
 Proud Boys: America First. Telegram. April 14, 2020. https://t.me/ProudBoysOfficial/1359; Nichols, Anna Liz and Susan J. Demas. “Whitmer state home order protest turns into Trump celebration with Confederate Flags and Guns.” Michigan Advance. April 15, 2020. https://www.michiganadvance.com/2020/04/15/whitmer-stay-home-order-protest-turns-into-trump-celebration-with-confederate-flags-and-guns/; Proud Boys: America First. Telegram. April 26, 2020. https://t.me/ProudBoysOfficial/1415; Proud Boys: America First. Telegram. April 25, 2020. https://t.me/ProudBoysOfficial/1386; Timberg, Craig, et al. “Protests spread, fueled by economic woes and Internet subcultures.” Washington Post. May 1, 2020. https://www.washingtonpost.com/technology/2020/05/01/anti-stay-home-protests/ ; James, Will et al. “From Olympia to Richmond to Moscow, Protestors Demonstrate Against Coronavirus Safety Measures.” Northwest Public Broadcasting. April 20, 2020. https://www.nwpb.org/2020/04/20/from-olympia-to-richland-to-moscow-protesters-demonstrate-against-coronavirus-safety-measures/ ; Maulbetsch, Eric. “Proud Boys, Anti-Vaxxers and Conspiracy Theorists Among ‘Reopen Colorado’ Protesters.” Colorado Times. April 19, 2020. https://coloradotimesrecorder.com/2020/04/proud-boys-anti-vaxxers-and-conspiracy-theorists-among-reopen-colorado-protestors/22827/
 Proud Boys: America First. Telegram. May 8, 2020. https://t.me/ProudBoysOfficial/1506
 Proud Boys: America First. Telegram. May, 1, 2020. https://t.me/ProudBoysOfficial/1450, https://t.me/ProudBoysOfficial/1461, May 2, 2020. https://t.me/ProudBoysOfficial/1465, May 3, 2020. https://t.me/ProudBoysOfficial/1484, https://t.me/ProudBoysOfficial/1489, May 4, 2020. https://t.me/ProudBoysOfficial/1493; Lowdes, Joe. “Reopen Oregon Rally: Super-spreaders for Freedom.” Popolo and Grandi. May 2, 2020. https://www.joelowndes.org/post/reopen-oregon-rally-super-spreaders-for-freedom?fbclid=IwAR33AgGFyWma7gS4a64Ux2zEu7pUorCbAXOEzwiWjsMwyUwq6AgMZKNUgWg
 KIRO News 7. May 1, 2020. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9TFGTAJ9OUY&feature=youtu.be
 Fiorillo, Victor. “Philly Coronavirus News: The Battle to Reopen Barber Shops, Hair Salons, and Nail Spas.” Philly Magazine. May 7, 2020. https://www.phillymag.com/news/2020/05/07/barber-shops-reopen-philly-coronavirus/
 Proud Boys. Telegram. May 10, 2020. https://t.me/ProudBoysOfficial/1518?single
 Campuzano, Eder. “Protestors gather for a ‘reopen Oregon’ rally in Salem.” KGW8. May 2, 2020. https://www.kgw.com/article/news/politics/anti-government-reopen-rally-in-salem-amid-covid-19-crisis/283-35fcf55d-25a7-45ba-a32d-3e820c3c6a16
 Morgan, Glen. “A good day for a little rebellion against Washington Governor Inslee.” We the Governed website. April 20, 2020. https://www.wethegoverned.com/a-good-day-for-a-little-rebellion-against-washington-governor-inslee/