Now that NBC News picked up the Proud Boys story, here is something I wrote for a local Bay Area newspaper about them earlier in the fall. The newspaper was hesitant to write about the subject, as seems to happen when I want to write about the Alt Right. I interviewed Paul Bazille, a member of the Proud Boys group and everything. If the headline on the story seems different than this link, that's because I've changed it from what the newspaper wanted to one more appropriate for the story. Writing about this is frustrating - I'm torn between wanting to accurately portray the source, who put trust in me, and not wanting to seem sympathetic to the Alt Right, which I am certainly not. What that frustration turns in to is just not writing about it at all.
The picture I took is from an anti-Alt Right protest in Berkeley.
Could a replay of Charlottesville occur here? The Bay Area has many of its own icons of a racist past that may be ripe for removal. UC Berkeley’s Barrows Hall, for example, is named after David Prescott Barrows, a university president at Berkeley who advocated for the colonization of the Philippines. Several students have advocated renaming the hall.
The electrified “Albany cross” that adorns Albany Hill was placed at a time when Ku Klux Klan membership in the Bay Area was widespread, while Jack London Square is named after an author who displayed consistent antipathy toward African Americans. In San Francisco, Justin Herman Plaza has been the subject of scrutiny as the San Francisco Board of Supervisors has considered renaming the area, currently named after the architect of an “urban renewal program” that is credited with displacing African American and Japanese American residents.
Alt-Right in the Bay Area
I spoke with Pawl Bazile, an organizer for the Proud Boys, a “Western chauvinist” men’s group with a strong presence in the Bay Area (they sponsored the April event that resulted in blows near Berkeley’s Civic Center area), founded by Vice magazine cofounder Gavin McInnes, about this issue. He described “western chauvinism” as an “unapologetic pride” in western civilization, which he described as “not perfect but the best the world has created for human prosperity.”
Bazille told me bluntly: “I’m not for it. I’m not for banning articles or books that I disagree with. History is nuanced and it’s ignorant to compare 2017 to 1917 values. I think it’s a bad thing to do to sweep history under the carpet. Martin Luther King was against gay marriage. Should we take down a statue of him? I think that any statue that is put up is a learning experience, like any book is a learning experience.” Ohio-based urban historian and progressive Sean Posey added, “It's a tough thing to address. Considering this country's history, you could advocate for the removal of everything from this to the Washington Monument. I think it probably has to be done a case-by-basis in accordance with the general will of local citizens in the area, but even that is sometimes hard to determine.”
Bazille noted that his organization had a sharp denunciation of what took place in Charlottesville and pushed out of the group anyone who attended the rallies there. Posey has satirically called the group “the Alt Lite,” taking on some of the rhetoric of the Alt Right era while sharply distancing itself from its worst elements. Bazille, however, was very dismissive of this perception while speaking with me. Top Dog, an East Bay food institution known for its embrace of libertarianism, also fired employees who attended the Charlottesville rally. Leighton Akio Woodhouse, writing for The Intercept, noted that the Alt right brand has gained increasing “toxicity” after Charlottesville, with the aforementioned Proud Boys, Breitbart News, and others angrily denouncing association with the Alt-Right.
While the Alt Right was very localized years ago, with largely anonymous white nationalist groups like the now inactive Bay Area National Anarchists, it has become a national force, with groups like the Proud Boys or Richard Spencer’s National Policy Institute aiming their activity in various urban areas in which a reception with supporters or a clash with opponents is possible. Speaking of the Proud Boys’ response to Charlottesville, Bazille said, “[Charlottesville organizer] Richard Spencer is a scumbag. He makes us look bad. He is basically a socialist except he is a racist. Simply being racist doesn’t make you right wing. I don’t think he’s a good speaker or has charisma. He’s really an unoriginal douche but he always gets news coverage when he does some horseshit.”
Bazille added that he felt the media was focusing on neo-Nazi movements over the broader conservative movement that is active in 2017. “New York Times and This American Life all interviewed me and none of it got aired. Why? Because we weren’t racist. So instead they interview Identity Europa, and say that is the face of the right.” While groups like Bazille’s own Proud Boys repudiate the racist Alt-Right, equating them to Antifa, they remain in support of President Donald Trump, who referred to white supremacist Charlottesville protesters as “very fine people,” and has been connected and sympathetic to the Alt-Right for years.