One of the recurrent myths that far-right street brawlers such as the Proud Boys like to tell each other, in bullhorn speeches and social media posts, is that what differentiates them from “rioters” like antifa and Black Lives Matter (BLM) is that they don’t engage in arson and property damage: “That’s not who we are!” is a common refrain heard at right-wing events, including the recent pro-Trump “Stop the Steal” protests.
But it is, in fact, who they are, and worse. The Proud Boys who invaded Washington, D.C., last Saturday to protest Joe Biden’s election made that more than clear when they began attacking and vandalizing African American churches with Black Lives Matter signs and banners, tearing them down and burning them in the streets. Metro D.C. police are now investigating the acts as hate crimes.
“Last night demonstrators who were part of the MAGA gatherings tore down our Black Lives Matter sign and literally burned it in the street,” wrote Dr. Ianther M. Mills, the pastor of Asbury United Methodist Church, in a public statement. “The sign burning was captured on Twitter. It pained me to see our name, Asbury, in flames. For me it was reminiscent of cross burnings.”
The attacks occurred at the culmination of a night full of assaults and confrontations with both counter-protesters and police by the participants in the earlier “March for Trump” organized by “Stop the Steal” groups, but populated by Proud Boys, “Three Percent” militiamen, and other far-right groups who dominated the violence that followed in the streets that evening.
The first vandalization occurred at Asbury, one of the city’s oldest African American churches. A group of Proud Boys tore down the church’s large Black Lives Matter banner and carried it into the streets, parading it as a trophy.
Eventually, a cluster of them set the banner aflame in the street, dousing it with liquid fuel. The men chanted, “Fuck antifa!” and the white nationalist dogwhistle, “Uhuru!”
Later, another group of Proud Boys were seen on video vandalizing the Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church, another historic African American church that had erected several BLM signs. The men tore down the signs and destroyed them.
Two other churches, Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church and Luther Place Memorial Church, reportedly also suffered damage during the demonstration, according to Metro D.C. police. Officials told reporters all four incidents were being investigated as hate crimes, but declined to say whether any arrests had been made in the cases.
As Cassie Miller of the Southern Poverty Law Center noted, several of the Proud Boys wore shirts that were variations on standard Proud Boys garb that indicated further affiliations with violent white supremacist and fascist movements. Notably, several of the men seen burning the BLM banner wore shirts with the acronym “RWDS,” which stands for “Right Wing Death Squad,” a meme first popularized by white nationalists on internet platforms such as Reddit.
One Proud Boy was spotted by journalist Chad Loder sporting an RWDS shirt that primarily featured a fascist symbol on the chest, along with the letters “6MWE”—for “6 Million Wasn’t Enough,” a reference to the estimated numbers of Jews killed in the Holocaust. The same man wore a death-skull “Siege” mask favored by the followers of neo-Nazi figure James Mason.
Such masks and others—notably branded Proud Boys and American flag kerchief masks—have become common sights at far-right events in recent years, manifesting how readily the groups pushing the politics of intimidation will abandon their own myths. In the earliest phases of the ongoing confrontations between far-right street brawlers and antifascists in 2017, it was common to hear the Proud Boys and their white nationalist cohorts jeer at masked antifascists, calling them “cowards” for hiding their faces.
It was a hypocritical taunt since there already were a number of masked far-right rioters engaging in that violence even then. Now the masks are not only commonplace but virtually de rigeur among the far-right protest crowds.
Similarly, one of the street brawlers’ favorite talking points, both to media and among themselves, is the belief that they don’t instigate violence or engage in property damage and burning. Instead, they argue, as Patriot Prayer leader Joey Gibson regularly claims, that their opponents are the violent ones: “They’ve caused riots, they’ve confronted the police, they’ve physically assaulted people, they’ve damaged property, they’ve set fire, they’ve done all those things and, yet, conservatives just don’t tend to roll that way,” he told one reporter.
The reality is that far-right street-brawling groups have always rolled that way. Moreover, regardless of what crimes can be laid at the doorstep of antifascist and anti-police brutality protesters, hate crimes are not among them.
Moreover, the context of these particular hate crimes is important. As Cassie Miller explains:
Black churches have historically been one of the key organizing spaces in the Black freedom struggle and have therefore long been subject to racist attacks. They represent Black autonomy—something viewed as especially threatening in the midst of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Churches were bombed and set on fire throughout the era, including in 1963 when Klansmen bombed the 16th Street Church in Birmingham, Alabama, and killed four young girls.
Rev. Mills observed that what made the attacks on the churches especially disturbing is the response from law enforcement on the scene, and by leading politicians afterwards:
Sadly, we must point out that if this was a marauding group of men of color going through our city, and destroying property, they would have been followed and arrested. We are especially alarmed that this violence is not being denounced at the highest levels of our nation and instead the leaders of this movement are being invited to the White House.