How Do You Solve A Problem Like The Proud Boys?

Given the challenges law enforcement faces when trying to tackle extremist groups, it's clear that other counter-extremism measures have to be on the table.
Proud Boys March For Trump in Washington DC on Saturday afternoon – December 12, 2020. (Elvert Barnes from Silver Spring MD, USA, CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

Proud Boys March For Trump in Washington DC on Saturday afternoon – December 12, 2020. (Elvert Barnes from Silver Spring MD, USA, CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

Dr. Shannon Reid is an Associate Professor at UNC Charlotte in the Department of Criminal Justice and Criminology. Her research focuses on youth violence, especially youth who are members of traditional or white power street gangs. She is also the lead author of the book Alt-Right Gangs: A Hazy Shade of White published by University of California Press.

For many, the answer to this question is to increase law enforcement attention and broaden prosecution. On one hand, it is easy to understand the push for law enforcement to take these groups more seriously and to move responsibility for intervention and suppression toward more official and traditional entities. This push toward law enforcement engagement can be seen with the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) considering the January 6 insurrection an act of “domestic terrorism” and the Canadian government labeling the Proud Boys as a terrorist entity. Canada has also included Atomwaffen Division and the Base in this recent designation.

Official designations act as signals to both the general public and the groups themselves that these groups are serious threats. The goals of these designations are often twofold. First, to signal to the broader community that the organization and/or country is taking the threat of these groups seriously, and second, to act as a general deterrent to those individuals who are either in the group or interested in joining. Unfortunately, an unintended consequence of these designations is that it lends a level of legitimacy to these groups.

If the FBI were to officially designate the Proud Boys as an extremist group, it could give them a sense of legitimacy that helps them recruit more easily, as people search out information on them, or makes Proud Boys seem to grow as newly formed groups adopt the Proud Boy name. This phenomenon is easily seen by the growth of traditional street gangs adopting Bloods or Crips in their name for reputational purposes, despite the vast majority of these different groups having no connection to each other. By bringing additional national attention to Proud Boys, the attractiveness of this group may grow. It also has the potential to exacerbate analogous groups as they search for similar notoriety.

On the other hand, these designations also have the potential to open additional avenues of prosecution at different levels of government. For example, the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) is a federal law that allows for the prosecution of members of a criminal organization (some states have adopted similar laws). Meaning that even if an individual was not directly involved in a particular crime, their membership in the organization makes them open to RICO prosecution. Canada does not have a RICO statute specifically, but there are several laws that collectively create a similar prosecution strategy.

Even without this official designation, RICO charges are reportedly currently being considered for Proud Boy members, five of whom already have pending conspiracy charges in relation to the deadly events of January 6th. A RICO case will most likely be much larger in scope and defendants, including individuals who may not have even attended the Capital insurrection. For example, a RICO case involving the Aryan Brotherhood (AB) prison gang/ security threat group indicted 16 AB members and associates, nine of whom were incarcerated when they committed additional offenses, for a range of crimes from murder to conspiracy to the sale of heroin. The range of crimes that can pull individuals into RICO charges are broad and can catch up very low-level associates with serious charges, with many pleading out to avoid the risk a trial brings.

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An unintended consequence of large-scale charges like this, and other large-scale conspiracy cases (see 2018 Texas case against 57 members of different white power gangs to commit kidnapping and drug conspiracies), is that more individuals are being funneled into the prison system. While many find this an appropriate outcome, those that study prisons and radicalization realize that prisons are organized around racially oriented prison gangs/ STGs. This means that fringe individuals, caught up in large conspiracy or RICO cases, are now easily integrated into established prison gangs.

Since most of these individuals will eventually be released, their radicalization in prison can grow the prison-to-street pipeline of violence and drugs. Prison sentences also make leaving groups like Proud Boys or their prison affiliations harder as now resources, such as public housing, voting, or job opportunities are limited or no longer available. These are resources that prevention and intervention research on traditional gangs have shown to be successful in moving individuals away from the gang and criminality.

These designations and the utilization of large group charges, like RICO cases, also provide the impression that these groups are organizationally more sophisticated. This mythological status placed upon Alt-Right gangs like Proud Boys actually helps these groups hide in plain sight. For example, if police are looking for members of a large, possibly international criminal organization within their jurisdiction, but only see groups of youth or young adults that commit a range of petty to violent crimes (especially fighting/ assaults) then law enforcement can report back that this is not a problem in their community.

The focus on “organized” groups allows law enforcement to either purposely or accidentally overlook activity from Alt-Right gangs. This lack of local police attention towards Alt-Right gangs, like Proud Boys, is pronounced throughout the United States with the under-reporting of white gang members in gang databases. Portland has highlighted the continued apathy by local police towards Alt-Right gangs.

The Portland Police Bureau’s Gang Database listed 359 gang members, however, only 32 of those individuals were listed as being a member of a white power group, or less than 9 percent of all known gang members. However, Portland is clearly not lacking in violent white power groups. Geoff Ward refers to this legacy of under-policing white power groups by legal authorities and using racist political actions as “white supremacy in policing.” This legacy of white supremacy in policing, combined with growing distrust in police as it relates to how they differentially intervene with different groups, for example the Black Lives Matter protest in D.C. versus the response to Stop the Steal protest, and the outing of some law enforcement officers as actively supporting or participating in these groups continues to impact how these groups are treated by law enforcement.

So the question continues about what should be done about Proud Boys and other groups/ gangs like them. As noted, the difficulty with relying on law enforcement to be the main intervention point for these groups is multifaceted and complex. As a researcher of youth violence and street gangs more broadly, a critical avenue of prevention and intervention is to integrate schools, families, and communities into the process of identifying at-risk youth since these prosocial institutions have the ability to provide resources with proper support and are often the first to be aware of concerning behaviors that predicate gang behavior, whether its white power-focused or more traditional gangs.

Research on traditional gangs also highlights the ability and power of prosocial institutions to provide pathways away from gang membership. While more research is needed to understand how non-law enforcement entities can intervene effectively before law enforcement suppression is needed for Alt-Right gangs, it is expected that early prevention and intervention can prevent a range of unintended and collateral consequences from large-scale police suppression tactics. So while law enforcement has an important role in dealing with Alt-Right gangs like Proud Boys, they cannot be the only resource we depend on since as Maslow points out, “I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.”

This article is brought to you by the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). Through their research, CARR intends to lead discussions on the development of radical right extremism around the world.

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