Proud Boys walk near Freedom Plaza at a rally in D.C. on Dec. 12.
A leader of the Proud Boys is claiming credit for tearing down and burning a Black Lives Matter banner belonging to a local church last weekend.
The Proud Boys is a far-right organization identified by the Southern Poverty Law Center as a hate group and classified by the FBI as having white nationalist ties. The group has a history of violence, including during recent rallies in Portland, Ore., and D.C.
Enrique Tarrio, the chairman of the organization, told DCist/WAMU he was responsible for destroying the banner. His comments echo claims he made in a post on the social media site Parler, which is popular among fringe groups and on an episode of War Boys, a podcast affiliated with the Proud Boys, that aired Thursday.
"In the burning of the BLM sign, I was the one that lit it on fire," Tarrio claimed on the podcast. "I was the person that went ahead and put the lighter to it and engulfed it in flames, and I am damn proud that I did."
Two Black Lives Matter banners, one at Asbury United Methodist Church and one at Metropolitan AME Church, were reportedly burned during a right-wing rally that turned violent in the District on Saturday night. Tarrio says he was not sure the name of the church where he burned the sign, but believes its name started with an A. He says he didn't know it was a Black church. He also says he doesn't know who burned the second Black Lives Matter banner.
In an interview with DCist/WAMU, Tarrio said he decided to come forward after seeing the burning characterized as a possible hate crime by law enforcement officials.
"That kind of made me angry, to be honest with you," he said. That term, he said, implies the act was motivated by factors like race, cultural background or religious affiliation, when it wasn't.
"The crime that was committed was, yeah, OK, it was destruction of property, fine," Tarrio said. "But I wanna see if this hate crime thing is a thing ... I want to see what a jury of my peers would think." He maintains the act was not a hate crime because Black Lives Matter "isn't about race."
On the podcast, which includes video streaming, Tarrio shared an image he claimed showed him lighting the banner on fire. The image shows a group of heavily armored men crouching around the sign, with two lighter flames held to an edge.
D.C. police said on Monday they are investigating the "destruction of property offense" as a hate crime, and in conjunction with the local FBI branch, are offering a $3,000 reward for information the leads to the arrest and indictment of individuals involved in the burning of the banner.
D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine sent a letter to the U.S. Attorney for the District, Michael Sherwin, urging that the destruction of the banners be prosecuted as a hate crime.
"These actions, meant to terrorize Black people, violated DC law and were hate crimes," Racine wrote. "They harmed people of color, and every person who lives and works in our city who believes in fairness, justice and racial equity."
A spokeswoman for the Metropolitan Police Department told DCist/WAMU that the investigation into the incident is active, and asked people with information to contact the department.
Local church leaders, activists and officials quickly condemned the destruction of the banners. In a statement on Sunday, the Rev. Dr. Ianther M. Mills, the senior pastor at Asbury United Methodist Church, called the images "reminiscent of cross burnings. ... Seeing this act on video made me both indignant and determined to fight the evil that has reared its ugly head."
Rev. William Lamar, the pastor of the Metropolitan AME Church, told The Kojo Nnamdi Show this week that he "was aware of a pain of being violated in some way" when he heard the news that his church's banner had been destroyed.
"We were not the first to experience this type of challenge, and unfortunately until the narrative changes, we won't be the last," Lamar said.
At-Large D.C. Councilmember Elissa Silverman also expressed her dismay at the sign burning, and incoming Ward 4 councilmember Janeese Lewis George said on Twitter that the crime demonstrated two "separate and unequal" justice systems in the U.S.
Anthony Lorenzo Green, a core organizer with the D.C. chapter of Black Lives Matter, echoed that sentiment, saying that both Mayor Muriel Bowser and MPD failed "to protect the rights of D.C. residents and to stop the racist attacks by the Proud Boys against Black people, Black churches and others who stand against racism."
This story is from DCist.com, the local news website of WAMU.