A MARTINEZ, HOST:
Exactly one year ago today, many Americans first heard of the far-right group called the Proud Boys. The moment came during the first presidential debate between Donald Trump and Joe Biden. The group has adapted since then to spread its extremist brand of politics. NPR's Odette Yousef takes a look at the group's rise.
ODETTE YOUSEF, BYLINE: The now-notorious exchange came when Trump was asked to tell far-right actors who participated in political violence to stand down.
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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: What do you want to call them? Give me a name. Give me a name. Go ahead.
CHRIS WALLACE: White supremacists and...
TRUMP: Who would you like me to condemn?
JOE BIDEN: The Proud Boys.
WALALCE: White supremacists and right-wing militia.
BIDEN: The Proud Boys.
TRUMP: The Proud Boys, stand back and stand by.
HAMPTON STALL: I mean, pretty immediately, I was like, this is going to have pretty substantial effects on, like, right-wing organizing.
YOUSEF: Hampton Stall remembers watching the debate. He's a senior researcher with the Armed Conflict Location Event Data Project, or ACLED. Stall says the debate marked the beginning of increased street presence by the Proud Boys. They were showing up at more demonstrations, riots and protests than ever before. All that peaked with the Capitol riot in January. But Stall says since then, another month stands out for violence. It was just this past August. With Trump out of office, factors began coming together to form a new, particularly volatile brew.
STALL: It was, in some ways, the top of the wave-slash-tail end of the critical race theory countermobilizations by many on the right. But it was also the start of a wave that we're currently in of, like, anti-vaccine demonstrations that turn violent a lot.
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UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: Get pictures of all these clowns.
UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) USA, USA.
YOUSEF: ACLED points to events like this, an August anti-vaccination demonstration outside Los Angeles City Hall. There, one person was stabbed, and a journalist was attacked. These violent events are happening during a time that many would expect the Proud Boys to be in disarray. The group's chairman was revealed to be an FBI informant. He's also now in prison. And 15 Proud Boys, including some other leaders, are charged with conspiracy in connection to the storming of the Capitol. Cassie Miller of the Southern Poverty Law Center says all this, plus the federal scrutiny and legal pressure on the Proud Boys, would sink most groups.
CASSIE MILLER: But it didn't. And I think that tells us something about this particular political moment, that this form of dangerous politics is here to stay, and it's been widely adopted.
YOUSEF: Miller says she's seeing a new strategy. It's no longer about street brawls with antifa activists. Instead, it's about forging alliances with disparate elements of the far-right. This summer, the Proud Boys joined with conservative Christian groups in anti-abortion, quote, "prayer" events. They've protested the removal of Confederate monuments in North Carolina. In Washington state, they responded to a false rumor that a student would be arrested for not wearing a mask, prompting the lockdown of three schools. Miller worries groups like the Proud Boys are doing all this to normalize the idea of violence in politics, and she sees evidence it may be working.
MILLER: So, for example, in the wake of the Black Lives Matter rallies last summer, we've seen a wave of bills that are aimed at suppressing protest and even allowing people to run over protesters and have immunity for doing so.
YOUSEF: And so even if one day the Proud Boys were to fade, Miller says it almost wouldn't matter. Since Trump welcomed them into the fold on the debate stage last year, the group has helped fundamentally shift the orientation of his base even further to the right.
Odette Yousef, NPR News.
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