The far-right nationalist group has become increasingly active at school board meetings and town council gatherings across the country.
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They showed up last month outside the school board building in Beloit, Wis., to protest school masking requirements.
They turned up days later at a school board meeting in New Hanover County, N.C., before a vote on a mask mandate.
They also attended a gathering in Downers Grove, Ill., where parents were trying to remove a nonbinary author’s graphic novel from public school libraries.
Members of the Proud Boys, the far-right nationalist group, have increasingly appeared in recent months at town council gatherings, school board presentations and health department question-and-answer sessions across the country. Their presence at the events is part of a strategy shift by the militia organization toward a larger goal: to bring their brand of menacing politics to the local level.
For years, the group was known for its national profile. The Proud Boys were prominent at the rallies of Donald J. Trump, at one point offering to serve as the former president’s private militia. On Jan. 6, some Proud Boys members filmed themselves storming the U.S. Capitol to protest what they falsely said was an election that had been stolen from Mr. Trump.
But since federal authorities have cracked down on the group for the Jan. 6 attack, including arresting more than a dozen of its members, the organization has been more muted. Or at least that was how it appeared.
Away from the national spotlight, the Proud Boys instead quietly shifted attention to local chapters, some members and researchers said. In small communities — usually suburbs or small towns with populations of tens of thousands — its followers have tried to expand membership by taking on local causes. That way, they said, the group can amass more supporters in time to influence next year’s midterm elections.
“The plan of attack if you want to make change is to get involved at the local level,” said Jeremy Bertino, a prominent member of the Proud Boys from North Carolina.
The group had dissolved its national leadership after Jan. 6 and was being run exclusively by its local chapters, Mr. Bertino said. It was deliberately involving its members in local issues, he added.
That focus is reflected in the Proud Boys’ online activity. On the encrypted messaging app Telegram, the Proud Boys’ main group in the United States has barely budged in number — with about 31,000 followers — over the last year. But over a dozen new Telegram channels have emerged for local Proud Boys chapters in cities such as Seattle and Philadelphia over that same period, according to data collected by The New York Times. Those local Telegram groups have rapidly grown from dozens to hundreds of members.
Other far-right groups that were active during Mr. Trump’s presidency, such as the Oath Keepers and the Three Percenters, have followed the same pattern, researchers said. They have also expanded their local groups in states such as Pennsylvania, Texas and Michigan and are less visible nationally.
“We’ve seen these groups adopt new tactics in the wake of Jan. 6, which have enabled them to regroup and reorganize themselves,” said Jared Holt, a resident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab who researches domestic extremist groups. “One of the most successful tactics they’ve used is decentralizing.”
Members of the Oath Keepers and Three Percenters did not respond to requests for comment. On Tuesday, the District of Columbia’s attorney general sued the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers, alleging the far-right groups conspired to attack the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.
The Proud Boys were founded in 2016 by Gavin McInnes, a co-founder of Vice. Enrique Tarrio, an activist and Florida director of Latinos for Trump, later took over as leader. The group, which is exclusively male, has espoused misogynistic, Islamophobic and anti-Semitic views, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, which has designated it as a hate group.
By the 2020 election, the Proud Boys — who often wear distinctive black-and-yellow uniforms — had become the largest and most public of the militias. Last year, Mr. Trump referred to them in a presidential debate when he was asked about white nationalist groups, replying, “Proud Boys, stand back and stand by.”
After the Jan. 6 Capitol attack, the group grew disillusioned with Mr. Trump. The president distanced himself from the riot and declined to offer immunity to those who were involved. The Proud Boys have also experienced a leadership vacuum, after Mr. Tarrio was arrested two days before the Capitol attack on charges of property destruction and illegally holding weapons.
That was when the Proud Boys began concentrating on local issues, Mr. Holt said. But as local chapters flourished, he said, the group “increased their radical tendencies” because members felt more comfortable taking extreme positions in smaller circles.
Many Proud Boys local chapters have now taken on causes tied to the coronavirus pandemic, with members showing up at protests over mask mandates and mandatory vaccination policies, according to researchers who study extremism.
This year, members of the Proud Boys were recorded at 145 protests and demonstrations, up from 137 events in 2020, according to the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project, a nonprofit that monitors violence. But the data most likely understates the Proud Boys’ activities because it doesn’t include school board meetings and local health board meetings, said Shannon Hiller, the executive director of the Bridging Divides Initiative, a nonpartisan research group that tracks political violence.
Ms. Hiller said the Proud Boys have shown consistently high levels of activity this year, unlike last year when there was a spike only around the election. She called the change “concerning,” adding that she expected to see the group’s appearances intensify before the midterms.
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On the Proud Boys’ local Telegram channels, members often share news articles and video reports about students who were barred from schools for refusing to wear a mask or employees who were fired over a vaccine requirement. Some make plans to appear at protests to act as “muscle,” with the goal of intimidating the other side and attracting new members with a show of force, according to the Telegram conversations viewed by The Times.
“Tell me where I need to be and I am there,” one member of a Proud Boys group in Wisconsin wrote last month about protests of mask mandates. “I can drive 5-6 hours in any direction.”
“Think local, act local,” wrote another member.
At some local meetings where the Proud Boys have shown up, they have spoken and threatened community leaders, according to news reports. At others, they have simply stood silently and watched. In the Telegram groups, some boasted that they had handed out their cellphone numbers to those interested in joining them.
While the Proud Boys’ membership is not public, Mr. Holt said the group appeared to be growing in small towns and counties.
Often, their presence has been enough to disrupt events. Last month, the school board in Beloit, Wis., said it canceled classes because some of the Proud Boys were at a local protest over mask requirements. In Orange County, Calif., the school board said in September that it would install metal detectors and hire extra security after several Proud Boys attended a meeting and threatened its members.
In New Hanover County, N.C., which has roughly 220,000 people and is two hours southeast of Charlotte, Stefanie Adams, the school board president, said she had read about the group’s increasing appearances and began tracking the reports closely.
Ms. Adams said she had an inkling that the Proud Boys might show up in her school district, which has 25,000 students. Because North Carolina law requires the county school board to vote on whether to continue a mask mandate for students each month, the district had handled many contentious meetings over the issue, she said.
“I figured we were on their radar, and that we might be next,” Ms. Adams said. “We knew we had to prepare for them coming to our town, too.”
Last month, Ms. Adams was notified by the board’s head of security, which she had hired for the monthly meetings, that some Proud Boys were outside the building for the mask mandate vote.
Five Proud Boys eventually entered the room and stood in the back, Ms. Adams said. They folded their arms across their tactical vests and wore matching T-shirts with images of a rooster, the group’s insignia. While they did not speak publicly, video footage from the two-hour meeting showed them clapping and cheering as anti-mask speakers made their case.
New Hanover County’s seven-member school board ultimately voted four-to-three to extend the mask mandate for another month.
“A lot of people came up to me after the meeting and said I should have removed them, but the meetings are open to anyone,” Ms. Adams said. She added, “One thing I can tell you is that it didn’t affect our vote or our decision on the masks.”
This month, the board voted to make masks optional after the county’s health and human services board ended an indoor mask mandate. Ms. Adams said the Proud Boys did not show up at this month’s meeting.
Alan Feuer contributed reporting.