Screen grab of the Proud Boys speaking at the Grand Traverse County Commissioner meeting

The Jewish community must stand against hate.

Back in March, the Grand Traverse County Board of Commissioners held a public hearing, a piece of local red-region political theater really, on a resolution to make the county a “Second Amendment sanctuary.”

A non-county resident wearing a “Proud Boys” T-shirt stepped up to the microphone and said he was “representing friends of mine from Grand Traverse County who couldn’t be here today.” And, with that, he waxed philosophical about his interpretations of the Second Amendment.

Howard Lovy
Howard Lovy

Well, I was surprised, and so were many in Traverse City, because the Proud Boys are designated a “hate group” by both the Anti-Defamation League and the Southern Poverty Law Center. Both organizations say the group is racist, antisemitic and misogynistic. Not only that, they played a large role in planning 2017’s Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Va., during which a local synagogue was terrorized and a young activist, Heather Heyer, was murdered in a car-ramming of counterdemonstators by an avowed antisemite.

County Commissioner Rob Hentschel was eager to defend the honor of the Proud Boys when it was suggested they were a hate group. “Someone told me you were neo-Nazis,” Hentschel said. That gave the two members in attendance an opportunity to repeat their usual line about how they are “proud western chauvinists” and “believe there’s no room for hate when we’re trying to make America great.” They said this to applause from some in the room.

But, according to the SPLC, “their disavowals of bigotry are belied by their actions: rank-and-file Proud Boys and leaders regularly spout white nationalist memes and maintain affiliations with known extremists.”

Pattern of Normalization

The Proud Boys are not experts in anything, and they are not local to Traverse City. But when asked whether they are a hate group, they have a scripted, “Who, me?” line. Local politicians, whether naively or as part of the strategy, are contributing to this trend. And Traverse City is not the only place in Michigan where the Proud Boys have emerged in the past year.

Late last year, residents of the Allegan County city of Fennville were surprised to discover their recently appointed city commissioner, Morgan Bolles, was affiliated with the Proud Boys. Bolles, in his own, “Who, me?” statement, said the Proud Boys are anti-racist, promote entrepreneurship, are pro-freedom, limited government and want to “venerate the housewife,” according to a report in the Holland Sentinel.

The paper also reported that Bolles posted a photo to his Twitter page of himself wearing a shirt with the phrase “Socialism is for f*gs,” with the vowel in the last word replaced by a symbol of a fig leaf. Bolles was not elected to the city commission but was unanimously appointed to fill a vacancy. News of his hate-group affiliation came too late to impact the appointment.

In Kalamazoo, an August demonstration by the Proud Boys turned violent when they attacked counterdemonstrators with pepper spray and their fists.

In Antrim County, members of the Proud Boys volunteered at an event featuring GOP Senate candidate John James. State Rep. Triston Cole, R-Antrim County, told Interlochen Public Radio that “while he doesn’t agree with the Proud Boys on some of their views, he doesn’t have any problem engaging them on common ground issues, like Second Amendment Rights.”

This kind of normalization of hate groups is incredibly dangerous. The Proud Boys is a violent, racist, antisemitic group. They are experts in nothing except how to say the right buzzwords when questioned about their status as a hate group. The word for it these days is “gaslighting,” and the Michigan chapter of the Anti-Defamation League is onto them.

“I think it’s really crucial for people to understand what the ideology is,” said Carolyn Normandin, Michigan’s regional director of the ADL. “If a member of one of these groups pushes forward one sentence that they agree with, they don’t realize that standing behind that one sentence is an entire ideology that is offensive and vile.”

Normandin said the ADL is aware that “extremist groups are active in Michigan,” and they’re working with communities all over the state “to understand who they are and what they espouse. And it’s very, very troubling.”

AntiSemitism Project Logo

But why is this particular hate group focusing on Michigan right now in their attempts to appear mainstream? Normandin has a few theories, including Michigan’s open-carry law, which attracts extremist groups.

“We’re in the Midwest, so it’s easy to get here from a number of states. And if you see these groups, some of them, they go from place to place, just to sow discord,” Normandin said. “Michigan also has a very diverse population. So that, combined with the fact that we have an open carry law, I think makes it comfortable for some of these hate groups to be here.”

With the Republican-led normalization of hate groups like the Proud Boys, or antisemitic conspiracy theories like QAnon, I see something even more ominous than run-of-the-mill swastika-and-hood hatred.

As President Trump attempts to firm up his authoritarian rule from the top, these groups are attempting it from below. As Jews, we know exactly what happens with upholding authoritarianism becomes considered a patriotic duty on the local level.

Today, we have already seen the unthinkable normalized. When racists, antisemites, and misogynists are on our local boards, pretending to be experts in Second Amendment law, it will just be a matter of time before they show up on the streets with guns to enforce an anti-Democratic vision of America.

In fact, it’s already happened. The Proud Boys were among the armed protesters who rallied in Lansing this summer, comparing the governor to a Nazi for her attempts to keep the state safe from COVID-19.

Unite Against Hate

Republicans and Democrats alike have an obligation to draw the line. And if you’re a Republican who believes in conservative interpretations of Second-Amendment rights, be careful who you’re in bed with. Those on the right who say we should just let it go for the greater good are just as misguided as those on the far left who fail to denounce antisemites because there are first other battles to fight. Whether you are left or right, hate must be denounced wherever it is found.

Normandin says that the ADL solution is to “push back” when they find out that political leaders have invited hateful groups to be part of the discussion.

“People have to stand up, even when it’s uncomfortable, even when it’s a relative, even when it’s a friend, a best friend or a neighbor. Because we’ve got to tell people that it’s not OK to promulgate hate. It’s just not,” Normandin said.

Standing up against hate is something that Commissioner Hentschel in Traverse City failed to do. I asked Hentschel whether the Proud Boys’ status as a hate group is something he should have been aware of before he let them speak.

“How would I be aware of … “ His voice trailed off, and he laughed. “There’s no way for us to track every special-interest group out there and what they believe and who these people are. That’s not the role of local government.”

I’d argue that, in these dangerous times when the White House is giving comfort to right-wing racist and antisemitic organizations, monitoring the activities of hate groups is precisely the role of local government and local citizens.

Howard Lovy is an editor and writer based in Traverse City. He is the former managing editor of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. You can find him at howardlovy.com or on twitter @howard_lovy.

2 COMMENTS

  1. “ This kind of normalization of hate groups is incredibly dangerous. The Proud Boys is a violent, racist, antisemitic group. They are experts in nothing except how to say the right buzzwords when questioned about their status as a hate group. The word for it these days is “gaslighting,” and the Michigan chapter of the Anti-Defamation League is onto them”

    The gaslighting accusation is rich, given the only evidence presented is a royal game of Telephone, “Psst! I heard they’re a hate group! Billy said so.”, all innuendo and guilt by association. (Richard Spencer currently endorses Democrats and Biden)

    You talk a good game, but it’s a thinner veneer than even Trump’s hyperbole.

  2. I agree with Howard. I saw a truck with a “Proud Boys” sticker yesterday. All these confederate flags and signs around here (Benzie County, MI) are making me nervous.

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