Proud Boys Came to D.C. for Violence, Not Peaceful Assembly

Matthew Koehler

For the second time in less than a month, the Proud Boys came to a traditionally Black city to stir up violence. Courtesy of Matthew Koehler

December 12, 2020, marked another intense night of protests and counter protests in Washington, D.C. Proud Boys and Trump supporters descended on District streets for the second time in less than a month, allegedly in support of a president who continues to lie that the 2020 election was fraudulent. The true motive of this rally, however, was made apparent by roving bands of Proud Boys looking for BLM protesters and ANTIFA to attack.

Both Proud Boys and Trump supporters, different but not mutually exclusive groups, came to D.C. back in mid November for a similar rally, which was mostly peaceful, until day turned to night and violence spread through the streets. This time, however, things were different. The violence started Friday night continuing throughout the day on Saturday, and intensifying as the night wore on. Proud Boys and Trump supporters actively sought out, often in full view of police, victims to attack.

As a resident and someone covering local stories for The Southwester newspaper, I wanted to observe and record what would become another historical moment of unmitigated violence in the city I’ve come to call home. For over five hours I moved between the roving bands of Proud Boys and Trump supporters and local counter protesters who were occupying Black Lives Matter (BLM) Plaza in order to protect it from vandalization.

Though mid December, the daytime temperatures hit the mid 60s — ideal for outdoor gatherings.The streets around the National Mall, closed by MPD, were empty of vehicle traffic. There was a perceptible thrum in the air.

Speeches and music permeated the air around the congressional end of Pennsylvania Avenue. I jogged up the street and blended into the flow of foot traffic heading back towards the White House and downtown.

If you’ve never been to D.C., Pennsylvania Avenue is a wide 1.2 mile stretch between the White House and the U.S. Capitol. There is a protected bike lane down the middle of the road.

People were upbeat and festive. Some had costumes on. Others were selling Trump merchandise. At 7th and Pennsylvania Ave, one of the major arteries into downtown, camped out in the wide bike lane, a pro Trump hip hop track blasted from loudspeakers. The “DJ” was being interviewed by someone I’m sure I’ve seen on Twitter but couldn’t place.

I cut north at 11th Street, another major artery, and encountered my first large group of Proud Boys and more Trump supporters at Hotel Harrington. I’d seen them there the night before. The entire block outside the hotel was blocked by city vehicles and police cruisers. Groups of people were crowded around Harry’s Restaurant, which had been friendly to the same groups of rally goers the month before. It was packed. Few people wore masks, distancing was non-existent.

From there, I headed towards BLM Plaza. Around three blocks away, I ran into the first police line. Thousands of Trump supporters and Proud Boys shouted insults across the line at counter protesters in the park. The man next to me challenged the people on the other side to cross the line, calling them “ANTIFA faggots.”

Moving through the crowd of MAGA protesters and Proud Boys, I overheard more bravado and calls for banding together to find some counter protesters to beat up.

After about 20 minutes with the pro Trump faction, officers — a mix of National Park Police (NPS), MPD, and SWAT — calmly gave everyone 3–4 polite warnings that they were about to move the line back to put more distance between the two groups. Once authorities started the “Move Back!” chant and march, everyone respected the push. People tripped over each other, the media and others recording the protest/rally tripped over each other, then they tripped over police bicycles, but officers remained exceptionally tolerant and even helped people up. I got the impression that the police were treating this side of the protest with kid gloves.

Right before the police could finish establishing the new line, a large Proud Boy came out of nowhere and sucker punched someone with long hair (I’d been live-streaming up to this point and caught the scuffle on camera). Police tackled him and took him away. I lost sight of the long-haired person as she or he was subsumed by police officers and taken somewhere else.

Attack comes after the 4:10 minute mark

I’d seen from previous all-day protests, the activity and violence always ebbs and flows, but usually starts to ramp up the longer people stay out — especially once it gets dark. This time, like the rally in mid November, it became a competition between two opposing factions that, based on environmental pressures and incentives, battled it out for supremacy. And it was a battle. There were skirmishes, regrouping, full scale assaults, taunts, and retreats. There were even field medics, a constant at the protests all summer. In between these two warring organisms, a fluid wall of federal enforcers — a third faction — who themselves ebb and flow with the energy of the protest.

After moving through the streets in an attempt to reach BLM Plaza, to observe the protest from the other side, I saw groups of Proud Boys coming in and out of an alley. They were looking for a way to breach police lines and attack groups of ANTIFA (ANTIFA was there but they were outnumbered by BLM counter protesters).

This is where I first encountered Proud Boys moving in and out of an ally, looking for way to attack counter protesters.

I followed them through an alley, stepping over streams of urine coming from men relieving themselves on the sides as hundreds of other people walked by. There are no public restrooms downtown, and rally-goers had been out all day. Many publicly consuming alcohol.

The contingent of Proud Boys moved south towards the White House chanting “Fuck ANTIFA!” They split off into smaller groups and went “hunting” down other streets, until they reformed, swarming a small group of young women around Freedom Plaza. The young women accused the Proud Boys of being racist thugs, shouting, “Why are you walking with racists?” They shouted back and forth, with the now growing group of Proud Boys and Trump supporters surrounding the young women. There was a heated verbal sparring match until the police came in and pushed the young counter protesters back.

I followed a "band" of Proud Boys down to Freedom Plaza where they engaged a small handful of counter protesters. Interaction with the counter protesters comes several minutes in.

That’s when I ran into Mr. “BLM (Biden Loves Minors)” Electric Scooter Guy (had a sign taped to a wooden handle strapped to his back). He asked if I was going to post all this on social media in the morning and what bias I was going to print. “You know you all spin the news,” he informed me. I asked him if he wanted to talk to me and tell his story. He rode off.

Around this time, I came upon a peculiar sight — something I’d observed out of the corner of my eye up until that point but hadn’t put into words — a group of Proud Boys and Trump supporters surrounding a police cruiser and speaking amicably with the officer inside. You could hear one of the speakers saying, “Back the blue,” and “We’re on your side.” The officer acknowledged the support. the incident mentioned above, the Proud Boys gathered around this MPD cruiser and spoke with the officer inside. This "buddy buddy" friendliness was not extended to counter protesters.

According to other reporters and observers, as well as what I consistently witnessed, police giving Proud Boys the benefit of the doubt seemed the norm.

To be fair, counter protesters continually hurled/threw/yelled insults at the police. There was no love lost between BLM protesters and police over the summer, but objectively, police aren’t supposed to play favorites. Since the ongoing protests erupted after the killing of George Floyd, police have been recorded in various cities across the United States, including in D.C. (the infamous Lafayette Square protest comes to mind, among others), violently attacking peaceful protesters. There was one incident during the height of the summer when police ransacked a food and first aid tent at BLM Plaza.

Police only seemed to go after Proud Boys when they broke police lines and attacked BLM counter protesters. Even then, time and again, police went after and arrested counter protesters while letting Proud Boys and Trump supporters retreat back to their side. Every time the Proud Boys broke through lines and started fights, as soon as the police arrived, they’d start shouting “Back the blue!”

When I first got to BLM Plaza, it was relatively calm except for volleys of insults being traded by Trump supporters and counter protesters at the Capitol Hilton. Chants of “USA!”, the National Anthem, and even Christmas jingles were lobbed back and forth along with the ubiquitous expletives.

Trump supporters and BLM counter protesters square off in a verbal shouting match before counter protesters moved back to BLM Plaza to "secure it" before Proud Boys broke through and attacked.

Walking back down to the barricades at Lafayette Park, I grabbed a water and chatted with another freelance journalist, who, like me, unaffiliated with any major news network was out recording. Then the shouting started and people began running towards the north end of BLM Plaza. Fights had broken out. Proud Boys and Trump supporters charged through the police line while others snuck through an alley, attacking counter protesters.

Before the most significant of the brawls started, I came upon a young Black man who was tackled by police officers, frisked, then let go without explanation. As the police ran to contain other fights, he chased them asking whether or not they were going to arrest him.

At the north end of BLM Plaza, was the bigger brawl. Several people were injured. A mix of Proud Boys, police, and counter protesters were in various stages of fighting with each other. People with cameras were rushing up and down the street to record more than half a dozen fights. It was chaos. Protests/rallies that turn violent like this, though, are always chaos. Once the first punch is thrown and there’s a pile on, people get tunnel vision, running towards or away from wherever the most action is.

After several intense minutes of fighting, police and BLM counter protesters repelled the Proud Boy attack. Some people were being taken away. Others were being seen by the street medics.

Police forces, now in full riot gear, capped off BLM Plaza. They were letting people in but not out. To leave you had to exit the southwest side of BLM Plaza and keep heading west until you were far enough outside the police lines to walk all the way around the affected area. The police line went almost all the way to Thomas Circle, several blocks northeast of the White House. Here, I ran into groups of people getting into more skirmishes with the police line only a hundred feet away.

Small groups of Proud Boys chased local cyclists doing tricks in the street, who, in-turn, lobbed insults of their own. Proud Boys called them “Faggots” again and again, challenging them to come back.

At one point, I pulled someone getting beat up by a group of Proud Boys out of the pile on. Other Proud Boys tossed fireworks from across the street. People dispersed quickly after trading a few more insults.

Emptied out after this exchange, I continued home. Pennsylvania Avenue was still blocked off to vehicle traffic. It was dark, desolate except for that same thrum of energy. Only a few blocks back the way I had come, sounds of the amorphous battle between two opposing factions, one hellbent on destruction and the other focused on protecting their murals, their places of gathering, and their city, continued. The violence went on long after I made it home. A BLM banner was ripped down at Asbury United Methodist Church and burned. Four people got stabbed. A few dozen BLM counter protesters were arrested. The Proud Boys went home, successful in their mission to sow chaos. Et cetera ad infinitum.

Back in Southwest, I thought about how this whole weekend was manufactured by misinformation, lies, and the fragile ego of one president on his way out of office. The Proud Boys descended on D.C. lubricated by all this misinformation, no longer standing back nor standing by, but playing out a violent dystopian fantasy where everyone who wasn’t them was an enemy combatant who deserved no quarter.

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