SEATTLE - A leader of the Proud Boys, the far-right organization emboldened by President Donald Trump to "stand back and stand by," said the group's mission is to combat left-wing insurrection in the increasingly volatile culture wars leading to the November election.
Joe Biggs, a Florida-based organizer for the male-only group known for street violence, said in a phone interview Wednesday that he was encouraged by Trump's comments during Tuesday's presidential debate when the president avoided condemning far-right and white supremacist groups.
Biggs, who helped organize a rally Saturday in Portland, Oregon, said that condemning the social justice protests erupting nightly in that city is key to his group's national strategy of thwarting Black Lives Matter and the leftist, anti-fascist movement known as antifa. Members of the Proud Boys, considered a hate group by organizations that track the far right, have battled leftists there repeatedly in the last few years.
"Portland is the main center of insurrection around the country," Biggs said, adding that his members were prepared to return "if we continue to see these insurrections going unchecked."
The statement by Trump - who said antifa and left-wing activists were a mounting threat to American cities - was celebrated on social media channels frequented by neo-Nazis and white supremacists. Commenters regarded the president's remark as an endorsement and a call to action.
Trump sought to walk back his statement Wednesday after criticism from fellow Republicans. "I don't know who the Proud Boys are," he said, responding to a reporter's question on the White House lawn before departing on a campaign trip to Minnesota. "I can only say they have to stand down, let law enforcement do their work."
Started in 2016 by Vice Media co-founder Gavin McInnes as a "men's drinking club," the Proud Boys bills itself as a group of "Western chauvinists" who believe in free speech, gun rights and closed borders and oppose racial guilt and political correctness. They have become a mercurial, hard-to-define, flag-waving shock force for conservatives.
The group has organized rallies in Portland and other cities, calling on police to be more aggressive against left-wing activists. Members of the group participated in a pro-Trump truck caravan that turned violent in downtown Portland on Aug. 29, when a follower of another right-wing group, Patriot Prayer, was fatally shot.
Joanna Mendelson, associate director of the Anti-Defamation League's Center on Extremism, said the Proud Boys is an unconventional far-right faction, bragging of a membership representing a range of ethnic backgrounds.
"Proud Boys have carved out this niche for themselves as both this right-wing fight club and a volunteer security force for the GOP," she said. "And they purposely organize and act in a manner that will all but guarantee violence."