Act 1: When We Didn’t Know

We used to make fun of their house. We would ride our bikes by on a Friday night and stick up our middle fingers and laugh at them if they were out on their porch. Once, one of my friends stole the Skrewdriver flag from their front yard. They had security cameras all over the property; we knew they had plenty of guns inside. We were playing with fire, and we liked it. It was fun.

The Vinlanders Social Club claimed to be a men’s club obsessed with Nordic traditions. Founded by Brien James, who was rumored to have been kicked out of the Outlaw Hammerskins for being too violent, and Eric Fairburn, who memorably had M-U-R-D-E-R tattooed across his neck, the Vinlanders were clearly a white power group, and no one thought otherwise.

Sometime in the mid-2000s, the Vinlanders bought a house in Indianapolis just a few blocks from mine. They put up their flags like they were staking out their territory—sometimes they flew just a Confederate flag, sometimes other flags emblazoned with vague racist or nationalist iconolatry, sometimes the Nazi flag, sometimes the Skrewdriver flag.

They would show up around the neighborhood every couple weeks, over by Lo-Bills or the Rent-a-Center, flashing their tattoos, lacing their boots in one way or another to show their various allegiances. Sometimes they started fights at shows, they handed out flyers covered with spelling mistakes and racial slurs, but mostly they were fighting with each other, calling each other “pussy.” The Vinlanders seemed to be endlessly drunk and forever posing for pictures, shirts off, showing off their tattoos in their backyard, over by their collapsing privacy fence, next to their overflowing trash bins. They were, honestly, ridiculous.

And then they started killing people.

Most of us in white America didn’t see the rise of the alt-right and of undaunted, normalized racism coming. We also weren’t looking.

I was at home rocking my newborn when three Vinlanders were drinking at an Irish pub a few miles away and attacked a black man. They beat him unconscious in the middle of the street and witnesses said threatened to kill all the bystanders who were scrambling for their phones to call the police. Over the next few years, their ideology spread and they became more violent. Eric Fairburn (after being released for beating the man downtown) was re-arrested for the murder of another man. Vinlander Adrian Apodaca was convicted in a murder-for-hire plot. Two others were just released this summer after a mistrial, accused of murdering a white woman because she was dating a black man. Brien James, who I sometimes saw shopping at Kmart on Southern Avenue, became a suspect in the near-death beating of a fellow white nationalist over disagreements on how their organizations should be run.

My riding by and flipping them the bird was barely heroic—in fact, the reason I am writing this is precisely because it wasn’t. That was 2006 or so, before Trump. Even before Obama. I didn’t take these guys seriously; in the Midwest, everyone like me had at least one cousin like this. They were buffoons and lived on the fringes of our existence. I assumed they were a throwback to a hideous yesteryear. I lived in a very white and very straight world—I had no idea how harmful or dangerous these guys could be. After all, it wasn’t me they were after.

I’m not alone. Most of us in white America didn’t see the rise of the alt-right and of undaunted, normalized racism coming. We also weren’t looking. But I lived right where these groups were trying to grow their base: my poor, working-class, and nearly all-white neighborhood with our crumbling houses, minimum-wage jobs, and busted chain link fences. It was a prime location for racist skinheads to recruit. I moved out of that neighborhood not because I didn’t love and feel deep fellowship with my non-Vinlander neighbors, but because I knew that being poor and having a white son in a neighborhood like that made him vulnerable to the rage. They were there to feed off our misfortunes.

I’ve watched guys get recruited into these scenes over the years. The Midwest has this incredible way of making you feel small; it’s something about that huge open sky and the sprawling, endless, broken-down cities. Girls fall into crap marriages, and guys fall into whoever is going to tell them they have meaning that reaches beyond their Rust Belt lives.

Act 2: When We Didn’t Care

I have since moved back to the South, a place I cherish and an identity I claim. I love the South dearly. I love the way dusk falls on tobacco and dust falls on the road behind you when you’re driving home. The air feels lighter to me down here, but the history heavier. To be white, working-class, and Southern comes with a huge responsibility. We live within a referendum on race.

Just 30 minutes north of my home in Greensboro, the reported imperial wizard of the Ku Klux Klan peddles hate literature and sells Klan memberships out of his rented house in Pelham (when he’s not in jail for DUI). And 30 minutes west of me, the state chairman of the League of the South makes podcasts about building a fascist movement in downtown Kernersville. Because of history, white folks in the South have a duty to refute this legacy. Sometimes it feels cumbersome, like an albatross; sometimes it feels like a great honor to hold this point of change in our hands.

The rest of the country likes to—perhaps needs to—think of the South as a hugely backward place, in the style of Dukes of Hazzard or, worse, Deliverance. But the South I know is a community of queers and transfolk, immigrants and refugees. One yard up the street from me is planted entirely with Thai basil instead of grass and my neighbor gives me tomato seeds that come from his daddy’s sharecropping days. Here, we are mismatched and scrappy, imperfect and great.

Much of the new South is like this. Small cities like Siler City, where white supremacist David Duke once rallied in an anti-immigrant fervor, have been re-energized by newcomers. It’s now alive with mariachi bands and brightly painted “tiendas” that saved the town from economic collapse. Mountain towns like Jefferson have an elderly couple who survived the Holocaust homesteading on its outskirts, and coastal towns like New Bern have Burmese grandmothers teaching Baptist moms to make ngapi.

When I woke the other morning to see that a local tattoo artist had posted a hate group tattoo in his gallery of recent works, I knew exactly what that meant and who that threatened. I love the South, my neighborhood, and my family. I love our gardens and our mosque and our churches and the Honduran car repair place. I love my neighbor who leans over his children playfully in the yard and makes a tent out of his dreads for them to play in.

This is my community and supremacists are not welcome here.

No one is claiming that the tattoo artist committed these crimes. After all, his alibi is solid; he was busy tattooing hate symbols on someone’s forearm.

I’m not going to name the artist who did the tattoo because I’m interested in discussing complicity in a way that goes beyond the confines and trench-digging, of my hometown. What matters most is how he responded to being told he had done a hate group’s tattoo: He told us he didn’t care. “It’s not my tattoo, so why do I care?” he wrote in several places before he fell to public pressure and apologized.

The thing is, I don’t think we get to not care. Two days before he inked the “Proud Boy” tattoo, a white gunman tried to get into an African-American church in Kentucky and ended up shooting two people of color in a grocery store, one of them a black grandfather shopping with his grandson. The same day the tattoo was posted to social media and hashtagged with the dog whistle #ProudBoys, a man in Florida was being arrested for mailing bombs to leftist targets. While the tattoo artist was using a laughter emoji to respond to those questioning him, 11 people were murdered in their Pittsburgh synagogue by a white supremacist.

No one is claiming that the tattoo artist committed these crimes. After all, his alibi is solid; he was busy tattooing hate symbols on someone’s forearm. No one believes these men who attacked and killed people had anything to do with each other directly (the extremist alt-right communities are notoriously fragmented and divided). Even the subjects of the tattoo—the Proud Boys—seem to position themselves above this general white supremacist fray. They claim to be somehow both the upstanding gentleman and the belligerent brawlers of the alt-right movement.

Act 3: When We Couldn’t Name It

Before Gavin McInnes founded the Proud Boys, he co-founded Vice Media and earned the title of “The Godfather of Hipsterdom.” McInnes is keenly aware of a toxic, binary ideology that has come to define modern American politics and that language is central to that environment. Relying heavily on double-dealing rhetoric, he wants Proud Boys to seep into the cracks that form through this tension.

Liberal and progressive white people always relied heavily on the trope of bigots being ridge-runners and backwoods hillbillies, probably as a way to distance themselves and signal their “differences.” McInnes seems well aware of this and is actively trying to create an alternative supremacist that can’t be pegged, one that fits into an edgy popular culture.

Proud Boys are vocal in their dislike of bumbling Klansmen and goose-stepping Nazis. They want to make clear that they are not your Snuffy Smith racists of yesteryear. Proud Boys present themselves as today’s hate group sophisticates, smoking cigars after office jobs and putting back a few craft beers with the boys. They boast that they are not an all-white organization nor segregationists, but instead simply believe in the supremacy of “white Western culture.” As a result, Proud Boys have a handful of men of color in their ranks who seem to have been drawn in by the rampant misogyny and the promise of joining white cultural supremacy, somehow ignoring the inherent racism in doing so.

Their proclamations are rarely corroborated by the actions of rank-and-file Proud Boys who ceaselessly post racial slurs on white nationalist internet pages and regularly show up at white nationalist rallies serving as the muscle to protect the supremacists (Charlottesville “Unite the Right” organizer Jason Kessler was a Proud Boy).

The Proud Boys believe that apologizing for their superiority — their maleness and their white culture — shows weakness and that any movements that hope to shift power away from them are the enemy.

McInnes doesn’t really even seem to believe his own claims about the organization: He announced the founding of the group in Taki’s Magazine, a far-right publication that also regularly publishes Richard Spencer and Jared Taylor. In the same breath he disavows déclassé racists, he will claim, “I don’t want our culture diluted. We need to close the borders now and let everyone assimilate to a Western, white, English-speaking way of life.”

If Brien James and the Vinlanders were bottom feeders, then McInnes and the Proud Boys are designed to feed off the darker angels of mainstream white America: the jaded suburban boys who felt they were promised more than the dull pencil-pushing lives they now lead. Proud Boys unapologetically describe themselves as “Western chauvinists,” and unapologetic is the point. They believe that apologizing for their superiority—their maleness and their white culture—shows weakness and that any movements that hope to shift power away from them are the enemy. While they are quick to point out that they hate both the Klan and Nazis, Proud Boys seem singularly focused on physically attacking antifascists, socialists, anarchists, and people of color.

For years, McInnes had a reputation of being somewhere between a shock jock and a comedian, and he is purposefully evasive in his language. Railing against politically correct culture ad nauseum, he insists that Proud Boys are pro-women and it is feminists who are attacking women’s rights. Liberals are the racists for insisting on affirmative action that hurts black people who can’t achieve. “Western chauvinism” is progressively pro-gay because it is anti-Islamic backwardness. The act of calling out hate speech is hate speech. Raping a woman with short hair is actually her raping you because it’s like having sex with a boy. You’re a racist if you think saying the n-word is a slur. You’re a bitch if you think calling you a bitch is bitchy.

There is nothing to apologize for, everything turns around, everything is gaslit, if you call it gaslighting you’re gaslighting, ceci n’est pas une pipe, ceci n’est pas fascism. McInnes packages his anti-PC rhetoric as something new and edgy, but of course it’s the most antiquated view out there: If you are offended, then maybe you need to learn how to take a joke.

If you work through McInnes’ nearly two decades of progressively provocative and increasingly hate-filled writing and “humor,” or listen to the hours upon hours of his show and media interviews, it starts to matter less and less if Proud Boys are nationalists or racists or homophobes or what their actual politics are. Their purpose is plainly to obliterate opposition using age-old practices of minimizing, verbal abuse, and ultimately, physical assault. The space they are trying to create is violent and soulless and without standards or ethics or care. It the type of space preordained to be dominated by those who already have power.

McInnes says “faggot” isn’t hate speech; it’s what you call a man who cries.

Beyond this duplicitous ideological wordplay, the one solid and consistent piece of the Proud Boys is their cardinal insistence on violence. McInnes, on his own show, drops his chicanery: “We will kill you. That’s the Proud Boys in a nutshell. We will kill you.” McInnes frequently encourages violence in his speaking and writing, especially against Muslims and immigrants, but honestly, against whomever: “Choke a motherfucker. Choke a bitch. Choke a tranny,” he says on the show.

And Proud Boys do. Proud Boy fights against protesters have become commonplace at rallies around immigration or race since Trump’s election. Proud Boys were among the group arrested for attacking DeAndre Harris in Charlottesville, beating him with poles, metal pipes, and wooden slabs. Two weekends ago, brawls with Proud Boys broke out on opposite coasts in Portland and New York City. Video from the New York sidewalk outside the venue where McInnes was speaking shows Proud Boys repeatedly kicking a protester in the head while yelling, “Faggot. Faggot. Foreigner. Faggot.”

McInnes, of course, won’t apologize. He says “faggot” isn’t hate speech; it’s what you call a man who cries. He says the man on the sidewalk was crying.

In this America, when you don’t care, you are siding with the oppressor.

Act 4: When We Now Know

The third step in becoming a Proud Boy, apparently, is to get the Proud Boy tattoo. The fourth step is to “engage in a major conflict for the cause.”

The first step my hometown needs to take is to state clearly and without caveat that hate is not welcome here.

Unfortunately, that is not what’s been done. The response of the Greensboro tattoo artist and many of his supporters mirrors the Proud Boy toxic brew of flippancy, dismissiveness, and intimidation. When a second shop discovered they had a self-professed Proud Boy working for them, they issued an apology, a mental health explanation for his behavior, and an assurance he had left the Proud Boys and that he is a really good guy (and then, they deleted the apology). Accusations that those who voiced concern about hate speech were just trying to cause problems and ruin careers, that they had hidden agendas or were being too sensitive, are the type of responses that evade the serious problems at hand by shifting the focus to those speaking out.

Others defended the tattoo artists because they knew them and liked them or their art personally. Even when astigmatic, the instinct to protect your friends is right and true. But so is the instinct to protect your community.

The problem is, in Trump’s America, whether you are branding your arm or defending your friend or silently standing by, you are always the soldier for someone’s cause. You can’t bow out. To actually be something of your own design—something relevant—you have to do something, not defect or deflect.

It is scary and uncomfortable and hard to be at odds with people in your community, to push into public debate, to embrace tension.

From our tattoo shops to our neighborhoods, we can choose to make it clear that hate is not welcome here. We can be articulate and clear and create communities very much the opposite of McInnes’ nebulous and ethically adrift wasteland. If we make our spaces explicitly safe for people of color, women, queers, and immigrants, then they become inhospitable to hatred. And we will not have to issue uncomfortable apologies or do damage control. If we do it before they come, they will not buy a house a few blocks from us, they will not fly their flags, and they will not hurt the people we love.

It is scary and uncomfortable and hard to be at odds with people in your community, to push into public debate, to embrace tension. I have done it imperfectly. But I have also made the mistake of not taking a hate group moving to my neighborhood seriously. At the time, I didn’t think about all the ways my silence, and that of my neighbors, made that possible. It is true that by now nearly all Vinlanders have gone to prison and are no longer a threat. Brien James somehow made it through and is no longer a Vinlander. In fact, he is now the Indiana representative for the Proud Boys.

I have seen the mistakes of my own inaction, but being able to take responsibility is one of the privileges of my life. I am older now and come to know the divinity of community. I have listened past my own echo to hear the calls of a thousand forests’ birds. I live in a world where caring is brave. And I won’t apologize.