On the night of a recent Million MAGA March in Washington DC, a large man in a Proud Boys polo shirt runs at a Black woman from behind and punches her in the head. She falls to the pavement.
Russell Schultz sent video of the episode to CNN, saying the puncher should go to jail. The sentiment is a bit of a shift for Schultz, a former Proud Boy who’s been filmed in street brawls himself and who often shows up at protests in Portland, Oregon, with a giant black flag that reads, “F**K ANTIFA.”
The Proud Boys is the group President Donald Trump urged to “stand back and stand by” as he refused to condemn White supremacists during a political debate this fall. Members have become a recurring feature of political rallies across the country, whether at their own events, as counterprotesters at left-wing rallies or as “security” for other right-wing groups’ events. Some have been filmed getting into street fights.
Why do men join the Proud Boys? “Most of it is just to fight,” Schultz said. “They want to join a gang. So they can go fight antifa and hurt people that they don’t like, and feel justified in doing it.”
Last year, he was indicted for rioting after a brawl between far-right protesters and anti-fascists in Portland. He pleaded not guilty, and with another activist involved in the brawl – Joey Gibson of the right-wing group Patriot Prayer – he’s filed a federal lawsuit against the Multnomah County district attorney, claiming they’re being unfairly prosecuted because of their political beliefs. The case is pending.
Schultz, 51, joined the Proud Boys in the fall of 2017 and left in May 2019. He says he quit, but the Proud Boys say he was “kicked out.” His exit should not be interpreted as a total repudiation of all the Proud Boys stand for, or a new enlightened state opposed to all political violence. Schultz still shows up at rallies, and he’s still motivated by antipathy toward antifa. He defends his past actions with the Proud Boys, including violent threats, as justified to fight antifa. Or he dismisses them as just “jokes.”
The blurred line between what’s ironic and what’s sincere is a feature of the new far-right that was born on the internet in the Trump era. (Schultz said the word “joke” about three dozen times in the couple hours CNN interviewed him.) It’s harder for someone to be held accountable for what he believes if it’s not clear what, exactly, he believes. And it allows him to try on a persona with the safety valve of being able to say later it was all fake.
In person, Schultz is mild-mannered and polite. In his old Proud Boys videos, he’s menacing. He now says he was just emulating the promo videos of professional wrestlers.
In 2017, Schultz was at a free speech rally with Patriot Prayer. “All (of a) sudden fights are breaking out all over the place, and here come marching across a field are these guys in black-and-yellow-striped polos,” Schultz said. “And it, to me, it just looked like something from ‘Braveheart.’”
They were the Proud Boys. The “first degree” of membership in the Proud Boys is to declare you are one, which Schultz later did. The second degree is to be punched while reciting the names of five breakfast cereals, which he did, too.
“It was just a joke. No one hits hard,” Schultz says. “The five breakfast cereals is a joke that’s supposed to emulate getting beat into a gang. You know, it is just a spoof, a parody, but it got taken too far.”
Here’s another supposed joke: An ex-member recently said on the encrypted messaging app Telegram that he was staging a coup so Proud Boys would no longer capitulate to the left: “We recognize that the West was built by the White Race alone and we owe nothing to any other race.” Proud Boys chairman Enrique Tarrio said there was no coup. Then both sides said they were just joking.
New wingmen and social media swagger
Schultz is Jewish and says he voted for Obama twice before voting for Trump twice. He liked the Proud Boys’ joking and the drinking. But he began to notice some patterns among those who joined. “They join the group now because it gives them a sense of belonging. They have this inner-person side that they want to be, but they’re afraid to be.
“They’re men who’ve never had wingmen before,” he says. “They’re afraid to say what’s on their mind for fear of getting into a fight. But if they have that guy or that group behind them, they’re more bold in saying what they think, because they think someone has their back. … The Proud Boys are the vehicle that attracts those people and accepts them in.”
In the fragments of his social media presence left behind from his Proud Boys days (he got kicked off Facebook and Instagram), Schultz’s on-screen presence suggests he’d found the confidence to be quite outspoken.
Ahead of what he called a “pro-Jesus march” in December 2018, Schultz posted a video warning antifa not to disrupt it. He says, in part:
“At the last rally I nearly ran over you with a car and I didn’t feel bad about it one bit. You’re lucky I didn’t kill you because I wouldn’t feel any remorse. …
“You shoot me with feces – I can’t prove – you can’t prove you didn’t put something in it like HIV. …
“I am going to shoot you. And here’s where the best part of the odds is, I still have a chance to fight for my freedom in court. You don’t have a chance to fight for your freedom cause you’re f**king dead. See I’m going to shoot you in the chest or your head. Center mass. …
“It might be in your best interest not to show up with feces infested with HIV, whatever it is, and live, live so you can see what we’re planning in 2019. Cause if you shoot us with feces there’s a good chance you might not survive to see 2019.”
When CNN said these looked like violent threats, Schultz defended them. “They are violent threats and it’s for good reason, too,” he said. “Antifa was saying they were going to come over and start throwing urine and feces on us. And so that was my way of saying, ‘OK, if you do that, that’s a threat.’ I don’t know if it was AIDS-tainted. And I made that threat so they wouldn’t come over. And they didn’t come over. So, it worked.”
Singled out by anti-fascist opponents
CNN reached out to Rose City Antifa, the Portland-area anti-fascist group, about these allegations. “No one from our organization threatened to throw poop at the Jesus thing. … Rose City Antifa has never put AIDS in poop. Nor am I certain how one would do so.”
This video had, in fact, been downloaded and posted by Rose City Antifa, which has been tracking Schultz for years. Though public protests are what get the most attention, most of what anti-fascists do – and Schultz agrees with this – is online. They research and document far-right activists they deem fascist and make that information public. This resulting document is called a doxx – which can be a simple collection of biographical details but often functions as a kind of indictment, listing specific acts of racism or misogyny, as well as associations with other people deemed fascist.
In Schultz’s case, they made fliers about him and posted them around his neighborhood and his local bar. “Violent Alt-Right Organizer In Your Area,” the flier’s headline reads.
“He was just one of the dudes in the crowd at rallies,” explained A., an activist with Rose City Antifa who would not give a full name. (The vast majority of anti-fascist activists are anonymous, they say out of fear of far-right violence.) “But outside of that context he’s much more vocal, especially on social media.” Schultz’s social media presence was one of the most remarkable things about him, A. said, in that he made explicit threats.
Schultz, in A.’s view, has “this ‘I’m an operator’ mindset that older right-wing men have. They get really into the idea (that) this is like their war – and thinking through and trying to get into the mind of the opposition.” It’s “very Rambo-y, but it also descends into a misogynistic and creeper vibe by listing all the terrible things they’re going to do to you.”
Included in Rose City Antifa’s doxx of Schultz is one of his old Facebook posts, which says, “Feminism only works on and when there are guys willing to F**K you.” Schultz said this, too, was just a joke, just trolling.
In fact, he had a reputation for being “good at trolling,” at saying things that would make antifa upset, Schultz said. Like what? “Like what you just mentioned, about women only have power as long as there’s men willing to – you know – which, coming from me, with two beautiful daughters, you know, it’s contrary to my whole life.”
He explained all of his past commentary by saying, “Anything I ever did that was incendiary was so that (antifa) would see it and react to it.”
He says he wanted more antifa activists to show up at right-wing rallies – not for the street battle, but for the more important media battle.
“I’m not baiting them into doing violence. I’m baiting them into showing up in enough numbers. Because when you see enough people in Black Bloc, people get scared,” Schultz said, referring to the activist tactic of wearing black clothes and face coverings to avoid identification. “The people that aren’t involved in (the protests), that don’t think about it – they see all these people looking like ISIS.”
Consequences of an abandoned joke
A., of Rose City Antifa, said they did monitor the videos Schultz and his comrades made as a way to gauge how many would turn out at their rallies and what their emotional state would be. They took note when a far-right activist would give away a little more operational detail than he should have.
“I think a lot of people assume the end goal of doxxing is to get Nazis to not be Nazis anymore by convincing them of the flaws of their ideology,” A. said. “That’s not necessarily the case.” There are other organizations that help deradicalize people. The main goal, A. said, is to provide a community resource to people directly affected by activists like Schultz and “then present clear obstacles to their continued organizing.”
Before speaking to CNN, A. said, Rose City Antifa went through their old doxxes. They see them as successful, particularly for the less prominent activists they’ve targeted. “The older and slightly more marginal types – they really do not come around anymore.”
Schultz says he quit the Proud Boys in 2019 for a couple of reasons. One, the men who wanted to climb the ranks of leadership were taking it too seriously, he says. They were making a more formalized national hierarchy, Schultz says, and he thought that would bring more intense scrutiny from law enforcement and reporters – and he worried that if one member committed a crime, they could all be liable for it. Schultz also felt pressure from one of his daughters to quit, he says.
The Proud Boys chairman says Schultz was “kicked out,” namely because he would “make a complete ass of himself” in videos on social media.
“Scorned ex-girlfriends are the worst. As soon as you break up with them, they want to lie to the world and say how small your equipment is,” Tarrio told CNN, in reference to Schultz. “Currently there is no criminal activity happening in the Proud Boys.”
Asked what Tarrio would say about him, Schultz said, “Oh, he’ll probably talk crap about me. I don’t care. … Enrique always deflects.”
As we watched the video of the man in the Proud Boys polo punch the woman in Washington, we asked Schultz: Did he feel like he helped bring the nation to this point, with his propaganda?
“Yeah. Honestly, I had a role in it. I never advocated for the violence to come out of it, though.”
In other words, he still says it was just a joke.