When the Proud Boys Go Marching In

Summer is the time when rural communities and small towns gather together for the traditional farmers markets, community festivals, and county fairs. After the COVID-19 shutdown, communities and fair boards have been grappling with whether it’s safe to gather, whether they can even get the required insurance to hold their events, and so on. Two communities in Southern Lane County have faced another unanticipated hurdle: how to avoid having your town’s festival co-opted by explicitly violent white nationalist organizations. From 4th of July to Bohemia Mining Days, it’s been one gathering after another that the Proud Boys and other violent white power gangs have attempted to take over or infiltrate, and in Creswell’s case, intentionally mimicking the community’s annual traditions and hiding behind “patriotism” and US flags.

Creswell is known for holding one of the largest 4th of July parades and celebrations in Oregon. Families gather from hours in each direction to take part. In 2020, the parade and celebrations were cancelled because of COVID-19. Similarly, this year the city decided against holding non-socially distanced gatherings. Enter the Proud Boys.

Proud Boys are known internationally as a violent white power gang who enthusiastically participated in the violence in Charlottesville and several have been arrested for their participation in the January 6th insurrection in Washington DC. They have recently pivoted to appear more friendly so they can enter local politics and contend for community decision-making power. More information can be found in this article from NPR.

The Proud Boys began announcing the “largest patriot gathering in Oregon” in Creswell on July 4th, publishing graphics on local social media that alarmed community leaders and confused many into thinking that their parade was the normal annual tradition hosted by the city. Instead, despite multiple warnings and the threat of citations, Proud Boys and supporters continued on.

On July 4th, the Proud Boys gathered a handful of handmade floats and tractors bearing signs that condemned masks, Governor Kate Brown, Agenda 21, and a number of other conspiracy theories. A crowd of a few hundred people watched, some from out of town to support the so-called patriots, some who were local supporters of the Proud Boys, and some who were genuinely confused and thought that the parade was the normal Creswell 4th of July celebration. County sheriffs, state troopers, and Department of Homeland Security were all over town because the parade was interfering with traffic on major streets and many community leaders had been receiving threats of violence. Some families who arrived wearing masks were harassed and screamed at until they felt unsafe and left. Proud Boys with bullhorns encouraged the crowd to gather outside of town for a “concert” and the so-called patriot meet-up. About 150 people gathered for speeches and live music, but reporters were not allowed on the property to learn more.

On July 5th, rumors began to spread that the same Proud Boys would be entering Cottage Grove’s Bohemia Mining Days parade. Community leaders reached out to the festival’s board and learned that this wasn’t a rumor: local Proud Boys were talking about entering and were given an application to participate in the parade.

This isn’t the first time the community of Cottage Grove was faced with the challenge of neo-Nazis and white nationalists trying to establish themselves in town and recruit folks from the community. In 2018, a neo-Nazi-owned knife shop that served as a regional white nationalist clubhouse and recruitment spot opened on the Main Street of Cottage Grove after relocating from nearby Creswell. Teachers, elected officials, business owners, and more organized business canvasses, community-building potlucks and movie nights, and educational events including a panel of Lane County faith leaders committed to building a hate-free community, gathered petition signatures, marched in the Bohemia Mining Days parade for migrant rights, and more for more than a year until the business closed down and left the community. More about that work can be found here.

Just like in 2019, the community of Cottage Grove joined together to respond; human dignity groups and the Earth and Social Justice Committee of the First Presbyterian Church of Cottage Grove reached out to their members. More than 100 community leaders, business owners, service agencies, faith leaders, and concerned neighbors wrote heartfelt letters to the Bohemia Mining Days festival Board of Directors, imploring them to uphold our shared community values and their commitment to coordinating a family-friendly event. 

Inspired into action because of the community’s outcry, a Bohemia Mining Days festival board member talked to the Proud Boys, who ultimately decided not to apply to be in the parade. The festival board didn’t have to make a decision this time, but it was clear that they needed to create a policy that would allow them to make the right decision for future festivals. Last weekend, the Bohemia Mining Days festival went off with few other hitches aside from an anti-vaccination booth sharing harmful disinformation about vaccines.

While the festival itself went well, Southern Lane County is still buzzing with conversation about how to prevent white power gangs from detracting from future family-friendly events. The folks who put together the unsanctioned 4th of July parade in Creswell have received $2,600 fines for interfering with traffic and are continuing to claim political martyrdom at the hands of an overbearing state. They’re planning another weekend of parading through Creswell, inspiring further frustration and fear in the Creswell community. Some Proud Boys leaders are publicly distancing themselves from the “national” Proud Boys, saying that the local Proud Boys are somehow different while continuing to post videos of themselves on July 4th throwing white supremacist hand signals while in their parade.

We’re curious about what’s happening in your community. Does this sound familiar to you? Are Proud Boys or other white supremacist organizations showing up at your community events, festivals, and fairs?

Does your local fair, festival, or community celebration have policies that allow them to make decisions that create a safe environment for the whole community?