Who Are Antifa and the Proud Boys? Portland Protests Explained

Clashes in Portland, Oregon between far-left antifa activists and the Proud Boys, a far-right group, descended into violence on Sunday, August 22, following separate protests by both groups.

Antifa is shorthand for anti-fascists, and as a group with no central leadership, is a general description for the far-left-leaning militant groups that resist neo-Nazis and white supremacists at demonstrations and other events.

Sunday's events marked the latest of a series of violent confrontations between both groups in recent years, most prominently in Oregon, Washington and New York.

Portland has been a center for clashes among the opposing groups in the past year as protests raged across the nation following the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer on May 25, 2020.

Sunday's demonstrations took place on the anniversary of a clash that became violent between right- and left-wing protesters in Portland following Floyd's death.

Here we take a closer look at both groups and their history.

Proud Boys and antifa in Portland protests.
Members of the Proud Boys clash with anti-fascist activists following a far-right rally on August 22, 2021 in Portland, Oregon. Mathieu Lewis-Rolland / AFP via Getty Images

Who Are Antifa?

The term "antifa" is short for "antifascist" and followers of the movement are focused on going against the view of those they deem fascist or white supremicist.

It is a decentralized movement whose ideologies are based on various left-wing causes, including communism, anarchism, and socialism.

The Congressional Research Service (CRS) of the U.S. Congress reported in 2018: "Adherents do not necessarily just hold these opinions, however. Among many other things, they may also support environmentalism, the rights of indigenous populations, and gay rights."

The roots of the antifa movement can be traced back to a period just after World War I when German and Italian leftists came together and fought against fascist gangs, a June 2021 article published by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) explains.

The 2018 CRS report said antiracist groups in the U.S., such as Anti-Racist Action (ARA), that took up antifa ideology in the late 1980s "embraced the international movement's provocative and occasionally criminal—even violent—tactics.

"A portion of antifa movement members are willing to commit crimes to promote their beliefs," the CRS report added.

The CSIS article from June 2021 explains that while many followers of the antifa movement do not support violence as the only or even main medium for opposing fascism, "they do view violence as a legitimate option."

The antifa movement in the U.S. became more prominent after violent clashes between white supremacists and their opponents in Charlottesville, Virginia on August 12, 2017.

The antifa movement saw increased national attention after a tweet on May 31, 2020 by former president Donald Trump said: "The United States of America will be designating ANTIFA as a Terrorist Organization."

Former U.S. Attorney General William Barr issued a statement at the time that read: "Legitimate protests have been hijacked by violent radical elements...the violence instigated and carried out by Antifa and other similar groups in connection with the rioting is domestic terrorism and will be treated accordingly."

However in September 2020, the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), Christopher Wray, said that while antifa activists were a serious concern, noting it was a "real thing," he clarified it is "not a group or an organization. It's a movement or an ideology," the Associated Press reported at the time.

Antifa activists in Portland.
Antifa activists hold signs during a counter-demonstration to far-right rally on August 22, 2021 in Portland, Oregon. Mathieu Lewis-Rolland / AFP via Getty Images

Who Are the Proud Boys?

According to a January 2021 report from the U.S. Department of Justice, the Proud Boys are a "nationalist organization."

They are self-described as a "pro-Western fraternal organization for men who refuse to apologize for creating the modern world; aka Western Chauvinists," the report said.

The 2021 report, which indicted two Proud Boys members for conspiracy and other charges related to the January 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol, explained that members of the group are often seen wearing the colors yellow and black and other clothing bearing Proud Boys-related logos and emblems.

Others associated with the Proud Boys have been charged in connection with the Capitol riot since late January, including in February and in March this year.

The Proud Boys were established in 2016 by Gavin McInnes, the Canadian-British co-founder of Vice Media. McInnes left Vice in 2008 and has had no involvement with the publication since, according to Vice. In 2018, he stepped down from his role as the leader of the Proud Boys following the advice of his legal team, the BBC reported in September 2020.

Accordig to the BBC, the group's name is a reference to a song from the musical version of Aladdin, the Disney animation film.

According to the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), a nonprofit civil rights advocacy group, members of the Proud Boys "regularly spout white nationalist memes and maintain affiliations with known extremists."

The SPLC claims the Proud Boys are known for "anti-Muslim and misogynistic rhetoric" and have "appeared alongside other hate groups at extremist gatherings."

The group has been banned from several major social media platforms including Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube.

In February 2021, the Proud Boys were classified as a terrorist entity by the Canadian government, noting the role the group played in the U.S. Capitol riot in January 2021.

The AP reported at the time that authorities in Canada were reported to have been monitoring and collecting evidence about the Proud Boys before the January riot and the event provided information that aided their decision to list the organization as a terrorist group.

Canada's Public Safety Minister Bill Blair said at the time: "Their intent and their escalation toward violence became quite clear."

Calling the terrorist designation "ridiculous," Enrique Tarrio, the chairman of Proud Boys, told the AP in February 2021: "There is no basis for it. It's [an] infringement of free speech rights. All the Canadian Proud Boys have ever done is go to rallies. They used what happened at the Capitol to push for this."

A Proud Boys member in Portland.
A member of the Proud Boys holds an American Flag during a far-right rally on August 22, 2021 in Portland, Oregon. Mathieu Lewis-Rolland / AFP via Getty Images