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Inside St. Louis' Proud Boys, the Far-Right Frat Accused of Fascism 

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A business partner outed Mike Lasater as a Trump voter. - DANNY WICENTOWSKI
  • A business partner outed Mike Lasater as a Trump voter.

Lasater says his path to far right began rather far on the left. He voted for Obama in 2008 as a "socialist-leaning Democrat," but his politics shifted as he started watching Fox News. He says found himself agreeing with what he saw on the channel, and eventually came to understand that much of what he'd assumed about Republicans were lies woven by the real bullies: the left.

In November 2017, Lasater underwent the first degree of the Proud Boy initiation — recording himself stating the pledge, "I am a Western chauvinist, and I refuse to apologize for creating the modern world."

The second degree, also filmed, involves a mock brawl that doesn't stop until the initiate can recite the names of five breakfast cereals. According to Lasater, it's meant to be a parody of gang culture, that age-old test of loyalty wherein a new member is beaten senseless by his soon-to-be brethren. In the Proud Boy version, the punches are usually thrown at low strength, and the only test is one of total cereal recall under physical duress. Also, everyone involved is drunk.

The filmed scenes of this ritual are exceedingly strange, clip after clip of a young drunk man declaring "The West is the best" before getting lightly pummeled by a circle of other drunk young men. At times, the initiate is laughing while gasping the names, "Cinnamon Toast Crunch! Cheerios! Frosted Flakes!"

"Our cereal beat-ins are our wackiest thing," concedes Rohlfing.

Of those present, he's the only Proud Boy who's managed to attain the third degree, which simply requires getting a "Proud Boy" tattoo. The fourth degree is reserved for the fighters, those Proud Boys who have "endured a major conflict related to the cause." Lasater says no one in St. Louis has attained that distinction.

As for "Western chauvinism," Lasater claims the phase isn't intended to evoke swashbuckling misogyny, but rather a kind of unapologetic patriotism.

"We are far right. Far right is an appropriate designation for us," he insists. Still, he maintains there's a difference between the Proud Boys' vision of Western culture and the ideas trafficked by the far far-right, those explicitly racist and neo-Nazi groups who utilize the term as a usefully neutered stand-in for concepts of white supremacy.

But on this Friday night, amid all the shifting semantics, the Proud Boys at times struggle to define their own terms. "Western civilization," the object of their patriotic chauvinism, seems to cover America's accomplishments and recede at the edges of its failures. Capitalism? That's Western civilization. So too is the moon landing.

Even enshrining a woman's right to vote, they claim, is part of Western civilization. Lasater notes that the triumph of women's suffrage (enacted more than a century after the signing of the Declaration of Independence) was an example of progress that wasn't "forced," but was rather ushered by "men that thought it was important, saw it as an injustice and made that correction."

Above all, they seem most committed to the concept of not apologizing.

"You can move forward without having to sit back and whine about the past," adds Rohlfing. "It's time to look forward and see that Western civilization is the best civilization."

To the Proud Boys, perhaps, this rhetoric is compelling, but outside the bubble of the group, that sort of convoluted jargon — "No, see, what chauvinism really means ..." — requires an audience willing to accept its definitions.

Lasater brings up an April Proud Boys meet-up at Keyper's Piano Bar.

"It was my first experience being recognized as a Proud Boy," he says. "'This girl comes up to us, and she's like, 'You guys are fucking Nazis.'"

Nazis. Fascists. Racists. By April, the labels were following the Proud Boys around St. Louis. Local Antifa groups mounted a campaign of public shaming, outing Proud Boys in widely shared Facebook posts. After they were spotted at Keyper's, Antifa shared a Facebook post targeting the gay bar. One flyer summarized the anti-fascist campaign in three succinct exclamations: "Boycott! Downvote! Disrupt!"

Back at Tuckers, Friday night is winding down. Outside the bar, a third Proud Boy is talking about how the group is a brotherhood — the first time he put on the black polo, he says, "I felt like I became a man" — when the door from the inside opens.

"I don't mean to interrupt, but what organization are you guys?" The question comes from a middle-aged man. He doesn't sound drunk. He sounds serious, and somewhat wary.

Rohlfing launches into the Proud Boy spiel. "We're a pro-West organization," he says. "We love America. We love Trump mostly. When it comes to things like masculinity, just being men, we promote family values."

Lasater adds, "We're always looking for more people if you're interested."

But the man is not interested in taking the pledge as a chauvinist and reciting breakfast cereals. He says he's a Trump supporter himself, but he'd only heard about the Proud Boys after they brought controversy to a nearby deli. The man tells the Proud Boys that the deli owners had received messages threatening to burn down their restaurant, even death threats, after "anti-racists" discovered the far-right group was meeting there.

"I've been hearing a lot of bad things, and I'm not respectful to that," the stranger says.

The three Proud Boys take turns responding over the next several minutes, explaining that the threats came from "crazy leftists" and communists who want to "destroy America and everything it stands for."

Soon, the man seems less wary of the Proud Boys. His demeanor changes, less an interrogator than someone genuinely confused, or lost, like a motorist asking for directions on a strange country road.

"Tell me," he asks the Proud Boys, "Who are these anti-racists?"

The River Des Peres Yacht Club's business took a dive after its association with Proud Boys took it in Antifa's crosshairs. - TOM HELLAUER
  • The River Des Peres Yacht Club's business took a dive after its association with Proud Boys took it in Antifa's crosshairs.

The River Des Peres Yacht Club is not an actual boating club, of course. The deli is located just north of its namesake, a waterway that once functioned as the city's open sewer and now flows only when filled with storm water or runoff.

The name is a St. Louis inside joke, an ironic note for a blue-collar shop known for its sandwiches. But in July, the place gained a wave of new attention not for its food, but for serving the Proud Boys.

After being outed at Keyper's, the Proud Boys fled south, to what they'd hoped could be their new meeting place. (Among other reasons, a Proud Boy worked there as a bartender.) But word quickly got out, and on July 19, more than a dozen activists flooded into the sandwich shop.

Facing the owners behind the counter, the group demanded "physical follow-through" to reports that they had agreed to ban Proud Boys from holding meetings at the shop. The protesters delivered a statement, a copy of which was later posted to the Facebook group Community Power Network St. Louis.

"You have made it clear that because of a massive display of outrage from the community that you no longer wish to be affiliated with or host Proud Boys in your establishment," the message began.

Previously, it continued, the owners had agreed to put a sign in their window to demonstrate that their former customers were now barred. The activists had brought just such a sign, printed out on separate sheets of paper and then taped together to make a glossy final product. "Proud Boys Not Welcome," it proclaimed, followed by "Keep Our Communities Safe" and "No Fascists In Our Neighborhood."

Up until that day, the campaign to drive the Proud Boys from the Yacht Club had been waged almost entirely online. The statement described the sign's manifestation as a victory in "the ongoing war with the enemies of the working class."

"We hope the River Des Peres Yacht Club keeps their word and continues to not allow fascists to organize under their watch," the statement concluded. Then the protesters simply left, positioning the small black sign in the window. The next day, it was gone.

On a recent afternoon, Yacht Club co-owner Cindy Delgado rummages through some shelves in the break room behind the kitchen, finally finding the sign that the Antifa delegation pushed on her in July.

"It seemed like an ambush," she says. "They didn't call and ask for a moment of our time. They just showed up."

By the time the protesters arrived at the deli in person, the Yacht Club had already been slammed with hundreds of comments and an army of one-star reviews accusing the owners of supporting the Proud Boys.

Delgado's husband and fellow co-owner, Michael Sullivan, was working behind the counter with her on the day they showed up in person. "I felt like I was bullied," he says. He is the one who took the sign out of the window.

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