Essay and Analysis
By Harrison Patino
Trump and tribalism in Hawaii
Proud Boys in Paradise
Photo Courtesy: Nich Ochs
Hear the Proud Boy oath
The National Proud Boy logo
Trump-aligned provocateurs establish themselves on Oahu
In the back room of a nondescript and shabby Korean restaurant, Nick Ochs – leader of one Honolulu’s most reviled conservative organizations – is ready to induct another brother into the Proud Boys’ ranks.
From atop his chair, Ochs stands above the chaos of the cramped room decorated with dozens of empty beer bottles and shot glasses and the burly, tattooed bunch that emptied them in the first place. For a group that stylizes itself as a “far-right drinking club” (instead of a Fascist goon squad of the New Right that so many fear them to be), they’re certainly doing their best to sustain the image of the former.
Ochs is quick to hush the shochu-fueled cacophony of conversation that fills the room (broaching topics ranging from gun control to a conspiracy that alleges German Chancellor Angela Merkel is the illegitimate child of Adolf Hitler). He wants to draw attention to the business of this meeting, which goes beyond downing booze and talking shit.
“Alright, alright," he says. "Everybody settle for just a second.” A few stifled dialogues persist, and he cuts those off in a firm but good-natured way: “Would you shut the fuck up for five seconds?”
He then sprouts a smile stretching ear to ear, to resounding laughter, and, after a pause for dramatic effect, guffaws with them. In the high spirits of the cramped booth, it’s easy to see why Ochs has risen to top dog. His gift for gab is clothed in a distinct Tarheel drawl, cradled at all times by the unwavering confidence and underpinned humility of a natural born leader which, to this rowdy band of unabashed, right-wing roughnecks, he absolutely is.
After all, of the 130,000 people in Hawaii who cast a red ballot for the 2016 Presidential election, voting "Trump," none more than Ochs has been as thoroughly invested in the ongoing campaign to “Make America Great Again.” So when Ochs talks, the Proud Boys listen.
From organizer of Trump's Hawaii campaign to Proud Boy leader
Following his stint as Vice Chair of Donald Trump’s Hawaii campaign, Ochs noted a distinct lack of organized conservative groups in the state. “Once the campaign was over, I realized that there was nothing here for people like me," he said. "There is something for every stripe of Leftism you’re into, but there’s nothing for conservatives to come together and have their own little safe space.”
To fill that void, he established a Hawaii Chapter of the far-right fraternal organization Proud Boys, originally founded in 2016 by controversial pundit Gavin McInnes. While the local Proud Boys have since steadily risen to a few dozen members, their emergence in Hawaii has been met without serious opposition from the community.
Ochs said he has been doxxed multiple times by his political enemies, and as the local face of a national organization made infamous by its nationwide campus clashes with ANTIFA, RASH and other radical Far-Left groups, he and his group have faced near constant allegations of both racism and extremism at various levels.
The violent chaos surrounding the Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville, Va., and the weeks-long political protests that engulfed Berkeley, Calif., both in early 2017, illuminate the difficulties in defining who is for what. McInnes, for example, publicly disavowed the Virginia events but boasted a large contingent of Proud Boys in attendance at the latter, in Berkeley. The amorphous, undefined identity of the New Right – of which Ochs and his Proud Boys find themselves a part of – is now intrinsically connected, no matter how wrongly, with words like “Nazi” or “Fascist.” Attempts to reach McInnes for an interview were unsuccessful.
In the early weeks of the Fall 2017 semester, students making their way through UH Manoa’s Campus Center observed the words “Black Lives Don’t Matter” prominently written in chalk on the main steps of the courtyard. The tagging was quickly and widely attributed to the Proud Boys, an act Ochs thoroughly denies.
Despite his claim of innocence, and with the only evidence to implicate them being their brash conservative ideology, the Proud Boys’ name now gets attached to any hate crimes, altercations or similar conflicts of social injustice that happen in Honolulu, Ochs said.
In the face of such sudden negative public perception, Ochs has turned to the mass media, to try to paint the Proud Boys in more casual strokes. “It’s a social club,” he says.
“It’s all about having fun," he added. "That’s our highest aspiration, and we’re very good at it.”
Photo Courtesy: Nich Ochs
The local Proud Boys, Ochs in black shirt, in center, at UH's Campus Center.
Photo Courtesy: Nich Ochs
Ochs and a fellow Proud Boy, exhibiting their Third Degree tattoos.
Yet while Ochs is quick to dismiss the notion of the Proud Boys solely as a militant, far-right troop, he also doesn’t shy away from the group’s tendency to resort violent means in self-defense. “We’re not averse to breaking your nose, if you attack us," he said. "People think that’s controversial to say. I don’t find it to be such. I’m not personally itching for a fight. I don’t enjoy fighting. ... But it’s not the worst thing in the world.”
With a reputation as controversial and complicated as the mainland chapters that preceded them, Ochs and the Hawaii Proud Boys persist in rumor somewhere between a conservative drinking club and a campus hate group. Pinning down the truth of who and what the Proud Boys are – at least in any meaningful, nuanced way – has become difficult, because of this state of affairs. The Proud Boys – identifiable by unofficial outfits of matching black (with gold trim) Fred Perry polos – are “alt-light, proud Western Chauvinists,” as Ochs describes them. They venerate the stay-at-home housewife, he says, and refuse to shy away from any jingoist tendencies.
“Our enemies,” Ochs said, “which tend to be people on the internet and those on college campuses, want to paint us as the most extreme phenomena facing the American landscape.” Professor Noel Kent of UH Manoa’s Ethnic Studies Department said he has no problem associating the Proud Boys with such extremism.
“It’s not conservatism,” Kent says “It’s radicalism. These people are pretty radical. They’re wild radicals. They basically want to destroy whatever liberal order there is in this country. They basically want to take us back to the pre-civil rights days and the social hierarchy that existed then.”
Kent said he doesn’t buy Ochs’ label of the Proud Boys as a social club. Whether they be Alt-Light or Alt-Right, Kent sees such groups essentially as crypto-fascists promoting an implicit agenda of white supremacy.
“Their tactical approach, in a place like Hawaii, is that they’ve got to play it down," Kent said. "They’ve got to be cool. They’re not gonna talk too much about whiteness. But when they talk about and support a guy like Trump, who says he’s going to revitalize America and ‘make America great again,’ they refer to a mythical golden age that’s never existed.”
Ochs, to be sure, is by no means a quiet supporter of Donald Trump and his distinctly nationalistic brand of policy that draws parallels, from people like Kent, to overt Fascism.
“That’s what Trump plays upon,” Kent said. “That (golden age) certainly never existed for people of color in this country. (The U.S.) deported 140,000 Japanese to camps in 1941 in violation of their constitutional protections, so it certainly didn’t exist then. Where was the golden age?"
Our enemies,” Ochs said, “which tend to be people on the internet and those on college campuses, want to paint us as the most extreme phenomena facing the American landscape.”
Proud Boys focus on having fun, trolling liberals on Facebook
Besides what can be gleaned from a few public appearances at various political rallies around town during the recent presidential election, a more complete account of what the Proud Boys stand for can be gathered from their online footprint. Online, they exist more as pranksters and provocateurs than they do legitimate political shock troopers. They get their kicks through their blatant prodding of the easily offended and their self-aware subversion of PC culture.
The group maintains an official Facebook page dedicated almost entirely to the posting of conservative memes encouraging the building of “The Wall” or the deportation of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients. Och’s own Facebook profile picture bears an image of cigar-chomping Ochs giving a thumbs up on a street in Havana with the caption “Capitalism Will Win.” “The Ochs Report,” his personal page, is rife with anti-leftist memes and screenshots of politically charged tweets. One meme of note even features a cartoon Ochs affirming the righteousness of throwing liberals out of a helicopter.
Deriving humor from such jarring examples seems, on paper (or on page, in this case), objectively concerning and outrightly offensive. Of course, that’s exactly what they have in mind. “After all,” Ochs said, “what’s more funny than outrage?”
The Proud Boys are not deterred by the fear of being offensive, and in fact, they actively champion doing so. Ochs, in particular, revels in being part of a joke that their political opponents are – at least from his perspective – too sensitive to get.
“We’re completely crass. We’re working class, and we’re winning," Ochs said. "I talk a lot of shit. I did my part, I think, to put Trump in office. We like to take responsibility for that. The internet culture - the New Right that we belong to, that we are a symptom of - we did that by being funny.”
"We’re completely crass. We’re working class, and we’re winning. ... I did my part, I think, to put Trump in office. We like to take responsibility for that."
- Nick Ochs
In this capacity, Ochs is about as willing to walk away from the chance to set fire to a comment section as he is to walk away from a fight. “We’re at least going to make fun of you," he said, "and watch you lose your shit.”
While Ochs has no qualms at being exactly the kind of champion of the New Right that Kent so thoroughly maligns, he also firmly rejects the claim that either he or any of the Proud Boys are racists.
“Getting tarred as racists is one of the most common things,” he said. “We don’t have any. We got libertarians, Republicans, whatever. The Alt-Right is not allowed in our organization. You can’t be racist. We’re an anti-racist organization.”
Some of the more prominent images from the shocking Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville, Va., and the weeks-long political protests in Berkeley, Calif., in early 2017, feature almost uniformly angry, white young men either eagerly anticipating street violence or actively engaging in it. This national precedent of whiteness has made the Proud Boys the constant of allegations of racism.
Back in the crowded karaoke room where Ochs addresses his fellow Proud Boys, however, the narrative of racial homogeneity becomes, at the very least, complicated. Members are black, white, mixed-race, hapa, or Hispanic, with no ethnic demographic holding any real majority. In true, melting-pot fashion, the many ethnicities these men represent is a point of humor rather than contention. One member asks another, for example, how things are going "with the Jewish Conspiracy” while another, a Filipino, is jokingly chastised for his lack of familiarity with the Korean menu as, one Proud Boy remarks, “all Asians eat the same things anyway.” In Hawaii, at least, the Proud Boys what diversity looks like while flying a conservative banner.
Kent calls that a ploy. “I think it’s a Hawaii show,” he said. “Here, they may have a more mixed-race rhetoric or something that would basically appeal to people, but the rhetoric is still one of support for Trump, for his goals, for his ideology, and that’s basically a racist, white supremacy agenda. I would look at statements their leaders make on the mainland, what their mainland ideology is.”
This claim is especially hard to refute when the group’s founding leader has so publically and controversially commented on race in the past. Long before founding the Proud Boys, McInnes stated in a New York Times profile of him that “I don't want our culture diluted. We need to close the borders now and let everyone assimilate to a Western, English-speaking way of life.”
This sentiment, a clear precursor to the Proud Boys’ Western Chauvinist credo, is hard to defend from allegations of racism, and generally is considered a code for “white.” Indeed, the idea of defending the purity of Western civilization from foreign hordes is a concept that bears startling resemblance to racist, archaic beliefs like eugenics or “racial hygiene.” Ochs said, though, that honoring the “West” is a celebration of modern convenience rather than racial homogeneity.
“The West is the best, make no mistake about it,” he said. “Every person in America greatly benefits from living in the West, and they all seem to love it, even the ones that burn flags. I’d rather deal with a blue-haired professor with a megaphone than dying of a disease we haven’t eradicated yet.”
People such as Ochs and McInnes make others uncomfortable with their bluntness about social and political issues. Championing freedom of speech to opine drastically unpopular views the way some members of the Proud Boys do is – to many – a deeply uncomfortable betrayal of American ideals and an unfortunate reminder that the First Amendment is a double-edged sword that Americans can wield just as much they can be wounded by it.
Men like McInnes and Ochs, then, embody the New Curmudgeon rather than the New Colossus, with a motto of “get off my lawn” instead of “give me your tired, your poor.” The sacred notion of protecting the West becomes, in criticism of this value of the New Right , the sacred notion of Protecting the White.
McInnes, whose wife is a member of the Ho-Chunk tribe, firmly rebukes this notion. “I've made mixed-race babies," he announced in a profile by The Globe and Mail "I'm not against it, clearly!” The same publication, however, likened McInnes’ interracial marriage to a Get Out of Jail Free card that he wields to conveniently refute racist rhetoric.
Ochs, as a member of a group which Kent described as wanting to “roll back the clock to when white supremacy was sanctified by law,” stands in remarkably similar circumstances. The leader of the Proud Boys Hawaii is married to an African-American woman, whose name Ochs did not want to publicize. He also declined for her attempts to interview his wife. This bi-racial bond is a fact Ochs refers to, albeit reluctantly, as a deflection of racism both by him and of his group as a whole.
“If we were to write something heinous in graffiti, it probably wouldn’t be the anti-black thing because,” Ochs said, “as I have to point out so very often, my wife is black. So that’d be weird. If I’m a racist, I’m not doing a very good job of it.”
His critics, though, might retort being married to a person of color is by no means an absolute invalidation racist tendencies or beliefs, not while the practice of tokenism exists in social discussion. Tokenism defined, however, is spelled out as a symbolic or perfunctory gesture of racial inclusivity. Does being married to a person of color mean that you’re not a racist? Certainly not, but one has to admit that there are easier ways to disprove it.
Race, it seems, doesn’t really matter that much to the Proud Boys of Hawaii. Instead, it’s their common conservatism that strings them together. As leader of this detachment, Ochs at first had been active and relentless in finding new members to the cause. Now, he says, no such initiative is needed. “I did recruiting at first,” Ochs says. “But now, with the presence we have, people come to us.”
Recruiting and retaining new Proud Boys
In the crowded confines of their back-room restaurant meeting hall, this is especially true. As Ochs quiets the crowd with his profane yell, he also calls attention to the real business of the meeting. A new member has come to them, hoping to earn his “first degree” of Proud Boy membership.
The prospect in question, a heavily-tattooed recent transplant from California, nervously milking a vape pen, was quick to name immigration as chief among his many discontents and revealed that word of the group’s hardline, “no-bullshit” beliefs had piqued his interest.
“Basically,” one member said between gulps of watered-down shochu, “we’re like a men’s club the way the Shriners and the Foresters used to be before a bunch of lesbians came along and ruined it with their Title IX, Affirmative Action bullshit. You know, just way more fucking conservative.”
“You can’t say anything in public these days,” another member remarked. “Nowadays, if you offend someone you can lose your fucking job. We can say whatever the fuck we want in here.”
“This,” the black-shirted brother says with open arms, in gesture to the cavalcade of casual bigotry and half-joking denigration that surrounds him, “this is our Safe Space.”
The prospect’s dissatisfaction is met with nods of approval all around, and the general content of his further gripes echo the typical scapegoat narratives Trump firmly established in his campaign to legitimize his place among the right. It’s not before long the room is a riotous echo chamber of “hear, hear” and “fuckin’ A, right,” and before the focus is lost, Ochs asks directly: “Why did you want to join up with us?”
“I’ve had a lot of shit stolen from me,” the prospect says. “Right out of my yard. I’m tired of any random fucking guy, Mexican, Middle Eastern, fucking gang members, whatever, coming here and taking what I worked hard to get."
High up on his chair, Ochs emphatically grasps one of the sleeves of his own shirt. “If you choose to be a part of this,” he says “people will come after you. You put this shirt on and you’re painting a target on your back.”
As they’ve made their presence known in the community, the Proud Boys of Hawaii have earned the ire of many; maybe most notably, though, UH’s Political Science department. In one incident, which began with a doodle of a frog, the Proud Boys suddenly became the Fascist boogeymen of the UH Manoa Campus.
The department, citing student confidentiality, has been tight-lipped about the related events, but Ochs acknowledges that he was banned from the Political Science building, where he was trying to earn a minor. He now is a Journalism major in the same program that produces this media channel, Hoa Oahu. Ochs said the Political Science issue was a misunderstanding that resulted in serious accusations of anti-semitism and assault against him and a friend, who he declined to identify.
By Ochs' account, a fellow Proud Boy scribbled an image of the meme “Pepe the Frog” along with the character’s catchphrase “feels bad man” during a Political Science class.
Originally, Pepe the Frog began as a character in a series of webcomics started by artist Matt Furie in 2005. It was about a group of anthropomorphic stoner animal roommates and fast became a popular meme.
By 2016, however, it had been construed by the amorphous, message board-trolling New Right as a MAGA cap wearing, pro-Trump mascot of the meme generation.
Also featured on the much-maligned doodle was the phrase “kek,” originally a lesser-used variant of the acronym “lol” but now associated with the alt-right reworking of Pepe.
This added layer of ill-defined internet apocrypha coupled with inherent misunderstandings of cryptic memes and internet culture, created multiple encodings and interpretations.
Symbols have been misappropriated and twisted from their original meanings before, of course. The Swastika, long before it became the logo of the Third Reich, had for thousands of years been an auspicious symbol associated with eastern religions like Buddhism or Jainism.
Pepe the Frog, used often as both a symbol of internet conservatism and as a meaningless cartoon echoing its original intent, is decidedly an image of lesser importance and blurred importance that invites an intense amount of scrutiny and controversy with its every appearance.
Following the Frog’s heavy use online during the 2016 election by Alt-Right groups, the Anti-Defamation League went as far as to classify it as a hate symbol.
Imagine the response, then, when a crudely drawn scrap of paper bearing the same cartoon frog made its way into the hands of a Political Science professor and was perceived not as a harmless doodle but as the aforementioned hate symbol.
Ochs said the author of the doodle was swiftly called to a meeting to answer for the drawing and its intent. Ochs crashed the meeting. As a part of Ochs’ unannounced arrival, he was permanently banned from Saunders Hall.
News spread quickly across campus that a hate crime had occurred and that the Proud Boys were to blame.
Och’s account of the incident is, however, more muted. “This professor kicked one of my guys out of a course for a frog doodle on a piece of paper,” Ochs said. “This professor wrote a letter with the ridiculous accusation that it constituted an anti-Semitic hate incident, as this was a white supremacist symbol”
By his own account, Ochs said he was accused of assault for attempting to enter the meeting uninvited, though this charge ultimately only amount to “causing a disturbance.” He added, “I had to write 3,000 words on why I was wrong, which I did without admitting to doing anything wrong.”
Several Political Science faculty members were asked about the incident, and they all declined to comment.
UH Spokesperson Dan Meisenzahl was only able to offer a dry summary:
“Nick Ochs was removed from the office of the chair of the Political Science department because he attempted to physically force himself into a student meeting he was not a party to. His behavior required the involvement of the Department of Public Safety officers, who escorted him from the building.”
“Basically,” one member said between gulps of watered-down shochu, “we’re like a men’s club the way the Shriners and the Foresters used to be before a bunch of lesbians came along and ruined it with their Title IX, Affirmative Action bulls–. You know, just way more f–ing conservative.”
Internet memes complicating understandings of the Proud Boys, with multiple meanings and messages encoded.
Much of the vehemence against Ochs and the group he represents, he said, has come from people eager to see him as racist or as a Fascist. Ochs said that’s an intellectually lazy way to view the situation.
“It’s very easy to win an argument with a ‘Nazi,’ is it not?” Ochs said. “I can’t think of anything easier to do. That’s why these people have this private fantasy of being a hero to their leftists friends when they told a ‘Nazi’ that racism sucks. Good for you, what a groundbreaking new opinion.”
This is the kind of target in which Ochs refers to when he speaks to the prospect at the restraurant about joining the Proud Boys.
Yet the new recruit isn’t deterred, and he’s called forward by Ochs to fulfill the “first degree” of membership, by repeating the Proud Boy Oath. This step is the first in a series of membership prerequisites that increases in both eccentricity and severity. One of the more well-documented “degrees” entails a gangland style jump-in, where several ranking brothers lay a beating on the member and refuse to let up until the inductee names five different brands of breakfast cereal.
Other tiers involve committing the “Proud Boy” name in blood and ink, with a tattoo, while the highest commitment to the brotherhood demands that a member endure serious conflict amounting to a physical fight with a member of the radical, far-left group Antifa, perhaps the Proud Boys’ most diametrically opposed “enemy,” or to spend a night in jail as a result of it.
Contrary to what some might have heard, Ochs said, this degree cannot be obtained by starting a fight. It must be earned through self-defense. Ochs, the senior-most ranking member of the Proud Boys Hawaii, said he isn’t quite there yet.
“I’m Third Degree,” Ochs said. “Maybe because there’s no Antifa in Hawaii, maybe because I’m just so sweet.”
Tonight, however, no blood will be spilled for the sake of proud Western Chauvinism. For now, the prospect must only recite a few words to earn his black shirt. When prompted, he is quick to repeat Och’s recitation of the Proud Boy creed.
“I am a western chauvinist,” they say, one after another “and I refuse to apologize for creating the modern world.”
When the last words are spoken the man is thrown a shirt of his own to the applause of his newfound brothers.
With his admission the room rumbles with a deep, collective “Uhuru,” Swahili for “freedom” and co-opted by the group in the style of the Marine Corps “Oorah” or the Army’s “Hooah” as a battle cry of sorts. Many more bottles of shochu and beer and emptied before the night ends and, ultimately, they stay until closing. The neon light of the “Open” sign cuts dark as they file out, and the only light outside of the place comes from a half dozen hastily smoked cigarettes, before these Proud Boys part their separate ways into the night.
The ease of calling a person a fascist and the difficulty of proving it
A segment on the TBS news satire “Full Frontal with Samantha Bee” recently featured a correspondent labeling young, white attendants of the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) bearing high and tight haircuts “Nazis,” by the simple connection to their ‘dos. In equating youth conservatism and hairstyles with legitimate fascism, the segment proved as tribalistic as it was irresponsible. One of the men sporting the supposed “Heil Haircut,” Kyle Coddington, turned out not only to be a registered Democrat and fierce critic of Trump but a stage-four cancer patient who chose the high-and-tight not as a political statement but as a result of radiation treatment.
Bee later apologized, not for the blatant irresponsibility of labeling someone a Nazi solely because of an indicator as neutral as a haircut (the segment also mentioned “chirpy little fucks in bowties” as a Right-Wing mark of identity) but for any offense that Coddington may have sustained. While the segment’s airing in the first place is proof alone that it has never been more en vogue to liken elements of extremism to seemingly innocuous indicators, Bee’s follow-up statement – more concerned with apologizing for offense rather than for perpetuating dangerous and baseless stereotypes – is some measure of evidence of the Proud Boys' claims that the Left is consumed and obsessed with implementing sensitivity and offense in their social narratives
In contemporary conservative politics, the lines between moderate and extremist within the Republican Party has begun to blur, and the manner in which mass-media channels struggle to identify the now vastly changing American right wing has turned into a game of deductive reasoning.
If high and tight haircuts are for Nazis, and Kyle Coddington has a high and tight haircut, then Kyle Coddington is a Nazi. And if Kyle Coddington is a Nazi, because of the way he cuts his hair, then America is in deep trouble with identity politics.
If one is going to recognize the Proud Boys, at least from a liberal point of view, then they‘re going to come off as an ugly, scary, shocking and foreboding organization. From this perspective, The Proud Boys are completely and utterly sexist, xenophobic and entirely at odds with ongoing trends of social justice that mainstream culture has taken such great pains to establish in recent years.
This designation comes, of course, not by accusation from others but by their own admission, and the contempt that Hawaii and indeed the nation holds for the likes of Ochs and his Proud Boys, which seems to be a reflection of the sustained disbelief many in this nation still cling to, in a state of confusion about how a fast-talking, pussy-grabbing, Twitter-crazed reality TV star not only won his bid to be Leader of the Free world but utterly uprooted the notion of decorum and nuance in the political system while doing so.
By all means in the wake of movements like #MeToo, as America tries its best to fade out the sexism, chauvinism and traditional concepts of masculinity through social change, the Proud Boys stand proudly against such change, as guardians of an America once Great. They are in this regard an ill-timed movement, according to UH's Kent.
“We’re in a moment when women are really, for the first time, standing up for their rights against the sexual abuse,” Kent said. “And we have these people talking about being alpha males?”
Besides Ochs, other members of the Proud Boys Hawaii declined to identify themselves in this story. Hoa's reporter was allowed to witness the described meeting on the condition that the participants were allowed to remain anonymous if they wished (and they did) and that the location of the meeting was not revealed.
Written By: Harrison Patino
Published: May 14, 2018
One of the men sporting the supposed “Heil Haircut,” Kyle Coddington, turned out not only to be a registered Democrat and fierce critic of Trump but a stage-four cancer patient who chose the high-and-tight not as a political statement but as a result of radiation treatment.
Hear Patino's wrap-up interview with Ochs