When the president of Philadelphia’s police union disavowed a far-right group whose members were photographed at a union party this weekend, it was at least the third time in recent weeks that local cops had been accused of cozying up with violent groups on the fringe.
Members of the Proud Boys, an ultranationalist group that frequently mingles with white supremacists, were hard to miss when they showed up for a party at the Philadelphia Fraternal Order of Police headquarters Thursday night. Members of the group wore their trademark black and yellow uniforms, with at least one carrying a giant Proud Boys flag outside the union headquarters for a “Back the Blue” event after a speech by Vice President Mike Pence.
Approximately 10 uniformed Proud Boys showed up and chanted “all lives matter” at protesters, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported. Some entered the union hall for an afterparty following Pence’s speech. Police officers even spoke to members of the group, reportedly asking them if they were alright when they surrounded Inquirer reporters.
In a statement this weekend, the police union’s president denounced the Proud Boys and said—to some local reporters’ and activists’ skepticism—that police hadn’t noticed the group.
“We have recently been informed that members of the Proud Boys were present outside the FOP headquarters this week following a visit by the Vice President,” John McNesby wrote in a statement. “If we were aware of their presence, we would have immediately escorted them off our property. At no time were these individuals allowed inside of our building. Philadelphia police officers, FOP leadership, and members condemn their hateful and discriminatory speech in any form.”
But even the Proud Boys called elements of McNesby’s statement into question. In a public chat channel, the group posted a picture of what appeared to be the bar inside the FOP headquarters. On Twitter, the group claimed to have spent $1,000 at the headquarters that night. (Reached for comment, the group described McNesby’s statement as “pretty clear[ly]” inaccurate, but declined to elaborate or provide receipts supporting the $1,000 tab.) The group accused McNesby of “throw[ing] his supporters under the bus.”
McNesby did not return The Daily Beast’s request for comment; an FOP representative who declined to comment said the president was on vacation.
Still, coming just weeks after Philly cops were accused of giving a free pass to white vigilante groups during racial justice protests, and amid intensified scrutiny of police nationwide, the bizarre meet-up served mostly to stoke a mix of local confusion and rage.
One Philadelphia Police officer who spoke on the condition of anonymity said he wasn’t at the event, but that his colleagues didn’t want to associate with the Proud Boys.
“Nobody wants them there,” the officer told The Daily Beast. “I sure as hell don't want them there. It's weird. Who wants them there? Who wants their support?”
Steven Windisch, an assistant professor focusing on criminal justice and extremist movements at Philadelphia’s Temple University, said groups like the Proud Boys’ advances on police departments “serve two purposes: one, it’s a form of recruitment. ‘Let’s get into these institutions, get buddy-buddy with them, and maybe we can recruit them,” he told The Daily Beast.
“Two, it’s also a product of their identity. The Proud Boys in particular see themselves as a kind of security force for Republican elites,” Windisch said, pointing to Proud Boys’ and some police’s public claims of being unfairly criticized from the left. “There’s an unofficial brotherhood that I think they project onto law enforcement that they’re one and the same, fighting the same battle.”
In fact, despite their members’ extensive cumulative arrest record, Proud Boys often enjoy a friendly relationship with police. A Clark County, Oregon, sheriff’s deputy who manufactured and posed in Proud Boys clothing was fired in 2018 (as a woman, she was not technically a member). A police officer in Connecticut retired last year after his Proud Boys membership was revealed, and in May, Chicago police announced an investigation into an officer accused of being a Proud Boy who claimed online to use his police connections to track anti-fascists.
The Philadelphia Proud Boys also tweeted pictures of themselves inside a police station in early June, wearing the group’s paraphernalia and posing with an officer. (The group said they were delivering snacks to police.)
Those ties are cause for alarm given the Proud Boys’ penchant for glorifying violence and frequently using openly anti-immigrant, Islamophobic, and misogynist language, residents said.
Gwen Snyder, an activist in Philadelphia, said the city’s Proud Boys attempted to menace her at her home after she tweeted about them last summer. Snyder was out of the city when a group of men visited her apartment building late at night, she recalled.
The group left Proud Boys stickers “on the corner I live on, they stickered our apartment building,” Snyder told The Daily Beast. “They saw my neighbor and asked if he knew me. He said I wasn’t around. They said ‘tell that fat bitch she’d better shut up.’”
When Snyder saw pictures of the Proud Boys at the Philadelphia Fraternal Order of Police event last week, she had flashbacks to when she tried reporting the group’s late-night visit.
“The cop didn’t really file much of a report,” she said. “My neighbor has very legitimate concerns about police. That was the one time he was willing to talk to a cop, and the cop blew it because he didn’t take a statement in any real way. Seeing police welcome them [the Proud Boys] into the lodge felt like a reminder of why you can’t trust the police, and who, when push comes to shove, they’re going to be rubbing elbows with.”
A Philadelphia Police spokesperson declined to comment on the incident but told The Daily Beast that “anyone who is subject to, or witnesses, police misconduct is encouraged to report it to Internal Affairs, anonymously on the PPD website, or via the Police Advisory Commission. If she was threatened or harassed she can call 911 to file a police report.”
The Proud Boys’ interactions with Philly cops also come after the department was accused of handling violent right-wing groups with kid gloves during recent racial justice protests. (The Philadelphia Police Department directed The Daily Beast to the FOP for comment on the Proud Boys incident and did not comment on other incidents in which they were accused of going easy on counter-protesters.)
During one protest in early June, a group that Philadelphia officials described as “armed vigilantes” patrolled the city’s Fishtown neighborhood with bats, attacking and hospitalizing a reporter. Unconfirmed reports, referenced by the city’s mayor, claimed police were friendly with the group, high-fiving and taking pictures. One demonstrator at the time told The Daily Beast he wasn’t worried about breaking the city’s curfew because police are “not gonna bother us. I think they respect what we’re doing.”
The current Philadelphia Police officer said he agreed with criticisms that police were too cozy with counter-protesters in Fishtown—likely because some of those officers lived in the neighborhood.
“I think there needs to be better management of police officers, where they work, and the ties they may have to that neighborhood,” he said. “It doesn’t set a good message at all when you have people mingling with one side. I felt a little embarrassed by that.”
Later that month, a group armed with bats gathered around a controversial Christopher Columbus statue. Members of the group were filmed surrounding and beating reporter Chris Schiano, with at least one person shouting “kill him!” After the assault, a Philadelphia Police captain expelled Schiano from the protest, while Schiano live streamed the encounter for the media group Unicorn Riot.
The officer “arrived on the scene, made a beeline for me, and told me I had to leave or else I would be arrested for inciting a riot,” Schiano told The Daily Beast. “I showed him my press pass and explained I was there as a journalist and felt obligated to document the situation. He repeatedly told me I was inciting a riot and made it clear he was about to arrest me, at which point I complied to avoid risking getting COVID in jail.”
Schiano said he felt like officers were sympathetic to the people who assaulted him. A police spokesperson said “the entirety of those events are being reviewed by our Internal Affairs Bureau. So, we are not able to comment at this time.”
Other Philadelphia protest attendees also found themselves on the receiving end of cops’ ire. One officer, Joseph Bologna, was charged with assaulting a protester. The city’s police union rallied to Bologna’s defense, selling “Bologna Strong” T-shirts. McNesby, the union president, promoted the $20 shirts on Instagram, urging followers to “show your support for Inspector Joe Bologna.”
Even if police aren’t in cahoots with the right, the widespread perception that they may be has real effects on the communities they police.
“If the optics are that they’re giving preferential treatment—and the evidence suggests that is true—it’s going to work against them,” Windisch said. “They’re not going to be seen as objective, enforcing law and order the way it should be.”
The current Philadelphia Police officer who spoke on the condition of anonymity said the union’s recent statements have embarrassed him and other members of the force.
“It’s become a pulpit. It seems like things have got more political,” he said of the union, adding that while he appreciated the FOP for its role in negotiations with police leadership, “now what’s coming out of the union is very cringe. Like, dude, why would you say that?”