They’ve been called a hate group. White supremacists. Outside agitators.
The Fresno community’s frustration with the Proud Boys boiled over last week at the Tower Theatre protests. City Hall officials held a news conference to denounce the group.
The local leader of the Proud Boys pushes back against those assessments, speaking to GV Wire in an interview.
“We certainly are not a hate group. Our chapter itself is almost half Hispanic, so there’s absolutely no truth to us being a white supremacist group,” said Mark Mazzola, the president of the Fresno chapter of the Proud Boys for the last four years. “We don’t hold hate in our hearts. We hold pride in our values.”
Mazzola lives in Madera County and works in pest control.
“I don’t care what is said about us. I know the truth about us, and I’m not ashamed to be a Proud Boy,” Mazzola said.
What is a Proud Boy?
Proud Boys appearing at the Sunday rallies — many wearing the group’s black and gold colors.
“We are a men’s fraternity. We believe in Western values,” Mazzola said. “There are no rules about Proud Boys having to be any particular race or any particular religion, just being a male and believing that the Western culture is the best culture. That’s literally the only requirement.”
Mazzola said there are 20 members in the Fresno chapter. Recruits are vetted for up to six months to prevent “the wrong type of member” from joining. Initial contact is usually made by word-of-mouth, he said.
He described one instance of a “wrong member” who used the term “Aryan princess” to describe his daughter. That recruit was not offered membership.
“We’re not looking for people that are looking for a fight. We’re wanting guys that are strong alpha males or want to be better men and basically have the same general beliefs that we have,” Mazzola said.
Dues are voluntary, usually $20 a month.
Proud Boys Listed as Hate Group, Terrorists
Several civil rights groups have kept their eyes on Proud Boys’ activities. The Southern Poverty Law Center considers them a “general hate” group.
“(The Proud Boys) have no place in the city of Fresno if they are going to be creating a divide as they have. The vast majority of these individuals, if not all of them, are not even from the city of Fresno. Yet they come into our community and they try to create a divide.” — Fresno Mayor Jerry Dyer
“While the group can be described as violent, nationalistic, Islamophobic, transphobic, and misogynistic, its members represent a range of ethnic backgrounds, and its leaders vehemently protest any allegations of racism,” the Anti-Defamation League wrote of the Proud Boys.
Both organizations point out that prior Proud Boys activities including their presence at the Jan. 6 U.S. Capitol riots and the 2017 Charlottesville rally.
The government of Canada has labeled the group a terrorist organization.
Mazzola said they have it wrong.
“Specifically for my chapter, one hundred percent, yes (they are wrong). Other chapters, there have been people out there in the public with garb on that has done us disservices, their actions or their words,” Mazzola said.
Protesting at Tower Theatre
Fresno City Hall officials criticized the Proud Boys’ presence at the Tower protests. Protesters organized by the Save the Tower Theatre Demonstration Committee, have met every Sunday since January. They oppose the potential sale of the theater to Adventure Church.
The Proud Boys joined as counterdemonstrators shortly thereafter.
“They have no place in the city of Fresno if they are going to be creating a divide as they have. The vast majority of these individuals, if not all of them, are not even from the city of Fresno. Yet they come into our community and they try to create a divide,” Fresno Mayor Jerry Dyer said.
Mazzola said the group’s presence at the Tower protests is legitimate support of Adventure Church.
“We started noticing that the people on the left that were out there against the church were starting to exhibit values that we just don’t believe belong in our society, such as trying to push out anything that is religious. It’s a constitutional right,” Mazzola said.
Councilwoman Esmeralda Soria, who represents the Tower District, denounced the Proud Boys.
“I’m here to stand in strong support of sending that message to those folks that don’t belong in our city, that are just causing terror, that are being hateful,” Soria said. “Our LGBTQ community feels attacked because they have been called gay slurs, hateful slurs. And we’re not going to stand for that. So I denounce every bit an ounce of hate that has precipitated because of the concerning issue that started earlier this year.”
The Save the Tower group has criticized Adventure Church for not condemning the Proud Boys.
Pastor Anthony Flores, pastor of Adventure Church, did not reply when asked about the Proud Boys.
Verbal, Physical Battles
The two groups of protesters have clashed, mostly verbally.
“(It is in) counter volume to the people that are on the left yelling and screaming at us. I know a lot of the members get frustrated when they’re constantly called Nazis, in particular some of our very dark Hispanic brothers,” Mazzola said.
A report of a physical skirmish last Sunday sent a pregnant woman to the hospital as a precaution.
Mazzola said he did not witness the incident but did approach the woman shortly thereafter.
“Our LGBTQ community feels attacked because they have been called gay slurs, hateful slurs. And we’re not going to stand for that.” — Councilwoman Esmeralda Soria
“I myself apologized. … There should be no verbal intimidation or anything like that. She didn’t mention to me that she had been physically assaulted,” Mazzola said.
Two suspected Proud Boys members were arrested for issues unrelated to the alleged assault. One was from Santa Fe Springs in southern California.
Police say they plan to separate the Proud Boys and Tower protesters with physical barriers. Mazzola agrees that is a good idea.
“That greatly minimizes the chances of there being violence,” Mazzola said. “We’re out there to support the church, not to start problems.”
An Intimidating Look
At the Fresno protests, some Proud Boys wore tactical or military-style vests and visibly carried hunting knives and mace.
“The Proud Boys are not peaceful demonstrators. They don’t come to our demonstrations carrying signs or expressing an opinion about the Tower Theatre,” said Heather Parish of the Save the Tower group. They come wearing tactical vests, helmets and hard-knuckle gloves, carrying knives and pepper spray, and their only reason for being there is to intimidate law-abiding citizens from exercising their First Amendment right to free speech.”
Dyer also criticized the Proud Boys’ tactics: “We want to send a very strong message that intimidation tactics will not be tolerated.”
Mazzola said the gear is for protection.
“Everything that we have that would be apparently intimidating is protective equipment, with the exception of perhaps mace or pepper spray. I personally don’t see a reason why anybody should be carrying a publicly visible mace for any other reason than self-defense,” Mazzola said.
He said he wears a helmet to protect himself from projectiles thrown from groups like Antifa; his knife is for emergencies.
There have been no observed incidents of Save the Tower protesters throwing any kind of object or altercations beyond pushing and shoving.
Mazzola countered, saying there was one incident of a Proud Boy being hit by a skateboard.
We’re not Outsiders, Says Chapter President
The Proud Boy counter-protesters are described as outsiders by those at City Hall.
“When you get people who are not from this community coming in in order to intimidate, agitate, well, that’s something that — obviously they have their constitutional rights to protest and assemble, but they have to still do it within the law,” Fresno Police Chief Paco Balderrama said.
He said the protests were peaceful before the Proud Boys arrived.
“This matter is way too serious for us simply to stand silently as folks from out of town drive in an attempt to intimidate and threaten our residents,” city councilman Miguel Arias said. “We want to make sure that this protest isn’t hijacked any further for alternative issues that put people’s safety at risk.”
Last Sunday, Mazzola said members from neighboring chapters in Modesto and Bakersfield joined in, swelling the Proud Boys’ numbers to about 40. He expects a smaller group this Sunday.
“Most of our members are actual city residents of Fresno. So I don’t see how we could be considered outsiders,” Mazzola said.