Stand back and stand by. Proud Boys may be coming to a park near you.

On a crisp Saturday morning, the far-right nationalist group was not aiming to overthrow the result of a presidential election with a violent assault on the U.S. Capitol. Their goal was to intimidate a small contingent of parents who had brought their mostly preschool-age children to the park to hear a drag queen tell stories.

The harassment of little kids and their parents that day was a vivid display of the new, more localized strategy that the Proud Boys have embraced since their national leadership dissolved amid the crackdowns and arrests that followed the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the Capitol. Their below-the-national-radar tactics are now being formulated by individual chapters, such as the D.C.-Maryland one, and buzzed about on Telegram, which is where they do much of their recruiting.

Proud Boys have been showing up across the country at meetings of school boards and health boards to protest government measures such as mask mandates. They have also taken to disrupting LGBTQ-themed events. The Anti-Defamation League, which tracks their activities, told me it has seen an uptick in such antics in June, which is Pride Month, and that the Proud Boys have continued at a brisk pace since then.

The performance on Oct. 8 was the 14th “Drag Queen Story Hour” held at the gardens since July 2021. “We look for programs throughout the year that can enhance diversity and inclusion in the gardens,” Montgomery Parks spokeswoman Melissa Chotiner told me. These events are not to everyone’s taste, but previous story hours at Brookside — similar to ones that take place in parks, libraries, schools and bookstores around the country — have gone off largely without significant incidents.

This time, though, members of the D.C.-Maryland chapter of the Proud Boys showed up unannounced. Police later said there were a dozen of them; I counted 16.

The young men were wearing matching black-and-gold T-shirts and caps, as well as Halloween-ready masks that made the bottom half of their faces appear to be skeletons. They looked plenty scary, although the children, some of whom were in strollers, were too young to read their signs. One had the homophobic slur “groomers” with a big red X over it, suggesting the story hour was a sexual abuse tactic. Another placard declared: “YOU are NOT BORN IN THE WRONG BODY.” And another, the irony of which surely escaped them, said in part “science is real.”

A number of the parents sized up the situation and decided to leave. As tensions rose, six officers and two supervisors showed up. They found themselves caught between the First Amendment rights of the Proud Boys to protest and those of drag queen D’Manda Martini, who wanted to perform, and the parents, who wanted their children to hear the reading.

It was a messy set of circumstances, but they came up with a workable solution: Martini and the remaining families — there were four or so of them — moved to a room inside the gardens’ visitors center. The Proud Boys hung around outside and complied with police instructions not to use bullhorns or bang on the windows.

Afterward, as the performer headed for the parking lot, the Proud Boys followed. One of them yelled, “What did you tell those children?” Martini later answered in a tweet. She discussed her favorite episode of “Octonauts,” about mantis shrimp.

After the event, the Proud Boys exulted on encrypted messaging platform Telegram: “Real men stepped up and let this mentally ill thing know that GROOMING will not be tolerated. Most people who saw us at the entrance were scared and turned around and left.” They also posted a promotional video.

Apparently, in their view, parental rights extend only to causes with which those on the right agree, such as banning the teaching of uncomfortable racial history in schools or refusing to vaccinate their children.

Then again, consistency has never exactly been a hallmark of fringe thinking. In any case, stand back and stand by. The Proud Boys are coming — maybe to a park near you.


Add a Comment