Members of the far-right group Proud Boys volunteered at an Antrim County event that hosted John James, the Republican candidate for Michigan’s U.S. Senate seat this year.
At least six men in Proud Boys polos — characterized by their black color with yellow trim, some of which had “Proud Boys” embroidered on the shirt chest — attended and volunteered at the Saturday event in Central Lake.
The FBI has classified the Proud Boys as an “extremist group with ties to white nationalism.” The male-only organization has engaged in violence at political protests, most recently in Portland and Kalamazoo.
Abby Walls, John James’ campaign spokesperson, said in a statement the candidate didn’t know any hate groups were in attendance and “opposes hate in all forms that it may take.”
The Antrim County Conservative Union put on the second annual Fun Shoot/Pig Roast event on Saturday, August 22. Organizer and Chairman of the social education club, Randy Bishop, says more than 200 people came from all over the state for the chance to hear from John James and Michigan Representative Jack Bergman, R-Watersmeet.
Bishop says he knew several Proud Boys would be in attendance after seeing they had purchased tickets online to the public event.
When asked by IPR, Bishop denied the group provided security, but later said they did volunteer by hanging banners, serving food and checking in visitors at the entrance.
“[The Proud Boys were there to] take care of any problems that should arise if somebody wants to get violent or protest against our rights, they’re there to simply defend them,” Bishop says.
He says he doesn’t believe all members of the group share biggoted or hateful beliefs or act violently.
“I believe [the Proud Boys] are patriotic young men who want to stand up and protect our rights,” Bishop says.
State Rep. Triston Cole, R-Antrim County, also attended the event, but like James, he says he didn’t know the Proud Boys were there. Cole says he’s unfamiliar with the group.
“Events like this bring out all kinds of individuals for a variety of reasons,” he says. “I was there to support the second amendment and be in attendance with some candidates that were there, not affiliated at all with organization Proud Boys.”
Cole says he may have spoken with some of the Proud Boys but that conversations were entirely positive.
“I don’t approach issues from a standpoint of hate,” Cole says. “I don’t promote organizations that come from a standpoint of hate. I deal with things on a case by case basis, based on their merit.”
Cole explained that while he doesn’t agree with the Proud Boys on some of their views, he doesn’t have any problem engaging them on common ground issues, like second amendment rights.
“We do that in the legislature… partnering with people we may fundamentally and absolutely disagree with on one issue, but we work together on another issue,” Cole says. “That’s what we need more of so that we have a better understanding of people. Because most of the time things are not rooted in hate, it is merely a disagreement in some areas.”
Rep. Bergman was unable to attend the event, instead joining over the phone, as he was called last minute to Washington for a vote on a bill funding the U.S. Postal Service. He has not responded to requests for comment from IPR.
“John was invited as a guest to an event that was hosted and organized by Republican groups,” Walls said in the statement. “John did not have contact or any knowledge of any hate groups that were in attendance. John was at that event for a short time before attending other campaign events that day."