Wednesday, June 29, 2022

‘It’s time to ramp up pressure.’ Why the Proud Boys say they showed up to a New Hanover school board meeting

Seven members of the far-right extremist group Proud Boys lined the back wall of the board of education center Tuesday evening. (Port City Daily photo/Williams)

NEW HANOVER COUNTY — Donning their black and yellow uniforms, Proud Boys explained it was “time to ramp up pressure” at a New Hanover County school board meeting Tuesday evening.

Seven members of the far-right extremist group lined the back wall of the board of education center throughout the public comment period, and ventured outside as the board moved into conducting business. The men declined to share their names; one said that if they wished to identify themselves, they wouldn’t have worn face coverings.

RELATED: Heightened security continues at New Hanover County school board meetings in wake of fiery protests

The members indicated they were making their presence known in support of free speech but also were particularly interested in the school system dropping its mask requirement for staff and students.

“If our presence escalates that pressure and makes it to the point where we become a distraction to conducting business and they just change the mask mandate so we go away, that’s a win,” said one of the members.

The spokesperson for the New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office said the group caused no issues and was “nice and cordial,” and in turn, the deputies reciprocated the behavior.

The chapter identified themselves as the “Cape Fear Proud Boys,” but also mentioned some attendees lived as far as the Raleigh and Fayetteville areas. Two members said they had attended three past school board meetings each, but this was the first time they’d donned their colors. They wore black and yellow polos and neck gaiters with “PB” printing. One kept on a tactical vest.

“We’ve just been dressing incognito and watching what’s going on,” the member explained of previous visits.

The group did not participate in public comment but applauded and stood for others. At least four speakers voiced opposition to the mask mandate, and several accused the elected officials of relishing in the control they had to impose the requirement. However, the overwhelming majority of speakers were advocating for increased teacher assistant pay.

New Hanover County is one of 87 public school districts in the state still requiring masks. The remaining 29 have implemented an optional policy.

After an entire first quarter without budging on the mask issue, despite ongoing protests and escalating tensions, the school board voted 5-2 to discuss ending the requirement next Monday, after the New Hanover County Health and Human Services makes a decision on whether to continue the countywide mask mandate this Friday.

Vice chair Nelson Beaulieu stressed the need for heightened security if it were to be an in-person meeting, but the board members agreed to join over Zoom for the sole agenda item.

The Proud Boys denied their appearance was an intimidation tactic, stating it was more to support people who have something they wanted to say and protect those individuals from being bullied afterward. The members accused these bullies of having harassed the community, destroyed and spray painted property, and hurled fireworks at cars.

“Members of the community that have done those things that are here and are constant agitators,” the Proud Boy continued. “So we’re kind of here as a bulwark against that, if they decide to act up.”

They were referring to the lowercase leaders, a local activist group known for their involvement in Black Lives Matter protests in downtown Wilmington over the summer of 2020. One of its leaders, Tim Joyner, said upon entering the room the Proud Boys threatened to show up at his next court date. Member Joshua Zieseniss was also present.

Zieseniss and Joyner have faced several charges for allegations of damaging property as part of their protests.

In September Joyner got into a verbal and near-physical altercation with another attendee outside the building, captured on cell-phone video. In July some pointed blame at Joyner for a chaotic meeting that was abruptly recessed after he broke into verbal protest, though his outburst was just one of the countless interruptions during the prolonged public comment session.

The Proud Boys warned they would not tolerate pushing and linking arms to block people from moving freely.

“Our message to the lowercase leaders is: Free speech is guaranteed by the Constitution,” the Proud Boy said. “They can go and protest. They can rally and that’s fine. But when they destroy property, when they target businesses, when they dox people online, we will not stand for it. Not now. Not ever. The Proud Boys are here in Cape Fear. Everyone has a right to freedom of speech. And we’re going to ensure that that happens.”

Outside the meeting Tuesday night, Joyner denied the accusation that he obstructs anyone’s First Amendment rights.

“As a matter of fact, we defend not only our freedom of speech, but their freedom of speech to sit there and be as dumb as they want,” he said.

Joyner questioned why deputies surrounded him during the first hour of the meeting. Two sheriff’s officers were directly facing him, turned away from the board. Another stood between him and the group of Proud Boys. The NHCSO spokesperson said they were there in case an issue occurred between the Proud Boys and Joyner.

New Hanover County sheriff’s deputies monitor the outside of the building. To the left, lowercase leader Tim Joyner smokes a cigarette while the Proud Boys stand in the parking lot. (Port City Daily photo/Williams)

This appears to be the Proud Boys second recent high-profile appearance in Wilmington. On a Saturday in August, members gathered outside Premiere Printing & Apparel on Kent Street. The business owner, Shane Murphy, said he is unaffiliated with the group and was unaware of the unsanctioned meeting happening on his property. During the school board meeting, the Proud Boys said the same.

Back in August, Murphy told Port City Daily on a phone call a part-time employee who did maintenance work had organized the hangout. He was immediately fired and escorted off the premises by police when he reported to work the following Monday, the business owner said.

Murphy said he was unaware of the employee’s political beliefs since such discussions are uncommon in the workplace. He had been there less than six months.

“I didn’t even know anything about [the Proud Boys], but over the last 24 hours, I’ve been doing a lot of research, digging into things,” Murphy said on the call that Monday, “and certainly [it’s] nobody that I want to be associated with or my business.”

The owner temporarily closed and hung a sign on the door declaring his support for Black Lives Matter and inclusivity. In the aftermath of the gathering, though, his store’s roll-up doors were vandalized with a message –– “Proud Boys not welcome” –– and the owner received death threats. A list of businesses doing work with the printing shop circulated online briefly.

Proud Boys have also made appearances at school board meetings in Lincoln and Orange counties. The Orange County board passed a resolution condemning hate groups on school property.

The Proud Boys are designated as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center and a terrorist entity by Canada. Members are known for pushing white supremacists ideology and some are considered violent based on numerous convictions. The group gained momentum during the 2020 election, which eventually gave rise to their role in storming the U.S. Capital on Jan. 6.


Send news tips to alexandria@localdailymedia.com

Alexandria Sands
Alexandria Sands is a journalist covering New Hanover County and education. Before Port City Daily, she reported for the award-winning State Port Pilot in Southport. She graduated from UNC Charlotte and wrote for several Charlotte publications while there. When not writing, Williams is most likely in the gym, reading or spending time with her Golden Pyrenees. Reach her at alexandria@localdailymedia.com or on Twitter @alexsands_

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