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Canada Labels Proud Boys A Terrorist Group. What Are The Consequences?

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We want to turn now to news about a group that's gotten a lot of attention lately, the Proud Boys. A leader of the mostly white male group was arrested for his role in vandalizing signs at two black churches in Washington, D.C., last year. Others have faced charges for their involvement in the mob attack on the U.S. Capitol last month.

On Wednesday, the Canadian government moved to add the Proud Boys to their official list of terrorist entities, becoming the first country in the world to do so. The announcement called it a neofascist organization that engages in political violence and espouses misogynistic, Islamophobic, anti-Semitic, anti-immigrant and/or white supremacist ideologies. While a number of Canadians have applauded the announcement, there are others who say labeling these groups as terrorists is not the solution to the threat posed by them and others like them.

We wanted to know more about this designation and the debate over it and whether there might be implications for how the U.S. might deal with the Proud Boys and similar groups, so we've called Ben Makuch. He is a national security reporter for Vice and has reported extensively on white extremist groups in both the U.S. and Canada. Ben Makuch, welcome. Thanks so much for joining us.

BEN MAKUCH: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: So I just want to mention in kind of a weird twist that the Proud Boys was founded by Gavin McInnes, who is a Canadian and one of the founders of Vice. And I want to mention...

MAKUCH: Correct.

MARTIN: ...He left Vice years ago and since has also left the Proud Boys. I just want to start by asking - is the description that the Canadian government used to ban this group accurate? Is that right? And how did they end up on this list?

MAKUCH: Well, I think they're definitely - it is accurate because it is sort of this neofascist, white extremist street fighting gang. Now, how they ended up on it was basically what happened on the 6 in Capitol Hill. It made a lot of headlines. And Proud Boys being founded by Gavin McInnes, who himself is a Canadian, made a lot of noise in Canada. And an opposition leader of the third-largest party in Canada, Jagmeet Singh - he basically put forth a motion that the Proud Boys be declared a terrorist organization. And then from there, it sort of gathered a lot of steam in the public, and it went to Parliament. It passed. And then it went up to the public safety minister to decide whether or not it would be a designated terror group. And it was.

MARTIN: And what does being on this official list of terror groups actually mean in Canada? What are the consequences? I want to also mention that this isn't the only group that was added to the list. So what happens when you are added to this list?

MAKUCH: With this designation, it gives banks and financial institutions the grounds to, you know, seize assets, you know, not renew mortgages. It's a very effective way at stopping support for a group at a ground level. And I should also say that I think one of the things it did was by designating the Proud Boys a terror group - whether you would agree with that or not, it does allow a certain amount of deterrence to happen, that, you know, some regular person who wants to don the yellow-and-black Fred Perry golf shirt might be less inclined to because that could, you know, have them wind up on a list where their bank no longer wants to bank with them.

MARTIN: Is there a U.S. equivalent?

MAKUCH: There is. It's called the FTO, the foreign terrorist organization list. It's much different because in Canada, we - I mean, we don't have the First Amendment. We have free speech laws, obviously, but they're not as controlled as in the United States or as protective. And in the U.S., you have - it has to be a foreign organization, which has made it quite tricky for law enforcement to actually put some of these groups onto the list, you know? The U.S. has only recently labeled a white supremacist group a terror group. And that was in April, and it was a Russian organization. I think we can all admit that there are several white nationalist, white supremacist organizations that operate in the U.S.

MARTIN: Well, to that end, though, I mean, this kind of leads to where I wanted to go next. As we said, some are calling this a step in the right direction. Obviously, Parliament agreed, saying that far-right white extremists have been ignored by authorities for far too long. But on the other hand, there is some opposition to this and not by people who are sympathetic to them. So could you just talk about that?

MAKUCH: Absolutely. So especially in Canada this came up. Canada has many different organizations that - you know, protest groups like Indigenous protest groups that are concerned by this. There's, you know, Black Lives Matter protesters that are concerned by this. And there's a lot of civil liberties watchers who are as well because typically, when you look at counterterrorism laws and expansion of any powers - and I should say that in this case, it isn't an expansion of the terror powers of law enforcement, but it expands the list, which essentially says that law enforcement is looking at empowering themselves when it comes to policing terrorism.

And I think whenever that happens, if we look at the last few decades of the war on terror - and, you know, Canada was involved in it as well - a lot of the surveillance that has become overzealous and has infringed on rights has been directed squarely on the Muslim community, for example, or on people of color. And it wasn't too long ago the FBI said one of the top threats was black identity extremism, which I think we can - you know, experts in my field would say that that's not necessarily correct.

So I think, you know, when you look at this type of law, and if it were to be applied in the United States, there's definitely some fears that it could then be overreached. And while this is being directed at white supremacists and neo-Nazi terror groups, it could end up directed at the wrong people. And I should say as well, you know, President Trump in the summer demanded that antifascist activism would be declared a terrorist organization, which is completely incorrect. I mean, this isn't a terrorist organization nor is it really a centralized organization. So if the pendulum swings politically, you could see it being applied to the wrong place. And that's a fear I think a lot of people have, and I think it's legitimate.

MARTIN: And before we let you go, I kind of want to look back to where we started, which is - what is this group all about? Like, what do they want?

MAKUCH: Well, I mean, look. You just look at - to what they say they are. They say they're a Western chauvinist group that, you know, believes in protecting Western values. And, you know, obviously, that's code word for white supremacy. And, you know, I would say that the...

MARTIN: And maleness. I mean, the boys thing, obviously.

MAKUCH: Yes, of course.

MARTIN: But what do they want? I mean, what do they think they want?

MAKUCH: They buy into the concept of - you know, that the white extinction, that, you know, white people have been disenfranchised from the American government and culture at large. I would say that they're different from neo-Nazi groups. Like, Atomwaffen Division and The Base were named to the same list. Those two groups believe in the downfall or want to hasten the collapse of the U.S. government to launch a so-called race war and to create a white ethno state. And it's - you know, there are specifically very much oriented towards terrorism much in the vein of something like ISIS or al-Qaida. But the Proud Boys - I think the scarier thing about them is they cast a wider net. And a lot more, you know, regular dudes, for example, for lack of a better term, would be more attracted to it because it's - the membership scheme is much less serious.

One thing they're really known for in the summer during many of the Black Lives Matter protests were going there and fighting protesters. And that was the thing. They would go to protests intent on violence and fighting. So I think the Proud Boys are clearly an extremist organization that need to be taken very seriously. And they had a very active role on the 6th.

MARTIN: That has Ben Makuch. He's a national security reporter at Vice. Ben Makuch, thank you so much for being with us.

MAKUCH: Thanks so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.