The far-right Proud Boys in Australia sought people trained in combat to help confront police during anti-lockdown protests in Melbourne last year.
Amid repeated warnings from security agencies in Australia and overseas about the way far-right groups have used the Covid-19 pandemic to recruit, Guardian Australia can reveal that senior members of the neo-fascist Proud Boys group were involved in protests during Melbourne’s second-wave lockdown last year.
A series of messages posted to anti-lockdown social media groups in the past year reveal the increasingly blurred line between the loose coalition of conspiracy groups that orchestrated those protests and far right groups such as the Proud Boys.
Jarrad Searby, a gym owner and MMA fighter who runs the “borderlands” chapter of the Proud Boys in Australia, is a regular contributor to one of the largest groups that helped orchestrate the protests.
Many of the posts reveal a preoccupation with the same conspiratorial threads that tied those groups’ members together; writing about the “globalist agenda” to force vaccinations on people, and sharing content that uses the language of the “sovereign citizen” movement,which subscribes to a haphazard collection of pseudo-legal beliefs broadly coalesced around the notion that modern government is illegitimate.
But the posts also reveal Searby’s involvement in the protests themselves. In October he posted a call for “people trained in some form of combat” to “lawfully arrest” police officers working at the protests.
“[S]o we can be there to protect our people at events like the one we have on Tuesday,” he wrote.
Later events show Searby was not speaking rhetorically. A month later, he was among a group of Proud Boys who were pepper sprayed by police during a protest on Melbourne Cup day at which several hundred people were arrested.
Video from the protest, seen by Guardian Australia, shows Searby standing at the front of a large crowd, wearing a T-shirt bearing the name of his mixed martial arts gym. Also visible are other men wearing the Proud Boys signature Fred Perry polo shirts. In the footage, Searby appears to confront officers before he is approached and detained as police use pepper spray on the crowd.
After the protest, he posted in an anti-lockdown group on social media that he and a group of Proud Boys at the demonstration had “intervened” when police attempted to detain protesters, saying “a scuffle broke out”.
“They hit us with pepper spray which disabled us instantly and ended any chance we had to again best them,” he wrote in the group.
“Our numbers where [sic] few and we made mistakes but we learnt and we will now become more organised … That is what we intend to do.”
In the post, he named other members of the Proud Boys in Australia who he said were at the event. The Guardian has attempted to contact Searby for comment through his gym.
Searby was also among a group of Proud Boys members who attended an Invasion Day rally in Melbourne on 26 January, and posted photos of himself with 18 other men, most wearing Proud Boys insignia. During the march at least one man wearing Proud Boys insignia and draped in an Australian flag was forcibly removed by more than a dozen police after attempting to provoke Invasion Day marchers.
The Proud Boys group was founded by the Canadian-British far-right activist and Vice magazine co-founder Gavin McInnes in 2016 and describes its members as “Western chauvinists”.
In 2018, the group was listed by the FBI as an “extremist group”, and the US research and advocacy organisation Southern Poverty Law Center describes it as a hate group. This month the Canadian government branded the Proud Boys a terrorist organisation and called it a “serious and growing threat”.
Though still relatively small in Australia, evidence of Proud Boys involvement in the anti-lockdown protests demonstrates the group’s increasing desire to move its activities into the real world. Guardian Australia last week revealed Searby had been filmed showing up at the homes and workplaces of people he claimed were a part of a local “Antifa” group.
The videos drew the attention of the global leader of the Proud Boys, Enrique Tarrio, who appeared on a vodcast with Searby after the stunt and praised him as “amazing”.
But according to the administrator of an anti-fascist page on Facebook the two men targeted by Searby were not, as he stated, members of “Antifa”, but locals from Albury-Wodonga who had “liked” an anti-fascist page on Facebook, and left negative comments on a post that identified Searby and others as Proud Boys, according to the administrator of the page.
One of the people Searby targeted was said to be a 65-year-old man who left a comment that poked fun at one of the men in the photo, the administrator said. Searby has since deleted the video of him visiting that person’s home from his social media pages.
Searby has denied he was threatening the men – saying that he only wanted to discuss their comments about him, and incorrectly accusing them of “doxxing” him and other businesses in the border towns.
“I didn’t threaten anyone. I did say we would come back and protest if they continued to dox our businesses,” Searby said on a YouTube livestream posted in response to Guardian Australia’s article last week.
On Friday, the NSW Greens MP, David Shoebridge, wrote to NSW police commissioner, Mick Fuller, asking him to consider investigating the incidents.
A spokeswoman for NSW police said in a statement the force was aware of the case and would continue to monitor it.
At least one complaint has been made to police in Victoria over the incidents, but Searby said last week he had not been contacted by officers.
Kaz Ross, a researcher who specialises in far-right ideology, has warned of escalating Proud Boys activity in Australia during the pandemic, writing in December that the group’s vetting channel “has been increasingly active, with a steady stream of new applicants”.
“The increased visibility of Proud Boys at demonstrations is concerning if it signals a new strategy by the group to engage in street violence, either with police or left-wing protesters,” she wrote.