(Photos: Carol Schaeffer)

The grand entrance was an assassination.

Gavin McInnes, the founder of the ultranationalist group the Proud Boys, spoke Friday night at the New York Metropolitan Republican Club on the Upper East Side. He barreled into the stately townhouse hall wielding a (fake?) katana. The event ended in the street brawls that the Proud Boys have come to be known for, and three arrests.

On stage he portrayed a different ultranationalist. Wearing glasses with caricatured Asian eyes drawn on the front, McInnes played Otoya Yamaguchi, a young far-right extremist who assassinated the leader of the Japanese Socialist Party on live television exactly 58 years ago on October 12, 1960. Images of the historical event have recently become a popular meme among the right.

When McInnes/Yamaguchi was all done assassinating, McInnes casually cracked open a cold one and, amid crass jokes about Japanese (or generally just Asian) accents and names, delivered a serious line: “Never let evil take root.” The audience of roughly 100 people erupted in cheers and hoots of approval.

The evil McInnes mentioned is, in his perspective, America’s rising socialist movement. “The DNC now believes socialism is better than the free market!” he said incredulously. “Well that’s new!”

The Eventbrite description promised that McInnes would provide “historical context and offer perspective on the environment that surrounded Otoya Yamaguchi in 1960s Japan”—a lofty description of what ended up being essentially a rambling, stream-of-consciousness stand-up set that had McInnes ranting about everything from the evils of socialism to “politically incorrect” style offensive jokes.

The audience was diverse in terms of age, sex and race—points that Proud Boys and McInnes are often quick to mention to deflect characterization as white nationalists. An Asian Proud Boy played the character of the murdered Japanese socialist leader Inejiro Asanuma, and “translated” for McInnes in caricatured Japanese (and at one point mock Chinese). When I asked the Proud Boy (he declined to give his name) after the event whether he thought the skit was funny, he answered, “We have to meet the audience halfway.”

McInnes is careful to use language such as “Western Chauvinism” to distinguish his views from those of white supremacists. Nevertheless, he has frequently had overt neo-Nazis on his show, himself stopping just shy of saying “the 14 words,” a white supremacist slogan. McInnes has branded himself a defender of democracy and free speech, using that free speech to defend the use of the N-word, or saying that Muslims are violent due to “inbreeding,” or to simply rail in disgust at trans people. These barely euphemistic technicalities of language, exploitation of existing cultural prejudices and insistence on claiming that offensive speech is a civil liberty, have made McInnes a leader in pushing acceptable conservative discourse further to the extreme.

“He is part of the right,” Ian Reilly, Executive Committee Chair of the Metropolitan Republican Club, told Gothamist. “We promote people and ideas of all kinds from the right. We’re open to different views. We would never invite anyone who would incite violence.”

But a guest like McInnes is still new territory for the club, which has presented itself as a storied and grand institution embedded in the Upper East Side for more than a century. Just last year, according to New York Post, the clubhouse booted board members for their support of Donald Trump in an attempt to cleanse it of elements further to the right. Reilly was named as one of the conspirators to oust Trump backers—a move that clearly he has since walked back from.

What seemed to really get the crowd going most was McInnes’ attacks on leftists and his ire at “political correctness.” After the talk, a woman from Venezuela commented that she doesn’t “want to see what happened in [her] country” happen in America. “Before 2000, everyone could speak. It was beautiful,” she said.

“Now it’s a shithole?” McInnes asked.

“Now it’s a shithole!” she responded, as the audience laughed.

McInnes is the resident vulgar stand-up comedian of the right, and his speech to membership-only Republican clubs—rather than comedy cellars— may at first seem sufficiently underground to not warrant any oxygen. Much of the public-facing far-right has diminished since the deadly events of Charlottesville in 2017, where Proud Boys gathered alongside many other extremists from fellow traveler hate groups. This past August, in an attempted repeat of Charlottesville, no more than 25 white nationalists showed up, compared to thousands the year before.

But the Proud Boys have continued to engage in frequent open-air political street violence. This past summer several hundred far-right protesters, many of them Proud Boys, showed up at rallies across the Pacific Northwest. One rally in June became so violent that Portland police declared it a riot.

Meanwhile, outside of the Metropolitan Republican Club, organizers of a protest said that roughly 80 to 100 people showed up to demonstrate against McInnes and his acolytes. On Thursday night, the club was vandalized with two orange anarchist symbols, a note on the door and glue in the door locks. New York City Antifa denied they had anything to do with it, while allegations appeared on social media that the vandalism was a set-up to demonize Antifa ahead of the event. Protesters yelled “Nazi Free NYC” and “Fuck you Nazis” as attendees filed out of the building.

An NYPD spokesperson confirmed that three people were arrested at 84th Street and 3rd Avenue and charged with robbery, resisting arrest and assault. According to the NYPD, a man claimed to have been followed by a group of nine or ten outside the event; he said that he dropped his backpack as he ran away from them and three men picked it up. When he went to retrieve the bag, he says he was punched in the face, resulting in swelling and bruises, the NYPD told B+B.

McInnes and his followers aren’t especially radical. Unlike many swastika-bearing neo-Nazis, they uphold the status quo by praising law enforcement, capitalism and free markets. They repeatedly thanked the NYPD for providing protection against protesters.

But that doesn’t mean they’re not itching for a fight. As the event came to a close, guests were instructed to leave while Proud Boys stayed behind. One Proud Boy cracked his knuckles behind me. “I’m ready to swing right,” he said. “Nobody better fuck with us tonight.” Men dressed as Proud Boys (Fred Perry shirt, khaki pants) were filmed kicking apparent protesters during a brawl in which a homophobic slur was used; witnesses told HuffPo the incident occurred when three protesters knocked someone’s MAGA hat off his head. A medic affiliated with protesters told us that at least one protester was sent to the hospital after being attacked by Proud Boys following the event. No Proud Boys were arrested, according to the NYPD.

As for McInnes, he was escorted out by the police to his car. In a mocking move against the protesters, he took out his katana, waving it in an homage to the ultranationalist Japanese assassin.