A volunteer firefighter did the right thing when he attempted to resign last month from the Bon Air Fire Company in Haverford Township after his past interest in joining an extremist group called the Proud Boys was brought to light. And after being shut down Sept. 4 by the township for refusing to accept Bruce McClay Jr.'s resignation, the company on Monday properly did so, and was promptly reinstated. But the issues of personal and public accountability, as well as whether, where, and when to seek limits on First Amendment freedoms of expression and association, resonate far beyond the suburban Delaware County town of 50,000.
As The Inquirer’s Katie Park reports, McClay, not yet 30 but with a half-dozen years of service to his credit, had been a lieutenant in the 37-member company and a vice president of its board of directors. He was well-regarded by his colleagues and seen as a caring member of a local family with deep firefighting roots. But as a statement posted Monday on the Bon Air website correctly put it, McClay’s “participation in the activities of the hate group was a bad lapse [in] judgment.”
Both the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Anti-Defamation League, organizations with long experience monitoring American extremism, characterize the loosely structured Proud Boys as prone to violent rhetoric and actions, as well as white supremacist views. The Proud Boys wear their misogynistic and anti-Islamic obsessions on their tattooed sleeves.
Perhaps McClay became intrigued by the group’s bro-ish, bratty, supposedly satirical ethos and in-your-face opposition to “political correctness." A simple web search should have given the would-be Proud Boy plenty of reasons to have nothing to do with the group. The fire company insisted McClay had not participated in any public activities; the township said he had completed two of four initiation steps.
Does it matter what private clubs our public servants belong to? Do we have a right to know? Does it depend on the job? Does it matter if the club is known for white nationalist violence or has other, less appalling yet negative associations?
Despite the relatively speedy resolution to Bon Air — there are no facile answers. Pre-internet and pre-social media, it would be hard to know the beliefs, aspirations, or political leanings of any of the people we encountered on a daily basis — teachers, postal workers, firefighters, cops, grocery clerks — without actually talking to them. Now, after a Google search, we think we know everything, and in our polarized times, decide a person is “good,” i.e., like us, or “bad,” i.e., someone we disagree with.
It was hard not to draw parallels between McClay’s case and the discovery, via the Plain View Project, of the racist and violent Facebook posts of hundreds of police officers. It’s worth noting, though, that a firefighter lacks both the discretion, and the power, that police have in their encounters with the public.