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Who are the 'Proud Boys'? Photos of Austin protesters circulating online

Here's a breakdown of what the extremist group "Proud Boys" is and a history of the hand gesture seen in the photos.

AUSTIN, Texas — Editor's note: The APD released an updated statement, stating that the Wind Therapy Freedom Riders were the sole coordinators of the event. The Texas Police Spouses Association were participants only.

Photos are circulating on social media of Austin Police Department officers posing in photos with protesters who are gesturing the "white power" hand symbol. A KVUE photographer also saw protesters with shirts that read, "Proud Boys."

The protesters were demonstrating against Austin Mayor Steve Adler and his policies on Sunday, Nov. 1. Austin police officers who were providing a law enforcement presence at the protests are now facing criticism for people seen in photos with them.

RELATED: Group protests Mayor Adler in Downtown Austin; police association responds to officer photos

When asked about the photos, Austin Police Association President Ken Cassaday responded, releasing the following statement: 

"365 days out of the year, our officers that are assigned to the Downtown Area Command are asked by citizens and tourists to take pictures with them. And 365 days out of the year, they do it because it helps to foster relationships within our community.

"If these officers were aware of the behavior of those on the fringe of the group, there is no doubt in my mind that they would not have participated in the picture. The Austin Police Association and our members, including the pictured officers, condemn any type of racist behavior."

Credit: snapshotatx.com
Photo courtesy of snapshotatx.com

On Monday night, APD said it has launched an internal affairs investigation of the officers involved in the photos to determine if they violated policies concerning "endorsements and political activities." Officials said in a memo to city council members that "we do not justify or condone political activities in uniform."

The APD released a full statement on Tuesday regarding the photos, then issued a correction on Wednesday:

"On Sunday, November 1, APD officers were working to provide a safe environment for a peaceful protest coordinated by the Wind Therapy Freedom Riders. At the end of the event, several officers, who we are working to identify, were asked to take a photo with participants which is not an uncommon request from the community.

"We are aware of the concerns raised by this photograph and have launched an Internal Affairs investigation to determine any potential violations. APD policies 801.6 and 972.4.1 address endorsements and political activity. We have specific guidelines, and all officers should be aware of these policies. As a reminder, we are sending a training bulletin to all APD officers and employees, to help remind them of our department policy.

"APD is committed to fair, impartial and equitable treatment of all people. We do not justify or condone political activities in uniform. Given the politically charged climate we will be advising officers to exercise additional caution when engaging with the public to ensure the uniform isn't used – either directly or inadvertently – to imply support or opposition of a particular perspective."

Here's a breakdown of what the extremist group "Proud Boys" is and a history of the hand gesture.

Who are the Proud Boys?

The Proud Boys is a far-right extremist group that recently became a big topic of conversation following an exchange involving President Donald Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden in the first debate.

The Anti-Defamation League describes the alt-lite group as violent, nationalistic, Islamophobic, transphobic and misogynistic. The male-only, neo-fascist group was established during the 2016 presidential election by VICE Media Co-founder Gavin McInnes. And the name comes from a song in the musical "Aladdin." 

They describe themselves as “western chauvinists,” and they have been known to incite street violence. 

What is the "white power hand signal"?

The people in the photo with Austin police officers had their hands shaped in an "OK" hand gesture, which has been associated with a gesture used to promote "white power."

According to the Anti-Defamation League, the gesture took on a new significance in 2017.

"In 2017, the 'OK' hand gesture acquired a new and different significance thanks to a hoax by members of the website 4chan to falsely promote the gesture as a hate symbol, claiming that the gesture represented the letters 'wp,' for 'white power,'" according to ADL. "The 'OK' gesture hoax was merely the latest in a series of similar 4chan hoaxes using various innocuous symbols; in each case, the hoaxers hoped that the media and liberals would overreact by condemning a common image as white supremacist."

The gesture has now become a popular trolling tactic on the part of right-leaning individuals and some white supremacists have also participated in the trolling tactic. According to ADL, by 2019, some white supremacists had adopted the symbol as a sincere expression of white supremacy.

WATCH: Protesters gather in support of Austin police, recalling Mayor Steve Adler

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