‘Donald Trump’s army’: Proud Boys members face decades in prison for January 6 sedition

A former leader of the far-right gang and three members were convicted of seditious conspiracy. They received some of the largest sentences yet in connection with the attack on the US Capitol, Alex Woodward reports

Tuesday 05 September 2023 23:02 BST
(Getty/AP)

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas

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A former ringleader and three members of a neo-fascist gang that one member called the “foot soldiers for the right” were convicted on treason-related charges for plotting to unleash a violent assault in the halls of Congress.

More than two years after the attack, former Proud Boys leader Enrique Tarrio and four other men connected to the far-right group – known for their black-and-yellow outfits – appeared in a federal courtroom in prison-orange jumpsuits to face what could be the longest sentences yet in connection with the violent siege.

On 4 May, following a four-month trial and six days of jury deliberation, Tarrio and three of four other Proud Boys associates on trial alongside him were found guilty of seditious conspiracy, among other charges stemming from a violent attempt to throw 2020 presidential election results into chaos.

Their combined prison sentences total more than 80 years in prison.

In a sentencing memo, prosecutors said the men “organized and directed a force of nearly 200 to attack the heart of our democracy” and “intentionally positioned themselves at the vanguard of political violence in this country.”

“The defendants understood the stakes, and they embraced their role in bringing about a ‘revolution.’ They unleashed a force on the Capitol that was calculated to exert their political will on elected officials by force and to undo the results of a democratic election,” prosecutors wrote. “They failed. They are not heroes; they are criminals.”

US District Judge Timothy Kelly sentenced Tarrio to 22 years in prison, by far the longest sentence to date among the hundreds of people charged in connection with the Capitol attack, reflecting his singular role organizing members of a mob that threatened American democracy on 6 January, 2021.

Now-former Proud Boys leaders Ethan Nordean and Joe Biggs to 18 years and 17 years in prison, respectively, marking what are now the second- and third-longest sentences yet.

Zachary Rehl was sentenced to 15 years in prison, and Dominic Pezzola – the only member of that group who was not convicted of seditious conspiracy – was sentenced to 10 years in prison.

Fifteen people connected to the January 6 attack, including the leader of the far-right militia group the Oath Keepers, have either been convicted by a jury or pleaded guilty on charges of seditious conspiracy in the aftermath of the riots – major victories from a sprawling investigation from the US Department of Justice into hundreds of Capitol riot cases. Tarrio’s verdict marked the first successful seditious conspiracy conviction against a January 6 defendant who was not physically at the Capitol that day.

Tarrio and Oath Keepers leader Stewart Rhodes – who was sentenced to 18 years in prison, now tied with Nordean for the longest sentence connected to January 6 – are among the highest-profile figures in the Justice Department’s efforts, which have netted more than 1,000 arrests and more than 700 convictions to date.

Prosecutors have argued that both men fuelled violence and radicalized followers with a constant drumbeat of conspiracy theories echoing Donald Trump’s baseless narrative that the 2020 presidential election was stolen from him.

During the Proud Boys trial, prosecutors presented hundreds of pieces of evidence from the days leading up to the January 6 attack, revealing the group’s toxic rhetoric, culture of violence and damning messages depicting a gang “that came together to use force against its enemies,” according to prosecutors.

Prosecutors argued that the Proud Boys were not merely obedient followers of the former president’s commands but were preparing for “all-out war” to undermine millions of Americans’ votes and upend a democratic election to preserve his presidency.

“These defendants saw themselves as Donald Trump’s army, fighting to keep their preferred leader in power no matter what the law or the courts had to say about it,” Conor Mulroe, a trial attorney for the Justice Department, told jurors in closing arguments.

Tarrio, Biggs, Nordean and Rehl were found guilty of seditious conspiracy after conspiring to forcefully oppose the lawful transfer of presidential power, a jury found.

All four men, as well as Pezzola, were also found guilty of obstruction of an official proceeding. Four of them – all but Pezzola – were also found guilty of conspiracy to obstruct an official proceeding, civil disorder and destruction of government property.

Pezzola also was found guilty of robbery and assaulting, resisting or impeding police.

Defence attorneys argued that there was no conspiracy to join the attack, an event they characterised as a spontaneous act of rage fuelled by then-President Trump’s demands.

“It was Donald Trump’s words. It was his motivation,” attorney Nayib Hassan told jurors in closing arguments. “It was not Enrique Tarrio. They want to use Enrique Tarrio as a scapegoat for Donald J Trump and those in power.”

The ‘foot soldiers of the right’

The group, founded in 2016 by Vice co-founder turned far-right commentator Gavin McInnes, has exploited white male aggression, weaponized semi-ironic posturing and relied on a veneer of drinking clubs to launder white nationalist, antisemitic and anti-LGBT+ tropes that lead to real-world violence.

Across his platforms, Mr McInnes “carved out an ideological space for frustrated young men to rally around” by arguing for the superiority of white western culture and against white liberal “guilt”, feminism, Islam and LGBT+ people, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Over the last several years, the Proud Boys have emerged as a “fascistic, right-wing political bloc” relying on street-level violence in concert with right-wing media and Republican elected officials, according to SPLC senior research analyst Cassie Miller.

In the wake of January 6, as the group decentralized, members have harassed drag queen story-telling events at libraries and amplified “groomer” smears aimed at LGBT+ people.

Proud Boys have been central to a wave of attacks and threats against drag performers and the people and venues that host them, according to a recent report from the Institute for Strategic Dialogue. Proud Boys chapters targeted 60 such events, with more than half resulting in physical and verbal clashes, the report found.

Jeremy Bertino, a former North Carolina Proud Boy who served as a key witness for the government during the trial, said the group emerged as the “foot soldiers of the right” against antifascist demonstrators. Bertino is the only Proud Boy to plead guilty to seditious conspiracy.

Canadian authorities have designated the Proud Boys as a terrorist organisation.

Members also participated in “Stop the Steal” rallies across the US following Joe Biden’s victory in the 2020 presidential election – including a rally on 12 December, 2020 in Washington DC, where members of the gang were filmed tearing down and burning Black Lives Matter banners at historically Black churches.

Rioters destroyed two Black Lives Matter banners at Metropolitan AME and Asbury United Methodist Church. Tarrio was wanted in connection with the destruction. He was arrested shortly after landing in Washington DC on 4 January, two days before the attack, which he watched unfold from a Baltimore hotel room after he was barred from re-entering the nation’s capital.

Trump’s ‘call to arms’ and January 6

Then-President Trump invoked the group’s name during the first 2020 presidential debate on 29 September after debate moderator Chris Wallace repeatedly asked the president to denounce white supremacism.

Mr Trump asked for a name. Joe Biden, standing beside Mr Trump on the debate stage, suggested the Proud Boys.

“Proud Boys, stand back and stand by, but I’ll tell you what, somebody’s got to do something about antifa and the left because this is not a right-wing problem,” Mr Trump replied. “This is a left-wing problem.”

After his comments, Mr Biggs wrote on the social media platform Parler that “President Trump told the Proud Boys to stand by because someone needs to deal with antifa ... well sir! we’re ready!!”

“Standing by, sir,” Tarrio wrote on Twitter.

Mr Trump’s remarks turned into a kind of catchphrase that quickly spread across far-right online spaces. Proud Boys-related T-shirts and other items with the phrase appeared in online shopping sites shortly after the debate.

Bertino testified to the House select committee investigating January 6 that Mr Trump’s comments were a “call to arms” that helped swell the groups’ ranks “exponentially” afterward.

From left, Zachary Rehl, Ethan Nordean and Joe Biggs are pictured in Washington DC on 6 January, 2021.
From left, Zachary Rehl, Ethan Nordean and Joe Biggs are pictured in Washington DC on 6 January, 2021. (AP)

Proud Boys activity “has been strongly correlated with the fortunes of former President Trump,” according to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project, noting that 97 of the 152 demonstrations involving Proud Boys in 2020 “were explicitly in support of then-President Trump.” That includes at least 79 demonstrations after Mr Trump’s “stand back and stand by” remarks.

“If Biden steals this election, [Proud Boys] will be political prisoners,” Tarrio wrote on social media 16 November, 2020, days after media outlets projected Mr Biden’s victory.

“We won’t go quietly. … I promise,” he wrote, according to prosecutors.

Days later, he wrote: “No Trump...No peace. No quarter.”

During a sentencing hearing on 29 August, US District Judge Tim Kelly ran through messages used as evidence during the Proud Boys trial depicting members of the group using violence as a recruitment tool and then weaponizing their recruits.

Trump tells Proud Boys to ‘stand by’ during a presidential debate in September 2020.

Biggs took Mr Trump’s comments as a signal to “f*** up antifa”. Nordean said it was time to “f****** rage.” Rehl called for “firing squads” for “traitors” who want to “steal” the election. Tarrio said media coverage warning of Proud Boys’ threats of civil war should be “careful what the f*** you ask for”.

“We don’t want to start one,” he wrote, “but we sure as f*** finish one.”

Tarrio also possessed a document called “1776 Returns” with plans to occupy “crucial buildings” in Washington, including House and Senate office buildings, on January 6.

“We need many people as possible inside these buildings,” the document states. “These are OUR buildings, they are just renting space. We must show our politicians We the People are in charge.”

Before he was arrested on 4 January, Tarrio wrote to Biggs: “Whatever happens … make it a spectacle.”

Biggs, Nordean and Rehl marched with a group to the Capitol and broke through barricades. Pezzola seized a riot shield from an officer and used it to break a window, through which the first members of the mob entered the Capitol, according to the indictment. Tarrio wrote he was “proud of my boys and my country.”

“Brother, You know we made this happen,” Bertino wrote to Tarrio that day.

“We influenced people, the normies, enough to stand up for themselves to take back their country and take back their freedom,” he later testified during the trial. “We were always talking about being the tip of the spear, and that was just another example of us leading the way and leading by example. Follow us.”

This story was first published on 29 August and has been updated with developments

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