‘Burn that city to ash’: Why five Proud Boys are on trial two years after January 6

Members of the far-right gang, including its former leader, face up to 20 years in prison if convicted of seditious conspiracy for their roles in the Capitol attack, Alex Woodward reports

Wednesday 11 January 2023 19:05 GMT

Two days before the attack on the US Capitol, the now-former chairman of the far-right nationalist gang the Proud Boys was arrested in Washington DC moments after stepping off a plane from Miami.

Enrique Tarrio was wanted by police after he admitted to tearing down and burning a Black Lives Matter flag outside a historically Black church in the nation’s capital during December riots connected to a protest supporting Donald Trump’s bogus claims that the 2020 presidential election was stolen from him.

On 6 January, 2021, Tarrio watched the insurrection unfold from a hotel in Baltimore. Two years later, he is among five members of the self-described “Western chauvinist” gang charged with seditious conspiracy in connection with the mob’s assault.

After jurors found two members of the far-right militia group the Oath Keepersguilty of seditious conspiracy against the government in November, federal prosecutors are now hoping to convict another high-profile group of rioters connected to the January 6 assault.

Pulling from evidence and testimony from dozens of members and guilty pleas from more than a dozen others, federal prosecutors will try to convince a jury in US District Court that the five men on trial had conspired to forcefully oppose the lawful transfer of presidential power.

Attorneys with the US Department of Justice have argue that the four other men charged along with Tarrio – Ethan “Rufio Panman” Nordean, Joe Biggs, Dominic Pezzola and Zachary Rehl – were among the first rioters to break past barriers on the Capitol grounds shortly before 1pm that day. Video evidence shows Mr Pezzola was the first to break a Capitol window roughly one hour later.

Former Proud Boys chairman Enrique Tarrio, pictured in 2019, is among five members of the gang charged with seditious conspiracy in connection with the attack on the US Capitol on 6 January, 2021
Former Proud Boys chairman Enrique Tarrio, pictured in 2019, is among five members of the gang charged with seditious conspiracy in connection with the attack on the US Capitol on 6 January, 2021 (AP)

The Justice Department argues that rioters who were not connected with the group served as “tools” for the Proud Boys and their alleged plot, which would not have succeeded without “weaponizing the crowd,” prosecutors wrote in court filings.

In a message on Telegram the day of the attack, one group leader wrote “I want to see thousands of normies burn that city to ash today.”

The House select committee investigating the Capitol attack has made similar findings, writing in its report that the Proud Boys “led the attack, penetrated the Capitol, and led hundreds of others inside.”

Who are the Proud Boys?

The group, founded in 2016 by Vice co-founder turned far-right commentator Gavin McInnes, has been accused of using an ironic or self-aware veneer of white male aggression to launder white nationalist, antisemitic and anti-LGBT+ tropes.

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. Recently, members of the group have harrassed drag queen story-telling events at libraries and amplified “groomer” smears aimed at LGBT+ people.

In the wake of the January 6 riots, Canadian authorities designated the Proud Boys as a terrorist organisation.

Members of the Proud Boys join protests against a drag queen storytelling event at a public library in New York City
Members of the Proud Boys join protests against a drag queen storytelling event at a public library in New York City (AFP via Getty Images)

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 at Asbury.

On 4 January, 2021, two days before the insurrection, Tarrio was arrested in Washington DC moments after stepping off a plane from Miami. During the arrest, police found Tarrio was carrying two high-capacity magazines, compatible with AR-16 and M4 rifles, in his bag. Both were empty.

He faced charges of destruction of property and a subsequent charge of possession of a high-capacity feeding device.

Tarrio admitted in comments on Parler and on a Proud Boys-affiliated podcast that he was responsible for burning a church’s sign.

“In the burning of the BLM sign, I was the one that lit it on fire,” he said on the War Boys podcast. “I was the person that went ahead and put the lighter to it and engulfed it in flames, and I am damn proud that I did.”

US District Judge Timothy Kelly has barred prosecutors from discussing Tarrio’s arrest during the trial, but he said jurors will likely review reams of evidence revealing group members’ hateful rhetoric and calls for violence across social media platforms and in public statements – as well as video of the burning Black Lives Matter banner.

‘Stand back and stand by’

Donald 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. Mr Biden 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!!”

Then-President 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.

Jeremy Bertino, a North Carolina Proud Boy who is expected to be a key witness for the government during the trial, testified to the January 6 committee that Mr Trump’s comments were a “call to arms” that helped swell the groups’ ranks “exponentially” afterward.

“Standing by, sir,” Tarrio tweeted in response.

A member of the Proud Boys is pictured wearing a jacket that reads Stand Back Stand By during a march and rally for Donald Trump in New York City in October 2020
A member of the Proud Boys is pictured wearing a jacket that reads Stand Back Stand By during a march and rally for Donald Trump in New York City in October 2020 (Getty Images)

An attorney for Mr Nordean requested that a number of pieces of video evidence be excluded from the trial, including footage of the Capitol and damage to the building, podcast appearances – and Mr Trump’s “stand back and stand by” statement.

Judge Kelly rejected the request.

The motion also asked to exclude Mr Trump’s early morning tweet on 19 December, 2020, promising that a rally on 6 January, 2021 “will be wild”.

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” remark.

“If Biden steals this election, [the 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.”

Where were the Proud Boys on January 6?

Jury selection in the Proud Boys trial began less than a month after jurors reached a verdict in the first seditious conspiracy trial involving members of the Oath Keepers, including its leader and founder Stewart Rhodes, who now faces up to 20 years in prison after plotting to violently subvert the outcome of the 2020 election.

Five members of the Proud Boys will face similar charges of sedition, and prosecutors must prove to jurors that the Proud Boys similarly plotted to violently oppose the government during a joint session of Congress convening to certify 2020 election results.

Prosecutors will argue that Tarrio selected a crew of “rally boys” to work in teams on the ground in Washington DC on January 6; Tarrio himself – kicked out of the capital city by a judge days earlier – is the only defendant who is not accused of entering the Capitol that day.

Trump supporters clash with police outside the Capitol on 6 January, 2021
Trump supporters clash with police outside the Capitol on 6 January, 2021 (AFP via Getty Images)

Tarrio allegedly 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.”

On 29 December, 2020, Tarrio wrote in a public message that his group will “turn out in record numbers” on January 6 “but this time with a twist,” noting that the members would ditch their signature black-and-yellow outfits and “be incognito.”

“And who knows. .. we might dress in all BLACK for the occasion,” he said in an apparent reference to protest tactics from antifascist black bloc groups that far-right opponents have accused of staging the Capitol attack.

After pushing through barricades and police officers on Capitol grounds on January 6, one member – later identified as Mr Pezzola – seized a riot shield from an officer and used it to break a window at about 2.13pm.

“The first members of the mob entered the Capitol through this broken window,” according to the federal indictment.

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

What is the defence argument?

Defence attorneys, echoing similar arguments made by lawyers for the Oath Keepers, have not refuted that Proud Boys broke into the building, but they claim that there was no greater conspiracy to do so, and that such a plan “never existed or could have existed.”

Proud Boys attorneys have also claimed that as many as eight FBI informants within the group were at the Capitol that day. The lawyers want informants to testify to corroborate arguments that the defendants did not have a premeditated plan to storm the building.

“In the media there’s a swirling notion that undercover informants instigated January 6,” attorney Nick Smith told the court on 11 January. “That’s not our belief … I think it’s slander actually.”

Meanwhile, a Connecticut lawyer who defended conspiracy theorist Alex Jones in a defamation case brought by parents of victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre has been barred from the trial after he was recently suspended from practising law in his home state for six months.

Norm Pattis, who is defending Mr Biggs, had previously called his client’s case a “righteous fight” when he joined in June. Justice Department attorneys have tried to keep him out of the Proud Boys trial.

“Defendant Biggs has a right to choose his counsel, but that right is not unbounded,” attorneys for the Justice Department wrote in a filing on 9 January.

“Just as a defendant has no Sixth Amendment right to ‘choose’ a counsel he cannot afford, a defendant has no right to ‘choose’ a counsel that does not have a license to practice law,” according to the filing.

Judge Kelly noted that federal district court rules require that Mr Pattis be in good standing in Connecticut in order to continue working his case with the Proud Boys.

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