Convicted Proud Boys chairman Enrique Tarrio (left), pictured with David Sumrall, founder of far-right media outlet StopHate, who is active in defending the 6 January rioters
As Proud Boys face jail terms for their part in the 6 January riots, the ongoing realignment of forces on the Republican right continues. Leonard Zeskind reports
On 4 May 2023, two years and four months after a far-right revolt inside the Capitol Building, a DC jury handed down four guilty of seditious conspiracy verdicts for leaders of the ‘western chauvinist’ Proud Boys.
Enrique Tarrio, of Afro-Cuban background from Miami, was the chairman but not the founder of the group, Ethan Nordean, from Washington State, Joe Biggs, an organiser from central Florida, and Zachary Rehl, a leader of the group in Philadelphia, were all found guilty of three charges: seditious conspiracy, conspiring to obstruct a congressional session, and of actually obstructing it. Dominic Pezzola, a former Marine Corporal from upstate New York, was found not guilty of seditious conspiracy, but guilty of obstructing Congress. They will be handed sentences in August.
Prosecutors showed that the usual Proud Boys organisational deference to police was changed to open hostility after December 2020. ‘If police block electors from entering a building to cast a vote for Trump, we the people will treat your thin blue line like we do antifa,’ said defendant Biggs. He continued: ‘Get in our way and get walked over.’
The prosecution also had many members of the Proud Boys as witnesses. One of them, said: ‘I believed from my experience that violence was celebrated.’
Defence lawyers argued that there was no organisational plan for 6 January, and that the violence and chaos emerged ‘spontaneously’ out of the ‘herd mentality’ of the crowd. But the prosecution loaded up the witness stand with hundreds of internal communications among Proud Boys members pointing to a violent showdown. ‘These defendants saw themselves as Donald Trump’s army, fighting to keep their preferred leader in power,’ one prosecutor said.
The Proud Boys positive relationship with many Republicans is one of the key factors that separated them from established white nationalist outfits, such as the League of the South or the Stormfront website. As far back as October 2018, the Metropolitan Republican Club in New York City invited Proud Boys’ founder Gavin McInnes to speak. A fight ensued and nine Proud Boys and three protestors were charged. The club issued a statement, defending the Proud Boys.
The latest court decision may change some Republican attitudes to the host of fighting clubs and paramilitary windbags on its perimeter. Already, a host of conservative candidates and blocs of money have emerged to challenge Trump in the Republican primaries. In a head-to-head race with the ageing President Biden, Trump is a sure loser. These winds of minute change may blow the leaderless Proud Boys further to the margins.
According to the Anti-Defamation League, there were 119 active Proud Boys chapters in 46 states at the time of the trial. The national organisation had already shuttered its doors, with a decision to have these chapters adhere to state level leaderships. As has been noted previously, this has opened the doors to more clearly anti-Semitic and white supremacist language in some states.
The moment now belongs to the gay-baiting, male chauvinist politics that lie at the heart of the Proud Boys. Other white supremacists such as Patriot Front and the conservative We the People have joined in the chorus, however. They will grow through public activity against gay people, trans people and women, while the Proud Boys are at home nursing their wounds from the trial. But race-based politics and anti Semitism are likely to push back into the open before the end of the summer.
This could be a time of significant transformation on the far right. The notion of white dispossession, championed since the 1970s by white supremacists, is now openly espoused by Republican candidates such as Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. The recent Supreme Court decision against affirmative action is likely to push racist views into the public eye.
Make America Great Again nationalists remain at a fever pitch, and large sections are as likely as not to ultimately bolt to the Republican Party after 2024, if candidates such as Chris Christie take the lead. As a result, the Proud Boys are unlikely to remain static in the months ahead, and may fragment further.
Leonard Zeskind is the founder of the Institute for Research and Education of Human Rights