Five Proud Boys face seditious conspiracy charges over their role in the insurrection on Jan. 6. The trial may shed new light on their plot — and their ties to the GOP.
The Proud Boys’ seditious conspiracy trial opens Monday in federal district court in Washington, D.C., where five top members of the violent far-right group stand accused of a leading role in the insurrection on Jan. 6, 2021.
The high-stakes trial, which is expected to take at least six weeks to complete, will cover the breadth of the Justice Department’s investigation into the fascist street gang and its alleged plot to upend the 2020 election. Those facing charges include Enrique Tarrio, the gang’s longtime chairman, and four other leaders accused of coordinating and participating in the attack: Ethan Nordean, Joseph Biggs, Zachary Rehl and Dominic Pezzola.
But the implications of this case extend beyond the fate of five extremist leaders and their actions surrounding Jan. 6. It will measure the federal government’s overall response to the Proud Boys — whose six-year parade of violence and bigoted harassment continues today — and the broader extremist threat they represent.
The relationships they’ve secured in law enforcement, right-wing media and the upper crust of the GOP have landed them in a comfortable and supported place in American politics. Their ongoing efforts have served to normalize violence as a justified option in right-wing political campaigns.
In essence, this is as much a case about the events of Jan. 6, 2021, as it is about the crises of political violence and extremism at large.
“The continued efforts of Proud Boys after Jan. 6 to create chaos and incite violence locally and nationally is indicative of the risk the group continues to pose to the safety of communities and individuals across the country,” said Dr. Cassie Miller, senior research analyst with the Southern Poverty Law Center, in a statement released over the weekend.
She continued: “It is of the utmost importance that the Proud Boys, and all those who helped plan and perpetrate the attack on Jan. 6, be held accountable. Without such accountability, our democracy will continue to be at risk.”
The DOJ has already built an expansive case against the group, with evidence that includes their communications via text and social media, and hours of video showing their movements on Jan. 6.
But there could be some new, bombshell revelations once Proud Boys members take the stand in January. The DOJ has secured plea deals from several top Proud Boys, whose testimony could shed new light on the gang’s ties to the GOP — and, more specifically, Donald Trump’s inner circle — in the lead-up to the insurrection.
The Case Against The Proud Boys
There’s no question that the Proud Boys played an outsize role in the attack on Jan. 6. More than 100 members and their allies marched alongside thousands of Trump supporters toward the Capitol that day. Several Proud Boys led the initial charge, identified and breached key defensive barriers set up by law enforcement, clashed with officers, and encouraged others to join them in storming the Capitol.
Two Proud Boys insiders — Charles Donohoe of North Carolina and Jeremy Bertino of South Carolina — have already pleaded guilty to conspiracy and seditious conspiracy, respectively, and have agreed to cooperate with the government in its case against their fellow members.
Those pleas significantly strengthen the basic allegations in the DOJ’s case: The Proud Boys, fueled by the notion that Jan. 6, 2021, would be their last chance to overturn the election in favor of Trump, mobilized members from across the country to Washington in December 2020 and conspired to violently disrupt the confirmation of Joe Biden as president.
Donohoe and Bertino were among several top members who were invited by Tarrio to a series of encrypted chatrooms for planning purposes — one of which was titled “Ministry of Self-Defense” — and it was through these communications that leaders repeatedly implicated themselves in the attack.
“You know we made this happen,” and “1776 motherfucker,” Bertino messaged to Tarrio following the insurrection on Jan. 6, court documents show.
Though Tarrio was not present during the riot itself, the DOJ will seek to show that he played a key role in organizing the Proud Boys’ violent campaign, alongside leaders of the Oath Keepers extremist group, two of whom were found guilty in November following their own seditious conspiracy trial. On top of setting up the encrypted chatrooms, Tarrio also allegedly looked over a planning document titled “1776 Returns” in December of 2020, which detailed a plot to occupy several buildings in D.C. on Jan. 6. He also met with Oath Keepers leadership on the eve of Jan. 6, and separately, has already seen jail time over his role in a violent, pro-Trump Proud Boys march through D.C. on Dec. 12, 2020.
The DOJ contends that Tarrio’s four co-defendants played equally significant but varied roles in planning and carrying out the insurrection:
Pezzola was among the first to breach the Capitol. He was captured on video using a police riot shield — which he allegedly ripped away from a responding officer — to smash a window, through which a swarm of Trump supporters entered the Capitol and began their search for members of Congress inside.
Nordean, Biggs and Rehl were reportedly given leadership roles in coordinating the Proud Boys’ campaign. Among other allegations, they worked to obfuscate the gang’s involvement that day by ordering members not to wear the gang’s colors, black and yellow. As the attack unfolded, they allegedly branched out among the throng, agitating other insurrectionists and encouraging the assault on the Capitol.
The Proud Boys’ defense centers around Tarrio’s relationship with Metropolitan Police Lt. Shane Lamond, an intelligence officer who was tasked with monitoring the Proud Boys and other factions as they gathered in Washington. Lamond was in close contact with Tarrio prior to the riots, and defense lawyers argue that the pair discussed the “purpose of the [Proud Boys’] trip, the agenda, and the location,” according to the Associated Press. They argued that Tarrio’s stated plans for the Proud Boys involved peaceful protest, not violence.
“How can there be sedition if the Proud Boys are informing law enforcement of their plans on Jan. 6?” Tarrio attorney Sabino Jauregui said prior to trial.
But prosecutors revealed that they’d been investigating that relationship for months, and that Lamond could himself face charges. Lamond now plans to invoke his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination if he’s called to the stand, which hamstrings the Proud Boys’ defense, according to The New York Times.
The Proud Boys, The GOP And The Future Of Political Violence
Alongside their own sedition case, the Proud Boys are also a key figure in the federal and congressional overarching investigations into Trump and his cohort’s connection to the attack.
Tarrio maintains a close relationship with Trump ally Roger Stone, who admitted in an interview with this reporter that he’d been advising Tarrio and the Proud Boys through their political ambitions for years.
The Justice Department revealed that the pair was in contact leading up to and on Jan. 6, as well: Tarrio was among dozens in a group chat with Stone that’s existed since 2019, titled “Friends of Stone.” Others included Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes, and allies of conspiratorial talk show host Alex Jones and Mike Flynn, Trump’s former national security adviser.
There are still questions about what Trump knew about the attack and when, and how close extremist groups like the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers were to direct contact with the former president on or before Jan. 6. Stone is currently the Proud Boys’ closest known ally to the White House, and the expected testimony from Bertino and Donohoe could reveal more about that relationship, and further implicate Trump’s right-hand man.
The sedition trial will also help determine what chilling effect, if any, the government’s sweeping Jan. 6 investigation will have on far-right extremism in America, and the increasingly violent anti-Democratic rhetoric coming from the pro-Trump right in recent months.
Despite their leaders in prison awaiting trial, the Proud Boys and other extremist groups have continued to mobilize on the grievances of the GOP and right-wing media. Throughout 2022, they’ve brought violence and harassment to Roe v. Wade demonstrations, events featuring drag queens, abortion clinics and children’s hospitals that feature trans health care programs. Many of these events feature violence at the hands of Proud Boys, who often come armed and alongside other violent factions, including neo-Nazi groups, according to a Vice News investigation.
Meanwhile, GOP leadership has yet to issue a full-throated condemnation of the Proud Boys’ dirty work, or that of their allies. In fact, Republicans have embraced the same brand of political violence as a platform for the party’s future.
Republican leaders joined white nationalists at an annual gala put on by the New York Young Republican Club earlier this month in Manhattan, where they declared “total war” on the left, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.
“We want to cross the Rubicon. We want total war. We must be prepared to do battle in every arena. In the media. In the courtroom. At the ballot box. And in the streets,” NYYRC President Gavin Wax said onstage.
At the same event, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) was met with applause when she declared that the insurrection would have been a successful operation had she led it.
“I will tell you something, if Steve Bannon and I organized that, we would have won,” she said. “Not to mention, it would’ve been armed.”