Soon after members of the Proud Boys, a violent, far-right, all-male movement, charged the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, the national group disbanded and the Justice Department indicted most of its leaders. But the movement hasn’t disappeared.
There are more Proud Boys chapters across the country than there were on the eve of the Capitol insurrection. Members have been participants in close to 200 public events since, ranging from purported charitable activities to acts of violence, according to the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED), a nonprofit crisis-mapping center. A Grid analysis of ACLED data found that 17 percent of these events turned violent.
The Proud Boys believe that the country requires violent upheaval. After the attack in 2021, Canada declared the Proud Boys a “neo-fascist” terrorist organization. The group’s lawyer and “sergeant-at-arms,” Jason Lee Van Dyke, resigned as its agent and as a member. He filed paperwork to voluntarily surrender the group’s trademark because, he said, the group “continued to make its own brand more and more toxic.”
Their role as “key instigators” in the Capitol attack was well documented in real time and over the last year-and-a-half. To date, more than 50 Proud Boys have been indicted or convicted in connection to the Capitol attack. Many have pleaded not guilty as their cases work their way through the courts.
The Proud Boys’ role in the insurrection is expected to feature prominently in Thursday evening’s prime-time congressional hearing. Lawmakers on the panel are expected to show footage of their involvement and speak with witnesses who will explain their role. As Congress prepares to look backward at who the Proud Boys were, the movement is still marching forward.
More local, still violent
The national structure of the Proud Boys has largely disintegrated, experts told Grid.
Without a national organization and leadership, Proud Boys have retreated into locally governed chapters, which have spread rapidly across the country. Their activities tend to be in events taking place in suburban and rural towns, not New York or Washington, D.C
A Proud Boys Telegram channel lists more than 155 U.S. Proud Boys chapters as of this month, though Grid could not verify if the list was authentic or if all chapters were active. Last year, the group had just 72 chapters, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC). The extremist monitoring group had counted just 43 in 2020.
Data collected by extremist monitoring groups indicate Proud Boys are attending local events, sometimes attempting to stage violent confrontations or intimidate others. Their activity is often linked to common right-wing causes, like opposing so-called Critical Race Theory in schools, or pandemic-related mask mandates.
Last September, Proud Boys attended an Orange County, North Carolina, school board meeting called to discuss covid precautions. “One wore a stocking over his face, which completely obscured his entire face for the whole meeting. The other one told our board during public comment that someone should tie rocks around our necks and we should throw ourselves in a river,” Hillary MacKenzie, chair of the Orange County School Board told Chapelboro.com, a local news site in North Carolina.
Since Jan. 6, 17 percent of political events the Proud Boys attended became violent, according to a Grid analysis of ACLED data.
The chapters’ nonviolent engagements sometimes appear designed to show a softer side to the Proud Boys. Chapters have organized an Easter egg hunt and a nationalist serenade for anti-vaccine protesters, among other nonviolent engagements, Vice News reported in January.
“They haven’t been out much,” said Daryle Lamont Jenkins, founder of One People’s Project, an anti-fascist organization that tracks the extreme right. “They’re on damage control, the ‘please don’t hurt us’ tour.”
If that’s right, the group’s members have trouble staying on message. They have engaged in violent confrontation at dozens of protests across the country. Several are facing charges or have been incarcerated for violence committed in events since the insurrection.
In Florida, current and former Proud Boys have ventured into more legitimate political engagement, securing seats on the Miami-Dade Republican Executive Committee. As a result, the panel now includes members facing charges connected with the Capitol riot. According to the New York Times, the group’s foray into Florida’s Republican politics is “by far the group’s largest political success.”
From humble beginnings to seditious conspiracy
Founded in 2016 by conservative media personality and Vice co-founder Gavin McInnes, the Proud Boys grew in size and influence among the far-right fringe throughout the Trump administration, even as they became publicly associated with political violence, misogyny and white supremacy. Its members attended the deadly 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. The SPLC has labeled them a “hate group,” and the Anti-Defamation League calls the Proud Boys “a right-wing extremist group with a violent agenda,” which bears “many of the hallmarks of a gang.” McInnes left the group in 2018 but since then has been spotted at events representing the Proud Boys, Jenkins told Grid.
In New York, a street brawl in 2018 led to two convictions of Proud Boys who are still behind bars. In August 2020, self-proclaimed Proud Boy Alan Swinney committed nearly a dozen acts of violence social justice protests in downtown Portland, Oregon, including pulling a gun on counterprotesters; he’s now serving a 10-year sentence. Two other members are facing state charges connected to violence in Portland.
This week, federal prosecutors filed a superseding indictment against five Proud Boys, including former leader Tarrio, charging them each with seditious conspiracy. The Justice Department alleges they “directed, mobilized and led members of the crowd onto the Capitol grounds and into the Capitol, leading to dismantling of metal barricades, destruction of property, breaching of the Capitol building, and assaults on law enforcement.”
During the attack and afterward, prosecutors allege, Tarrio and the others “claimed credit for what had happened on social media and in an encrypted chat room.” He does not appear to have yet entered a plea on the latest charges, including seditious conspiracy, that were filed this week.
Charging documents include social media posts allegedly made by Tarrio on the afternoon of Jan. 6, while rioters were inside the Capitol, including: “Make no mistake” followed by “We did this.”
The five Proud Boys members had previously been indicted in March on charges including conspiracy. In addition to Tarrio are Ethan Nordean of Washington state, Joseph Biggs of Florida, Zachary Rehl of Pennsylvania and Dominic Pezzola of New York. A sixth man, Charles Donohoe of North Carolina, was also charged in March and pleaded guilty in April and is reportedly cooperating with the government’s investigation.
Ready for their close-up?
The Proud Boys “engaged in extensive calls for violence leading up to January 6, 2021,” according to the House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the U.S. Capitol, which will hold the first of its planned series of public hearings at 8 p.m. EST on Thursday.
Among the evening’s planned witnesses is British filmmaker Nick Quested, who filmed the Proud Boys at the Capitol on Jan. 6.
ABC News, which claims to have seen some of Quested’s unreleased footage, reported that it showed “some of the most infamous Capitol rioters in the hours before they appeared in the halls of Congress.” The footage also shows rioters marching through the House chamber, ABC reported, searching for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) while chanting, “All we want is Pelosi!”
The panel expects the hearings to show that then-President Donald Trump was at the center of a coordinated, multistep effort to stop the peaceful transfer of power from Trump to President Joe Biden, committee aides said Wednesday.
Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.