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The courts are sending a message: January 6 insurrectionists will answer for their crimes

More Proud Boys have been convicted. It’s a strong signal to anti-democracy groups — and to Trump.

Enrique Tarrio, former chairman of the Proud Boys, was found guilty on May 4, 2023, of seditious conspiracy in the Jan. 6, 2021 attack on the US Capitol. He is seen here in Miami, where he lives, on July 16, 2021.
Pedro Portal/Miami Herald/Tribune News Service via Getty Images
Nicole Narea covers politics and society for Vox. She first joined Vox in 2019, and her work has also appeared in Politico, Washington Monthly, and the New Republic.

Five members of the Proud Boys, a far-right militia group, were criminally convicted Thursday for their role in planning the January 6, 2021, insurrection at the US Capitol. Four of the five face seditious conspiracy charges. Their conviction marks one of the rare instances in which federal prosecutors have successfully pursued those charges, and they could be a warning sign for former President Donald Trump, who is under investigation for his role in inciting the insurrection.

The new convictions are the third time in the last year that a jury has convicted those involved in the insurrection of seditious conspiracy, which is defined as a plot involving two or more people “to overthrow, put down, or to destroy by force the Government of the United States ... or by force to prevent, hinder, or delay the execution of any law of the United States.” Members of another right-wing militia group, the Oath Keepers, have also been previously convicted on the charge, as was an additional member of the Proud Boys.

Among those convicted Thursday on the most serious charge of seditious conspiracy were Proud Boys leader Enrique Tarrio, as well as members Ethan Nordean, Joseph Biggs, and Zachary Rehl. They face up to 20 years in prison. Another Proud Boy, Dominic Pezzola, was found not guilty of seditious conspiracy but was convicted of other charges, including assault.

Before the January 6 trials, the last time someone was convicted of seditious conspiracy was in 1995, though there have been several unsuccessful seditious conspiracy trials in the intervening years. The fact that the Justice Department has now been able to secure 14 total convictions on the charge is a major victory for the government and could be a big deterrent to far-right groups contemplating violence. It could also embolden prosecutors to seek criminal charges against Trump; ahead of the Proud Boys’ conviction, prosecutors worked to establish a clear nexus between the Proud Boys’ conduct and the former president’s public statements.

The convictions “send a clear message that political violence will not be tolerated in this country and there will be consequences,” said Stephen Piggott, a program analyst at the Western States Center studying right-wing extremism. “If the Proud Boys were acquitted yesterday, it would have been seen as a green light for anti-democracy groups to further engage in large-scale acts of violence.”

Seditious conspiracy is a rare and serious charge

The Justice Department has so rarely pursued charges of seditious conspiracy, and even more rarely done so successfully, in part because “our fellow Americans rarely try to overthrow the federal government with force, even if many militia-types might often talk about it,” said Michael German, a fellow with the Brennan Center’s Liberty and National Security program.

Extremists thinking about violence typically don’t make credible plans to enact it. And that makes convictions difficult. In other cases where federal prosecutors have brought seditious conspiracy charges against individuals who only stockpiled small arms or improvised explosives, German said, “defendants have successfully pointed to the futility of such an attempt, and judges and juries appear to have seen the charge as a government overreach.”

Reaching a conviction in the January 6 cases therefore required meeting a high legal threshold. The fact that that was possible in these cases sends a clear message: that the insurrection “was not a spontaneous riot by overzealous Trump supporters, but a planned effort by militants to thwart the peaceful transition of power to a duly elected president,” German said.

That could strengthen further criminal prosecutions related to the insurrection, including that of former President Donald Trump. The House January 6 committee issued a seditious conspiracy criminal referral for Trump to the Department of Justice in December. It’s not yet clear that the special counsel appointed by US Attorney General Merrick Garland will pursue that charge.

But prosecutors in the Proud Boys case drew a “clear line in their closing statements” between the now-convicted Proud Boys’ conduct and that of Trump in the leadup to the insurrection, said Norman Eisen, a senior fellow in Governance Studies at Brookings. (Eisen is also one of the lawyers pursuing a parallel civil suit against militia groups and their members, including the Proud Boys.) Prosecutors showed jurors clips of Trump instructing the Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by” and said that the Proud Boys “saw themselves as Donald Trump’s army, fighting to keep their leader in power no matter what the law or the courts had to say about it.”

Those arguments led Eisen to believe Thursday’s convictions “likely further the criminal exposure Trump faces” and are “sure to put the wind in DOJ’s sails” to pursue charges.

What the convictions mean for right-wing extremists

The convictions may give pause to the right-wing groups behind January 6 but are not necessarily an existential blow. In the years since the insurrection, the Proud Boys have switched tactics, trading large rallies in major cities like Portland and Washington, DC, for hyper-local organizing, and a decentralized structure for a top-down one. Despite high-profile members’ legal issues, they’re still gaining significant traction and don’t show signs of slowing down, Piggott said.

The Oath Keepers are more likely to be weakened long term, according to Piggott. That’s in part because their group has retained a top-down structure and their leader was also convicted of seditious conspiracy.

The convictions could also serve as a signal to federal prosecutors who are responsible for investigating and prioritizing cases of political violence, indicating where they should focus their energy. In a 2019 white paper, German describes how the Justice Department “has a history of minimizing far-right violence while aggressively targeting minority activists and far-left protest movements.”

January 6 forced the government to reevaluate that stance. While the Biden administration has taken steps to address narrowly defined domestic terrorism by developing a new national strategy to counter it, other kinds of right-wing violence are still flourishing. Right-wing extremists account for every documented ideologically driven mass killing in the US in 2022, according to a February report by the Anti-Defamation League.

“Hopefully, these successful prosecutions will encourage federal agents and prosecutors to take these groups and others like them more seriously when they start committing violent acts across the country, rather than waiting until they have built the interstate networks and logistical capacity to amass the forces and resources necessary to successfully impede the proper functioning of democratic government,” German said.

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