Five leaders of the far-right street-fighting group the Proud Boys will be locked up for nearly a century of combined time after a judge recently delivered sentences in their January 6 seditious conspiracy cases.
Henry “Enrique” Tarrio, the former leader of the now-dissolved national chapter, will serve the longest sentence to date of anyone involved on January 6 — 22 years — and will be about 61 years old upon his release. Ethan Nordean, Joseph Biggs, Zachary Rehl, and Dominic Pezzola, the other Proud Boys co-defendants in the case, were each sentenced to between 10 and 18 years in prison on various charges. The sentences are a big deal: They signal that there are consequences for helping to lead an insurrection that temporarily interrupted the peaceful transfer of power, and that violence from far-right militia groups — once fringe but now increasingly mainstream — can, in fact, be checked.
The sentences “reflect the danger their crimes pose to our democracy,” Attorney General Merrick Garland wrote in a statement. “The leader of the Proud Boys, Enrique Tarrio, learned that the consequence of conspiring to oppose by force the lawful transfer of presidential power is 22 years in federal prison.” FBI Director Chris Wray echoed the sentiment: “[T]hose who attempted to undermine the workings of American democracy will be held criminally accountable.”
But these rebukes of the Proud Boys from the country’s highest law enforcement officers don’t mean the Proud Boys will disappear. Members will likely lean into a strategy they developed in the wake of January 6: decentralization — dissolving the national chapter and beefing up local ones — in order to mobilize on the front lines of the GOP’s culture war.
“The Proud Boys switched up their tactics dramatically in the wake of January 6,” Cassie Miller, a senior research analyst at the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), which tracks hate groups, told Vox. “They haven’t tried to recreate the events of January 6, but have engaged in smaller-scale demonstrations for the GOP’s cause.”
Instead of rallying for Trump at mass gatherings in the last three years, members have participated in local anti-LGBTQ protests and rallies against drag, including at shows, brunches, and reading hours. They’ve shown up at school board meetings in support of book bans and the movement against teaching antiracism in schools. They’ve counterprotested at rallies over coronavirus restrictions and reproductive rights. In the first six months of 2022 alone, the Proud Boys “counterprotested or harassed people on at least 28 separate occasions at LGBTQ and reproductive justice events around the country together acting as a coordinated attack on gender equity and bodily autonomy,” according to the SPLC.
At protests, Proud Boys often wear tactical gear and carry loaded guns, sometimes leading event organizers to cancel their programs in fear. A coffee shop in Tempe, Arizona, temporarily shut down this year due to an alleged bomb threat over its scheduled drag event. A drag story time event was canceled at the last minute in Columbus, Ohio, last year after the Proud Boys gathered more than 50 protesters and attendees grew concerned about safety despite 100 security volunteers who were prepared to create “a human perimeter around the venue,” according to NBC.
“There is a broader anti-democratic authoritarian movement in the political right, and the Proud Boys still see themselves acting as the muscle for it,” Miller said. “If you see this broader political movement as friendly to your own beliefs, that’s going to be really encouraging and mobilizing despite these really long sentences.”
The 2024 presidential election is still more than a year away, but experts warn that the Proud Boys have already had a negative influence; they say the group continues to loom over the country’s democratic processes. The Proud Boys have normalized violence around elections — intimidation of election administrators hasn’t stopped — and for some, they’ve eroded trust in America’s democratic systems.
“They have dissolved the trust and safety inherent in the entire election process going forward,” said Andy Campbell, author of the book We Are Proud Boys: How a Right-Wing Street Gang Ushered in a New Era of American Extremism. “It’s not just that they delayed an election on January 6, it’s that they’re the reason why you wouldn’t be surprised to see extremists in makeshift body armor and weapons at regular American political events. They’re why families might not feel safe to go to a presidential inauguration. They’re why people from marginalized communities might feel scared to go to polling places.”
A brief history of the Proud Boys’ origin — and why they went local
Since their inception, the Proud Boys have been a street-fighting gang, rallying across America to enact violence. They have been “the right wing’s enforcers in the streets against those who dissent against them,” hate and extremism researcher Jared Holt told Vox in 2018. The group officially launched online in 2016, on a website that neo-Nazi white supremacist Richard Spencer once edited, with a tenet that they are “Western chauvinists who refuse to apologize for creating the modern world.” To achieve a higher rank, Proud Boys were instructed to get into an altercation for “the cause,” an instruction that is foundational to the violence the Proud Boys are now known for. Founder Gavin McInnes embraced the group’s violence in 2018, stating, “What’s the matter with fighting? Fighting solves everything. The war on fighting is the same as the war on masculinity.”
Former President Donald Trump gave the Proud Boys new life when he directed a message to them in 2020. During a September presidential debate against President Joe Biden, hosted by Fox News, he infamously told the Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by” since “somebody has to do something about antifa and the Left.” This made Proud Boys leadership giddy. Tarrio responded, “I will stand down sir!!! Standing by sir. So Proud of my guys right now.” Joe Biggs, who was recently sentenced to 17 years in the seditious conspiracy case, wrote on Parler, a conservative Twitter alternative, “Trump basically said to go fuck them up! this makes me so happy.”
The Proud Boys rallied about 200 members at the Capitol on January 6. The five on trial were part of a small, secretive Telegram group that took an organizational role before and during the insurrection. Ethan Nordean carried a bullhorn. Biggs and others carried walkie-talkies. “They saw themselves as a lead strike force that was organizing the boots on the ground that day,” Campbell said. “This is the threat the Proud Boys pose on the extremist scene. They are really good at collaborating and rallying people together.”
Tarrio, who was miles away at a hotel in Baltimore on January 6 acting as a “general,” created a special chapter of the Proud Boys known as the Ministry of Self Defense and hand-selected members to serve as “rally boys” during the attack, according to the Justice Department. They established a chain of command within the organization and recruited outsiders to delay the certification of the Electoral College vote. The leaders on the ground smashed windows at the Capitol and ushered rioters in. As the day went on, Tarrio celebrated the feat, sending messages to followers online that read, “Proud of my boys and my country” and “Don’t f****** leave.” He told fellow Proud Boys senior leadership, “Make no mistake ... we did this.” Every step of the way, the Proud Boys and their followers executed on what the organization was designed to do: incite violence.
But the Proud Boys made changes after January 6 because of developments with Tarrio and increased scrutiny from the public and law enforcement officials. They disavowed Tarrio, the national chairman at the time, once it was publicly revealed in late January 2021 that he served as an undercover informer for federal and local law enforcement after he was arrested in 2012. That created the impetus for them to dissolve the national chapter. When Tarrio announced he’d be stepping down, he told NPR, “I’ve always said my goal for this year ... was simple. Start getting more involved in local politics, running our guys for office from local seats, whether it’s a simple GOP seat or a city council seat.” The decentralization has allowed the group to evade further prosecution. “With no national leader, investigators must work at the local level to track down members,” Miller said.
In a political terrain that is friendly to the Proud Boys’ anti-democratic beliefs, the groups have gathered members and organized allies for the GOP’s various culture war missions. In the past few years, Republicans, backed by conservative activist groups such as Moms for Liberty, have ramped up fights against critical race theory, the teaching of Black history, books, libraries, sex education, higher education, public education, LGBTQ pride, reproductive rights, trans rights, coronavirus protections, and more. At the same time, some Proud Boys have started to run for minor political offices, winning seats alongside Republican leaders.
As Vice has documented, the Proud Boys have done everything from organize an Easter Egg hunt in a Chicago suburb and toy drives for terminally ill children in Long Island and Miami to “[serenade] a crowd of anti-vaxxers” in Sacramento with a “nationalist ballad.” They’ve shown up as a “menacing presence” at school board meetings about critical race theory.
“When Tucker Carlson points at a local library in Nevada that’s having a drag queen story hour, you’ll see five Proud Boys show up and you’ll also see 100 Moms for Liberty types, neo-Nazis, and other people. These guys are propagandists first and they are great at coalition building,” Campbell said. “People forget that the guy who put together the Nazi rallies in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017 was a second-degree Proud Boy.”
Prison sentences won’t stop what the Proud Boys have already set in motion
For experts tracking the Proud Boys, it was a relief to see the sentences handed down to Tarrio and others, and to see the threat the group poses finally being taken seriously after years of largely unchecked violence. “They have operated, really without any consequences, for most of the time that they’ve been in existence,” Miller said. “It felt like shouting into the void trying to get people to pay attention to the real danger that they posed to communities that they went into, and to our democracy generally, largely because of their attempts to legitimize political violence.”
Previously, the Proud Boys had managed to evade prosecution since, at the local level, cities have sometimes failed to see them as a threat. At rallies over the years, law enforcement oftentimes embraced the Proud Boys and treated counterprotesters, such as Black Lives Matter members, as the threat. “The Proud Boys purposely formed a cozy relationship with law enforcement so that they couldn’t face consequences and that seemed to happen over and over again,” Campbell said. So it wasn’t until January 6 that the broader public recognized how much the Proud Boys had built themselves up.
On Telegram, the Proud Boys’ reaction to the sentences has been somewhat minimal, which Miller suggests is a “coordinated response.” Some members have already distanced themselves from Biggs, Nordean, and Tarrio, saying they weren’t true patriots to begin with or that they stupidly used inflammatory and violent language that made the Proud Boys a target, Miller said. Other Proud Boys are saying the sentences are a sign of the government overreach that’s to come if they don’t stick together and mobilize.
Recruitment is still happening, and their best mechanism for attracting others is violence. According to Miller, when the Proud Boys have gone out and publicly committed acts of violence, people have joined the group in larger numbers. When Nordean, who was sentenced to 18 years for a seditious conspiracy charge in connection to January 6, attended a Portland rally in 2018 and knocked out a counterprotester with a punch, video of the altercation was used to lure new recruits. McInnes, the group’s founder, praised the incident, calling it a “beautiful moment” since they were “mowing the antifa lawn.” The group also continues to recruit by leaning into hot-button political issues on the right, putting boots on the ground to help propel the right-wing apparatus forward. “They’re telling members locally to join so that they can be involved in campaigns in their communities,” Miller said. Certain words, such as “groomers,” bring the Proud Boys out. Any politician on the right who uses extremist rhetoric that targets trans people, for example, which has become part of the mainstream political discourse, is helping to mobilize the Proud Boys, she said.
As for whether a new central leader like Tarrio will emerge, experts are skeptical. “They, along with a lot of online-born extremist forces, will latch onto whoever the loudest carnival barker is at the time. For a long time, they were Tucker Carlson and Donald Trump, but both of those guys have taken a backseat to Moms for Liberty, or to Ron DeSantis,” Campbell said. “They’re looking at who is getting things done; who is the loudest voice in the culture; who is giving voice to the top Republican grievances right now.”
The Proud Boys’ local strategy, and dedication to fighting nonexistent widespread voter fraud, has also disrupted local elections through voter and poll worker intimidation. During last year’s midterms, election officials sounded the alarm over threats that the Proud Boys and other armed militia groups were serving as self-appointed poll watchers. During early voting, a judge in Arizona had to order members of the conservative group Clean Elections USA to stand at least 75 feet away from drop boxes, not follow or talk to voters, or carry guns. Former Proud Boys, and others with ties to the Proud Boys, qualified to serve as poll workers in some areas.
The shadow of intimidation hasn’t gone away. US poll workers are bracing for 2024, after hundreds have faced intimidation, stalking, and death threats over false claims of ballot fraud during the 2020 election. According to some reports, election workers are facing threats even during the relatively quiet moments between elections. An April 2023 survey of election workers found that online harassment and abuse created high turnover, with 45 percent of local election officials saying they fear for the safety of their colleagues. While the Justice Department is taking steps to investigate the threats, it is unclear whether the conspiracy theories about election workers, spread by groups like the Proud Boys, will slow down ahead of the 2024 general election. The high turnover is leading to a loss of institutional knowledge about how to effectively administer elections and count ballots. The turnover has also opened up positions for election deniers.
Ultimately, the Proud Boys are using the moment to stir up anti-government animus in time for 2024. “‘If the state has punished several leaders, including Tarrio who wasn’t even at the Capitol, think about what they will do to you next’ is the gist of their messaging on Telegram right now,” said Miller. “They’re telling others that they better join them because things are going to get worse.”