What now for the Proud Boys? The far-right street gang has a new target after January 6 convictions
On 4 May, Enrique Tarrio, the former leader of the far-right Proud Boys street gang, was found guilty of treason-related charges, alongside three other top figures in the neo-fascist hate group, for their role in encouraging the violent storming of the US Capitol on January 6.
The verdict was among the most high-profile convictions in the Justice Department’s sprawling prosecution of the riot, in which more than 1,000 people have been charged for their role in the attack intended to halt the certification of the 2020 election results and reinstate Donald Trump.
“These defendants saw themselves as Donald Trump’s army, fighting to keep their preferred leader in power no matter what the law or the courts had to say about it,” Conor Mulroe, a trial attorney for the US Department of Justice, told jurors in closing arguments.
The convictions, which join the successful January 6 prosecutions of other far-right militia leaders from the Oath Keepers, may be a major win for the DoJ, but the Proud Boys remain a violent and influential force in American political life.
The January 6 prosecutions have decapitated the group, but its tactics are now morphing and going after a new target on a local level: LGBTQ+ people. The only thing that remains the same is the synergy, somewhere between official and unofficial, between the right-wing vigilantes and the ideals of the mainstream Republican party.
Formed in 2016 by Vice magazine founder Gavin McInnes, the Proud Boys quickly came to function as the muscle of the American right, instigating street fights across the country at protests while using semi-ironic memes and tactics to spread antisemitic, racist, and misogynist ideals, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.
All the while, the group was steadily accumulating influence, collaborating with other far-right groups like Patriot Prayer, and making violent shows of force, mounting a large presence at the infamous 2017 Charlottesville neo-Nazi demonstration.
By 2020, the group was closely aligning with Donald Trump, turning out to conspiracy-driven “Stop the Steal” protests and appearing alongside Trump confidante and adviser Roger Stone, as well as meeting with campaign surrogates, links that were scrutinised by the January 6 committee in Congress.
At the first 2020 presidential debate that September, Mr Trump spoke directly to the group on stage, a moment later seen as a call-to-arms by far-right groups.
“Proud Boys, stand back and stand by, but I’ll tell you what, somebody’s got to do something about antifa and the left because this is not a right-wing problem,” Mr Trump said when asked about the far-right. “This is a left-wing problem.”
Later that year, during riots in Washington, DC, Tarrio burned a Black Lives Matter flag hanging from a historically Black church. Throughout much of 2020, Donald Trump demonised the racial justice movement as “thugs” and in June stood in front of a Washington church holding a Bible shortly after demonstrators were tear gassed near by to clear the way.
By 2021, the Proud Boys were so emboldened they had allegedly hatched plans to take over Washington.
Prosecutors alleged Tarrio was in possession of a document called “1776 Returns” with plans to occupy “crucial buildings” in Washington, including House and Senate office buildings, on January 6.
“We need many people as possible inside these buildings,” the document states. “These are OUR buildings, they are just renting space. We must show our politicians We the People are in charge.”
As prosecutors turned up the heat on the Proud Boys’s most high-profile figures, and Canadian officials went so far as to designate the gang a terrorist entity, the group fanned out across the US at the local level, threatening LGBTQ+ focused events like drag story hours.
According to extremism researchers, in 2022, the group joined or lead anti-LGTBQ+ protests once a week on average, right as GOP leaders across the country were ratcheting up attacks on the LGBTQ+ community through book bans, smearing opponents as “groomers,” attacking gender education, and attempting to ban transgender healthcare.
The group has appeared at or threatened events in Ohio, Maryland, and New York in recent months, where brawls have broken out and LGBTQ+ people have been harassed with vulgar insults.
The shift in tactics is a reflection of the group’s role as unofficial paramilitary backers of whatever the main Republican priority of the day is.
Chuck Tanner, research director of the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights, told the BBC that the recent attacks on LGBTQ+ people show the Proud Boys acting as "far-right muscle.”
"They’re not the movement thinkers out in front, they chase a lot of issues," he said.
Mr Trump, possibly chastened by the swift and forceful condemnation of his “stand by” comments, hasn’t appeared to directly engage with the Proud Boys as he mounts a 2024 comeback run at the White House.
Perhaps out of legal strategy, or genuine disaffection, Tarrio distanced himself from Trump during the trial, as well.
“It was Donald Trump’s words. It was his motivation,” attorney Nayib Hassan told jurors in closing arguments. “It was not Enrique Tarrio. They want to use Enrique Tarrio as a scapegoat for Donald J Trump and those in power.”
Still, despite the distance, Donald Trump still regularly touches on violent right-wing ideas in his campaign.
In March, the former president kicked off his run with an appearance in Waco, Texas, the site of an infamous, lethal standoff between federal agents and armed religious sect members 30 years before which galvanised the modern militia movement.
Observers said the choice meant, as ever, Donald Trump was “playing with fire.”
Mr Trump opened the event with a song in tribute to those in prison for the January 6 insurrection, and speakers spoke in violent terms about the government.
Before Mr Trump took the stage, conservative rocker Ted Nugent delivered a guitar solo version of the “Star Spangled Banner,” but not before asking the crowd for January 6-inspired “moment of silence for the political prisoners in the gulags of Washington, DC, because of jackbooted thugs in our own government.”
During his remarks, the former president avoided mentioning the standoff itself, but offered scattered warnings of sinister forces, World War III, and an apocalyptic “final battle” for America.
“Either the deep state destroys America, or we destroy the deep state,” he added. “We’re at a very pivotal point in our country.”
The conviction of Tarrio and his associates may be a major blow, but it may not be a fatal one to the Proud Boys, who often carried this violent message to the street and attempted to make it literal.
“The Proud Boys’ reputation will certainly be damaged due to the revelations during the trial and today’s convictions, but it won’t signal a death blow to the organization, and we expect their local activity to continue,” Lindsay Schubiner, director of programs at Western States Center, a civil rights group, told The Wall Street Journal.
Additional reporting by Alex Woodward