Proud Boys Trial Is Set to Open, Focusing on Role in Jan. 6 Violence
On the morning of Jan. 6, 2021, as scores of Proud Boys were getting ready to take their place in a pro-Trump mob outside the Capitol, a leader of the far-right group sent a message to his colleagues.
“I want to see thousands of normies burn that city to ash today,” he wrote.
Almost two years later, the notion that the Proud Boys wanted to provoke violence among the “normies” — or the normal people — in the crowd that day rests at the heart of the government’s case against five members of the group who are facing trial on charges of seditious conspiracy in connection with the Capitol attack.
At the trial, which begins with jury selection on Monday, prosecutors intend to argue that the five defendants turned the mob into a weapon on Jan. 6 and pointed it at the Capitol, where lawmakers had gathered to certify the results of the 2020 election, according to court papers and pretrial hearings. It was all part of a plot, the government will say, to stop the lawful transfer of power and ensure that President Donald J. Trump remained in office.
The Proud Boys trial is opening in Federal District Court in Washington less than a month after Stewart Rhodes, the leader of another far-right group, the Oath Keepers militia, was convicted along with one of his lieutenants of seditious conspiracy at a separate trial in the same courthouse, which sits within sight of the domed Capitol building.
While prosecutors could have taken the five Proud Boys to trial on relatively simple charges like trespassing or interfering with law enforcement officers, they instead aimed higher and charged sedition, which carries a hefty 20-year maximum sentence and has much more serious political connotations. But by doing so, the government has assumed the burden of proving that the defendants plotted in advance of Jan. 6 to use force to oppose the authority of the U.S. government or to interfere with the execution of federal laws — in this case, those that govern the transfer of presidential power.
Much as in Mr. Rhodes’s trial, the government’s presentation in the Proud Boys trial will seek to bolster its sedition charges with thousands of internal text messages seized by the government and insider testimony from cooperating witnesses. But the differences between the two proceedings may be more instructive than their similarities.
Understand the Events on Jan. 6
- Timeline: On Jan. 6, 2021, 64 days after Election Day 2020, a mob of supporters of President Donald J. Trump raided the Capitol. Here is a close look at how the attack unfolded.
- A Day of Rage: Using thousands of videos and police radio communications, a Times investigation reconstructed in detail what happened — and why.
- Lost Lives: A bipartisan Senate report found that at least seven people died in connection with the attack.
- Jan. 6 Attendees: To many of those who attended the Trump rally but never breached the Capitol, that date wasn’t a dark day for the nation. It was a new start.
For one thing, prosecutors never accused Mr. Rhodes and his four co-defendants of personally committing serious acts of violence at the Capitol. Instead, they proved that the Oath Keepers plotted to use force against the government by pointing out that the group persistently said a civil war might be needed to fight the administration of Joseph R. Biden Jr. and that on Jan. 6 it stashed an arsenal of high-powered weapons in hotel rooms in Virginia.
But in trying the Proud Boys, prosecutors plan to take a different tack: They will offer the jury a detailed account of how the five defendants — including Enrique Tarrio, the group’s former chairman — led their own troops and other “tools” in the mob into battle at the Capitol and played a central role in breaches of the building and in hand-to-hand fights with the police.
Founded in 2016 during Mr. Trump’s first run for office, the Proud Boys have long described themselves as “Western chauvinists” out to protect American politics from the supposedly corrosive effects of modern liberal culture.
But something else has always simmered beneath that public guise: a toxic stew of male grievance, misogyny, Islamophobia and anti-gay hatred, as well as a veneration of violence that has often boiled over into brawling in the streets.
The government plans to tell some of that history at the trial and to demonstrate how the Proud Boys, under Mr. Tarrio’s leadership, became involved in pro-Trump rallies in Washington after the election. At one of those events, on Dec. 12, 2020, Mr. Tarrio burned a Black Lives Matter banner that had been hanging at a local Black church; other members of the group clashed with leftist counterprotesters, resulting in a Proud Boys leader, Jeremy Bertino, getting stabbed.
A lingering effect of that incident, prosecutors plan to argue, is that it turned the Proud Boys against the police after years of having troublingly close relationships with officers across the country. The government wants to show the jury how the group became disillusioned with law enforcement to explain the events of Jan. 6, when members of the Proud Boys took the lead in assaulting the police.
One week after the December rally, Mr. Trump posted a message on Twitter that announced another protest — which he said would be “wild” — in Washington on Jan. 6. Prosecutors will try to show that the Proud Boys heard the message as a clarion call and sprang into action.
Working with a group of his top lieutenants, prosecutors say, Mr. Tarrio put together a handpicked crew of “rally boys” who would take the lead in the Proud Boys’ efforts on Jan. 6. The rank-and-file members of the group, Mr. Tarrio later said, would work in 10-man teams that day with medics and communications experts.
Mr. Tarrio was not at the Capitol on Jan. 6, having been kicked out of Washington by a local judge after he returned to the city two days earlier and was arrested over the banner-burning incident and for carrying two high-capacity firearm magazines.
But prosecutors plan to argue to the jury that three of his co-defendants — Joseph Biggs of Ormond Beach, Fla.; Ethan Nordean of Auburn, Wash.; and Zachary Rehl of Philadelphia — took the lead on the ground that day. A fourth co-defendant — Dominic Pezzola of Rochester, N.Y. — is best known for having broken one of the first windows at the Capitol with a stolen police riot shield.
As part of the government’s case, jurors are also likely to hear from several former Proud Boys who have since pleaded guilty, including two from North Carolina: Mr. Bertino and Charles Donohoe. The government may also seek to introduce evidence about a document called “1776 Returns” that was given to Mr. Tarrio by one of his girlfriends and detailed a plan to surveil and storm several government buildings around the Capitol on Jan. 6.
Recent court filings suggest that the lawyers for the Proud Boys intend to mount a robust defense. Echoing the lawyers in the Oath Keepers case, their central argument will be to claim that while the defendants breached the Capitol building, they did not plan the attack in any way that rose to the level of seditious conspiracy.
Indeed, the lawyers have claimed in court papers that many of the government’s own witnesses have provided statements to prosecutors contradicting the assertion that the Proud Boys had any sort of plan to assault the Capitol. The lawyers have also maintained that the F.B.I. had as many as eight informants in the group before Jan. 6 and that none of them reported back about an intent to storm the building, raising questions, as one lawyer wrote, about “whether a Proud Boy conspiracy plan” to commit sedition “ever existed or could have existed.”
In a more general sense, the defense will seek to persuade the jury that the Proud Boys are not racist brawlers, as they are often portrayed by the media, but more like what the founder of the group, Gavin McInnes, has long described them as: a patriotic men’s drinking club. At one point, the lawyers had thought they might call Mr. McInnes as a witness for the defense, but that remains unclear.
Still, the jury is likely to get a glimpse of Proud Boys culture as the lawyers relate how dozens of members of the group descended on Washington to support Mr. Trump on Jan. 6, with some of the leaders moving into an Airbnb rental apartment near Chinatown.
As evidence that the Proud Boys had no plan to attack the Capitol, the lawyers may tell the jurors how a musician friendly to the group — Michale Graves, the former lead singer for the punk band Misfits — was supposed to give a private concert at the rental apartment on the afternoon or evening of Jan. 6.
The lawyers have also accused the government of threatening to bring charges against several other people the defense wants to call as witnesses at the trial.
In court papers, the lawyers said they wanted to introduce testimony from Shannon Rusch, a former member of the Navy SEALs who marched with Mr. Biggs and Mr. Nordean toward the Capitol on Jan. 6, and Adrienna DiCioccio, a right-wing political organizer who was also at the building. But they claim the government is still investigating both Mr. Rusch’s family and Ms. DiCioccio, and has effectively scared them away from taking the stand.
The lawyers have raised similar claims about a veteran Washington police officer, Lt. Shane Lamond, who could tell the jury how Mr. Tarrio was in constant contact with him before and during Jan. 6. But prosecutors have been investigating Lieutenant Lamond’s relationship with Mr. Tarrio for several months, and his lawyer has said he will most likely invoke his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination if called as a witness.