The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

As fractures emerge among Proud Boys, experts warn of a shift toward extremist violence

Proud Boys rally in support of President Donald Trump in Washington on Dec. 12.
Proud Boys rally in support of President Donald Trump in Washington on Dec. 12. (Evelyn Hockstein/For The Washington Post)
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As members of the Proud Boys arrived at the foot of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, they gathered as a unified front, donning bright orange beanies and tactical gear and carrying flags and megaphones used to lead chants that rippled through the roiling crowd.

Members of the all-male far-right group, which has a history of violence, posed for photos, displaying the “okay” hand gesture, which has become a “white power” sign, and moved through the crowd together.

Proud Boys leader Enrique Tarrio — who had been arrested and banned from the District on charges related to the burning of a Black Lives Matter banner stolen from a historically Black church — cheered on members in social media posts. The next day, he wrote a message to thousands of followers: “I am with you. We are all with you. You make this country great. Never stop fighting.”

During the first presidential debate Sept. 29, President Trump told the Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by.” Here’s why they are defined as a hate group. (Video: Allie Caren/The Washington Post)

In the weeks since, this unified front has fractured and the very brand of the group has begun to corrode.

Experts who study far-right organizations warn that as members distance themselves from the group, the Proud Boys could metastasize into an increasingly violent organization led by those who have long jockeyed for control.

Cassie Miller, a senior research analyst with the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Project, said the political terrain is shifting in a way that could be friendlier to the organization’s more extreme faction.

“One thing that was made apparent by the insurrection is there is this growing anti-democratic far-right bloc that is willing to use violence and force to push their views,” she said. “We’re seeing a shift back to what the Proud Boys have been practicing for a long time.”

Federal investigators have accused the Proud Boys of leading the charge during the assault on the Capitol. One member, Dominic Pezzola, was filmed using a police shield to smash through a window and encouraging others to climb into the building.

Pezzola and other prominent members of the Proud Boys have been arrested and charged with a litany of federal crimes, including conspiracy charges that allege that the Proud Boys were at the forefront of planning much of the violence that transpired on Jan 6.

The Proud Boys have since instituted a moratorium on participating in or organizing protests. Tarrio has denied that the Proud Boys organized violence at the Capitol.

Late last month, court records surfaced from a 2012 fraud case that outlined how Tarrio had been a prolific cooperator with the FBI and other law enforcement agencies in South Florida. Jeffrey Feiler, Tarrio’s defense attorney at the time, said that Tarrio had worked as an undercover informant in a case related to an immigrant-smuggling operation and that information he provided in another case enabled police to raid multiple marijuana grow houses.

Proud Boys leader once cooperated with FBI, informed on other suspects in 2012 fraud case

Reports of Tarrio’s past life sparked suspicion in the ranks, with some members denouncing him on social media, calling him “a rat” and demanding his removal as head of the organization.

On Feb. 3, the Canadian government designated the Proud Boys a terrorist organization. Bill Blair, Canada’s public safety minister, said that “since 2018, we have seen an escalation toward violence in this group,” adding that the Proud Boys were “hateful, intolerant and, as we’ve seen, they can be highly dangerous.”

As controversies mount, at least five chapters have split from the national organization, announcing their disaffiliation on social media and encouraging other chapters to follow.

The Indiana chapter of the Proud Boys was first. The Alabama Proud Boys, the Oklahoma Proud Boys, the Missouri Proud Boys and the Las Vegas Proud Boys have since disaffiliated and denounced the national group.

“If other states follow this lead we can have a truly autonomous chapter that won’t be liable for the mistakes of the next chairman or the next group of elders,” Brien James, leader of the Indiana chapter and a member of the white nationalist Vinlanders Social Club, wrote to his followers on the Telegram app. “Don’t talk about autonomy. Be autonomous.”

The Three Percenters, an anti-government militia group that is also considered by federal prosecutors to have played a key role in the storming of the Capitol, announced last week that they were disbanding following the Jan. 6 riot. The group’s national council issued a public statement saying the insurrection and subsequent fallout had badly hurt the “patriot movement” and groups like theirs.

The Proud Boys chapters that disaffiliated from the national organization this month cited Tarrio as one of the reasons.

“It’s going to be a lot more difficult for him to maintain control over the group, because a lot of them don’t see him as a legitimate leader anymore,” Miller said. “If you have been outed as having cooperated with the feds, you’re essentially blacklisted in far-right circles.”

Tarrio responded to the defections on Feb. 14, posting a statement on Telegram that rejected the idea that the group was “splintering,” saying, “You will never be able to ‘splinter’ the bonds that have been created by men that have shared their joy, their sweat, their blood and their tears.” The message went on to assert the group’s staying power, saying: “Proud Boys are here forever. I suggest you start figuring that out.”

For years, experts said, Tarrio has sought to legitimize the Proud Boys by encouraging increased involvement in mainstream politics and cozying up to former president Donald Trump. Tarrio joined the Latinos for Trump group, had a prominent seat at a 2019 Trump rally in Florida and posted photos to social media in December of himself at the White House. The Trump administration said Tarrio had taken a public tour and was not invited by, nor did he meet with, Trump.

Tarrio briefly ran for Congress as a Republican and began making branded clothing with Trump’s now-famous line from a presidential debate when he was asked to denounce the Proud Boys and instead told them to “stand back and stand by.”

“Standing down and standing by, sir,” the group wrote on its social media accounts soon after.

Afterward, Tarrio said, the group’s membership swelled. More than 700 Proud Boys attended a December presidential-election protest in D.C. that devolved into violence after dark. It was the largest number of the group’s members to attend a protest in the nation’s capital.

Pro-Trump rally descends into chaos as Proud Boys roam D.C. looking to fight

After the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, experts said, some members of the group that had followed Tarrio’s lead in seeking to nudge the Proud Boys into mainstream politics may turn to the burgeoning far-right Patriot Party as a vehicle for political aspirations.

Richard Schwetz, president of the Lehigh Valley Proud Boys, shared in a chat group for supporters of the Patriot Party that he intends to run for Congress.

“The Proud Boys has become a dirty name and some of the Proud Boys’ members are trying to distance themselves but they still need the infrastructure to set up and bring people over to these new groups and causes,” said Rita Katz, executive director of SITE Intelligence Group, which monitors online extremism. “The Proud Boys are being watched, and they know that. As a result, many of them — including some looking to get into politics — are distancing themselves from the Proud Boys brand and organizing under different names.”

As different factions of the group wrestle with what direction the Proud Boys should take, experts said, more extreme members and influences may push the group to double down on its violent roots.

Jared Holt, a resident fellow at the Atlantic Council think tank who monitors domestic extremism, said the impact the Proud Boys have on American society extends far beyond their in-person events and protests. The group has developed an expansive media operation that includes podcasts, social media accounts with tens of thousands of followers and YouTube shows.

D.C. is becoming a protest battleground. In a polarized nation, experts say that’s unlikely to change.

Although infighting could hamper the group’s ability to turn out hundreds of members to any single event — protests in the nation’s capital, for example — it also allows members with increasingly radical views to access a large network of followers, Holt said.

“If people have hitched their wagons to the Proud Boys and now their local chapter decides to run off the rails and go in a more extreme direction, there will be at least some portion of that group that tags along with them,” Holt said. “There’s a risk that some of the groups that break off of the national organization — should they choose a more extreme approach — could use those broader sympathies within the Republican base to further extremist causes and radicalize more people within the Republican zeitgeist.”

One of the Proud Boys’ most popular Telegram channels, formally called “Proud Boys: Uncensored,” recently changed its name to “Western Chauvinists” — one of the terms the group uses to define the organization, but one that Holt said carries a super-nationalist tone that puts the group “straight into neo-fascist third position.”

Miller, of the Southern Poverty Law Center, said chatter among members of the Proud Boys on social media seems to indicate a growing disillusionment with electoral politics. Many thought Trump had turned his back on them after the insurrection, she said, and do not have faith in other Republican politicians.

She and other experts said that when and how the Proud Boys reemerge from the group’s moratorium on events is likely to be telling of the shape the organization will take in the future.

“The thing you have to remember is the Proud Boys felt untouchable last year. But now, the government is coming after them and many of their members have been arrested,” Katz said. “They feel betrayed and angry, and they’re not going to suddenly become more moderate. They are just going to become angrier. What they do with that anger, how they try to get back the privilege they once had, we’ll have to see.”

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