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Proud Boys leader says he burned Black Lives Matter banner stolen from church during demonstrations in D.C.

Enrique Tarrio, leader of the Proud Boys, center, gathers with demonstrators during a rally in D.C. on Dec. 12.
Enrique Tarrio, leader of the Proud Boys, center, gathers with demonstrators during a rally in D.C. on Dec. 12. (Graeme Sloan/Bloomberg News)

The leader of the Proud Boys, Enrique Tarrio, said he participated in the burning of a Black Lives Matter banner that had been ripped from the facade of a historic Black church during unrest in downtown Washington following a rally earlier this month for President Trump.

Tarrio, the chairman of the male-chauvinist organization with ties to white nationalism, said in an interview with The Washington Post he would plead guilty to destruction of property, pay the church the cost of the banner and surrender to authorities if that criminal charge is filed.

“I’ll fly there on my own dime,” said Tarrio, who was in Miami on Friday, and spoke in a telephone interview days after D.C. police and the FBI posted rewards in their search for people responsible in the case. “I have nothing to hide.”

Tarrio wrote he was speaking out against the advice of his attorney: “So let me make this simple. I did it.”

Thousands of people marched in support of President Trump two days before the electoral college confirmed the 2020 election. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Evelyn Hockstein for The Washington Post/The Washington Post)

A spokesman for D.C. police said the investigation is continuing and they consider the incident a potential hate crime.

Tarrio — who also posted comments related to the burning on two social media sites, Parler and Telegram — said he would not admit to committing a hate crime. He said he was not motivated by race, religion or political ideology, but because he believes the Black Lives Matter movement “has terrorized the citizens of this country.”

Some see obvious racial motivation in destruction of a sign bearing the Black Lives Matter slogan, used to advocate for racial justice and equality.

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: The Washington Post)

Earlier this week, the FBI’s Washington Field Office tweeted it had joined “in partnership” with D.C. police seeking help identifying potential suspects in the incident, and doubled the District’s $1,000 reward. The poster shows pictures of people and a burning banner; Tarrio does not appear to be in those photos.

In addition to his written account on social media, Tarrio posted a photo that he says shows him holding an unlit lighter near a Black Lives Matter banner that is on the ground. The photo shows two other men who appear to be in the process of setting fire to the banner. Tarrio declined to identify or comment on the others.

Arrests made during as Proud Boys roam District streets looking to fight

Police said four churches were vandalized the night of Dec. 12 as the Proud Boys and other groups marched through downtown after a rally by people who want to overturn the presidential election that Trump lost. More than three dozen people were arrested. In one incident, four people were stabbed amid a crowd of Proud Boys and Trump supporters outside Harry’s Bar, which has become a Proud Boys gathering spot.

Earlier this week, prosecutors did not pursue in court a charge of assault with a dangerous weapon that police had filed against 29-year-old Philip Johnson of the District in one of the stabbings. On Friday, prosecutors said they did not charge Corey Nielsen, 39, of Robbinsdale, Minn., who was arrested by police for simple assault in the incident. Authorities said the investigation is continuing.

After the stabbings, authorities said the Proud Boys and Trump supporters roamed through the city looking to fight people; Tarrio said his supporters reacted to being attacked. It was during this time that Black Lives Matters signs were taken from Asbury United Methodist Church and Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church, both historically Black houses of worship.

At least one of the signs was burned in the street.

The banner that Tarrio said he participated in burning was taken from Asbury United Methodist, one of the oldest Black churches in the city, at 11th and K streets NW. On Friday, the stolen banner was replaced during a prayer service outside the church.

Robert Mallett, chairman of the church council, said he would not engage in a back-and-forth with the Proud Boys. “Obviously he knew that was wrong,” Mallett said after being read Tarrio’s social media posting.

“We survived slavery, the backlash to reconstruction, Jim Crow, segregation, we worked through the Civil Rights movement, stood for the anti-apartheid movement — in which two of our pastors were arrested — and we are proud to support a movement that is trying to make the world understand that Black bodies matter as much as White bodies,” Mallet said. “That is back up and it’s going to stay up.”

He added, “I don’t know what the person who perpetrated this crime is suggesting, but we are a church that believes in equality and justice, and while we will pray for him, our activism will remain.”

D.C. police have classified the burning as a destruction of property, a misdemeanor when damage is under $1,000. It is punishable by up to 180 days in jail and a $1,000 fine. A hate crime can add to the severity of the punishment.

Black Lives Matter signs stolen, damaged during pro-Trump rallies

Pressure has mounted for authorities to make arrests. Black Lives Matter and other social activists have accused D.C. police of allowing the Proud Boys the run of the city, which police deny, and complained about the pace of the investigation.

“I’m trying to understand what else we need to do before the police indicate that it’s a hate crime and the information moves forward and we do something about it,” D.C. Council member Anita Bonds (D-At Large) said earlier this week. “Is this being taken seriously?”

On Friday, D.C. Attorney General Karl A. Racine (D) urged federal prosecutors, who have jurisdiction in destruction of property cases, to “prosecute these offenses as hate crimes” when suspects are identified.

Racine wrote acting U.S. attorney Michael R. Sherwin that such destruction “harmed people of color, and every person who lives and works in our city who believes in fairness, justice and racial equality.” He added the acts “were meant to send a message” to Black people and to District residents and should be “met with the full force of the law.”

A representative from Sherwin’s office declined to either confirm or deny an investigation into the incident.

Tarrio said he does not know who tore down the banner, and that neither he nor his members knew the church is predominantly African American.

“We didn’t Google the church and go, ‘Oh, it’s a Black church, let’s target it,’ ” Tarrio said. “The sign was taken down because of what it represents.”

He said: “If they want to get me for destruction of property, I won’t even give them a fight. I’ll tell them guilty.” But he called a hate-crime enhancement “an overreach” and “an attempt to silence us.”

Tarrio said that on previous demonstrations, his supporters had flags and hats stolen and burned in the streets, along with American flags, “and we haven’t seen any prosecution there.”

On his social media post, Tarrio seemed to bait police. “Come get me if you feel like what I did was wrong,” he wrote. “We’ll let the public decide.”

Julie Tate, Craig Timberg, Marissa J. Lang, Julie Zauzmer, Michelle Boorstein and Keith L. Alexander contributed to this report.