The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

What we know about the Proud Boys’ involvement in Jan. 6

Proud Boys members Zachary Rehl, left, and Ethan Nordean walk toward the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. (Carolyn Kaster/AP)

One of the interesting developments in our fragmented media age is the rise of the documentary filmmaker as a point of access. Where once coverage from a network news reporter or newspaper journalist was seen as desirable, the advent of social media has allowed those interested to reach the public directly without moderation. But a movie? That’s different and has a different appeal. There’s an importance to it.

So it is that some of the most intriguing developments related to the Jan. 6, 2021, attack at the Capitol may derive from documentarians who were accompanying figures central to the day’s events. There was the crew accompanying Donald Trump’s longtime adviser Roger Stone who offered insights into both how Stone scrambled to get out of Washington that day and his interactions with members of the right-wing extremist group the Oath Keepers. And there was a documentarian filming members of another extremist group, the Proud Boys, whose experiences with the group will reportedly be a central part of the first public hearing of the House select committee investigating the attack.

The Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers sit at a weird spot in the galaxy of events that surround the Capitol riot. According to federal indictments, each group arrived at a similar approach — be in Washington on that day, ready to fight — through different rationales and with different preparation. Neither was the sole nor necessarily even the central reason that the riot occurred, but that each organization had multiple members who are understood to have participated in the riot prompted federal law enforcement to obtain sedition-related indictments. Members of the Oath Keepers were indicted on such charges in January; a superseding indictment adding seditious conspiracy charges against Proud Boys members was published Monday.

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With the first public hearing scheduled for this week and the Proud Boys expected to feature prominently in the committee’s initial presentation to the public, it’s useful to walk through what we know about the group’s actions in the months before the riot.

It’s worth noting at the outset that the Proud Boys are an independent organization that nonetheless overlaps with Trump’s political world. Stone was friends with Enrique Tarrio, the Proud Boys’ leader in the period between the 2020 election and the Capitol riot. As the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED) has written, “Proud Boys activity has been strongly correlated with the fortunes of former President Trump.” The group had earned a reputation for engaging in street violence with perceived political leftists, but by 2020 its focus was clear: ACLED notes that 97 of the 152 demonstrations in which Proud Boys participated that year “were explicitly in support of then-President Trump.”

Importantly, nearly all of those events came after Trump called on the Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by” when asked to denounce the group during a presidential debate. It is likely that Trump simply fumbled the demand that he ask the Proud Boys to “stand down,” but the group took Trump’s words at face value. From that September debate until the end of the year, the group was involved in 79 pro-Trump demonstrations.

This, of course, includes a number of events after Election Day. As was the case for many Trump supporters, the results of the 2020 contest infuriated many Proud Boys. The superseding indictment released Monday captures some sense of that.

“On November 16, 2020, TARRIO posted a message that read, ‘If Biden steals this election, [the Proud Boys] will be political prisoners. We won’t go quietly. ..I promise,’ ” it reads. Then: “On November 25, 2020, TARRIO reposted a social media post by Joe Biden that stated, ‘We need to remember: We’re at war with a virus — not with each other.’ TARRIO then posted, ‘No, YOU need to remember the American people are at war with YOU. No Trump...No peace. No quarter.’ ”

The Nov. 16 message came shortly after the Million MAGA March that was held in Washington in support of Trump. Members of the Proud Boys participated in that event, characteristically later engaging in street brawls with opponents. Some members of the group acted as bodyguards for Infowars founder Alex Jones.

The Proud Boys returned to Washington on Dec. 12, two days before electors in each state formally cast the ballots that would cement Trump’s loss. Although the protest at that point was smaller, the Proud Boys were singled out as a contributing factor for the violence that followed. Several churches were vandalized, with a Black Lives Matter banner removed from one and burned.

While the Oath Keepers had been planning for an armed response to Trump’s loss for some time, the Proud Boys appear to have been mobilized around Jan. 6 only after Trump tweeted that there would be a “wild” protest in D.C. on that day. According to the government’s indictment, Tarrio and other Proud Boys formed a new chapter of the organization on Dec. 20 called the Ministry of Self Defense (MOSD). The focus, Tarrio said, is “national rally planning.” Trump’s tweet encouraging people to come to Washington was posted Dec. 19.

The group began to prepare. As I detailed in a timeline in March, Tarrio on Dec. 27 created an encrypted chat focused on recruiting members for the MOSD. Another Proud Boys member started a crowdfunding campaign to buy protective gear for Jan. 6. (The details here and below come from federal indictments and are stipulated as having to be proved in court.)

On Dec. 29, Tarrio boasted about the group’s expected footprint on Jan. 6 — and how it would approach security. Proud Boys, he wrote in a public message, would “turn out in record numbers on Jan 6th but this time with a twist. … We will not be wearing our traditional Black and Yellow, We will be incognito and we will be spread across downtown DC in smaller teams, And who knows. .. we might dress in all BLACK for the occasion” — in an apparent effort to be perceived as antifa, a loose-knit left-wing group.

Shortly thereafter, someone sent Tarrio a nine-page plan titled “1776 Returns.” It included plans for occupying a number of buildings in Washington. In a video chat Dec. 30, Tarrio told members of the MOSD that what would happen on Jan. 6 would be “completely different” than the group’s past demonstrations and wouldn’t simply be a “night march and flexing.”

On Jan. 3, members of the MOSD secure chat posted messages about overwhelming the Capitol. “What would they do [if] 1 million patriots stormed and took the capital building,” one wrote. “Shoot into the crowd? I think not.”

The next day, one member posted a voice message in the MOSD chat arguing that the front of the Capitol should be the “main operating theater” for Jan. 6. Tarrio later responded, “I didn’t hear this voice note until now, you want to storm the Capitol.” It’s not clear from the indictment if that was meant as an imperative (“You want to storm the Capitol.”) or as a question (“You want to storm the Capitol?”). The “1776 Returns” document reportedly included a section called “Storm the Winter Palace,” however, suggesting the former was likely.

Several thousand dollars had been raised from a crowdfunding campaign to bring Proud Boys to Washington, and they started to come. Tarrio arrived Jan. 4 — and was quickly arrested for having been the person who burned the Black Lives Matter banner at the December protest. (He was sentenced to five months in prison last August.) Tarrio was ordered to remain outside Washington, but, after being released from jail and before leaving, he met briefly with Oath Keepers leader Stewart Rhodes in a Washington parking garage on Jan. 5. All of what was discussed is not clear, but the Justice Department obtained audio from the documentary filmmakers who were accompanying Tarrio and wrote in a court filing that “a participant referenced the Capitol.”

That evening, members of the Proud Boys discussed plans for the next day, including meeting at the Washington Monument at 10 a.m. According to the superseding indictment, Proud Boys (200 to 300 of them, according to a message posted to a private chat group at the time) were at the northwest entrance to the Capitol complex — ironically near the Peace Circle. Just before 12:53 p.m., a man named Ryan Samsel spoke with one of the Proud Boys leaders at the site, shortly before Samsel upended a bicycle barricade and became the first person to enter the Capitol grounds. (Samsel is the person who also spoke at the scene with Ray Epps, a former member of the Oath Keepers who became a focus of a right-wing baseless claim.)

The Proud Boys pushed forward, pushing past barriers and scuffling with police. In the group chat, others were encouraging them to enter the building. One seized a riot shield from a police officer that he used to break a window of the Capitol at about 2:13 p.m. “The first members of the mob entered the Capitol through this broken window,” the indictment notes. Proud Boys were among that first group.

That evening, shortly before the Capitol was fully cleared, someone sent two text messages to Tarrio.

“Brother, You know we made this happen,” one read, according to the indictment. The other read, “I’m so proud of my country today.”

“I know,” Tarrio replied, later adding “the Winter Palace” — an apparent reference to the plan from “1776 Returns.”

Had no member of the Proud Boys been in Washington on Jan. 6, it’s very likely that there would still have been a violent attack on the Capitol. The group’s presence, though, is emblematic of both cause and effect. Strident Trump supporters who embraced violence as a political tactic, they believed that Trump had seen the election unfairly stolen and came to Washington to redress that injustice.

They were ready, as always, to fight. And they fought.