Conspiracy Charges Bring Proud Boys' History Of Violence Into Spotlight
Leading members of the far-right gang known as the Proud Boys are facing federal conspiracy charges in the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. Ahead of the riot, members of the group called for "war."
Editor's Note: This story includes explicit language.
In June 2018, a member of the Proud Boys punched a counterprotester in the jaw, shoved him into the pavement in Portland, Ore., and sent him to the hospital with a serious concussion.
The counterprotester had used a metal baton to strike first, and the Proud Boys leader, Ethan Nordean, claimed self-defense. In the end, Nordean, a former bodybuilder, faced no legal consequences for knocking out the man.
In fact, the far-right extremist group has celebrated the video of that punch as a rallying cry for more than two years, playing and replaying it, turning it into memes and even at least one painting.
"Violence isn't great," Nordean said not long after the incident, paraphrasing the founder of the Proud Boys. "But justified violence is amazing."
Federal prosecutors now allege that Nordean, 30, along with fellow Proud Boy Joe Biggs, 37, saw former President Donald Trump's calls to overturn the result of the 2020 presidential election as justification to launch a conspiracy to bring violence and chaos to the Capitol on Jan. 6. After years of the Proud Boys largely escaping scrutiny from law enforcement, the cases brought by the government could result in prison time for leading members of the group.
In an April 6 hearing seeking detention for Biggs and Nordean, prosecutors faced skeptical questioning from a federal judge and pushback from defense attorneys, who point out that neither Nordean nor Biggs is accused of attacking police, bringing — let alone using — a dangerous weapon, or personally damaging significant amounts of property.
But prosecutors say Biggs and Nordean pose a danger to the public because of their particular ability to incite fellow Proud Boys and others to commit violence. That forms much of the basis for the government's argument that Nordean and Biggs should be locked up pending trial on conspiracy and other charges.
An examination of hours of interviews and statements from Biggs, Nordean and other Proud Boys leaders shows that in addition to the group's often hateful and discriminatory ideology, violence has always been at the core of the group's identity. But it remains to be seen how years' worth of extremist rhetoric, and at times involvement with real violence, will play into the federal case against the group.
Nordean's lawyer did not respond to NPR. And Biggs' lawyer declined to comment.
The origins of the Proud Boys
From its inception in 2016, the Proud Boys have been steeped in violence. But the group's use of seemingly outlandish rituals and even childish language can mask its danger. The group takes its name from a song in the Broadway musical version of Disney's Aladdin. Nordean goes by the nickname "Rufio Panman," a reference to Hook, the 1991 family movie set in the Peter Pan universe.
"I think the absurdity and the ridiculousness of the Proud Boys is a very conscious strategy," said Cassie Miller, a senior research analyst with the Southern Poverty Law Center. Miller argues that the group uses irony and humor "to inoculate themselves from criticism from people who take them seriously."
The group was founded by Gavin McInnes, a far-right political commentator from Canada who also co-founded Vicemagazine. In a 2017 interview with the podcaster Joe Rogan, McInnes called the group an all-male "gang," focused on drinking. Members sometimes refer to the group as a fraternity, or a "drinking club with a patriotism problem." Like other gangs, members receive nicknames. To reach the second degree of membership, McInnes told Rogan, "we beat the s*** out of you until you can name five breakfast cereals." Online videos depicting the second degree show members punching a recruit in the stomach as he tries to recite brand names like Cinnamon Toast Crunch or Cocoa Puffs.
To reach the fourth degree, McInnes said, "you get arrested or in a serious violent fight for the cause." (During the interview, Rogan responded, "So you're promoting violence?" and told McInnes, "You should erase that part." McInnes has, at times, claimed the fourth degree should be reached only in self-defense.)
The Proud Boys' cause, in the words of the Anti-Defamation League, is "violent, nationalistic, Islamophobic, transphobic and misogynistic." Officially, the group rejects racism and touts the multiracial backgrounds of some members. But they also describe themselves as proponents of "Western chauvinism" — the belief that Western European culture is superior to all others.
"Essentially that translates to 'European chauvinism' or 'European pride,' which would have been the same thing as 'white pride,' that we would have said," said Christian Picciolini, a former extremist who now helps people disengage from the white supremacist movement.
"Proud Boys are probably the closest thing to what I was 30 years ago, and I was a white power skinhead," said Picciolini.
It's not hard to find explicitly racist language from McInnes or connections to overtly white supremacist figures.
For example, in 2016, McInnes called Jada Pinkett Smith a "monkey actress." In 2017, he uploaded a video originally titled "10 Things I Hate About Jews." (After receiving widespread criticism for anti-Semitism, as well as praise from white supremacists, McInnes later changed the title to "10 Things I Hate About Israel" and claimed he had been taken out of context.) Jason Kessler, who organized the 2017 white nationalist Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Va., was a Proud Boy. After a neo-Nazi killed an anti-racism protester named Heather Heyer at that rally, McInnes disavowed Kessler.
In response to questions from NPR, McInnes disputed that any of his past comments were racist or anti-Semitic, describing them instead as "satirical" and "sarcastic."
He also wrote in an email that violence is not core to the group's identity. "The violence you see from Proud Boys is a reaction to the unmitigated violence from antifa that the media ignores," he said, and that "I have encouraged FIGHTING BACK."
He also said that he discouraged the group from any involvement in the pro-Trump rallies on Jan. 6. "I made it very clear the whole thing was a bad idea and implored Proud Boys not to go," McInnes wrote.
Picciolini, who now runs the organization Free Radicals, told NPR that he views the Proud Boys as the "street thugs" of the white power movement.
"They're the ones who attend the rallies and protests to try and intimidate other people — counterprotesters," said Picciolini.
When Ethan Nordean sent that counterprotester to the hospital with a "significant concussion" in 2018, according to a police report first reported by The New York Times, it became a powerful symbol to try to intimidate the group's opponents and recruit new members.
McInnes called it "the greatest punch in the history of Trump's presidency" and called it "art" as he cackled while watching the video on repeat. Nordean also appeared on the far-right, conspiracy-mongering show Infowars, where host Alex Jones called him a "folk hero."
Nordean appeared to embrace the praise and framed the violent brawl as a battle for the future of the country. "This is at least a very soft civil war right now," Nordean told Jones, "and if people don't wake up to what's going on right now, it's going to get worse."
"If you looked at the numbers of people who are joining these groups, they skyrocketed after Nordean's punch," said Miller of the Southern Poverty Law Center. "So this is a really effective form of propaganda. And law enforcement was essentially taking a really hands-off approach."
Later that year, in New York City, multiple members of the Proud Boys faced criminal charges for attacking counterprotesters after an event McInnes hosted. The event involved McInnes reenacting the 1960 assassination of a Japanese socialist leader by a far-right ultra-nationalist. McInnes played the assassin, according to a journalist who witnessed the event.
Unlike the aftermath of other incidents, members of the Proud Boys received prison time. "I know enough about history to know what happened in Europe in the '30s when political street brawls were allowed to go ahead without any type of check from the criminal justice system," said New York Judge Mark Dwyer as he sentenced two members to four years in prison.
McInnes officially distanced himself from the group after the New York incident.
Still, experts say the group continued to grow.
"It's not just about drunken street brawls, but it is about using street violence as a political tool to spread a message," said Devin Burghart, executive director of the Institute for Research & Education on Human Rights. "And they've been pretty successful at doing that up until this point."
Joe Biggs' path to the Proud Boys
Joe Biggs, who is charged along with Nordean, brought a degree of media savvy to the Proud Boys, assisted in the group's growth and also has a history of violent rhetoric.
In court papers, federal prosecutors have described Biggs as a key instigator of Proud Boys' violence with significant sway among its members. "There is simply no adequate method to monitor [Biggs'] communication in such a way that would guard against future attacks by his followers," prosecutors alleged.
Biggs came to the Proud Boys after serving in the Army, where he deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, according to the military. In a 2020 interview with a podcast, Biggs claimed he told an Army recruiter, "I want combat. I want to go to Iraq as soon as possible. I want to kill these motherf******."
He was awarded multiple decorations for his service, including the Purple Heart, the Army confirmed to NPR. During one of his deployments, he told another podcast in 2019, he started getting interested in politics after watching the Sept. 11 "truther" film Loose Change. The film spread debunked conspiracy theories, including that the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks were the result of an "inside job" by the U.S. government.
After leaving the Army, Biggs started working for Alex Jones' Infowars as a correspondent. But Biggs said leaving the military was difficult. "He has struggled with combat-related PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder), depression and some related alcohol problems," his lawyer stated in one court filing.
According to court documents, he joined the Proud Boys in 2018 and became an organizer for the group. Biggs has compared planning for Proud Boys events to "planning to go into a combat zone." His lawyer claimed in a court filing that Biggs was also providing information to the FBI about Proud Boys demonstrations, as well as antifa, around this time.
But his claims of close contact with law enforcement did not keep him from threatening to use force. In one case, he recorded a video of himself holding an American-flag-themed bat with spikes on the end, saying he was preparing to "bust some heads." He also wore a T-shirt with the phrase "Training to Throw Communists Out of Helicopters" emblazoned on the front.
"I'm going to talk s***," Biggs told an interviewer in 2020. "Especially to the people I f***ing hate, that I despise. And yes, I do hate, and hate is a strong word, but that's a good word to use for those people."
Escalating violent rhetoric
After the November 2020 election, the Proud Boys supported Trump's bid to overturn the results, echoed his false claims of widespread voter fraud and escalated their calls for violence.
"It's time for f***ing War if they steal this s***," Biggs posted on social media on Nov. 5, 2020, two days after the election, according to federal prosecutors.
The group also opposed public health efforts to impose new coronavirus restrictions amid a growing wave of new cases. Its rhetoric became even more violent, including toward government officials.
"They're evil scum, and they all deserve to die a traitor's death," Biggs said on a livestreamed Proud Boys show called WarBoys.
"Yup, Day of the Rope," Nordean replied.
The "Day of the Rope," according to the Anti-Defamation League, is a "white supremacist concept" taken from a book influential among racist extremists. The book, The Turner Diaries, depicts a white supremacist revolution, and it has been linked to more than 40 acts of violence and was a direct inspiration for the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, which killed more than 160 people.
Around that same time, in December 2020, prosecutors allege, Nordean and Biggs were two of the Proud Boys planning, raising funds and gathering protective gear and radios for the coming riot at the U.S. Capitol. Prosecutors have said in court that Nordean managed to raise more than $16,000 ahead of the riot.
The group publicly announced ahead of Jan. 6 that members would not appear in their typical black-and-yellow clothing and would instead attempt to blend in with the crowd. Biggs' defense attorney has argued that the decision to go "incognito" was a safety measure in response to a stabbing of a Proud Boys member in Washington, D.C., during a pro-Trump demonstration.
Just days before the riot, Nordean spoke out on his own podcast and emphasized that he was willing to again use violence.
"When police officers or government officials are breaking the law, what are we supposed to do as the people? Discourse? What are we supposed to debate?" Nordean asked rhetorically. "No, you have to use force."
By Jan. 5, federal prosecutors say, Biggs and Nordean had arrived in the Washington, D.C., area and Biggs messaged fellow members of the group: "We are trying to avoid getting into any s*** tonight. Tomorrow's the day."
The government's case against the Proud Boys
Biggs and Nordean are among more than 20 Proud Boys who are facing criminal charges related to the Capitol riot, including charges of conspiracy. Separately, the group's chairman, Enrique Tarrio, is also facing charges in Washington, D.C., for allegedly burning a Black Lives Matter flag at an earlier demonstration and for illegally possessing high-capacity ammunition magazines.
Despite their violent rhetoric in the run-up to the Capitol attack, Biggs and Nordean have not been accused of assaulting law enforcement on that day. The government has primarily alleged that they helped instigate the mob and coordinate the attack, while other members of the group, such as Dominic Pezzola and William Pepe, face charges of assaulting, resisting or impeding certain officers. Another Proud Boy, William Chrestman, is charged with threatening "to assault, kidnap, and murder a federal law enforcement officer."
Nordean's defense attorneys have sought to poke holes in the prosecution's claims of extensive planning by the Proud Boys, arguing in court papers that Nordean's cellphone had died and that he was unable to coordinate any attack on the Capitol that day. They also cite messages sent among other Proud Boys members in which there were complaints about the lack of planning, with one member stating, "This is so unorganized!"
Nordean's attorneys argue that messages among members showed that the group was in Washington to "thwart attacks on supporters of the president, not infiltrate the Capitol Building to commit crimes."
They also cite the words of Michael Sherwin, the former acting U.S. attorney who until recently led the government's prosecution of the Capitol breach cases. Sherwin told CBS' 60 Minutes that while the government believes that the Proud Boys, along with anti-government militia group the Oath Keepers, developed plans for Jan. 6, "we don't know what the full plan is."
Biggs' attorney claimed in a court filing that his client supports law enforcement and "twice came to the aid of a police officer who was being beaten."
Researchers who follow the Proud Boys told NPR that they were uncertain about the degree to which the group may have orchestrated the storming of the Capitol, as opposed to exacerbating an already-chaotic situation.
"I think they saw an opportunity that if this escalated, they had a moment to be a part of that escalation," said Shannon Reid, a professor at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, who has written about alt-right gangs. "But I would be hard-pressed to really believe that they had a true well-executed plan for taking over the government."
Still, even if the planning was haphazard, the events of the day resulted in five deaths, more than 100 injured law enforcement officers and an event that the FBI now describes as an act of domestic terrorism. And prosecutors say they intend to show that the Proud Boys were at the heart of that day's terror.
"It's a group that is trying to create really combustible situations and push them as far as they can," said the Southern Poverty Law Center's Miller. "And on the 6th, that is exactly what they did."
Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.