• The San Juan Daily Star

Even amid crackdown, the Proud Boys are still agitating

By Sergio Olmos, Mike Baker and Alan Feuer

In the months since the siege at the U.S. Capitol in January, federal investigators have looked closely at the Proud Boys, a far-right nationalist group at the forefront of the riot. Agents have pried into the group’s encrypted messages, pored over video footage of their exploits and built criminal cases against at least two dozen members.

The authorities in Canada have joined in the crackdown, designating the group as a terrorist organization, a move that allows the government to seize assets in that country.

The group’s leader, Enrique Tarrio, was sentenced by the local district court in Washington on Monday to five months in jail for possessing high-capacity rifle magazines a few days before the siege and for burning a stolen Black Lives Matter banner after a separate pro-Trump rally in Washington descended into violence in December.

But despite the intensifying scrutiny, an organization that built itself as a band of brothers ready for violent confrontation over what its members see as an assault on Western culture shows no sign of going away. Members have begun regrouping online and joining rallies.

The Proud Boys were established during the 2016 presidential election and gained substantial momentum through the tenure of President Donald Trump, who famously called upon them to “stand back and stand by”; their members were afforded a certain degree of leniency by law enforcement agents who at times favored the group in its conflicts with antifa and other leftist protesters.

That changed after Jan. 6, when a mob of about 100 Proud Boys and their supporters pushed past security barriers at the Capitol and, prosecutors say, took a leading role in helping the larger throng of pro-Trump protesters violently breach the building. Members of the group were at “the tip of the spear,” court papers say, among the first rioters to shatter windows, break down doors and confront the police inside. The FBI has further learned that both before and after the Capitol attack, two Proud Boy leaders spoke of riling up the “normies” — the ordinary people in the crowd.

In the wake of the riot, federal authorities brought the full weight of their powers to bear on investigating the organization. FBI agents have executed search warrants in New York, California, Florida, Missouri and Washington state. Prosecutors culled through hundreds of private messages on apps like Telegram and social media platforms like Parler. Investigators have targeted leaders of the Proud Boys in particular, arresting chapter presidents from Honolulu, Seattle, Philadelphia and the Winston-Salem area in North Carolina.

Among the targets of the federal crackdown have been Proud Boys from the Pacific Northwest, which has a long history as a base for right-wing extremist groups. One of them, Ethan Nordean of Auburn, Washington, has been labeled by federal authorities as one of the leaders of the Capitol attack. Federal agents also arrested two brothers — Matthew Klein and Jonathanpeter Klein — for their roles at the Capitol.

Both Nordean and the Klein brothers were entrenched in the Proud Boys’ world of conflict long before Jan. 6. Nordean became one of the group’s most prominent figures after he knocked out an antifa activist in Portland during a protest in 2018. The Kleins appeared at other events in Oregon, according to prosecutors, including one last year in which the police stopped a truck because it appeared that the men in the vehicle might have been preparing for violent conflict. Matthew Klein, one of the people in the vehicle, was cited for unlawful possession of firearms.

During an event last summer in Salem, the state capital, a group of right-wing demonstrators — including several wearing Proud Boys apparel — chased a smaller group of counterdemonstrators, hitting them and firing paintballs. The Proud Boys later celebrated one of the attacks in video posted online.

Although the Proud Boys have long been among Trump’s most ardent backers, the events of Jan. 6 caused some in the group to reassess their support for the former president. Nordean later told his colleagues, in a group chat obtained by the FBI, that he felt betrayed by Trump for having encouraged the Proud Boys to believe that “great justice” was on the horizon but never following through on the promise.

“I’ve followed this guy for 4 years and given everything and lost it all,” Nordean wrote. “Trump, you left us on the battlefield bloody and alone.”

Since the Jan. 6 riot, the Proud Boys Pacific Northwest chapter, which includes groups in Oregon and Washington, elected to break from the national organization and its national chair, Tarrio, according to a court declaration filed by Daniel Arellano, the president of the group’s Seattle chapter. That move came as Tarrio’s history as a federal informant was suddenly exposed, damaging his standing among many of his peers.

But throughout the turmoil, Tarrio, who lives in Miami, has managed to maintain his grip on power despite a handful of competitors challenging his authority.

Tarrio’s personal troubles deepened Monday with the news that he would be spending a little more than five months in jail.

Tarrio has claimed that support for the group has only grown since Jan. 6 and said he expects the Proud Boys will probably focus less on large public events for the foreseeable future. Instead, he said, along with supporting those being charged with crimes in the Capitol siege, he is exploring a run for office and wants to help Proud Boys get elected around the country.

“People think we are just going to go away,” Tarrio said Monday. “We are not. Like it or not, we are here to stay.”

Stephen Piggott, a researcher who monitors right-wing extremism for the left-leaning nonprofit Western States Center, fears that to be true. “They haven’t waned in their commitment to commit acts of violence,” he said.

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