A Sunday report in The New York Times reveals that law enforcement officials have shifted their stance toward the far-right Proud Boys in the wake of Jan. 6, having previously played down the group’s capability of doing great harm.
One Proud Boys leader said he had exchanged information with federal authorities on several occasions prior to rallies that often involved violence.
The group’s propensity for violence and extremism was no secret. But the F.B.I. and other agencies had often seen the Proud Boys as they chose to portray themselves, according to more than a half-dozen current and former federal officials: as mere street brawlers who lacked the organization or ambition of typical bureau targets like neo-Nazis, international terrorists and Mexican drug cartels.
“They committed violence in public, used videos of that violence to promote themselves for other rallies and then traveled across the country to engage in violence again,” said Mike German, a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University and a former F.B.I. agent who worked undercover among right-wing groups. “How that didn’t attract F.B.I. attention is hard for me to understand.”
The Times explained that federal authorities often make contact with far-right groups ahead of rallies and protests to dissuade them from showing up, but one Proud Boys leader told the newspaper that this was not his experience with those calls or visits.
To pre-empt violence by other far-right groups, federal authorities have often used a tactic known as the “knock and talk.” Agents call or confront group members to warn them away from demonstrations, sometimes reviving past criminal offenses as leverage.
Enrique Tarrio, the chairman of the Proud Boys, said that federal agents had called or visited him on eight or so occasions before rallies in recent years. But it was never to pressure him to stay away.
Instead, he said in an interview, the agents asked for march routes and other plans in order to separate the Proud Boys from counterprotesters. Other times, he said, agents warned that they had picked up potential threats from the left against him or his associates.
However, Tarrio said no one got in touch with the leaders of the Proud Boys ahead of the Jan. 6 event, despite the group’s previous attendance at Trump rallies in Washington turning violent.
“They did not reach out to us,” he told The Times.
The group, whose total membership is unknown but believed to be in the thousands, has never articulated a specific ideology or dogma. Its rallies, though, feature hyper-nationalist chants about immigration, Islam and Mr. Trump. Its members have lionized Augusto Pinochet, the Chilean dictator, and their events often appear to be thinly disguised pretexts to bait opponents into confrontations.
Indeed, the Proud Boys have made little effort to hide violent intentions. In fall 2018, for example, members of a New England chapter posted notes on the online service Venmo as they paid their monthly dues and transportation costs to an October “Resist Marxism” rally in Providence, R.I.
Following the insurrection, federal law enforcement officials appear to be taking the Proud Boys more seriously.
Two group leaders, Joseph Biggs and Ethan Nordean, “are major targets in a federal investigation that prosecutors on Thursday said could be ‘one of the largest in American history,’” The Times reported.
They face some of the most serious charges stemming from the attack on the U.S. Capitol in January: leading a mob of about 100 Proud Boys in a coordinated plan to disrupt the certification of President Donald J. Trump’s electoral defeat.
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