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During the Proud Boys trial, the US wants to win another incendiary conspiracy case

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When rioters broke into the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, forcing lawmakers into hiding, Proud Boys president Henry “Enrique” Tarrio was miles away, watching the chaos unfold from a Baltimore hotel.

Two years later, Tarrio and four other members of his right-wing group are on trial in federal court in D.C. on charges of seditious conspiracy in a case that will test the limits of a rarely used law. The Justice Department just won victories on the same charge against Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes and a top sheriff’s deputy; three associates were acquitted of seditious conspiracy, but convicted of other crimes.

Once again, prosecutors will try to convince a jury of 12 D.C. residents that the Jan. 6 riot was not the spontaneous outburst of a misguided mob, but an attack on democracy fueled by dedicated extremists. After Rhodes, Tarrio is the most prominent figure to stand trial in an investigation in which more than 930 people have been charged with federal charges. Jury selection in the trial took two weeks. Testimony is expected to begin Tuesday.

The two groups are loose confederations of far-right supporters of former President Donald Trump who showed up at protests across the country in 2020. Members were in contact before Jan. 6, having coordinated at previous pro-Trump events in D.C. that turned violent. Rhodes and Tarrio were in a chat group with Trump confidant Roger Stone that was active during the riot, and Rhodes and Tarrio met in a parking garage the night before the attack. None of the men entered the Capitol on January 6. But the two groups differ in important ways.

Rhodes, a Yale Law graduate, founded his group as an association of veterans and former law enforcement officers loyal to the radical belief that the U.S. Constitution justifies violent rebellion against the government. The Oath Keepers modeled themselves after the military, fielding weapons outside DC for a “Quick Reaction Force” and assigning “commanders” to “missions.” During the process, they emphasized their peaceful presence at previous DC meetings.

Founded by a founder of Vice magazine, the Proud Boys advertise themselves as a drinking club for men who “refuse to apologize for creating the modern world.” From the beginning, members would regularly engage in street fights with political opponents. Matthew Kriner, a Middlebury Institute of International Studies scholar who studies domestic extremism, said many Proud Boys attribute the idea that if they precipitate societal collapse, a fascist government will emerge.

“The Proud Boys always saw themselves as the outsiders who wanted to radically influence the system, rather than the Oath Keepers, who saw themselves as the keepers of the republic,” Kriner said. “The Proud Boys want to be the catalyst of the chaos.” Tarrio was not in DC on Jan. 6 because he was arrested for burning a church’s “Black Lives Matter” flag during a protest in the city in December.

Prosecutors had strong evidence that Rhodes pushed for weeks to keep Trump in power by force, but less evidence of planning or involvement in violence specifically on January 6. Oath Keepers, but was nevertheless used by the group to further its incendiary goals. In contrast, the strongest evidence against the Proud Boys comes on and around January 6, when they spoke of storming the Capitol and members of the group using violence. The government’s challenge will be to link that to a wider political conspiracy.

The Proud Boys trial is expected to provide a new, more panoramic look at the violence around the Capitol on January 6, drawn from the cases of more than 48 Proud Boys members or associates who have been charged, and at least 16 who are at fault known .

“Actions often speak louder than words, and in this case you have clear acts of violence in an attempt to influence government politics or change our social fabric,” said Tom O’Conner, who has researched domestic and international terrorism . for two decades with the FBI. “I think their talk of changing society, along with the violence, could potentially meet the standard” of incendiary conspiracy.

The trial could also clarify the security flaws that made the Capitol so vulnerable to attack. The House committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack wrote in its December report that federal law enforcement and intelligence agencies “successfully uncovered planning for potential violence on Jan. 6, including planning specifically by the Proud Boys.” Defendants have said that a DC police lieutenant named Shane Lamond was aware of their January 6 preparations; A criminal investigation into Lamond is underway.

Like the Oath Keepers, the Proud Boys say their plans for January 6 were defensive, not offensive.

On December 19, after Trump tweeted that January 6 would be “wild” in DC, a defendant told Tarrio to stop “recruiting.”[ing] losers who want to drink… and get real men,” the court records said. They formed a smaller leadership group to prepare.

John Stewart, a Proud Boy who works with the Justice Department, told other leaders on Jan. 3 that “the main operating room … should be in front of the Capitol.” The next day, court records show, Tarrio replied, “You want to storm the Capitol.” Tarrio was also given a blueprint for occupying government buildings based on the Russian Revolution of 1917; after the riot, he seemed to refer to that idea by comparing the attack to the storming of the Russian Emperor’s Winter Palace.

While the Oath Keepers defendants provided security for speakers at Trump’s rally at the Ellipse on Jan. 6, the Proud Boys headed to the Capitol before the speeches were over. According to prosecutors, the four men charged along with Tarrio — Ethan Nordean, of Auburn, Washington; Joe Biggs, of Ormond Beach, Fla., Dominic Pezzola, of Rochester, NY, and Zachary Rehl, of Philadelphia — were part of the first breach of barriers blocking access to the Capitol grounds, at 12:53 p.m. 6 January. Video evidence indicates that Pezzola was the first to smash a window of the building at 2:12 p.m.

None of the Oath Keepers on trial in the recent seditious conspiracy case were charged with assaulting police; that’s all the Proud Boys. (An Oath Keeper was charged with obstructing police in the building, a crime she admitted and apologized for in the stands.)

“Unlike the Proud Boys, we don’t do … street brawls,” Rhodes told the House committee investigating Jan. 6, in an interview released last month. He said he pulled out of an event in Portland with the Proud Boys because “a notorious ex-Nazi” was involved.

“I don’t believe Proud Boys are white nationalists,” Rhodes said. “I think they got sloppy and let white nationalists infiltrate their group.”

During the trial, the Justice Department wants to use videos of violence and destruction caused by people not affiliated with the Proud Boys, but which prosecutors say served as “tools” for the group. The Proud Boys would never have succeeded in breaching the Capitol without “arming the mob,” prosecutors wrote in court documents.

Released videos show Proud Boys leader Enrique Tarrio meeting with Oath Keepers leader Stewart Rhodes the day before the attack on the Capitol. (Video: U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia)

The same story is repeated in the report of the House of Representatives. “The Proud Boys led the charge, forced their way into the Capitol and led hundreds of others in,” the lawmakers wrote.

The Proud Boys say they cannot be held responsible for the actions of others in a large crowd. They are also trying to limit the introduction of evidence that members of the Proud Boys engaged in violence during previous DC protests, used racist and sexist language, and made derogatory comments about liberals and Democrats.

“The Proud Boys group is one of the most reviled in the country,” Nordean’s attorney wrote in a file, and the government’s evidence is “designed to arouse the rage, emotion and partisan prejudice of the jury. “

Judge Timothy B. Kelly has said he will decide if the evidence is admissible at trial once it comes in. But he barred prosecutors from saying why Tarrio was arrested before Jan. 6, while allowing some “offensive” language. “The jury has a right to hear the way these defendants speak,” he said at a hearing.

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