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The Rise and Fall of the Proud Boys

The far-right extremist group helped mount an insurrection. Then it began to splinter
Mark Peterson/Redux

& ldquo;Let’s take the fucking Capitol.”

A burly, bearded man in a ballistic vest and a baseball cap that says “God, Guns, and Trump” is trying to rally members of the crowd. The man’s name is Daniel Lyons Scott, but he goes by Milkshake. It’s around noon on January 6th, a frigid day in Washington, D.C., and even though most of the men there are wearing orange ski hats and winter jackets, they’re still shifting from one foot to another to keep warm. “Let’s not fucking yell that, all right,” someone else in the video says. Ethan Nordean, who goes by Rufio Panman, after the Lost Boys’ leader from the 1991 Steven Spielberg film Hook, shouts into the megaphone, with the air of an impatient older brother. “It was Milkshake, man. . . . Idiot.” The vlogger shooting the video, Hendrick “Eddie” Block, laughs uproariously. “Don’t yell it, do it,” says someone in the background.

Hours later, according to video footage, they do it. Led by former InfoWars staffer Joe Biggs and Nordean, the men march onto the Capitol grounds, yelling “Fuck antifa” and “Whose streets? Our streets.” At 1:07 p.m., Biggs and Nordean are seen near the front of a crowd surging toward the barriers, eventually overpowering police. Dominic Pezzola, a Rochester, New York, military veteran nicknamed Spaz or Spazzo, breaks a window using a riot shield he’d wrested away from a police officer, allowing rioters to filter into the Capitol. In the video, Biggs can be seen flashing a grin. “This is awesome,” he says over cries of “This is our house.” One Proud Boy livestreams himself half-singing, “Nancy, come out and play,” as if the speaker of the House was the member of some rival Warriors gang. According to federal filings, Spazzo later posts a video of himself smoking a cigar in the hallowed building’s halls. “Victory smoke in the Capitol, boys,” he tells his audience. “This is fucking awesome. I knew we could take this motherfucker over if we just tried hard enough.”

Nordean, Biggs, Pezzola, and Scott are all members of the Proud Boys, a far-right extremist organization with anywhere between 5,000 and 35,000 members, depending on whom you ask. Prosecutors allege that more than 60 people affiliated with the Proud Boys used an encrypted Telegram channel to plan the events of January 6th, including Biggs, Nordean, and Pezzola; Scott was arrested in May and charged with assault on a federal officer, in addition to other charges. Biggs, who declined to comment through his attorney, was charged with conspiracy, obstruction of an official proceeding, and destruction of government property, among other charges, while Nordean was charged with crimes including aiding and abetting destruction of government property (which the judge in a March hearing identified as a “crime of violence”), obstructing an official proceeding, and disorderly conduct in a restricted building or grounds; if convicted, he could face more than 30 years in prison. (An attorney for Nordean declined to comment; Pezzola’s attorney did not respond to Rolling Stone.)

Defendants have argued in court filings that the Proud Boys are a loosely structured organization, and that the storming of the Capitol was a purely spontaneous act. Indeed, in an interview with Rolling Stone, Proud Boys chair Enrique Tarrio claims the FBI is using the group as a “scapegoat” to account for its own failures and that the Proud Boys had never planned to storm the Capitol, attributing their actions that day as a result of “mob mentality.”

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Joseph Biggs [front center, in plaid] seen with fellow Proud Boys on January 6th, 2021, later claimed he shared Proud Boys plans with the FBI in 2019 and 2020. Jon Cherry/Getty Images

But more than 1,500 pages of Telegram chats recovered by the government indicate otherwise, with prosecutors alleging in court filings that Nordean, in the absence of Tarrio — who had been arrested two days prior for burning a Black Lives Matter banner at a black D.C. church — led members “with specific plans to: split up into groups, attempt to break into the Capitol building from as many different points as possible, and prevent the joint session of Congress from certifying the Electoral College results.”

According to court filings, in the weeks leading up to the attempted insurrection, top leaders of the group, including Biggs and Nordean, are alleged to have set up a “Ministry of Self-Defense” to coordinate the plan of attack. “We’re not gonna be doing like a proud boy fuckin’ 8 o’clock at night march and flexing our [arms] and shit,” MOSD member and co-defendant Zachary Rehl said during a December 30th video call, according to court documents. “We’re doing a completely different operation.” On January 4th, another MOSD member instructed the group to “drag them out by their fucking hair” if congressional members attempted to “steal” the election.

That day, Proud Boys members eschewed their trademark yellow-and-black colors to go incognito, a way to confuse “antifa” counterprotesters, they said. But staying under the radar had never been the point. For the Proud Boys, the goal of January 6th had always been to make it clear that Trump’s most rabid acolytes weren’t going to stand by as their man went gently into that good night. And if they helped to orchestrate one of the most violent government coup attempts in American history, in this regard, the Proud Boys succeeded.

Before 2020, what the Proud Boys were and what they represented varied depending on whom you asked. If you asked members of the group, chances are they’d describe themselves as nothing more than a boisterous drinking club or “fraternal organization,” a bunch of bearded, tattooed “Western chauvinists” who were not averse to beating the shit out of the occasional lefty. If you asked far-right figures like Matt Gaetz and Roger Stone, they’d probably call the group enforcers, a necessary security detail that protected them from the threat of the far left. And if you’d asked the anti-fascists themselves, they would have told you the Proud Boys were violent white supremacists, or “nerds who thought they could start a gang,” as longtime activist Daryle Lamont Jenkins puts it.

For years, the Proud Boys operated in full view — selling merchandise on sites including Etsy and Amazon, being quoted in mainstream news publications, and spreading hate on social media — under the guise of semi-plausible deniability. The group trotted out its charismatic and media-credentialed leader, Vice co-founder and cable-news pundit Gavin McInnes, as “evidence” that it was a legitimate group simply trying to fight the scourge of political correctness. “McInnes has always espoused misogynistic views, and I think he saw an opening for himself” with the rise of the men’s rights movement in the 2010s, says Julia DeCook, an assistant professor at Loyola University who studies digital platforms and the far right. The Proud Boys would later play a similar shell game with Tarrio, who is of Afro Cuban descent, citing his leadership role as evidence that it was not a white-supremacist group, despite its anti-immigrant, misogynistic, and Islamophobic rhetoric, and many of its members having neo-Nazi affiliations. “All they have to do is say ‘I’m not racist’ ” to gain credence as a mainstream group, says Jenkins. “It’s one of the biggest things in the conservative playbook.”

For years, the media bought this perception, downplaying the horrific comments and actions of the Proud Boys’ founder and members. And this was by design, with leaders of the organization threatening legal action if they were depicted as violent extremists or white nationalists, even though that is exactly what they were.

“For several years the media has not taken the Proud Boys very seriously,” says Margaret Huang, president and CEO of the Southern Poverty Law Center, which was sued by McInnes for designating the Proud Boys a hate group in 2019 (the SPLC filed to have the suit dismissed in April 2019, according to court filings; the case is still ongoing). “Generally, they were not perceived as a significant problem.” Providing security at rallies for political figures like Matt Gaetz gave them a “brush of legitimacy,” casting them as protectors and enforcers rather than posing a threat of violence, she says.

“Mainstream liberals looked at the warnings of the left and thought that we were crazy. And then it happened. Even now, I still don’t think that people understand the danger that the right-wing groups present.”

The Proud Boys somehow managed to hold onto this air of legitimacy even as they openly attacked anti-fascist activists in cities across the country. “Mainstream liberals looked at the warnings of the left and thought that we’re ludicrous, that we were crazy,” says Luis Marquez, a longtime anti-fascist activist in Portland, Oregon. “And then it happened. And even now, I still don’t think that people understand the danger that right-wing groups present.”

In theory, the undercurrent of rage among the far right following Trump’s 2020 defeat, compounded with the success of the Capitol riots, should have fueled the Proud Boys’ recruitment efforts. To an extent, it did: Telegram channels associated with the Proud Boys saw a massive influx of new users in the weeks following the insurrection. But just as the Proud Boys seemed poised to take over the far-right ecosystem, the group started to fall apart. For one, Tarrio, the group’s longtime leader, was outed as a onetime federal informant, prompting many chapters to declare independence from the organization.

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Proud Boys leader Enrique Tarrio faced rebellion in his ranks when Reuters revealed that he’d been an FBI informant after a 2013 arrest. Mark Peterson/Redux

“We reject and disavow the proven federal informant, Enrique Tarrio, and any and all chapters that choose to associate with him,” read a February statement on one chapter’s Telegram channel. In May, after being designated a terrorist group by the Canadian government, Proud Boys Canada disbanded, issuing a statement denying it was a white-supremacist or terrorist group.

In light of the fracturing of the organization, some of the group’s more openly white-supremacist members started publicly jockeying for power, leading many anti-extremism experts to worry that newly formed splinter groups could become even more radicalized. “This was a group that came out of January 6th super energized,” Alexander Reid Ross, a far-right-extremism researcher and the author of Against the Fascist Creep, told me in February. “But with ensuing stories of conspiracy charges and federal informants, [you] start to see the group deteriorating, one of the chapters splitting off into what’s likely gonna be a more extreme version. I don’t know if it’s the end of the road, but it seems like it might be close to it.” This is the story of where that road began — and of the dark recesses of the internet where it may lead us.

As the mythology of the Proud Boys goes, Gavin McInnes didn’t want to start a violent far-right insurrectionist group. He just wanted to start a drinking club. For two decades, McInnes had carved out a brand as a loudmouthed hipster media mogul, openly and earnestly spouting anti-immigrant, misogynistic, racist rhetoric under the guise of flouting the boundaries of acceptability. In an interview with the New York Press in 2002, he chalked up such rhetoric to Vice’s “punk rock” aesthetic: “We seem really racist and homophobic because we hang around with f–s and n—–s so much. It just becomes part of our vernacular,” he said.

After coming across a copy of Pat Buchanan’s 2002 book, The Death of the West, the already blurry line between McInnes as troll and McInnes as blatant white nationalist became even more ambiguous. “I love being white and I think it’s something to be very proud of,” McInnes told The New York Times in a 2003 profile of Vice. “I don’t want our culture diluted. We need to close the borders now and let everyone assimilate to a Western, white, English-speaking way of life.” McInnes would later cite Buchanan’s book, as well as Jim Goad’s Redneck Manifesto and discredited race theorist Charles Murray’s Coming Apart: The State of White America, as “required” reading on Western culture.

In 2008, Vice officially parted ways with McInnes, citing “creative differences.” In a statement, a Vice representative noted the many years between his tenure at the magazine and the creation of the Proud Boys. “Vice unequivocally condemns white supremacy, racism, and any form of hate, [and] has shone a fearless, bright light of award-winning journalism on extremism, the alt-right, and hate groups around the world,” the representative said. The statement did not comment on McInnes’ work published by Vice.

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Dante Nero was a frequent guest on McInnes’ video podcast but the comedian says he stopped after finding racist memes on the Proud Boys’ Facebook page. “The reality is [McInnes] was spewing this stuff the whole time,” Nero says. Youtube

Following his departure, McInnes carved out a role for himself as a commentator on right-wing cable TV and podcasts, including his own video podcast, The Gavin McInnes Show. His brand was “using really transgressive humor to attempt to create plausible deniability about what, in reality, were bigoted beliefs,” says Cassie Miller of the SPLC. That antagonistic streak helped him build a large young, male, extremely online audience. Dante Nero, a comedian who frequently guested on McInnes’ podcast, initially viewed him as a likable contrarian: “He was a funny dude,” he says, referring to McInnes as an “anarchist, ‘I say blue, he says red,’ type of guy. He really liked when you went against the grain.”

The seeds of the Proud Boys seem to have grown from the podcast, with McInnes first using the term in December 2015 while griping about a “little Puerto Rican kid” singing “Proud of Your Boy,” a hit from the Broadway adaptation of Aladdin, while attending his child’s recital. McInnes mocked the child and his musical selection, calling it “the gayest fucking song,” but it eventually became something of an ironic rallying cry, with McInnes frequently evoking the lyrics. “Proud Boys” became an inside joke among McInnes and his audience, and they started hosting meetups.

The far-right leanings of the group were baked into its aesthetic, with members donning black-and-yellow polo shirts by the late British designer Fred Perry, whose brand has been worn by generations of subcultures, some with far-right ties. (The brand pulled the color combination in the U.S. and Canada in 2019 due to its association with the Proud Boys.) Combining tattoos and beards with the clean lines of khakis and Fred Perrys, the Proud Boys blended aspects of skinhead and punk style with a retrograde, preppy look. “It hearkens back to Reaganism and unhinged capitalism pretty broadly,” DeCook says. “They play a lot with time in their aesthetics. They’re trying to project the past into the present or future.”

The Proud Boys’ first meeting, in July 2016, reportedly took place at Tommy’s Tavern, a somewhat notorious dive bar in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. Although members would later dispute its penchant for both violence and racism, both were present from the group’s earliest days, according to a 2016 profile of McInnes and the Proud Boys in the local publication Bedford + Bowery, in which McInnes boasted that two members at the first meetup became embroiled in a brawl.

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Gavin McInnes at the Metropolitan Republican Club in Manhattan in 2018. Mark Peterson/Redux

McInnes openly referred to the Proud Boys as a “gang” on a 2017 episode of Joe Rogan’s podcast. And though he now claims to have used that word as a joke, it did have many similarities to a gang, such as tiers of initiation rites. The first degree simply involved stating: “I am a Western chauvinist, and I refuse to apologize for creating the modern world.” The second was to withstand a beating while yelling out the names of five breakfast cereals, ostensibly to demonstrate sufficient “adrenaline control.” The third was to get a Proud Boys tattoo, and the fourth was achieved by getting in a violent altercation “for the cause” — bonus points if you got arrested. McInnes came up with the last degree in 2016 after a Proud Boy was arrested for fighting a lefty, leading McInnes to gleefully bring him on the show and proclaim it a requirement for ascension in the ranks. (In an email to Rolling Stone, McInnes claims that Proud Boys were not allowed to “seek out the fourth degree.”)

Despite this seemingly explicit promotion of violence as part of the Proud Boys’ ethos, the rite that got the most media attention was the group’s no-masturbation pledge. In itself, a far-right group advocating for abstinence from self-pleasure is nothing new; there’s extensive history of white-supremacist groups equating masturbation (and the “Jewish-owned” porn industry) with loss of masculinity, and the hugely popular subreddit NoFap, which traffics in such ideology, had been founded years before.

But the person who credits himself with planting the seeds of the No Wanks policy is Nero, the black comic who for some time was known as the “Pope” of the Proud Boys, he says. In 2015 and 2016, Nero frequently appeared on McInnes’ podcast to dispense romantic and life advice, positioning himself as a relationship guru of sorts. At one point early on, Nero says, he told McInnes that he avoided masturbating when he was in a relationship, because it desensitized him from forging an intimate connection with his partner. This piqued McInnes’ interest, inspiring him to incorporate an anti-masturbation stance into his burgeoning Proud Boys ideology.

Like many former members, Nero insists that the organization was not meant to be taken seriously. “It was a group of guys drinking and hanging out,” he says. At various bars in New York, he’d attend gatherings with McInnes’ acolytes, who would pepper him with questions about their sex lives, or lack thereof. “They were young guys, all kind of intellectualizing their fear of rejection from women. They were blaming women because they weren’t interesting or attractive enough to get any attention,” says Nero. He saw his affiliation with McInnes and the group as an “opportunity to access these viewers. I also thought that I could reach them.” He jumped straight to the third degree, getting a Proud Boys tattoo on his neck.

Nero doesn’t recall the group being violent at the time, but Jenkins says its inclination toward violence began fairly early. His first memory of the Proud Boys was outside a pro-Trump art show he attended in downtown Manhattan in October 2016, hosted by far-right troll Milo Yiannopoulos. They were wearing black-and-yellow Fred Perrys, so “I immediately thought that they were trying to be like what they consider skinheads to be,” he says. At one point, McInnes threw a protester out and kicked his phone at him, smashing it on the street; the crowd erupted into cheers of “USA! USA!,” followed by a series of self-congratulatory fist bumps and handshakes. At that moment, Jenkins says, his view of McInnes and his followers shifted from race-baiting provocateurs to “stone-cold thugs.”

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Though Kyle Chapman was kicked out of the Proud Boys three years ago, he is believed to be jockeying for power. Boston Globe via Getty Images

Donald Trump’s election in 2016 only further emboldened the Proud Boys, providing far-right organizations with license to publicly spout extremist rhetoric. “One of the things you got to understand about the fascist right is that when you’re looking at the Trump years, you’re looking at them seeing the last opportunity” to maintain the popular consumption of far-right ideas, says Jenkins. With an openly racist demagogue in the White House, the Proud Boys sought to capitalize on the conservative backlash against the progressivism brought about by the Obama administration. “If you’re the head of the Proud Boys and you’re looking at these mainstream, right-wing circles, you’re looking at an opportunity,” Jenkins says.

In the beginning, the Proud Boys primarily aligned themselves with far-right celebrities like Yiannopoulos, Stone, and Ann Coulter, acting as self-appointed protectors and showing up in force at events where they knew left-wing counterprotesters would appear. After a 2017 talk by Coulter at the University of California, Berkeley, was canceled following outcry from the student body, McInnes called on his “army” of followers to hold a rally on campus. “You fucked up,” he said in a video addressing liberals who protested. “Once again you have created this mythical universe of Nazis on every corner . . . well, we are not allowing that to happen. The show must go on.”

The Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, which ended in the death of counterprotester Heather Heyer, was a pivotal moment in terms of how the Proud Boys presented themselves to the media. A few months prior, McInnes had interviewed Jason Kessler, the rally’s organizer, who would later be filmed undergoing initiation for the group’s second degree. “What’s really under attack is if you say, ‘I want to stand up for white people. I want to stand up for Western civilization. I want to stand up for men. I want to stand up for Christians,’ ” Kessler said on McInnes’ show, as McInnes agreed enthusiastically.

That June, McInnes issued a statement on the Proud Boys’ website disavowing the rally and discouraging members from attending. “I get that it’s about free speech and we want everyone — even white nationalists — to have that right, but I think it’s coming at a time when we need to distance ourselves from them,” McInnes wrote. Nonetheless, some members of the Proud Boys were present at the rally, including future Proud Boys chairman Tarrio, who told a reporter he attended to protest the removal of Confederate monuments but denied attending the infamous tiki torch march.

Following Charlottesville, McInnes was in something of a bind, says Matthew Valasik, an associate professor at Louisiana State University. “No one wanted to take ownership of it.” Two days after Unite the Right, McInnes brought Kessler on his show to accuse him of using the Proud Boys as a front for recruiting for the alt-right.

But the group had already attracted members with white-nationalist bona fides, such as Brien James, a former member of the neo-Nazi group the Outlaw Hammerskins, according to the SPLC, and current head of the Indiana Proud Boys chapter; and Augustus Sol Invictus, the deputy of the group’s now-defunct militia wing, the Fraternal Order of the Alt-Knights (FOAK), who in 2013 slaughtered a goat and drank its blood as part of a pagan sacrifice.

By late 2017, the Proud Boys had also established a presence in the Pacific Northwest, particularly Portland, Oregon, in part because it had aligned itself with Patriot Prayer, another far-right organization that similarly positioned itself as a defender of free speech. “There was a lot of switching and intermingling between the two groups, back and forth,” says Luis Marquez, the anti-fascist activist in Portland. The city has long been a “flash point” for simmering tensions between left-wing activists, far-right protesters, and police, says Hampton Stall, a researcher at Militia Watch: “They knew that when they looked for the enemy, they would find the enemy.” The rallies attracted Proud Boys like Nordean, a Washington native who would later be charged in connection with the Capitol uprising.

The Proud Boys quickly learned to use footage of these violent skirmishes as a recruiting tool by uploading it on YouTube. Members like FOAK founder Kyle “Based Stickman” Chapman, so dubbed for hitting an anti-fascist protester with a stick at a March 2017 Berkeley protest, became mini celebrities on the far-right when footage went viral; similarly, 2018 footage of Nordean punching a counterprotester at a Portland rally was incorporated into a sizzle reel promoted on the Proud Boys’ Twitter account; the clip received more than a million views. Joe Rogan brought up the violent footage on his podcast, which garners 190 million downloads per month, in the context of critiquing anti-fascists’ fighting skills.

Guest appearances on Rogan’s podcast were instrumental to the Proud Boys’ growth, says Juliet Jeske, a student at CUNY’s Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism who has been following McInnes since 2016, and has watched and archived all 407 episodes of his show. On it, McInnes frequently bragged about how many new followers he’d acquired with each Rogan appearance, Jeske says. Though episodes featuring McInnes were deleted from Rogan’s catalog when his show moved to Spotify, Rogan has previously defended his decision to have McInnes on, saying, “I had him on before he was even a Proud Boy. I didn’t even know what the fuck the Proud Boys was” (this despite McInnes having referred to the Proud Boys as a “gang” on a Rogan podcast appearance). In a later interview, Rogan called McInnes “mostly fun.” (Rogan did not return a request for comment.)

“The Proud Boys vocally promoted themselves as violent actors, even in their initiation process,” says one former FBI agent. “It’s unusual for any kind of organization to publicly state its intent to break the law.”

Using violence as a public recruitment tactic represented a huge shift from far-right extremist groups in previous years, says Michael German, a Brennan Center for Justice fellow and former FBI agent who went undercover for far-right militia cases. While historically white-nationalist groups had downplayed violence in order to avoid law-enforcement attention, “the Proud Boys came out and vocally promoted themselves as violent actors, even in their initiation process. It’s unusual for any kind of organization to publicly state its intent to break the law,” he says.

Since many of the Proud Boys were traveling across state lines to attend rallies and openly attack protesters, German assumed that the group “would draw FBI attention immediately.” But across the country, law enforcement appears to have enjoyed something of a cozy relationship with the Proud Boys. In Philadelphia, off-duty police officers were captured on camera mingling with Proud Boys after a rally in support of Vice President Mike Pence; last September, a police officer there was seen shaking hands with a member of the Proud Boys and a group of officers was then seen walking with them to a Walmart parking lot after a rally. (In a statement to Rolling Stone, a spokeswoman said that PPD officers “will be found at most demonstrations, following and flanking the crowds as they travel [to ensure public safety.]” She acknowledged that a PPD lieutenant shook hands with members of the Proud Boys, but said it was aligned with the department’s policy to “engage protesters in a respectful manner that fosters communication.”)

In Portland, police would regularly usher Proud Boys in and out of the areas where rallies took place, to the degree that it turned the heads of left-wing activists. Marquez says that one time, after he was arrested at a protest, he saw a police officer ask one of the Proud Boys for a selfie. (A Portland Police Bureau spokesman denied that the Proud Boys received special treatment, adding that he’d never heard of a Portland officer taking a selfie with a Proud Boy. “If anyone wishes to make a complaint, then there is an independent body that does that,” he wrote, linking to the Portland independent police review.)

A friendly dynamic between groups like the Proud Boys and police is not unusual, says German. “Law enforcement treated violent far-right militant groups at public protests differently than it treated nonviolent anti-racism protesters. The Proud Boys fit in that milieu,” he says. “They would commit violence with law enforcement standing by, and in many cases, [police] appeared to be enabling far-right militant groups to come into their communities to commit violence. Then they’d allow them to leave.”

This attitude also apparently extended to the FBI, which — in light of Trump’s election and Attorney General Bill Barr’s directive to fight “antifa” — failed to fully recognize the Proud Boys as a threat. “Historically, the FBI has not prioritized white supremacists and far-right militant violence within its domestic-terrorism program,” says German. The FBI’s stance on the Proud Boys was reflected by the fact that, in 2018, when an internal memo from the sheriff’s office in Clark County, Washington, suggested the FBI considered members of the Proud Boys “an extremist group with ties to white nationalism,” a representative for the FBI made a public statement contradicting the report, stating that “the FBI does not and will not police ideology.”

The Proud Boys adopted aggressive tactics to combat any insinuation that they posed a violent threat. Jason Lee Van Dyke, the Proud Boys member who by 2017 had started officially acting as the group’s attorney, says that he set up a Google alert for “Proud Boys” and every morning, when he arrived at the office, he’d send legal threats to news organizations that referred to the group as a “white supremacist” or “white nationalist” group. He boasts that they were able to get a significant amount of corrections and retractions from mainstream news organizations as a result. (Van Dyke would later be expelled from the group for, he claims, accidentally doxxing members. He would later be accused of attempting to join the neo-Nazi group the Base in 2019, a claim he refused to comment on.)

It was the organization’s irrefutable bent toward open racism and anti-Semitism that led Nero to ultimately disassociate from the Proud Boys. After joining the Proud Boys’ Facebook page, Nero, saw that it was inundated with racist memes and language, including the n-word. He claims he had no knowledge of any members’ racist leanings prior to this.

Nero confronted McInnes about the racist language on the page. “He seemed as though he was surprised, and that he didn’t know. He said, ‘That’s not what we’re about,’ and blah blah blah,” Nero says. McInnes posted a letter on Facebook discouraging Proud Boys from using such language, but Nero says that after doing a deep-dive into McInnes’ previous podcast episodes, “the reality is he was spewing this stuff out the whole time.” He says he stopped returning McInnes’ calls to go on the podcast, with his last appearance in July 2017. Nero says he has not spoken to McInnes or any other Proud Boys members for years. (McInnes says he was the one who stopped calling Nero, after the latter’s participation in a This American Life exposé of the group in 2017.)

To this day, however, Nero is insistent in his belief that the Proud Boys did not start out as an inherently hateful group. He refers to anti-extremism researchers’ categorization of the group as such as “psychobabble. “It was just a joke,” he says. “That’s really all it was.” In his view, the No Wanks philosophy was designed to empower men, aid intimacy, and help them respect themselves and their female partners. But in developing the group’s ideology, “they cut out whatever they wanted . . . and they left what they didn’t need,” he says.

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Following McInnes’ October 2018 appearance at the Metropolitan Republican Club, Proud Boys and counterprotesters clashed on the streets of Manhattan. Sam Costanza/NY Daily News/Getty Images

In October 2018, the Metropolitan Republican Club, a conservative club in an Upper East Side brownstone in Manhattan, invited McInnes to speak, promoting him on the organization’s Facebook page as a “godfather of the Hipster movement” who had “exposed the Deep State Socialists and stood up for Western Values.” The city’s left-wing activists were furious, graffitiing the building with anarchist symbols hours before McInnes was scheduled to appear, and leaving a note that said, “The Metropolitan Republican Club chose to invite a hipster-fascist clown to dance for them, content to revel in their treachery against humanity.”

True to form, McInnes took the controversy surrounding the event as an opportunity to troll. He showed up at the club carrying a katana sword and wearing glasses with exaggerated slanted eyes drawn on them, a reference to Otoya Yamaguchi, an extremist who had become a meme on the far-right for assassinating the leader of the Japanese Socialist Party in 1960. McInnes left the club sardonically waving the katana at a crowd of 80 to 100 protesters who had assembled outside. Surveillance footage released by the NYPD shows one of the protesters throwing a bottle at some Proud Boys, prompting a group of them to push him to the ground, punching and kicking him. Two members, Maxwell Hare and John Kinsman, were ultimately convicted in 2019 on charges of attempted gang assault, attempted assault, and rioting.

After the fight at the Metropolitan Republican Club, the Proud Boys “became pariahs overnight. They weren’t attacked; it wasn’t self-defense. It was harder to say, ‘Oh, they’re really a men’s group.’ ”

The Proud Boys, Jeske says, “became pariahs overnight,” thanks in large part to footage of the altercation going viral. “They weren’t attacked; it wasn’t self-defense. And it was harder to say, ‘Oh, they’re really a men’s group, they’re not really racist.’ ” The incident left many members scurrying for legal cover, most notably McInnes, who publicly resigned from the group via YouTube a month later. In that video, McInnes positioned his departure as an act of self-sacrifice intended to help his acolytes. “I am told by my legal team and law enforcement that this gesture could help alleviate their sentencing,” he said, adding, “at the very least this will show jurors they are not dealing with a gang and there is no head of operations.” Despite this, McInnes tells Rolling Stone that he still maintains contact with them: “I talk to them. I love them. I still consider them the greatest fraternal organization in the world.”

The group’s reluctance to publicly align themselves with Unite the Right did not stop them from later installing rally attendee Tarrio as head of the organization. The Florida state director of Latinos for Trump, Tarrio who is of Cuban descent who grew up with family members who attributed their conservatism to living under Fidel Castro. Despite his criminal record (he was sentenced to a 16-month federal prison term in 2014 for his role in a scheme to resell fraudulent diabetes test kits), and his propensity for using racial, ethnic, and homophobic slurs on social media, Tarrio was ambitious, charismatic, and well-liked within the organization, with the high-gloss patina of Republican-establishment credentials, making him an ideal replacement for the more mercurial McInnes.

But there may have been a more important reason why he was installed as leader of the group, says Devin Burghart, executive director of the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights: As a Miami native of Afro Cuban descent, Burghart says Tarrio “provided cover from charges of racism and was often used as a shield to deflect those charges of bigotry within the organization.” Tarrio was often quick to tout his race to defend the organization to the media, telling reporters, “I’m pretty brown, I’m Cuban. There’s nothing white supremacist about me.”

As the group grew, it became increasingly decentralized, with each local chapter adopting its own unique flavor. The Pacific Northwest contingent, for instance, “is obsessed with street fighting, with brass knuckles,” says Stall. “Whereas the Michigan group is increasingly looking like a militia, like they’re showing up with long rifles.” Such fragmentation had the effect of making them seem disorganized and less likely to draw a crowd. “What we’ve seen is a decline in the numbers they’ve been able to draw out,” Effie Baum, the spokeswoman for PopMob, a Portland-based anti-fascist organization, told Rolling Stone in 2019. But this impression was misleading. “The important thing to remember is that they were making plans and organizing for the past four years,” says Jenkins. The coronavirus pandemic and the subsequent anti-lockdown and BLM protests across the country “was their time to shine,” he says.

In October 2020, during a presidential debate, Trump gave the Proud Boys even more of a boost. When asked to denounce the Proud Boys, Trump first said he didn’t know who they were, then said, “Proud Boys, stand back and stand by.” The shout-out was the shot in the arm the group needed, taking them from “a fledgling group that was barely holding on” to a far-right organization with the apparent endorsement of the president, says Jeske. The members themselves appeared to agree. “Standing by sir,” Tarrio said on Parler immediately following the debate. “President Trump told the proud boys to stand by because someone needs to deal with ANTIFA . . . well sir! we’re ready!!” Biggs wrote.

Following Trump’s loss in November 2020, the Proud Boys started ramping up their rhetoric. After attending Stop the Steal rallies in November and December, according to an FBI filing, Tarrio began encouraging followers on Parler to attend the January 6th rally in D.C., posting that the Proud Boys would “turn out in record numbers” but go incognito, eschewing their trademark colors; he also posted a meme of men in black-and-yellow engulfed in fire, captioning it “Lords of War.”

Tarrio was arrested on January 4th on an outstanding warrant for burning a Black Lives Matter banner in front of a D.C. church last December. An FBI agent later said that Tarrio was arrested because they had intercepted information he was planning to incite violence at the rally, a claim Tarrio dismisses as “complete and total hogwash.” (He has pleaded not guilty to all charges, despite admitting to burning the banner on his podcast in December.) Tarrio maintains that the posts on Parler were intended to fool the media and left-wing counterprotesters.

Despite Tarrio’s protestations, however, charging documents for the individual defendants paint a picture of an initiative that was, if not well-orchestrated, earnest in its attempt to cause genuine chaos. On December 27th, 2020, according to an FBI affidavit, Nordean posted this on his Parler page: “Anyone looking to help us with safety/protective gear, or communications equipment it would be much appreciated, things have gotten more dangerous for us this past year, anything helps,” linking to a fundraising page.

On January 4th, according to the same affidavit, Nordean posted a video on Parler of himself in tactical gear, with the caption, “Let them remember the day they decided to make war with us.” That same day, in an episode of his video podcast Radio Talk With Rufio, he appears to more explicitly allude to the organization’s future plans when talking about fighting what he viewed as rampant voter fraud: “I think they’re relying on complacency. I think they’re relying on the Facebook posts, and that’s all we’re going to do,” Nordean said of the government, declaring that the Proud Boys would “bring back that original spirit of 1776 of what really established the character of what America is.”

“Democracy is dead?” he later asks. “Well, then no peace for you. No democracy, no peace.”

Since the events of January 6th, more than a dozen Proud Boy members and associates have been arrested and charged for their alleged roles in the insurrection. But it wasn’t the FBI investigation that had the most impact on the group, so much as the revelation, reported by Reuters, that Tarrio had served as an FBI informant following his 2013 arrest. In an interview with Rolling Stone, Tarrio attempted to spin his involvement with the FBI by claiming he named someone involved in a smuggling ring to save family members from jail time. But within the group’s ranks, the efforts to disassociate from Tarrio — and, by extension, the formal Proud Boys organization — were swift.

“We do not recognize the assumed authority of any national Proud Boy leadership including the Chairman, the Elders, or any subsequent governing body that is formed to replace them until such a time we may choose to consent to join those bodies of government,” a number of state Proud Boys chapters, including Indiana, Oklahoma, and Alabama, posted on Telegram. In March, Joe Biggs’ lawyer wrote in a court filing that Biggs himself, known as the flashy enforcer of the group, had contact with the FBI in 2019 and 2020, which was “intended both to inform law enforcement about Proud Boy activities in Portland on a courtesy basis but also to ask for advice on planned marches or demonstrations.” (The FBI declined to comment on any ongoing investigations.)

Reports of Biggs’ work with the FBI had confirmed anti-extremism experts’ suspicions that law enforcement had largely ignored the Proud Boys’ activities or even implicitly supported them. “The sheer level of what they’ve been able to get away with over the past four years is staggering,” says Burghart. “And it’s in large part because they’ve been able to cultivate that relationship with some in law enforcement and some in the GOP.”

As more information emerges about the FBI’s treatment of the Proud Boys, it seems increasingly probable that their attack on the Capitol could have been prevented, despite the claims of some FBI officials. In congressional testimony following the insurrection, for instance, FBI official Jill Sanborn alleged that because of First Amendment protections, the agency did not have the right to track the public social media posts made by right-wing organizations in advance of the January 6th attack, a claim German, the former FBI agent, finds laughable.

“The FBI and Justice Department prosecutors seem to be trying to present the January 6th attack as spontaneous and original, rather than recognizing it was the culmination of many different violent attacks across the country,” he says, citing stabbings and the arrest of 33 protesters and counterprotesters in D.C. a mere month before. “As long as their violence was targeted at antifa, law enforcement was OK with it. It was only when it turned around and they attacked law enforcement that law enforcement took notice.”

Within the ranks of the Proud Boys, the arrests have arguably served to further fray the ties between factions of the group, as well as carve out space for more extremist members to try to take the reins over its future direction. “We’re at a point where there is some kind of entropy,” says researcher Reid Ross. “There’s a lot of coalitions breaking apart. That will lead to new sympathies down the road, but also the more populist members falling away and deradicalizing. In some cases it will lead to more intense radicalization and the desire to act in more extreme ways.”

One potential challenger is Chapman, the former head of FOAK known as Based Stickman. Though Tarrio says Chapman was kicked out three years ago, he attempted to gain control of the group in the fall of 2020 and steer the Proud Boys toward more open extremism, announcing, “We will no longer cuck to the left by appointing token negroes as our leaders. We will no longer allow homosexuals or other ‘undesirables’ into our ranks. We will confront the Zionist criminals who wish to destroy our civilization. We recognize that the West was built by the White Race alone and we owe nothing to any other race.”

Brien James, the former neo-Nazi who is currently the head of the Proud Boys’ Indiana chapter, also appears to be angling for some form of leadership position within the organization. “We all have this speculation Brien James is simply trying to take over,” says Jenkins. “It may not be under the Proud Boys banner, but he’s definitely going to make use of the momentum that the Proud Boys had.”

On his own Telegram channel, James appears to be actively stoking resentment toward current Proud Boys leadership. “What else do you think these guys are willing to do to avoid the consequences of their own actions?” he wrote in one post about Tarrio, Biggs, and Nordean, the latter of whom he said had submitted Telegram chat logs as part of his defense. “What did their leader do when he got himself in trouble a few years ago?” he added, apparently referring to McInnes’ resignation after the Metropolitan Republican Club incident. “Get the fuck away from these people. Don’t communicate with them. . . . Run for the fucking hills.”

In general, as exiles from far-right pro-Trump movements flock to alternative social platforms like Parler and Telegram, anti-extremism researchers are concerned about cross-pollination, particularly the Proud Boys’ attempts to recruit other disillusioned Trump acolytes with a range of far-right ideological leanings. “They’re looking for a potential new well of recruits coming out of the activities of QAnon,” says Burghart, referring to the far-right conspiracy theory positing the existence of a secret left-wing child-trafficking ring. The vacuum left by the anonymous poster Q, who has been silent since the insurrection, “can easily be filled with ideas around the importance of creating a white ethno-state or racial superiority.”

But even though experts say the federal charges may result in many members of the group turning on each other, those who have watched the havoc that the Proud Boys have wrought over the years warn that it would be a mistake to discount them now. “Right-wing extremism is still a threat in this country,” says Jenkins. “We have to recognize it for what it is. If we do not, we’re here again.”

Across the country, members of the Proud Boys are still openly rallying. In April, a Fresno, California, police officer was ousted from the force after he was spotted at a protest with Proud Boys; more than two months after the attack on the Capitol, the Proud Boys and other Trump supporters were reportedly involved in a skirmish with anti-fascist counterprotesters outside the Oregon state capitol. And in May, Nevada’s Clark County GOP canceled a meeting following leaders’ concerns about a potential right-wing insurgency that included the Proud Boys.

This is, effectively, the Proud Boys’ plan for the future, as Tarrio openly admits to Rolling Stone: Rather than retreating from the public eye in light of the organization’s legal issues and reputation for violence, he plans to steer it more toward mainstream politics by running members, including possibly himself, for local office. “There’s a pretty big percentage of people who think like us,” he says, citing the warm reception he and the Proud Boys get from local GOP leaders. “I think we need representation.” Despite the organization’s recent infighting, he says that he, and the Proud Boys, will “be here through fucking sleet or snow.”

Marquez says that for weeks prior to the attempted insurrection, he had watched on Telegram as the Proud Boys had hyped up one another, saying they were going to show up in D.C. and defend the president and overturn the vote. “It’s amazing to me that people would think that they were lying,” he says. Throughout their history, the Proud Boys have “done everything that they said they were going to do. They had shown up for weeks before, prior to January 6th, having open brawls in the street. The intent was clear. So why would you disbelieve them?”

Editor’s Note: The article has been updated to include the most current federal charges against Ethan Nordean. The original criminal complaint against him alleged “violent entry and disorderly conduct on capitol grounds,” however the indictment against Mr. Nordean does not include that charge, but lists additional charges including “destruction of government property and aiding and abetting. The language around his alleged actions on January 6th has also been updated to quote directly from a court filing and to note that this allegation was made at a preliminary point in the prosecution’s case.