Proud Boys' Violent Past In Spotlight In Jan. 6 Capitol Riot Conspiracy Case 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."

Conspiracy Charges Bring Proud Boys' History Of Violence Into Spotlight

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Now to the latest on the government's investigation into the attack on the U.S. Capitol on January 6. An NPR review of court filings finds that the government has charged more than two dozen members of the group, the Proud Boys. The Justice Department has accused some leaders of the far-right extremist group of conspiracy and cited their violent rhetoric leading up to the Capitol attack. As NPR investigative correspondent Tom Dreisbach reports, the group has been steeped in violence from the very beginning.

TOM DREISBACH, BYLINE: The history of the pro-Trump, pro-nationalism Proud Boys actually starts with a Canadian - a guy named Gavin McInnes.

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GAVIN MCINNES: I started this gang called the Proud Boys, and...

JOE ROGAN: The Proud Boys?

MCINNES: The Proud Boys.

ROGAN: What is - what's Proud Boys about?

MCINNES: We have chapters all over the world.

DREISBACH: This is McInnes talking to podcaster Joe Rogan in 2017. McInnes is a far-right media commentator - co-founded Vice magazine. He's also been widely criticized for racist, anti-immigrant, misogynistic and hateful rants that he claims are just sarcastic or satire. He described the Proud Boys as a hard-drinking, anti-PC fraternity. And from the beginning, violence has been a key part of the group's identity. Here's what McInnes told Rogan about reaching the fourth degree of membership.

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MCINNES: And then fourth degree, you get arrested or in a serious, violent fight for the...

ROGAN: Really?

MCINNES: Yes.

ROGAN: You get arrested in a serious, violent fight. So you're promoting violence?

MCINNES: Or some sort of major altercation.

DREISBACH: McInnes officially distanced himself from the group in 2018 after a violent incident in New York, which resulted in prison time for some Proud Boys. He told NPR in an email that he has only ever encouraged, quote, "fighting back." He wrote that in all caps. But he has not always emphasized that part, like in this 2017 interview with Newsmax.

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MCINNES: And I cannot recommend violence enough. It is a really effective way to solve problems.

DREISBACH: Officially, the group denies that it's racist. The Proud Boys like to say they're Western chauvinists, and, quote, "the West is best."

CHRISTIAN PICCIOLINI: So essentially, that translates to European chauvinism or European pride, which would have been the same thing as white pride that we would have said.

DREISBACH: That's Christian Picciolini, a former extremist who now helps people disengage from hate groups.

PICCIOLINI: Proud Boys are probably the closest thing to what I was 30 years ago, and I was a white power skinhead.

DREISBACH: Picciolini views the Proud Boys as basically just a new flavor of racist street thugs. Over the last four years, the group has been involved in violent street brawls at protests around the country, and researchers say they've largely escaped legal consequences. In fact, those brawls helped one Proud Boy get famous on the far right.

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DREISBACH: It was June 2018, and a Proud Boy named Ethan Nordean was on the streets of Portland, Ore. A counterdemonstrator tried to strike Nordean with a metal baton, and Nordean responded by punching the man in the face and shoving him into the pavement. The man suffered a serious concussion, but Nordean faced no consequences. He claimed self-defense and was never charged. In fact, on the far right, the video was played, replayed, turned into memes and at least one painting. And Nordean was celebrated as a hero.

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ALEX JONES: How good did it feel, at least later, once you saw his head hit the pavement?

DREISBACH: This is the conspiracy theorist Alex Jones interviewing Nordean on the show Infowars while video of the clash played in the background. Here's Nordean.

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ETHAN NORDEAN: Well, like Gavin McInnes says, you know, violence isn't great, but justified violence is amazing.

DREISBACH: So what do the Proud Boys believe justifies violence? For one, coronavirus-related restrictions. Just listen to Proud Boy Joe Biggs, an Army combat veteran. On a Proud Boys podcast, he told Nordean that government officials pushing lockdowns were traitors.

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JOE BIGGS: They're evil scum, and they all deserve to die a traitor's death.

NORDEAN: Yep - the day of the rope.

DREISBACH: What Nordean just said, the day of the rope, that's a white supremacist concept about violent, racist revolution. It was also embraced by the Oklahoma City bomber. And federal prosecutors say the Proud Boys saw another justification for violence in former President Trump's calls to overturn the 2020 election. Here's Nordean again.

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NORDEAN: So 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? No. You have to use force.

DREISBACH: Prosecutors say Biggs and Nordean raised money, gathered equipment and helped incite the mob attack on the Capitol on January 6, celebrating as they breached the building. Ethan Nordean and Joe Biggs have been charged with conspiracy, though neither has been accused of attacking police or bringing, let alone using, a deadly weapon.

Nordean's lawyer did not respond to NPR, and Biggs' lawyer declined to comment. In court, their attorneys argue that it's unfair for the government to blame them for the violence committed by others. But prosecutors have argued that Biggs and Nordean set the tone for the group when they promised war. And for years, the group has made clear that violence it views as just as justified is not only tolerated but celebrated.

Tom Dreisbach, NPR News.

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