There is a slow burn happening at the federal courthouse in Washington, D.C., where the ringleader of the extremist Proud Boys, Henry “Enrique” Tarrio, and four of his brethren face charges of seditious conspiracy for their alleged attempt to forcibly stop the nation’s transfer of power on Jan. 6, 2021.
Jury selection was a protracted process and attorneys representing Tarrio and his co-defendants Joseph Biggs, Ethan Nordean, Zachary Rehl, and Dominic Pezzola have regularly been at odds as they attempt to navigate their way—mutually and individually—through a thicket that only recently proved a touch too byzantine for two leaders of another extremist group, Elmer Stewart Rhodes and Kelly Meggs of the Oath Keepers.
Despite a similarity to that case and its charges, the Proud Boys are in a class all their own as they come before U.S. District Judge Tim Kelly. Where the Oath Keepers proclaimed their crimes of sedition or obstruction were acts of patriotism on Jan. 6, the Proud Boys have dubbed themselves “scapegoats,” subject to a system that can’t hold former president Donald Trump accountable for inciting a mob, so they are therefore sacrificed on the altar of the U.S. Justice Department.
It is far too early to tell whether the jury will be convinced of that claim. For six days, there have been fits and starts of evidence from prosecutors as the trial has mounted in earnest. Police radio transmissions and security footage (including bodycams worn by police) from inside and outside of the Capitol have dominated much of the physical evidence shown so far. Toward the end of this week, jurors saw more footage from the Capitol, most of it from filmmaker Nick Quested, who documented the Proud Boys in the days and weeks leading up to the insurrection.
Jurors have seen the defendants (except for Tarrio, since he wasn’t in Washington that day) at the Capitol’s lower terraces and outer perimeters. They have seen the defendants angrily confronting clearly outnumbered police or, in the case of Dominic Pezzola, smashing a window into shards with a riot shield before crawling inside the Capitol as a rising mob ensues.
Through this methodical plodding, prosecutors are keen for jurors to understand: It was the Proud Boys who mobilized when Trump told them to “stand back and stand by” and it was the Proud Boys who showed up and swung open the floodgates to a deadly day at the U.S. Capitol.
All of the defendants currently on trial have pleaded not guilty.
The conspiracy element of the charges, for the moment, has taken somewhat of a backseat to the recounting of the initial breaches, though assistant U.S. Attorney Jason McCullough vowed in his opening statements to show how this came to be by exposing some of the inner workings of the Proud Boys’ “Ministry of Self-Defense,” or MOSD.
“You will see their private communications, you will see their public statements, you will see coordinated actions, you will see their celebration of the group’s activities and you will see them attempt to cover their tracks,” McCullough said.
The “ministry,” started by Tarrio, was a division of chapter leaders who used an encrypted chat channel to prepare for the assault at the Capitol, according to the Justice Department.
Some of the defendants have claimed that the group was established so Proud Boys could train and prepare to defend themselves during protests should they come under violent attack by supporters of the Black Lives Matter movement or supporters of anti-fascist or “antifa” ideology.
For Tarrio, his defense attorney Sabino Jauregui told jurors, the ministry was merely a “joke.”
“In a frat boy, Proud Boy kind of way,” Jauregui said.
According to his attorney, Tarrio is a “pacifist” who was often so skittish of physical conflict that he was ribbed by his fellow Proud Boys and dubbed the “minister of self-defense.”
Prosecutors argue Tarrio was more of a chaos agent with a beef against law enforcement.
Tarrio was not in Washington on Jan. 6, but at a hotel in nearby Baltimore, Maryland. He had been arrested on Jan. 4 for burning a Black Lives Matter banner at a church during a pro-Trump “Million MAGA March” on Dec. 12, 2020. When he was arrested, he was ordered to stay away from the District of Columbia after law enforcement found two high-capacity magazines in his vehicle.
Tarrio’s attorney argued at trial this week that the magazines—both of which were empty—were “decorative” since they featured the Proud Boys logo etched onto them. Tarrio has claimed he was looking to sell them to someone in Washington.
After the Dec. 12 rally, Proud Boys and counterprotesters clashed and a few people were stabbed including Proud Boy Jeremy Bertino. Bertino didn’t show up at the Capitol on Jan. 6 as he recovered from his injuries but he nonetheless pleaded guilty to seditious conspiracy last year and admitted to planning to stop the certification of the 2020 election.
Assistant U.S. Attorney McCullough and fellow counsel Conor Mulroe say Bertino’s stabbing left Tarrio at odds with D.C. police and only served to fuel the group’s animosity towards authority on Jan. 6.
The Proud Boys as a group have been described by hate-watch organizations as misogynist, racist, and purveyors of thinly-veiled white nationalism as well as more overt white nationalism. Tarrio, who is Afro-Cuban, has rejected these suggestions and at trial, and defense attorneys have taken any opportunity possible to distance the defendants from the mere suggestion.
This week, when filmmaker Nick Quested testified on behalf of the government, he reviewed a photo of defendants Biggs and Nordean from Jan. 6 where they stand beside another Proud Boy, Gilbert Fonticoba.
Fonticoba, who has already faced criminal charges separately, is seen making an “OK” hand signal in the photo. Quested testified that the hand gesture was a “white power” symbol and defense attorneys objected immediately, prompting a minutes-long sidebar. Once the sidebar was over, Judge Kelly ordered Quested’s testimony on the gesture stricken.
Other far more damning evidence has been kept away from jurors.
During proceedings on Thursday, jurors were removed from the courtroom as lawyers duked it out over the admissibility of evidence that has long raised questions about the connections between the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers on Jan. 6.
The evidence at hand was a video of Tarrio and Stewart Rhodes meeting in the underground parking garage of the Phoenix Park Hotel in D.C. They were joined by counsel for the Oath Keepers at the time, Kellye SoRelle, as well as two leaders of pro-Trump groups including Joshua Macias and Bianca Gracia. Gracia organized rallies for Jan. 6 and Macias was a slated speaker
In a portion of that video, a voice is heard saying off-camera: “It’s inevitable. It’s going to happen. We just have to do it strong, fast, together.”
Quested shot the footage but did not identify the speaker at trial. He also wasn’t given the chance to be asked on the stand. Surrounding portions of the clip made it no less clear who was speaking and generally, it wasn’t made clear what the man was referring to — what, exactly, was inevitable? What was “it” that would need to be done rapidly and with force?
Judge Kelly was initially inclined to let the video in anyway, and Justice Department prosecutors said they could provide another angle that would at least confirm that Tarrio was present when the unidentified man made the remark.
But on balance, prosecutors felt the “squeeze wasn’t worth it,” Mulroe said, willing to avoid an extended fight over hearsay with the defense.
Quested’s testimony is still ongoing. He is under cross-examination and has so far faced a torrent of questions from defendant Ethan Nordean’s counsel, Nick Smith, at present. Smith has been working to impeach Quested’s credibility and testimony. He showed jurors footage where Quested appears at the front of a line with Proud Boys and other rioters. As a bike rack is being pushed back and forth—prosecutors say this was Nordean’s doing—Quested said he steadied himself on the rack, laying his hand down on it.
While Smith was careful to tell Quested that he wasn’t suggesting the filmmaker was responsible for the breach of the barrier or contributing to it, the questioning sounded close to insinuation.
Quested was working on a film about the political divisions in America and their root causes when he linked up to document the Proud Boys in December 2020. They needed to be at the forefront of a national conversation, he said.
When he met with the select committee, Quested told investigators he didn’t think the Proud Boys had changed the way they talked about law enforcement after the Million MAGA March in December 2020.
“I would have to wait for January 6th to—for that line to be crossed,” he said.
He told jurors this week that when he first met with the Proud Boys in December, they seemed “jovial” at events. They were often “bawdy,” he said. The mood in January had shifted.
“It felt much colder and more serious,” he said Friday.
When Quested was interviewed by Daily Kos before he testified publicly before the select committee, he said he didn’t think there was a shared conspiracy between Rhodes and Tarrio and he suspected the men had “separate plans” that occurred in concert, not collusion.
“I think there’s a variety of plans that crash at the steps of the Capitol,” he said last June. “I don’t think there’s one plan, but they’re all part of it.”
The Proud Boys’ defense hinges critically on the position that there wasn’t an explicit plan among members to attack the Capitol or stop the certification of the 2020 election by Congress. The government, however, does not need to prove there was an explicit plan. An implied plan will meet the standard for conviction on seditious conspiracy.
In that vein, seized communications have created a high bar for Tarrio and his co-defendants to overcome.
When the attack was unfolding, Tarrio shot off a text within mere minutes of the first breach: “Make no mistake… we did this.”
After the attack, his co-defendant Zachary Rehl gushed to the group.
“I’m proud as fuck at what we did yesterday,” he said.
Though Rehl may have expressed pride for what happened on Jan. 6, when U.S. Capitol Police inspector Thomas Loyd testified to jurors this week, he said Jan. 6 was the first time that law enforcement at the Capitol had ever had to deploy ‘less-than-lethal’ force, like pepper spray, on Capitol grounds.
It was a “dire situation” that came terribly close to escalating into a shootout but the quick thinking of Capitol Police Officer Eugene Goodman helped prevent that outcome.
The Proud Boys seditious conspiracy trial is expected to last at least another four weeks. Daily Kos will have live coverage from inside the courthouse. Live-blogging resumes Monday at 9 a.m.
On this episode of The Downballot, we're talking with Sara Garcia, the strategy and outreach manager at Crooked Media—home of Pod Save America—about everything her organization does to mobilize progressives and kick GOP ass. Sara tells us how Crooked arose to fill a void in the media landscape, how it not only informs listeners but also gives them tools to take action, and some of her favorite shows that she loves to recommend to folks.