The Proud Boys: prosecution is not enough

Anthony Crider

“Proud Boys in Pittsboro (2019 Oct)” by Anthony Crider is licensed under CC BY 2.0

On Jan. 29, the first federal conspiracy charges were filed against Proud Boy members William Pepe and Dominic Pezzola for their participation in the insurrection at the Capitol. They were indicted on eleven charges, including assaulting an officer, civil disorder and destruction of government property. These men were the first of at least eleven Proud Boy members that have been charged so far, a number likely to increase as over 100 Proud Boy members have been connected with the event. 

While these charges are a step towards justice, these actions do not make up for the immense damage the Proud Boys have been able to inflict on the nation. 

The Proud Boys were no stranger to vigilante violence before the insurrection. Videos of bloody street brawls between Proud Boys and counterprotesters have circulated the internet for years. Fights with anti-fascist activists and teenage girls alike are well-documented in their extensively violent history. 

This was also not the first “protest” with a significant Proud Boy presence where people were killed. Former Proud Boys member Jason Kresslet helped organize the 2017 “Unite The Right” rally in Charlottesville where anti-racist protester Heather Heyer was murdered. 

Despite this incredible violence, little meaningful action against them had been taken before the insurrection. Under the Trump administration, they were even supported. The former president commented then that there were “fine people on both sides” after Charlottesville. Months before the insurrection during a presidential debate, he refused to condemn white supremacy and directly told the Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by.”

Enrique Tarro, the current Proud Boy leader, responded to Trump on Twitter, stating,  “Standing by, sir.”

We knew they would strike when they felt the time was right. They had been emboldened and launched into the national spotlight. They already had a history and comfortability with illegal activity, aggravated assault and open defiance of the truth. Yet, despite evidence that white-supremacists and far-right organizations like the Proud Boys would attack the Capitol building, the police were woefully underprepared and our democracy was put at legitimate risk. 

The past administration’s failure to address the threat of the Proud Boys or to even condemn their actions undermines the significance of these current arrests. Yes, some Proud Boys are being held accountable, but the lack of accountability for violent members of this organization for years before the insurrection means that they have had significant time to spread their message and further their violence. The ideological impact that they have made can not be erased. 

However, it can be properly addressed with concrete action steps. 

In order to truly address the harm that the Proud Boys have caused and perpetuated, more extensive action needs to be taken. On Feb. 3, Canada designated the Proud Boys as a terrorist organization. The United States needs to do the same. 

Currently, there is no federal law provision in the United States that enables the designation and criminalization of domestic terrorist groups. Fears of violating First Amendment rights and impeding on civil liberties have stopped such a statute from being passed. However, a carefully constructed statute could allow for further appropriate action against the violence of the Proud Boys and other white supremacist groups while still preserving freedom of speech. 

This legal action, supported by Nicholas Rasmussen who headed the National Counterterrorism Center under the Trump and the Obama Administration, needs to be taken in order to fully address the past violence and the future threat of the Proud Boys. We need to be bold enough to put a legal label on the truth that these white supremacist groups are terrorist organizations that must be stopped at all costs.