Charges after US Capitol insurrection roil far-right groups

Far-right groups such as the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers have had several members charged for their involvement in the Jan. 6 insurrection.

Enrique+Tarrio%2C+chairman+of+the+Proud+Boys%2C+has+faced+scrutiny+from+the+FBI.

NOAH BERGER, Associated Press

Proud Boys chairman Enrique Tarrio rallies in Portland, Ore on Aug. 17, 2019. Outside pressures and internal strife are roiling two far-right extremist groups after members were charged in the attack on the U.S. Capitol.

MICHAEL KUNZELMAN and ALANNA DURKIN RICHER, Associated Press

Former President Donald Trump’s lies about a stolen 2020 election united right-wing supporters, conspiracy theorists and militants on Jan. 6, but the aftermath of the insurrection is roiling two of the far-right extremist groups most prominent at the U.S. Capitol that day. 

More than three dozen members and associates of the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers have been charged with crimes. Some local chapters cut ties with national leadership in the weeks after the deadly siege. The Proud Boys’ chairman called for a pause in the rallies that often have led to clashes with anti-fascist activists. And one Oath Keeper has agreed to cooperate with law enforcement against others charged in the riot. 

Some extremism experts see parallels between the fallout from the Capitol riot and the schisms that divided far-right figures and groups after their violent clashes with counterprotesters at the “Unite the Right” white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017. The white supremacist “alt-right” movement fractured and ultimately faded from public view after violence erupted that weekend.

“I think something kind of like that is happening right now in the broader far-right movement, where the cohesive tissue that brought them all together — being the 2020 election — it’s kind of dissolved,” said Jared Holt, a resident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab.

“Like ‘Unite the Right,’ there is a huge disaster, a PR disaster, and now they’ve got the attention of the feds. And it’s even more intense now because they have the national security apparatus breathing down their necks,” he said.

But others believe President Joe Biden’s victory and the Jan. 6 investigation, the largest federal prosecution in history, might animate the militia movement — fueled by an anti-government anger. 

“We’re already seeing a lot of this rhetoric being spewed in an effort to pull in people,” said Freddy Cruz, a Southern Poverty Law Center research analyst who studies anti-government groups. “It’s very possible that people will become energized and try to coordinate more activity given that we have a Democratic president in office.”

The insurrectionists who descended on the nation’s capital briefly disrupted the certification of Biden’s presidential win.

The crowd marched to the Capitol and broke through police barricades and overwhelmed officers, shoving their way into the building to chants of “Hang Mike Pence” and “Stop the Steal.” Some came prepared with pepper spray, baseball bats and other weapons.

Members of the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers make up just a small fraction of the more than 400 people charged so far. Prosecutors have narrowed in on the two extremist groups as they try to determine how much planning went into the attack, but authorities have said they’re intent on arresting anyone involved in the riot.

More than two dozen Proud Boys leaders, members or associates are among those arrested. The group of self-described “Western chauvinists” emerged from far-right fringes during the Trump administration to mainstream GOP circles, with allies like longtime Trump backer Roger Stone. The group claims it has more than 30,000 members nationwide. 

In the sustained protests last summer over police brutality, their counterdemonstrations often devolved into violence. Law enforcement stepped in during a protest in Michigan. Members were accused of vandalizing property in Washington, D.C. Then, during a presidential debate with Biden, the group gained greater notoriety after Trump refused to condemn white supremacist groups and told the Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by.”

But leaders of several local Proud Boys chapters, including in Seattle, Las Vegas, Indiana and Alabama, said after Jan. 6 that their members were cutting ties with the organization’s national leadership. Federal officials charged four leaders, including national Elders Council member Ethan Nordean, with planning and leading an attack on the Capitol. One of Nordean’s attorneys said he was not responsible for any crimes committed by other people.

The Las Vegas chapter’s statement on the instant messaging platform Telegram in February didn’t mention Jan. 6 directly, but it claimed the “overall direction of the organization” was endangering its members.

Meanwhile, 16 members and associates of the Oath Keepers — a militia group founded in 2009 that recruits current and former military, police and first responders — have been charged with conspiring to block the certification of the vote. The group’s founder and leader, Stewart Rhodes, has said there were as many as 40,000 Oath Keepers at its peak, but one extremism expert estimates the group’s membership stands around 3,000 nationally. 

Rhodes has not been charged, and it’s unclear whether he will be. But he has repeatedly come up in court documents as “Person One,” suggesting he’s a central focus of investigators. 

Days after the election, Rhodes instructed his followers during a GoToMeeting call to go to Washington to let Trump know “that the people are behind him,” and he expressed hope that Trump would call up the militia to help the president stay in power, authorities say. Rhodes warned they could be headed for a “bloody, bloody civil war, and a bloody — you can call it an insurrection or you can call it a war or fight,” according to court documents. 

On Jan. 6, several Oath Keepers, wearing helmets and reinforced vests, were seen on camera shouldering their way up the Capitol steps in a military-style stack formation. Rhodes communicated with some Oath Keepers who entered the Capitol and stood with several of the defendants outside the building after the riot, prosecutors say. 

Rhodes has sought to distance himself from those who’ve been arrested, insisting the members went rogue and there was never a plan to enter the Capitol. But he has continued in interviews with right-wing hosts since Jan. 6 to push the lie that the election was stolen, while the Oath Keepers website remains active with posts painting the group as the victim of political persecution.

Messages left at numbers listed for Rhodes weren’t immediately returned. 

Court documents show discord among the group as early as the night of the attack. Someone identified in the records only as “Person Eleven” blasted the Oath Keepers in a Signal chat with Rhodes and others as “a huge f—n joke” and called Rhodes “the dumbass I heard you were,” court documents say.

Two months later, Rhodes said in a message to another Oath Keeper that the national team had gotten “too lax” and “too complacent.” He pledged to “tighten up the command and control” in the group “even if it means losing some people,” according to court documents. 

The Oath Keepers’ leader has also suggested the group may be facing financial pressures. In an interview posted on the Oath Keepers’ website, Rhodes said it has been difficult for the group to raise money as it’s been kicked off certain websites. 

 The Oath Keepers website now says it cannot accept new memberships online because of “malicious leftist attacks” and instructs people to mail in applications and dues. 

An Oath Keepers member was the first defendant to plead guilty in the riot. Jon Ryan Schaffer has also agreed to cooperate with the government’s investigation. The Justice Department has promised to consider putting him in the witness security program, suggesting it sees him as a valuable cooperator in the Jan. 6 probe.

 

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