Proud Boys' Enrique Tarrio guilty of seditious conspiracy. Will convictions change the group?

 On Thursday, Henry “Enrique” Tarrio, the national chairman of the extremist street gang the Proud Boys, was found guilty of seditious conspiracy, along with three co-defendants.

The verdict was a momentous win for the Justice Department, which has charged more than 1,000 people with crimes related to the Jan. 6 insurrection. Convicting the leaders of perhaps the most notorious domestic extremist group, with charges that will likely see them imprisoned for more than a decade, was a resounding defeat for the American far-right. It also sends a message to the members of Congress and political commentators who have sought to downplay the insurrection.

But the lasting impact of the verdict on the Proud Boys themselves could be far more muted. 

Inside the Proud BoysThey joined the Wisconsin Proud Boys looking for brotherhood. They found racism, bullying and antisemitism.

Enrique Tarrio

Were the Proud Boys leaders ever really leaders?

The very concept of a “national leadership” of the extremist group was always vague, and different chapters and individual Proud Boys have long debated whether Tarrio and others truly spoke for the gang.

Gavin McInnes, who founded the Proud Boys, was emphatic Thursday that nobody runs the Proud Boys on a national level. (In 2021, McInnes’ native Canada proclaimed the Proud Boys a “neo-fascist” terrorist entity.)

“There never was a national leadership,” McInnes wrote by text message. “Chapters are autonomous and follow the by-laws like a constitution (same as Hell’s Angels).”

The history of the group tells a similar story. 

Tarrio essentially “appeared out of nowhere” after McInnes announced he was stepping down from the group in late 2018, said Daryle Lamont Jenkins, an anti-fascist researcher who has tracked the Proud Boys since their creation. Jenkins, like other researchers and experts on the group, didn’t know whether Tarrio was ever officially elected or selected to lead the group — or if he just started calling himself the Proud Boys’ chairman and the title stuck.

“After 2018, the leadership started becoming more ambiguous,” Jenkins said.   

It’s also important to note that individual Proud Boys have a vested interest in disavowing any leadership in the group, Jenkins added. Indeed, clouding the waters of the group’s leadership structure was a key element of the courtroom defense. 

“Proud Boys lie,” Jenkins said. “That’s what they do.”

Can the group continue?

Proud Boys splinteringProud Boys splintering after Capitol riot, revelations about leader. Will more radical factions emerge?

In 2021, in the wake of the Capitol riot, USA TODAY reported the Proud Boys were splintering into different factions.

Stripped almost entirely of their ephemeral national leadership, Proud Boys chapters around the country had begun to head in different directions. Some were more openly embracing racism and anti-Semitism, while others were drifting back into their original stated mission of being men’s drinking clubs.

By the second anniversary of Jan. 6, the group had certainly not shriveled up and died. 

Throughout 2022, Proud Boys chapters were especially active at anti-LGBTQ protests around the country, a trend that carried into 2023 and will likely continue into the future, experts said.

“I don’t think that the Proud Boys will be behaving any differently between yesterday and tomorrow,” said Katherine Keneally, senior research manager at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue. “The Proud Boys, despite these individuals being in prison, have been engaging in protests across the United States over the last year —  they have been functioning on their own without them.”

Jenkins agreed, adding:

“The Proud Boys who are left on the streets have become a lot bolder,” he said. “They’re aligning themselves with Nazis a lot more now — a lot more.”

Proud Boys founder Gavin McInnes, left, discusses a lawsuit he filed against the Southern Poverty Law Center during a news conference in Montgomery, Ala., on Monday, Feb. 4, 2019. His attorney, Baron Coleman, listens on the right. McInnes contends the nonprofit organization wrongly labeled the far-right Proud Boys a hate group. (AP Photo/Kim Chandler) ORG XMIT: ALKC101

Is the Proud Boys ‘brand’ more toxic now?

Chinese American support for Proud BoysProud Boys saw wave of contributions from Chinese diaspora before Capitol attack

Jenkins feels confident Thursday’s convictions will seriously hamper the Proud Boys’ efforts to grow. Few people will want to be associated with a group accused of seditious conspiracy, he said. 

“How can they move forward?” Jenkins said. “I don’t know what’s going to happen with the rest of the groups moving forward because now the Proud Boys are very radioactive.”

The more than 40 prosecutions of Proud Boys for their Jan. 6 activity has also had a welcome chilling effect on the group, Keneally said. 

Despite the indictment of former president Donald Trump — who still enjoys enormous support among Proud Boys — the last few months haven’t seen any calls for major protests from the Proud Boys, Keneally pointed out. That shows that the prosecutions have had the effect of cowing the group, at least for now, she said.

“Even though that may not be stopping the Proud Boys from engaging in some of their other activities, it does have a real impact in curbing domestic extremism,” Keneally said.

Despite McInnes’ publicly stepping down from the group he founded, researchers note that he has been present at events with Proud Boys since then. 

Asked what he thinks will happen to the Proud Boys now that the group’s current leaders are going to jail, he texted:

“It will go on forever.”

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