By Matthew Valasik and Shannon Reid
Some of the most prominent members of the Proud Boys, a far-right militant group that functions more like a street gang than a militia, have been sentenced to long terms in federal prison for their roles in the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C.
Experts declare that these successful prosecutions by the U.S. Justice Department will not only discourage far-right groups but also deter people from joining them and engaging in future criminal activity.
Group chairman Henry “Enrique” Tarrio was sentenced to 22 years in federal prison after being found guilty of seditious conspiracy. Group leaders Ethan Nordean, Joe Biggs and Zachary Rehl were also found guilty of seditious conspiracy and sentenced to 18, 17 and 15 years, respectively. Dominic Pezzola, a Proud Boys member who breached the Capitol building with a stolen police riot shield, was found not guilty of seditious conspiracy but was convicted of a variety of felonies, including assaulting a police officer, robbing government property and obstructing an official proceeding – and sentenced to 10 years in prison.
But despite the lengths of those sentences, prosecutors had asked U.S. District Judge Timothy Kelly to impose even harsher ones, claiming the offenses were related to terrorism. Kelly, however, ruled that claims of terrorism overstate the conduct of the Proud Boys sentenced.
That fits with our analysis of the Proud Boys. As scholars who study street gangs and far-right groups, we see that the larger law enforcement community continues to focus – we believe mistakenly – on the belief that, like terrorist groups, white supremacists are coordinated in ideology and intent. Evidence shows that perception actually diverts local police agencies’ attention from identifying and managing these groups.
Gangs are generally defined as durable, street-oriented groups whose own identity includes involvement in illegal activity. We believe that if police had treated Proud Boys as members of a street gang from the group’s inception in 2016, the events of Jan. 6, 2021, might have been avoided, or at least reduced in severity.
The trouble with fighting domestic terrorism
The United States lacks explicit laws banning domestic terrorism, in part because they are constitutionally controversial and may target unintended groups.
That problem has arisen with other criminal laws, such as the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, which was designed to specifically target organized crime groups, like the Italian Mafia. The application of RICO, however, has been adapted and used aggressively against Black, Latino and Indigenous groups and political protestors.
Nevertheless, some have suggested that passing laws defining and outlawing domestic terrorism would be the best way to deal with the threats posed by the Proud Boys and other far-right extremists.
But when Canada and New Zealand designated the Proud Boys as a terrorist organization, that did not eliminate white supremacists from those countries. It merely forced them to rebrand themselves with a new name and logo. Treating Proud Boys solely as members of a terrorist organization does not actually stamp out white supremacy groups.
Instead, this perception hurts local law enforcement’s ability to recognize local, disorganized, far-right groups as street gangs and not terrorist groups. Police discretion is immense. Time and again, police have been documented ignoring Proud Boys violence and intimidation. Failing to arrest members explicitly observed in criminal infractions has only encouraged future acts of violence. Furthermore, local law enforcement’s history of failing to investigate and arrest members of far-right groups forces the federal government to be solely responsible for prosecuting them.
Once a gang, always a gang
From the very start, Proud Boys founder Gavin McInnes explicitly declared the group a “gang.” Local police across the U.S. actively investigate and prosecute gangs, especially those whose members are Black, Latino and other people of color.
Proud Boys are predominantly white men who also intimidate and threaten communities around the U.S. with disorderly conduct, public harassment and more serious violence, including battery, assault, murder, rioting and hate crimes. This “cafeteria-style” offending is quite common among gang members participating in a range of criminal activities.
But, perhaps because of the Proud Boys’ claims to be just a “western chauvinist” men’s club, local law enforcement agencies have tended not to treat the Proud Boys and other far-right groups as street gangs. Such increased scrutiny by police of their criminal activities would have produced a much greater deterrent effect. Instead, the lack of acknowledging the Proud Boys’ violent criminal behavior only emboldened them further.
In fact, police have either remained idle or even consorted with Proud Boys members at recent protests, even giving them high-fives, as observed in Columbus, Ohio, at a demonstration against the “Holi-drag” story time event. This type of police engagement is just one element of how police ignore the threat of white supremacy and its followers.
Broadening the concept of gangs
Many Proud Boys fail to exhibit remorse for their actions. Pezzola declared “Trump won!” as he exited the federal courtroom after his sentencing. Tarrio is now positioning himself as a political prisoner to rally support from the GOP.
This raises our concerns that Proud Boys members will continue to be active and violent. Research finds it is effective for police to systematically monitor and target groups that exhibit violent behavior and that doing so deters future acts of violence.
Sometimes, new laws can help. In Alabama, for instance, a law enacted in June expands the legal definition of groups police might be concerned about. Instead of using a specific term like “street gang,” as most states do, the Alabama law defines a “criminal enterprise” as any group of three or more people who engage in a pattern of criminal activity. Such an approach aids in removing the bias in law enforcement that street gangs are composed only of urban youth.
We hope that police will collect and share information about far-right groups’ criminal acts with other agencies to help identify people who are active in various areas of a state or even around the country. But in the end, the evidence shows that the Proud Boys, like any street gang, remain primarily localized groups that are best dealt with by local police, not federal agents.
Matthew Valasik is Associate Professor of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of Alabama. Shannon Reid is Associate Professor of Criminal Justice and Criminology at the University of North Carolina – Charlotte.
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