True Threat of the Proud Boys Revealed as Jan. 6 Committee Hearings Go Public | Opinion

Tonight, the House of Representatives' Jan. 6 committee holds its first public hearing, just days after new charges were filed against the leadership of one of the groups most closely associated with the attack on the Capitol.

With Monday's 10-count superseding indictment of five Proud Boys, the group's true objectives on Jan. 6, 2021, are now clear for everyone to see — sedition. In charging the Proud Boys with seditious conspiracy, the prosecution has made clear that it views the actions of the defendants as nothing less than an attempt to overthrow America's democratic government. While the group's members and supporters attempt to frame their actions as lawful expressions of free speech or defensive actions against a spectral threat from Antifa or the left, the evidence set forth by the Department of Justice makes clear that the group's focus on that day was a violent assault on the Capitol in order to halt the democratic process taking place that day.

With this latest indictment, the narrative is clear: The Proud Boys acted to prevent the transfer of presidential power from Donald Trump to Joe Biden on Jan. 6.

Proud Boys March on Jan. 6
Protesters who claim to be members of the Proud Boys gather with other supporters of President Donald Trump protest outside the Capitol in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6, 2021 Alex Edelman/AFP via Getty Images

The evidence also shows the group itself has metastasized into a violent, fascist wing of an increasingly mainstreamed anti-democratic movement that is willing to commit violence to secure power. Recognizing this is crucial in a post-Jan. 6 environment dominated by amorphous anti-democratic, white supremacist, and anti-government movements seeking to capitalize on uncertainty and heightened societal polarization for their benefit.

The Proud Boys have a long history of violent mobilization, largely serving as a right-wing criminal gang that instigated street fights in cities like Portland and Washington, D.C. Various left-leaning social movements have been the target of the Proud Boys' violence and conspiratorial rhetoric. Moreover, as we wrote in 2021, the group has clear militant accelerationist tendencies and ties to neo-fascist terror groups like Atomwaffen Division and The Base. These facets of the Proud Boys' history should have served as major red flags in the lead up to the attack on the Capitol. Instead, the threat of the group and the burgeoning 'Stop the Steal' movement was largely ignored and overlooked by law enforcement - with deadly consequences.

Concerningly, the right-wing Proud Boys also have a long and well-documented relationship with political party officials, along with an established track record for pursuing violence to benefit their political agenda. Proud Boys' mobilization in recent years has regularly intersected with the increasingly violent right-wing rhetoric popularized and mainstreamed by prominent figures in these ecosystems, who see the Proud Boys as loyal supporters of the movement willing to commit violence on their behalf. The Proud Boys, in turn, have seized upon this mainstreaming, using their newfound 'fame' to double down on recruitment and propaganda efforts. Since Jan. 6, 2021, members of the Proud Boys have felt empowered to run for political office, while some chapters have brazenly pushed their hate-filled agenda into America's local communities by intimidating local school boards. In a sign of the increasingly mainstreamed role of political violence, the very narratives and grievances put forth by the Proud Boys — listed as a terrorist entity by Canadafrequently mirrors the conspiracies propagated by elected officials.

Looking ahead, the impact of these charges on this case pales in comparison to the challenges associated with the resurgent anti-democratic movement supported by domestic violent extremist groups like the Proud Boys. While the core leadership of the Proud Boys is set to face federal trial in the coming months, and the group is likely to come under the microscope of the Jan. 6 Committee in its upcoming prime-time hearings, the Proud Boys have become increasingly emboldened since the Capitol insurrection, and their influence has become more and more tangible at the state and local level. The legal peril facing the group's leadership should not be confused with a decline in the threat that continues to emanate from the same spaces from which the Proud Boys originally emerged.

By leveling seditious conspiracy charges, the Department of Justice has yet again made the direct connection between the violent mobilization of domestic extremists like the Proud Boys to the U.S. Capitol attack, with efforts to block the count of the Electoral College votes and prevent the peaceful transfer of presidential power. Moving forward, it is clear that the Proud Boys cannot be allowed to hide behind claims of free speech, legal protests, or defensive actions, and must be recognized for what they are: A potent violent extremist threat whose supporters continue to undermine America's democratic process.

Jon Lewis is a Research Fellow at the Program on Extremism at George Washington University, where he studies domestic violent extremism and homegrown violent extremism, with a specialization in the evolution of white supremacist and anti-government movements in the United States and federal responses to the threat of accelerationism. He is also the Director of Policy Research at the Accelerationism Research Consortium (ARC). Twitter: @Jon_Lewis27

Matthew Kriner is a Senior Research Scholar at the Center on Terrorism, Extremism, and Counterterrorism (CTEC) where he leads the Accelerationism Threat Assessment and Research Initiative. He is also the Managing Director of the Accelerationism Research Consortium (ARC). He specializes in accelerationism, U.S. domestic violent extremism, transnational far-right extremism, and radicalization. Twitter: @mattkriner

The views expressed in this article are the authors' own.