Many are celebrating the recent convictions against the Proud Boys, but they will only strengthen the state’s ability to target the left.
By Shane Burley
Schadenfreude is a German word that describes the absolute joy we feel in the misfortune of our enemies. Because we now experience news primarily through social media, which invites us to comment on breaking stories, we are even more likely to celebrate when some particularly unsavory character gets their comeuppance. This “active spectatorship” was especially true as the Jan. 6 investigations played out, where many Americans experienced waves of schadenfreude as the same right-wing activists who hurt so many with impunity for so long seemed like they might, finally, face consequences.
First, on Nov. 29, the Oath Keepers leadership, including its founder, Stewart Rhodes, were convicted for their role on Jan. 6, particularly for preparing for what sounded like an armed coup. More recently, members of the Proud Boys, including their leader Enrique Tarrio, were also convicted, this time for participating in the coup-conspiracy in a way that is several steps removed from the active role that the Oath Keepers took.
It is clear that these far-right activists have not faced consequences and state repression at the level that antifascists and protesters of marginalized backgrounds have. This is on display anytime antifascist demonstrators are assaulted with tear gas while their Proud Boy opponents are escorted by law enforcement to their cars. This is why so many are celebrating the recent slate of convictions against the Proud Boys and others.
While the modern left has defined itself in part by its criticisms of police and prisons, those positions have largely been left at the door when it comes to the far-right militants facing trials for their role in the Capitol insurrection. Some people have actually gone so far as volunteering with the FBI to comb through social media posts to help indict activists at the Capitol that day.
The Proud Boys prosecution shows a new strategy in how cases involving protest-related offenses are handled. The prosecutor said the five defendants, four of whom were convicted of “seditious conspiracy,” used those at the riot as “tools of the conspiracy” — that the 200 or more violent Proud Boys were essentially under the sway of Proud Boy leadership. The five leaders tried in this case had little provable connection to those whose violent behavior was the crux of the prosecutor’s case.
Tarrio was not even in Washington, D.C. on Jan. 6. So the prosecutor argued that anyone engaging in criminal behavior at the Capitol was de facto under the sway of Tarrio and others. Without a direct chain of command and evidence of decree, it was a hard claim to prove. However, the jury ultimately agreed with the state, establishing a framework where anyone deemed a leader of an amorphous movement can be charged for the behavior of anyone the court believes must be influenced by them. It also assumes fundamental coordination by virtue of sharing political beliefs, potential organizational affiliation or political ideology, which could have vast consequences for radical protest movements on the left.
The details of this case will sound familiar to those who saw recent cases against antifascist demonstrators. In San Diego, for instance, activists were charged with collusion, despite not knowing each other, simply because they had all interacted with the same social media posts. Following a hyperbolic and largely conspiratorial view of antifa, the prosecutors found it logical that all the defendants were in cahoots simply based on flimsy evidence of a shared mission. Actual collaboration is no longer necessary. This case has not been decided yet, but its implications are ominous nonetheless.
The Proud Boys may be hitting the nadir of their popularity, and the Biden White House is especially unimpressed with them, so they are perhaps the perfect defendants to test an experimental prosecution strategy on. More concerning, this reeks of attempts at mass prosecutions, such as the arrest of protesters on Inauguration Day in 2017, where people were charged with violent felonies because they were at a protest where others had allegedly engaged in criminal acts. In that case, nearly 200 people — colloquially called the “J20 defendants” — were detained and charged after being “kettled” by police during the demonstration.
While the charges were eventually dropped (and a half dozen were found “not guilty” in court), charges related to property destruction and assault on police officers were originally spread across anyone who attended the demonstration and was rounded up in the mass arrest. The suggestion is that when some protesters break the law, everyone present (even people nearby with no knowledge of the alleged crimes) could be charged as a co-conspirator. If this had been successful, it would mean that even participating in a mass action where law breaking happens could land you in the same criminal proceeding as the black bloc participant you’ve never met who broke a window across town.
When state and federal law enforcement, and the FBI in particular, create an investigatory infrastructure to go after one particular radical movement they historically will expand and codify that approach. This could be seen in the way that “terrorism” cases were used after 9/11, whereby the Patriot Act was used against environmental activists in what was known later as the “green scare.” Expanded searches and surveillance became much more common, and “terrorism enhancements,” which expand sentencing simply because the acts are labeled terrorism, was now on the table.
The FBI does not oppose the Oath Keepers and militias because they are a threat to freedom and equality, but because they take the law into their own hands and challenge the authority of the police (except when they collaborate with them). While vigilante groups like the Proud Boys have had an on and off relationship with police across American history, they can become too unpredictable and, subsequently, threaten the state’s monopoly on violence.
The more reckless behavior vigilante groups engage in can also tank public opinion enough to push law enforcement to act against them. This gives law enforcement an opportunity to reform the public’s perception of them by showing that they are keeping communities safe from these militia threats. For progressives, this can inspire the mistaken assumption that the police can be wielded against their enemies, such as these far-right organizations.
Since fascists and militia bands have been attacking marginalized communities and leftist activists, some think it would be great to point police directly at the source of the violence. This is why there were a number of people who — using names like the Sedition Hunters (which was named in 13 cases) and Deep State Dogs — volunteered to help the FBI to scour videos and posts on the social media of Jan. 6 defendants with the hopes of bringing string prosecutions against them.
But this approach myopically ignores the historical context in which law enforcement operates and how laws are actually used to regulate society. Simply increasing the power of police and courts in the name of fighting injustice does little to actually solve the underlying causes of social problems. When you increase law enforcement’s capacity to take on criminal cases then they will simply expand that repression against people historically targeted by these institutions.
Those who tend to face criminal prosecutions are not white supremacists, but instead marginalized communities and left-wing activists. This is especially true for radical movements that are demonized by those in power, such as antiwar activists around the invasion of Iraq, animal rights and environmental activists in the mid-2000s, and antifascists more recently. Since radical social movements have kept communities safe during the far-right’s resurgence, this empowering of the police will weaken and replace our defensive systems with an institution more likely to victimize marginalized people.
While it is certainly attractive to see far-right combatants in handcuffs, these convictions both strengthen the state’s repressive apparatus and are unlikely to make a long-term dent in the far-right itself. The majority of those attending mass anti-mask and “Stop the Steal” rallies, as well as the Jan. 6 insurrection, are unaffiliated with any formal organization and are organizing across social networks. These sorts of convictions are better at taking down formal right-wing organizations than interlocking networks of activists, so most involved in the far-right’s violence will remain unaffected.
Moreover, the specifics of the Proud Boys’ case gives prosecutors around the country a legal precedent to cite when they want to label a particular group of activists as leaders who are essentially in psychic control of everyone else at a protest, thus making them accountable for their behavior. Police and state repression are more often used against the left and marginalized communities, so whatever innovations they use against the Proud Boys is likely to be used disproportionately against radical leftists and anarchists fighting for justice in the streets.
There is always a cost-benefit analysis that has to be made about how we engage with law enforcement. Further empowering police and prisons, even when they are used against those responsible for so much violence, has ramifications. The solution to this conundrum offered by antifascists is a “we keep us safe” approach of vibrant community organizations and mutual aid networks that provide medical care to those most affected. By doing so these communities take safety seriously while avoiding carceral solutions, providing a clear picture of what an alternative to our current system could look like. This strategy would maintain the spirit of prison and police abolitionism while also holding racist actors accountable, and it does this by creating counter-institutions that refuse to participate in bolstering state violence.
Anyone who has watched the Proud Boys rampage across communities for the past seven years will note that criminal violence is not only a key part of their purpose, it is their recruiting strategy. So witnessing their arrest, trial and ultimate prosecution is more than cathartic: It’s been a long time coming. We want to ensure, however, that whatever method is being used to establish justice is not a tool that can likewise be wielded against the antifascist and antiracist protest movements that have been defending against this fascist gang from the start.
The legacy of liberal administrations is to target left-wing militants as a way of appearing more politically moderate, and there are few reasons to think that the FBI will make the far-right their primary target in the years to come. Instead, we should think about the long-term implications of the tactical choices we make today. How can we address the very real threat the far-right poses without continuing to invest in law enforcement options that have, ultimately, proven punitive and threatening to marginalized communities? The answer does more than simply address the violence of the far-right, it shows us how society can be different when we learn to rely on each other.
Shane Burley is a writer and filmmaker based in Portland, Oregon. He is the author of “Fascism Today: What It Is and How to End It” (AK Press). His work as appeared in places such as Jacobin, AlterNet, In These Times, Political Research Associates, Waging Nonviolence, Labor Notes, ThinkProgress, ROAR Magazine and Upping the Anti.
This article was published on June 6, 2023 at WagingNonviolence.