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Did the Proud Boys help coordinate the Capitol Riot? Yes, US suggests

Insurrectionists stormed the US Capitol on Jan. 6.Erin Schaff/NYT

When Ethan Nordean, the “sergeant of arms” for the Seattle Proud Boys, led a mob of his fellow far-right nationalists on a winding march to the Capitol last month, an angry crowd had already gathered at the barricades, facing off against a small detachment of the Capitol Police.

It was then, court papers say, that Nordean had a brief exchange with a young man in the throng wearing goggles, a battle helmet, and head-to-toe military garb. Within an hour, court papers say, that man, Robert Gieswein, was among the first wave of violent rioters to break into the Capitol, breaching the building through a window shattered by a Proud Boy from New York.


In a flurry of court papers filed in recent days — in four separate cases against six Proud Boys — federal officials have painted scenes like this, assembling the first draft of a narrative that suggests the Proud Boys brought some coordination to the Capitol attack. While prosecutors have not issued an overarching indictment accusing the group of a detailed conspiracy to storm the halls of Congress, they have left hints in the record that they believe a measure of planning went into disrupting the certification of the presidential vote.

In a criminal complaint released Wednesday night, for instance, prosecutors said that days before the Capitol attack, Nordean issued a call on social media asking for donations of “protective gear” and declared during his podcast, “We are in a war.”

In previous filings, the government has said that some group members went to the Capitol with communication equipment and that leaders ordered subordinates to show up undercover, not in their typical black-and-yellow shirts.

The Proud Boys, who have long been some of former president Donald Trump’s most vocal and violent supporters, have been a chief focus of the FBI’s inquiry into the Capitol assault — not the least because they were one of the extremist groups with a large and visible presence in Washington on Jan. 6. In the past few weeks, nearly a dozen people with links to the group have been charged in connection with the riot that caused five deaths and injuries to nearly 140 police officers. But according to the evidence released so far in court files, only about half that number appear to have worked together during the attack.


On Wednesday, the Proud Boys came under increased pressure as the Canadian government moved to formally designate them as a terrorist organization, a step that could lead to financial seizures and allow the police to treat any crime committed by members as terrorist activity. After initially disavowing the violence at the Capitol, the chairman of the group, Enrique Tarrio, has largely gone silent, chased off the public stage by revelations that he had once cooperated secretly with the police and FBI.

Lawyers for some of the Proud Boys facing charges denied that their clients had conspired to storm the Capitol. One of the group’s leaders, Joseph Biggs, who was arrested late last month, declined to comment when reached by phone Tuesday. In an interview on the day of the attack, Biggs, who helped Nordean lead the Proud Boy march on Capitol Hill, said that the attack had not been planned but “literally happened in seconds.”

And yet, prosecutors say, in late December, Tarrio, apparently planning for a pro-Trump “Save America” rally in Washington on Jan. 6, posted a message on the social media app Parler, telling the Proud Boys to attend the event in small teams and “incognito,” instead of in their trademark polo shirts. Those messages were quickly echoed by both Biggs and Nordean, prosecutors said.


Two days before the march, prosecutors noted, Nordean, who is sometimes known as Rufio Panman, posted an episode of his podcast, “Rebel Talk with Rufio,” on Parler in which he likened the Proud Boys to “soldiers of the right wing.” He also discussed what he described as “rampant voter fraud” in the presidential election, saying that the Proud Boys could not afford to be complacent but had to “bring back that original spirit of 1776 of what really established the character of what America is.”

On the day of the Capitol attack, prosecutors said, Nordean, a burly 30-year-old from Washington state, joined Biggs, a former soldier who lives in Florida, on the east side of the Capitol, where they had mustered a large group of Proud Boys, many of whom were wearing orange hats, apparently as an identifying marker. In a video of the gathering, someone in the crowd was captured yelling, with an expletive, “Let’s take the Capitol!”

Moving into the streets, Biggs and Nordean then led the Proud Boys to a pedestrian entrance to the Capitol grounds, prosecutors said, where a much larger crowd was already confronting the Capitol Police, positioned behind a waist-high metal barrier. After the crowd broke through the barrier, court papers said, Nordean and some of his fellow Proud Boys surged toward the building, where another line of officers tried to stop them from entering.


It was amid this chaos, prosecutors said, that Nordean spoke with Gieswein, a 24-year-old Coloradan who has been accused in a federal complaint of having links to the right-wing militia group the Three Percenters. While no court papers reflect what Nordean may have said to Gieswein, not long after the conversation, Gieswein helped to lead the first charge on the Capitol, climbing through a broken window carrying a baseball bat.