The guilty verdicts on Thursday against four leaders of the Proud Boys on charges of seditious conspiracy were arguably the most significant victory the Justice Department has won so far in its vast investigation of the attack on the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.
Prosecutors took a victory lap, with Attorney General Merrick B. Garland noting that along with the similar convictions of six members of another extremist group — the Oath Keepers militia — a major blow had been struck against two of the country’s most prominent far-right organizations.
And yet on April 23 — one day before closing arguments took place at the Proud Boys trial — fliers blaming Jews for “the rise in transgenderism” were found in the driveways of several homes in suburban Atlanta. One week later, as the Proud Boys case went to the jury, a neo-Nazi group flying a swastika flag protested a drag show in Columbus, Ohio.
The incidents were just two of the many such episodes in recent weeks. And they were a reminder that even after the hard-won convictions of the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers on the most severe charges brought so far in the Justice Department’s inquiry into the Capitol attack, law enforcement agencies are still confronting threats from sometimes violent groups and individuals on the right.
The end of the sedition trials, while a landmark moment, does not mean that far-right radicals have given up their ambitions to foment unrest or attack their enemies. Recent reports have indicated that far from abating, right-wing threats and acts of violence are actually on the rise.
“The sedition trials were important for bringing a sense of accountability and for showing that actions have consequences,” said Oren Segal, the vice president of the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism. “But that doesn’t mean that we have moved past the right wing’s antidemocratic moment.”
By any definition, the three sedition trials — all held in Federal District Court in Washington — were monumental endeavors. They exposed reams of internal communications collected from the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers, and led to several members of the groups giving testimony, piercing the veil of secrecy that has traditionally shielded them from scrutiny.
The prosecutions will no doubt lead to significant prison terms for the two men who led the groups on Jan. 6 — Enrique Tarrio of the Proud Boys and Stewart Rhodes of the Oath Keepers — as well as for the others who were convicted. The trials also altered the course of both organizations.
The Oath Keepers, founded in 2009, are now effectively defunct, with Mr. Rhodes out of commission; the group’s top lawyer, Kellye SoRelle, under indictment for her role in the Capitol attack; and Mr. Rhodes’s No. 2 man, Greg McWhirter, exposed during the trial as an F.B.I. informant.
Without leadership and with some local chapters in revolt, the Oath Keepers have not been able to mount the anti-government operations they undertook during their early years. Nor have they been able to conduct missions against leftist movements like antifa and Black Lives Matter, as they often did during the time Mr. Trump was in office.
The Proud Boys have been less affected by the government’s prosecutions. In the wake of the Capitol attack, Mr. Tarrio disbanded the group’s central committee and devolved authority to its many local chapters. Still, the Proud Boys have remained a persistent force in far-right politics, showing up — in often violent ways — to protest local issues like drag events, coronavirus restrictions and the teaching of antiracism in schools.
Hatchet Speed, a Proud Boy and military veteran charged in a different case, was quoted in a recent court filing saying that the Proud Boys of today were something like the Nazi brown shirts, fighting leftists in the streets.
Mr. Segal said that while he recognized the threats presented by the Oath Keepers and Proud Boys, he was more concerned about individual extremists who were not part of any group but had been radicalized online by hateful ideology.
Such individuals, he noted, have been responsible for some of the most brutal and spectacular attacks in recent months. Among them were the teenage white supremacist who fatally shot 10 people in a Buffalo supermarket last May and the California man obsessed by conspiracy theories who assaulted Paul Pelosi, Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s husband, with a hammer during a break-in at their home in San Francisco in October.
Mr. Segal also mentioned the less violent, but no less threatening, confrontations that have taken place as extremists from smaller organizations like Patriot Front have protested Pride events across the country. Or, as he noted, when groups like the Goyim Defense League, capitalizing on antisemitic statements by the rapper Kanye West, used a laser projector to display a message outside a college football stadium in Florida reading, “Kanye is right about the Jews.”
“Going forward, things may not look like mass rallies with thousands of people gathered at the Capitol,” he said, “but rather like a thousand little paper cuts a day.”
Since the beginning of the year, federal authorities have been paying attention to a different threat: loosely organized extremists focused on debilitating the nation’s power infrastructure, a target that has long held interest for so-called accelerationists, who seek to use the chaos of attacks to incite unrest and racial violence.
Last month, two men — Christopher Cook, 20, and Jonathan Frost, 24 — were sentenced in Ohio to more than five years in federal prison for scheming to attack energy facilities across the country. Prosecutors said the men had met in an online chat group and recruited others to join their plan “to stoke division in furtherance of white supremacist ideology.”
In a similar but unrelated case, the authorities arrested Brandon Clint Russell, a founding member of the neo-Nazi group Atomwaffen Division, in February, charging him with a plot to demolish the power grid in Baltimore, a predominantly Black city. Mr. Russell and others in Atomwaffen had been discussing attacks against electrical and nuclear facilities for years, prosecutors said.
Almost since the day the Capitol was attacked, Robert Pape, a scholar of political violence at the University of Chicago, has been studying a group that has traditionally been ignored by experts in his field: the more or less ordinary people who took part in the violence that day.
One of his key findings was that those who joined in the riot were likely to have come from places with a declining white population and were awash in fears that the rights of minorities and immigrants were crowding out the rights of white people.
“There is tremendous anger and anxiety coming from these huge demographic shifts that are, and will be, affecting the country for years,” Mr. Pape said. “That anger can be focused, amplified and accelerated by political elites and entrepreneurs.”
Mr. Trump and his allies have repeatedly sought political gain by stoking a sense of victimhood and grievance in their followers, and at times seeming to encourage violence.
Last summer, for example, after the F.B.I. searched Mar-a-Lago, Mr. Trump’s club and residence in Florida, for classified documents, pro-Trump figures described the search as an act of war not only against the former president but also against his ordinary supporters.
“Trump targeted by Biden administration, and they can do it to you, too,” read the headline of an opinion article by Ronna McDaniel, the chairwoman of the Republican National Committee, that was published on the Fox News website two days after the search took place.
One day later, amid the cries of outrage, a 42-year-old Ohio man showed up at an F.B.I. office near Cincinnati with an AR-15-style rifle and was shot to death after firing multiple times at the police during a standoff. His social media posts later revealed that he was full of rage about the search at Mar-a-Lago — and that he wanted revenge.
While Mr. Pape said it was necessary to prosecute groups like the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers who embrace violence overtly, it was just as important to seek a solution that went beyond arrests and trials to address the growing number of ordinary people who seem to have embraced violence or decided it is justified in certain circumstances.
“It’s crucial to punish the leading edge of the antidemocratic sword,” he said. “But in the end, only doing that is not going to solve the problem.”
(With inputs from NYTimes)
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