A protester was burning an American flag outside the 2016 Republican convention in Cleveland when Joseph Biggs rushed to attack.
Jumping a police line, he ripped the man’s shirt off and “started pounding,” he boasted that night in an online video.
But police charged the flag burner with assaulting Biggs.
The city later paid $225,000 to settle accusations that police had falsified their reports out of sympathy with Biggs, who went on to become a leader of the far-right Proud Boys.
Two years later, in Portland, Oregon, a Proud Boy named Ethan Nordean was caught on video pushing his way through a crowd of counter-protesters, punching one of them, then slamming him to the ground, unconscious.
Once again, police charged only the other man in the skirmish, accusing him of swinging a baton at Nordean.
Now Biggs, 37, and Nordean, 30, are major targets in a federal investigation.
They face some of the most serious charges stemming from the attack on the US Capitol in January: Leading a mob of about 100 Proud Boys in a co-ordinated plan to disrupt the certification of former president Donald Trump’s electoral defeat.
But an examination of the two men’s histories shows that local and federal law enforcement agencies passed up several opportunities to take action against them and their fellow Proud Boys long before they breached the Capitol.
The group’s propensity for violence and extremism was no secret. But the FBI and other agencies had often seen the Proud Boys as they chose to portray themselves, according to more than a half-dozen current and former federal officials: As mere street brawlers who lacked the organisation or ambition of typical bureau targets like neo-Nazis, international terrorists and Mexican drug cartels.
Although law enforcement agencies cannot investigate political groups without reasonable suspicion of a crime, some former officials said they were surprised by the Proud Boys’ apparent impunity.
Police officers have appeared at times to side with the Proud Boys, especially when they have squared off against leftists openly critical of law enforcement.
Some local officials have complained that without guidance from federal agencies, their police departments were ill equipped to understand the dangers of a national movement like the group.
To pre-empt violence by other far-right groups, federal authorities have often used a tactic known as the “knock and talk.” Agents call or confront group members to warn them away from demonstrations, sometimes reviving past criminal offences as leverage.
Christopher Wray, the FBI director, told a Senate committee this month that agents had done that in the run-up to a pro-Trump rally in Washington on January 6 that preceded the Capitol assault.
They contacted “a handful” of people already under criminal inquiry to discourage attendance, he said.
Enrique Tarrio, chair of the Proud Boys, said that federal agents had called or visited him on eight or so occasions before rallies in recent years. But it was never to pressure him to stay away.
Instead, he said, the agents asked for march routes and other plans in order to separate the Proud Boys from counter-protesters.
Other times, agents warned they had picked up potential threats from the left against him or his associates.
But before the January 6 event, no one contacted the leaders of the Proud Boys, Tarrio said: “They did not reach out to us.”
‘Disavow, Disavow, Disavow’
In summer 2017, neo-Nazis, Klansmen and other white supremacists gathered in Charlottesville, Virginia, to announce their resurgence at the “Unite the Right” rally. Its organiser Jason Kessler was a member of the Proud Boys.
The group had been founded a year earlier by Gavin McInnes, now 50, the co-creator of the media outlet Vice. (The company has long since severed all ties.)
He was a Canadian turned New Yorker with a record of statements attacking feminists and Muslims.
The Proud Boys had been volunteering as bodyguards for right-wing firebrands like Ann Coulter and Milo Yiannopoulos and frequently clashed with left-wing crowds.
Proud Boys “free speech” rallies in bastions of the left like Seattle, Portland or Berkeley, California, routinely ended in street fights.
Yet McInnes shunned the Unite the Right gathering, saying in an online video, “Disavow, disavow, disavow”.
By his account, the Proud Boys were not white supremacists but merely “Western chauvinists.” That stance helped the Proud Boys evade scrutiny from federal law enforcement.
The rally turned violent; a participant drove his car into a crowd of counter-protesters, killing one and injuring more than a dozen.
Despite McInnes’ cautions, several prominent Proud Boys attended, including Tarrio. But members cite his role to argue that the Proud Boys are not racially exclusive: Tarrio’s background is Afro Cuban, making him one of the rare non-white faces in the group.
The group, whose total membership is unknown but believed to be in the thousands, has never articulated a specific ideology or dogma. Its rallies, though, feature hypernationalist chants about immigration, Islam and Mr Trump.
Their events often appear to be thinly disguised pretexts to bait opponents into confrontations. The Proud Boys have made little effort to hide violent intentions.
Career officials in federal enforcement have complained that the Trump administration sought to divert investigative resources toward poorly defined threats from the left, such as the movement of violence-prone activists known as Antifa.
Yet the Proud Boys’ belligerence fit the definition of terrorism, other officials said: Unlawful violence and intimidation for political aims. Members raised money to travel across state lines to dozens of rallies with the intent of street fighting, at least once explicitly targeting a Muslim community in upstate New York for harassment – activities that could have justified the scrutiny of federal law enforcement.
A spokesperson for the FBI declined to comment on the group.
Nordean became one of the group’s marquee stars, mainly through a viral video of his 2018 knockout punch in Portland.
An amateur bodybuilder who had once trained to be a Navy SEAL, Nordean first encountered the Proud Boys in 2017, during a scuffle in Seattle with immigrant rights demonstrators.
In June 2018, Nordean went to Portland. After a so-called Freedom and Courage rally at a federal building, dozens of members marched around the block to confront waiting counter-protesters.
Video footage showed Nordean shoving one to the ground before another, David Busby, approached with a metal baton.
By then a street-fighting veteran, Nordean had put shin guards on his forearms to prepare for combat. Deflecting the baton with one arm, he delivered a right hook to Busby’s jaw that knocked him unconscious, then threw the man to the ground.
Busby was hospitalised with a “significant concussion,” a police report noted.
On six Facebook pages the group used to vet new recruits, the number of prospective members jumped more than 70 per cent over the next 30 days, adding more than 820 potential Proud Boys, said Cassie Miller, a researcher at the Southern Poverty Law Centre.
The number of active chapters around the country exploded, increasing from three in 2017 to about 44 by the end of 2018, according to a count by the centre.
Two other Proud Boys were arrested that day for violence during previous clashes. But Nordean was not.
He “claimed he exercised his right to defend himself and others,” the police report noted. The department declined to comment, as did Nordean’s lawyer.
Biggs, the future Proud Boys leader who attacked the flag burner in Cleveland, was a barrel-chested Army veteran. He got his start on the far-right working as an Infowars correspondent, which is how he encountered Nordean and the Proud Boys.
Biggs’ record of violence pre-dated his affiliation with the group. He was arrested in North Carolina on a domestic violence charge in 2007; prosecutors dropped the case after his wife failed to appear as a witness.
He was convicted of resisting arrest in South Carolina in 2012 and sentenced to probation. And he was arrested in early 2016, accused of assaulting a security officer outside his apartment in Austin, Texas.
Biggs was at the Republican convention in Cleveland as a correspondent for Infowars when he attacked the flag burner, Gregory Johnson, now 64.
A member of the Revolutionary Communist Party, he had been the plaintiff in the landmark 1989 Supreme Court case Johnson v Texas, which established that the First Amendment protected flag burning.
Although video recordings indicated that Biggs started the melee by pummelling Johnson, a police officer said in an affidavit that Johnson “caused two media members to get burned by the fire” – Biggs and an Infowars colleague.
A lawyer for Biggs declined to comment.
Trump adviser Roger Stone, an Infowars regular, introduced Biggs to Tarrio, the Proud Boys chair, and by 2019 he had started helping him organise events. In August, Biggs helped organise an “End Domestic Terrorism” rally in Portland.
FBI agents pulled Biggs and Tarrio aside at the Portland airport but did not ask them to stay away from the rally, the Proud Boys chair recalled.
Instead, he explained, the agents warned the two Proud Boys of threats against them from antifa activists.
At the end of 2020, as Trump was trying to overturn his election loss, Biggs and Tarrio marched at the head of hundreds of Proud Boys during a pro-Trump “Stop the Steal” rally in Washington.
Washington police arrested Tarrio on January 4, charging him with illegal possession of two high-capacity magazines for an AR-15. But authorities released him on condition he stay out of the District of Columbia during the Trump rally two days later. No other Proud Boys were arrested in connection with the incident.
The Proud Boys made no effort to hide their anticipation of political violence in the weeks leading up to January 6.
“If there ever was a time for there to be a second civil war, it’s now,” Biggs wrote in a blog post shortly after the election.
“Buy ammo, clean your guns, get storable food and water.”
Nordean, meanwhile, used social media to solicit donations for “protective gear” and “communications equipment,” court papers say. After Tarrio was expelled from Washington, according to prosecutors, the Proud Boys tapped Nordean to assume “war powers” and lead them at the Capitol.
(It is unclear exactly what “war powers” referred to.)
The 100-strong mob behind Biggs and Nordean was almost certainly the single largest organised group that took part in the attack, and prosecutors said its members spearheaded the violence.
One Proud Boy, Dominic Pezzola, was among the first to shatter a window and break into the Capitol, court papers say.
Federal agents have now executed search warrants on Proud Boys in four states.
Prosecutors have so far accused 10 members of crimes, including destruction of government property and threatening a federal officer.
They are now seeking to link as many as possible in an overarching conspiracy indictment.