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, something similar occurred. A Proud Boy named Ethan Nordean was caught on video pushing his way through a crowd of counterprotesters, 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 that prosecutors Thursday said could be “one of the largest in American history.” They face some of the most serious charges stemming from the attack on the U.S. Capitol in January: leading a mob of about 100 Proud Boys in a coordinated plan to disrupt the certification of former President Donald Trump’s electoral defeat.

Proud Boys including Joseph Biggs, front left, walk toward the U.S. Capitol in Washington on Jan. 6, 2021, in support of President Donald Trump. With the megaphone is Ethan Nordean, second from left. (Carolyn Kaster / The Associated Press)
Proud Boys including Joseph Biggs, front left, walk toward the U.S. Capitol in Washington on Jan. 6, 2021, in support of President Donald Trump. With the megaphone is Ethan Nordean, second from left. (Carolyn Kaster / The Associated Press)

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.

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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 organization or ambition of typical bureau targets like neo-Nazis, international terrorists and Mexican drug cartels.

“There was a sense that, yes, their ideology is of concern, and, yes, they are known to have committed acts of violence that would be by definition terrorism, but we don’t worry about them,” said Elizabeth Neumann, an assistant secretary for threat prevention in the Department of Homeland Security who left last year. “The Proud Boys are just the guys-that-drink-too much-after-the-football-game-and-tend-to-get-into-bar-fights type of people — people that never looked organized enough to cause serious national security threats.”

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.

“They committed violence in public, used videos of that violence to promote themselves for other rallies and then traveled across the country to engage in violence again,” said Mike German, a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University and a former FBI agent who worked undercover among right-wing groups. “How that didn’t attract FBI attention is hard for me to understand.”

At the final presidential debate in Nashville, Tenn., on Oct. 22, 2020, President Donald Trump  told the Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by.” The Proud Boys’ propensity for violence and extremism was no secret. But the F.B.I. 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 organization or ambition of typical bureau targets like neo-Nazis, international terrorists and Mexican drug cartels. (Erin Schaff/The New York Times)
At the final presidential debate in Nashville, Tenn., on Oct. 22, 2020, President Donald Trump told the Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by.” The Proud Boys’ propensity for violence and extremism was no secret. But the F.B.I. 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 organization or ambition of typical bureau targets like neo-Nazis, international terrorists and Mexican drug cartels. (Erin Schaff/The New York Times)

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.

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“It has largely been left to the locals to sort things out for themselves,” said Mitchell Silber, the former director of intelligence analysis at the New York Police Department.

To preempt 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 offenses 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 Jan. 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.

Enrique Tarrio leads members of the Proud Boys in protesting President Donald Trump’s election defeat, in Washington, D.C., on Dec. 12, 2020. (Victor J. Blue / The New York Times)
Enrique Tarrio leads members of the Proud Boys in protesting President Donald Trump’s election defeat, in Washington, D.C., on Dec. 12, 2020. (Victor J. Blue / The New York Times)

Instead, he said in an interview, the agents asked for march routes and other plans in order to separate the Proud Boys from counterprotesters. Other times, he said, agents warned that they had picked up potential threats from the left against him or his associates.

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But before the Jan. 6 event, no one contacted the leaders of the Proud Boys, Tarrio said, even though their gatherings at previous Trump rallies in Washington had been marred by serious violence.

“They did not reach out to us,” he said.

‘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 organizer, 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, and he often expressed a half-ironic appetite for mayhem. “Can you call for violence generally?” he once asked in an online video. “’Cause I am.”

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, especially at college campuses. 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 counterprotesters, killing one and injuring more than a dozen — setting off a broad repudiation of the groups that attended.

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Despite McInnes’ cautions, several prominent Proud Boys attended, including Tarrio, the current chair, who was photographed blowing kisses to a crowd of counterprotesters. 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 nonwhite 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 Trump. Its members have lionized Augusto Pinochet, the Chilean dictator, and their events often appear to be thinly disguised pretexts to bait opponents into confrontations.

Indeed, the Proud Boys have made little effort to hide violent intentions. In fall 2018, for example, members of a New England chapter posted notes on the online service Venmo as they paid their monthly dues and transportation costs to an October “Resist Marxism” rally in Providence, Rhode Island.

The event would quickly degenerate into brawls, just what some of the Proud Boys had anticipated.

“October blood money and bus,” one wrote with his payment.

“Right wing atrocities,” wrote another.

“Helicopter fuel. Those filthy commies are not going to push themselves out of helicopters,” quipped a third, alluding to Pinochet’s practice of executing dissidents by dropping them from the air.

The payments even revealed that one member of that chapter was a police officer: Kevin Wilcox of East Hampton, Connecticut. (He did not post violent messages.)

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After a complaint from the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, the police department said the officer’s affiliation with the Proud Boys did not violate its policies, in part because it was not considered a white supremacist group. Wilcox, now retired, could not be reached for comment.

“We tried to bring attention to the Proud Boys’ violence back then,” said Megan Squire, a computer scientist at Elon University who documented the Venmo transactions. “Nobody listened.”

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.

Despite those distractions, the officials note, federal agents worked undercover for months last year to arrest members of a secretive neo-Nazi group, the Base. Prosecutors have accused members of the Base of detailed plots to murder a married couple for supporting antifa and to inject violence into a gun rally in Virginia, all with the aim of triggering a racial civil war.

The FBI later broke up a group of militiamen accused of planning to kidnap Michigan’s governor, Gretchen Whitmer. An informant recorded them conspiring during an armed intrusion into the Michigan statehouse to protest COVID-19 stay-at-home orders.

Unlike with those groups, federal law enforcement officials said, no evidence emerged that the Proud Boys had plotted murders, kidnappings, gun crimes or — apart from Jan. 6 — insurrection.

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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.

Some former officials said that the failure to recognize the threat of the Proud Boys was a blind spot in the culture of law enforcement that transcended the Trump administration. “If the Proud Boys was not a white male chauvinist club but a Black male chauvinist club, I think that, sadly, we would have seen a different policing posture,” said Neumann, the former Homeland Security official.

Municipal police, without federal guidance, took a piecemeal approach, occasionally arresting Proud Boys for egregious violence but more often simply shooing the gang along.

About a week after the October 2018 clashes in Providence, members of the group set upon protesters outside a speech McInnes was giving at the Metropolitan Republican Club in Manhattan, New York. Two of the Proud Boys were eventually convicted of assault and sentenced to four years in prison.

Critics argued that such arrests were rare because police generally favored the Proud Boys over their left-leaning opponents. McInnes apparently agreed.

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“I have a lot of support in the NYPD,” he said, without evidence, in an online video shortly after the arrests, “and I very much appreciate that.”

After a Philadelphia rally by Vice President Mike Pence last year, officers at a members-only police union bar mingled inside with about 10 Proud Boys wearing their distinctive regalia. When members of the group confronted journalists who were lingering outside, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported, police asked the Proud Boys if they were OK.

Ethan Nordean, with megaphone, leads a group who claim they are members of the Proud Boys in support of President Donald Trump in Washington, D.C., on  Jan. 6, 2021. (Carolyn Kaster / AP)
Ethan Nordean, with megaphone, leads a group who claim they are members of the Proud Boys in support of President Donald Trump in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6, 2021. (Carolyn Kaster / AP)

‘A very soft civil war’

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 was working at his family’s chowder restaurant near Seattle when he first encountered the Proud Boys in 2017, during a scuffle in the city with immigrant rights demonstrators.

He quickly began to see Proud Boys street fights as part of a much loftier contest.

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“You start to kind of develop this feeling that these people are no longer Americans, per se, but they are kind of anti-American,” Nordean later told conspiracy theorist Alex Jones on his Infowars program, calling the struggle “a very soft civil war.”

You start to kind of develop this feeling that these people are no longer Americans, per se, but they are kind of anti-American.”
— Ethan Nordean, speaking of political leftists, in an interview on Alex Jones’ “Infowars”

Nordean adopted the nom de guerre “Rufio Panman,” after a character in the Peter Pan movie “Hook.” About the same time, he went into business with a local police officer, Trevor Davidson, selling fitness supplements. (Although there is no evidence that he aided the Proud Boys, the Renton Police Department is investigating how much the officer knew of Nordean’s involvement.)

In June 2018, Nordean went to Portland, where the Proud Boys had repeatedly clashed with local leftists. After a so-called Freedom and Courage rally at a federal building, dozens of members marched around the block to confront waiting counterprotesters.

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 hospitalized with a “significant concussion,” a police report noted.

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Proud Boys websites replayed the video incessantly, calling it “the punch heard ’round the world.”

“I just love how you giant-roundhouse-right-hook and then shove him down so his head hits the pavement — that probably hurt him worse!” Jones exulted in an interview with Nordean, adding, “It’s so exciting!”

On six Facebook pages the group used to vet new recruits, the number of prospective members jumped more than 70% over the next 30 days, adding more than 820 potential Proud Boys, said Cassie Miller, a researcher at the Southern Poverty Law Center. 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 center.

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.

Nordean said on Infowars that he could tell Portland police despised the counterprotesters but left the fighting to the Proud Boys. The police, he added, were caught “in between doing what’s right and getting in trouble” because they were “entangled in a whole bunch of politically correct things.”

The ‘Thin Blue Line’

Biggs, the future Proud Boys leader who attacked the flag burner in Cleveland, was a barrel-chested Army veteran who had served in Afghanistan and Iraq. He got his start on the far-right working as an Infowars correspondent, which is how he encountered Nordean and the Proud Boys.

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Biggs’ record of violence predated 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.

He boasted on Infowars that the Texas episode was a struggle against tyranny, but his account raised questions. He and a girlfriend had come home “tipsy” after drinking shots with a friend, he said, and he angrily refused a security guard’s instructions to keep the noise down and go inside. The two men fought until police arrived. But a grand jury declined to bring charges.

A few weeks later, 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 pummeling 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.

“He is a fascist,” Johnson said of Biggs in an interview.

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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 organize events.

There was another flag-burning incident. On July 4, 2019, Biggs helped lead a Proud Boys rally in front of the White House to protest a demonstration by Johnson and fellow party members.

The Proud Boys attacked the flag burners, but the Metropolitan Police Department instead arrested Johnson and another Communist, on assault and other charges. Police then escorted the Proud Boys to a nearby bar. Several officers were captured on video exchanging fist bumps with one of the them. Department officials said they found “insufficient facts” to identify any policy violation.

In August, Biggs helped organize an “End Domestic Terrorism” rally in Portland. He posted a series of social media messages threatening leftist counterprotesters, including photos of him wielding a huge, spiked baseball bat emblazoned with Trump’s slogan, “Make America Great Again.”

FBI agents pulled Biggs and Tarrio aside at the Portland airport but did not ask them to tone down the posts or 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. (Portland police separated the antagonists, avoiding major violence.)

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At the end of the year, 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. That night, members stole a Black Lives Matter banner and burned it in the street.

In video footage, Biggs urged the crowd of Proud Boys to celebrate by drinking. As he led them to a bar, he chanted, “I like beer!” — a Proud Boys inside joke alluding to testimony by Justice Brett Kavanaugh during his Supreme Court confirmation.

Biggs’ mood changed after a tumultuous night of street clashes. Two Proud Boys were stabbed, and he grew angry at police for failing to more actively defend the Proud Boys.

“We are the ones that back you!” he yelled through a megaphone at a phalanx of riot officers. “That thin blue line is getting thinner and thinner.”

Washington police arrested Tarrio on Jan. 4, questioning him about the banner burning and charging him with illegal possession of two high-capacity magazines for an AR-15 (each stamped with the Proud Boys rooster logo). 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.

‘Want your house back? Take it’

The Proud Boys made no effort to hide their anticipation of political violence in the weeks leading up to Jan. 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.” In December, he helped spread the word on social media that when the Proud Boys showed up in Washington, they should do so not in their customary black-and-yellow polo shirts but “incognito.”

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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 organized group that took part in the attack, and prosecutors said its members spearheaded the violence. One Proud Boy, Dominic Pezzola, armed with a riot shield he had stolen from police, was among the first to shatter a window and break into the Capitol, court papers say.

“Do you want your house back? Take it!” urged another Proud Boy, William Chrestman, clad in military gear and wielding an ax handle.

Federal agents have now executed search warrants on Proud Boys in four states, scoured members’ social media accounts and dug into their private communications. 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.

Agents came for Biggs on Inauguration Day, arresting him in Florida only hours before President Joe Biden was sworn in.

When agents came for Nordean two weeks later, court papers say, they raided his home in the Seattle suburbs with assault rifles and flash-bang grenades.