Who are the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers and what was their role in the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol?
Around two dozen members of the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers have been indicted on charges including seditious conspiracy after the US Capitol riot.
The Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers have both been subpoenaed by the House Select Committee on the January 6 Attack, which held its first public hearing into the assault on the US Capitol on January 6, 2021, carried out by extremist supporters of former President Donald Trump in an attempt to overturn the results of the November 2020 presidential election. Egged on by Trump’s baseless claims of electoral fraud and his campaign to overturn Joe Biden’s victory, a mob of thousands descended on the seat of US lawmaking to prevent the joint session of Congress from ratifying the Democratic nominee’s appointment.
Biden later described the attack on the Capitol as “an insurrection” and images beamed around the world of the unprecedented riot left an indelible stain on the very vision of democracy many of those who participated were apparently convinced they were trying to uphold after being told by Trump: “If you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore.”
According to the US Department of Justice, there were 725 arrests made during the Capitol riot and 225 people face criminal charges over the insurrection. Five people died during or after the riot and 138 police officers were injured. The Capitol building itself suffered $1.5 million in damages.
Trump’s call to arms for alt-right
Trump’s call to arms among his supporters on the extreme fringes of the alt-right was a last-ditch attempt to overturn the results of a fair and democratic voting process, after the business magnate’s repeated attempts to challenge the ballot in the courts failed to bear fruit. It was also a remarkable piece of backtracking brinkmanship from a scattergun president whose mental state was such at the time of the Capitol riot that his Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman, General Mark Milley, took extraordinary steps to prevent the situation from escalating wildly out of control.
According to a book by Watergate journalist Bob Woodward and Washington Post reporter Robert Costa, Milley was certain “Trump had gone into a serious mental decline in the aftermath of the election, with Trump now all but manic, screaming at officials and constructing his own alternate reality about endless election conspiracies.” As such, Milley instructed his staff not to take orders from Trump unless through him.
The irony is that Trump’s support base among the alt-right and far right, who made up the majority of the Capitol rioters, were largely responsible for his downfall. The aftermath of the Charlottesville Unite the Right rally in August 2017 - during which a young counter-protestor, Heather Heyer, was killed when white supremacist James Alex Fields Jr drove his car into a crowd, injuring a further 35 people - led Biden to state that Trump’s failure to condemn the racist rhetoric of the rally-goers was the reason he felt he had to run for president.
Handed several opportunities to condemn extremist violence, Trump shot himself in the foot during an October, 2020, presidential debate when he refused to disavow the likes of the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers, uttering the now infamous line: “Proud Boys, stand back and stand by.” He refused to denounce far right extremists and specifically the Proud Boys, giving the group both a boost in popularity as well as their new motto.
The negative backlash clearly proved to be too much for Trump’s campaign, his remarks triggering discomfort even from fellow Republicans. Just two days later, in an interview with Sean Hannity on Fox News, the President backtracked very clearly: “I’ve said it many times, let me be clear again, I condemn the KKK. I condemn all white supremacists. I condemn the Proud Boys.” adding “I don’t know much about the Proud Boys, almost nothing, but I condemn that.”
Who are the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers?
Despite an effort to rebrand their image following the events of Charlottesville, the Proud Boys are considered a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), which also describes the organization as an “alt-right fight club.” The Proud Boys claims to be a fraternal organization that gets together to drink beer, fight and read Pat Buchanan’s “Death of the West.” They state that they are a libertarian organization that is pro-business, concerned with “venerating the housewife” and are against racism.
However, the group’s founder, Gavin McInnes, co-founder of Vice Magazine, describes the Proud Boys as “alt-lite.” The current chairman of the group, Enrique Tarrio, is Cuban-American and a former director of Latinos for Trump. Founded in 2016, the Proud Boys have an estimated membership of between several hundred and 6,000. A Canada branch of the organization was dissolved in 2021 after it was designated as a terrorist organization by the Justin Trudeau administration. Five leaders of the group were federally indicted on seditious conspiracy charges for their alleged roles in the Capitol insurrection.
Since their foundation, they have been involved in altercations with Black Lives Matter protesters, along with other groups. They say they are protecting America from a left-wing threat and describe themselves as “Western chauvinists,” which the International Centre for Counter Terrorism believes is thinly veiled code for replacement theory. They have often taken advantage of clashes between protesters and police to instigate violence themselves, notably in Portland and Kenosha.
The Oath Keepers have also been subpoanead by the House Select Committee, with 11 members including founder Stewart Rhodes indicted on seditious conspiracy charges. Three of those have pleaded guilty and a total of 20 Oath Keepers were charged with federal offenses after the Capitol riot.
With an estimated membership of 5,000, the Oath Keepers were founded in 2009 as a far-right, anti-government militia to defend the Constitution of the United States. Described by the FBI as a “paramilitary organization,” many of the group’s members are former or serving military or law enforcement personnel who are bound together, according to the SPLC, by various conspiracy theories involving the US government.