Jan. 6 Was Just the Beginning for Oath Keepers, Proud Boys

HAfter the pro-Trump rioters attacked the U.S. Capitol Jan. 6, 2021 on January 6, a few men from the group gathered at a hotel three blocks away. Members of the far-right paramilitary group known as the Oath Keepers, the men gathered in a private suite at the Phoenix Hotel in downtown D.C. and listened as their leader, Stewart Rhodes, dialed someone on speaker phone and said that President Donald Trump should call on the Oath Keepers to “forcibly oppose the transfer of power.” After he hung up, according to court documents, Rhodes turned to the group and declared, “I just want to fight.”

The Oath Keepers, Proud Boys, and other extremists groups that were involved in Jan. 6 violence are still fighting 18 months later. On July 12, the House Committee will hold a hearing to examine the criminal activities of their members in the attack on Jan. 6. This includes seditious conspiracies and obstruction. They tried to stop then-President Donald Trump from becoming president. Evidence in hundreds of federal court cases, hours-long Congressional testimony, and posts by their members online show that they had larger goals.

These groups have been active in protests at the capitals of the states against COVID-19 and other government health measures. They’ve disrupted school board and town council meetings to protest mask mandates. These groups are more prominent in the public eye lately. On June 9, the same week the Jan. 6 committee held its first public hearing, a Proud Boys group stormed a “Drag Queen Story Hour” event at a local library in California, shouting slurs and “You’re not safe here.” Over the July 4 weekend, a group of men wearing Proud Boys emblems gathered at Independence Hall in Philadelphia, while about 100 people associated with the white supremacist Patriot Front group marched through Boston, carrying shields and flags with their insignia. Proud Boys, extremists groups and militias against the government have made appearances at 27 abortion-related events since July 1., according to new data shared with TIME by the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED), a nonprofit that tracks political violence. It is 160% more than the year before.

To hear some of their members tell it, the groups’ goal is not just to confront local opponents but also to undermine the U.S. government, which they see as having been “coopted by a cabal of elites actively trying to strip American citizens of their rights,” in the words of the indictment against one of the Oath Keepers involved on Jan. 6. “This all ends when we refuse to obey tyrants,” the Seattle Proud Boys chapter posted on Telegram last December, one of more than a dozen local groups that have grown in membership since Jan. 6, 2021.

Law enforcement is concerned about how far extremists can go in times of political tensions. The Department of Homeland Security has warned that domestic extremists are attempting to seize the forthcoming midterm elections, despite increasing violence in politics. “The threat [from these groups] is not greater or lesser, but different and evolving, and arguably more complex,” says Elizabeth Neumann, who led the Department of Homeland Security office that oversees responses to violent extremism from 2018 to 2020.

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It is difficult to separate allegedly criminal behavior and constitutionally protected rights for assembly and speech. For their Jan. 6th actions, eleven Oath Keepers were charged with seditious plot. Proud Boys five are being held accountable for conspiring to overthrow government officials and stop the execution of laws. While many of those in both the groups have plead guilty to various charges, Rhodes and Enrique Tarrio (the leader of Proud Boys) have not.

Even harder for law enforcement to manage may be the risk of fueling a quasi-revolutionary cause by stoking the extremist narrative of “political persecution.” The groups have continued to organize online, enlisting members from coast-to-coast. The leaked membership lists show that there are many elected officials, members of the law enforcement force and military in their ranks. The groups use the crackdown on law enforcement as a way to rally support, even as they attempt to avoid being sued. “Everyone they want to vilify is labeled a Proud Boy,” the group’s official Telegram channel said in a post about the Jan. 6 hearings. “Don’t ever forget what these blood-soaked monsters have done to you. They hate your f–g guts.”

Proud Boys members are shown onscreen during the House Select Committee Hearing to Investigate January 6th Attack at the U.S. Capitol, which took place on Capitol Hill, Washington, D.C., June 9, 2022.

Mandel Ngan—AFP/Getty Images

“The last line of defense against tyranny”

In 2009, the anti-government Oath Keepers was formed. This is one of many militias that sprung up following the election of Barack Obama. Rhodes (57 years old, former Army paratrooper, Yale Law School graduate) founded it. He focused on recruiting current and former military, law enforcement and first-responders, and members were encouraged to see themselves as “the last line of defense against tyranny,” according to Oath Keepers websites. The list, which included 38,000 people, was released last fall and showed the names of police officers as well sheriffs and elected representatives. Many others at the Jan. 6, riot came from similar backgrounds. Rhodes was himself photographed that day at the Capitol.

The Proud Boys were formed around the 2016 presidential election as self-described “Western chauvinists” who denounce American “political correctness” and “white guilt.” The group is made up of a loose-knit collection of chapters and local leaders throughout the country. Wearing their distinctive black polos with yellow stripes, members often provided “security” at Republican party events the last two election cycles.

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Jan. 6: Prosecutors allege that the Oath Keepers, Proud Boys, organized, prepared, trained, coordinated, and used hand signs, mobile phones, walkie talkies-like apps, encrypted chat programs such as Signal, MeWe, Zello, to maneuver around Capitol. As they forced their way through the doors of the Rotunda, many members were captured on camera in tactical vests, helmets, and radios. Nick Quested (a British documentarian filmmaker embedded with the Proud Boys) testified that the Proud Boys scouted the Capitol and attacked hours later.

Nayib Hazan, a defense attorney claims that Tarrio did not tell anyone to go into the Capitol. Quested filmed a garage meeting between Tarrio, Rhodes and Hassan. Hassan claims that it was less or more meaningless. The Oath Keeper defendants argued that they were only there to protect the rally. Both organizations have portrayed themselves as political persecution victims, which has been heard in many areas of the country. Millions of dollars are being raised on crowdfunding sites to help them defend their rights.

Rhodes along with four Oathkeepers members and their associates are scheduled to face trial on September 26. Tarrio and the four Proud Boys will face trial on Dec. 12. Two men are facing conspiracy charges, along with others. The sentences for these two men could be up to 20 years imprisonment. In the past 17 months, more than 860 people have been charged with various crimes for attempting to interfere with Congress’ certification of Joe Biden’s victory in the 2020 presidential election. At least 306 people pleaded guilty to insurrection that left at least five dead and hundreds more injured.

Protesters, which included members of Proud Boys rallied against COVID-19 mandates and vaccinations in New York City on November 20, 2021.

Mark Peterson—Redux

“A broad range of grievances”

Both sides have been affected by the crackdown. While far-right extremist groups felt initially encouraged by Jan. 6’s apparent success, Neumann states that law enforcement soon began to charge participants. “Law enforcement investigations caused many of the more organized groups to lay low,” she says, “Even if they’re not being investigated, they’re paranoid that they’re being monitored.”

Oath Keepers, Proud Boys, and other law enforcement agencies have been putting more scrutiny on them. Social media companies have restricted the spreading of extremist material. This has led to these groups moving on to other, more secure communication platforms. Oath Keepers & Proud Boys use WhatsApp and Telegram to continue their strategy, spreading messaging, and planning for protests.

The groups’ ability to adjust has been tested by the shift. “De-platforming, off of major tech platforms, largely worked,” Neumann says. “The older generation—which made up a larger portion of the Jan. 6 crowd than traditional violent extremist movements do—have difficulty working on smaller, less sophisticated platforms. Younger generations with tech-savvy are able to operate on smaller platforms but have difficulty recruiting via these mechanisms.”

And after the initial wave of arrests and media attention prompted caution, the extremist organizations have returned to the business of fighting what they say is the destruction of the country by what they see as tyrannical forces within the U.S. government, says Jason Blazakis, a former counter-terrorism official at the U.S. State Department, who is now a professor at the Middlebury Institute in Monterey, Calif. “The groups involved have always been motivated by a broad range of grievances that go beyond Trump,” he says. “The 2020 election results and Trump-defeat certainly factors in and still does, but these groups have been driven by 2nd Amendment conspiracy theories, notions of a great replacement, amongst many other things.”

Some members of these organizations have been using their celebrity to raise awareness for anti-vaccine demonstrations, rallies and support of gun right initiatives over the past 18 month. In January, a group of Proud Boys wore the Proud Boys insignia at an anti-vaccine rally in Washington. That same month, a Florida man was arrested with a homemade explosive after attending an Oath Keepers’ rally that was held in a courthouse parking lot. About two dozen Proud Boys handed out flyers in May as they marched along Long Island’s streets. Gunfire erupted last August in Portland Ore. following a confrontation between Proud Boys members and antifascist protestors.

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Some far-right extremist groups have organized around the narrative that those charged for their participation on Jan. 6 are “political prisoners” of a tyrannical federal government. According to the analysis of the Bridging Divides Initiative, an independent research organization that monitors political violence, there were demonstrations across 18 states as well as Washington, D.C., where the Proud Boys appeared at 40%. These “Justice for J6” rallies were also attended by members of the Oath Keepers, other anti-government militias like the Three Percenters and Texas militia, and far-right groups like the Groypers and White Lives Matter.

Experts say that although many militia members like the Oath Keepers have gone underground under intense law enforcement and public scrutiny, this does not mean they are not organizing. “The perceived illegitimacy of the Biden administration among the Oath Keepers is likely to increase the organization’s so-called ‘will to fight’ government forces—especially if they perceive an attempt at weapons confiscation,” a report by the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project, a nonprofit that monitors violence, said last year, noting that this will “further ingratiate the Oath Keepers to anti-government recruits.” Some groups have continued to identify Democratic members of Congress as “domestic enemies” and pushed the belief that the U.S. is facing civil war.

The FBI and DHS have repeatedly flagged militias and anti-government groups as a threat to national security. The groups also figured in the Biden Administration’s strategy to combat domestic extremism, which was issued by the National Security Council last summer. A “key component of the threat comes from anti–government or anti–authority violent extremists,” it says. “This includes self–proclaimed ‘militias’ and violent extremists who take steps to violently resist government authority or facilitate the overthrow of the U.S. Government based on perceived overreach [and] sovereign citizen violent extremists, who believe they are immune from government authority and laws.”

During clashes at Portland, Ore. on August 22, 2021, members of Proud Boys spray mace upon each other.

Alex Milan Tracy—AP

“Has to be local. No other way.”

Some members of these groups have signaled that they’re shifting to local politics, seeking to build support from the ground level. “I’ve always said my goal for this year… was simple,” Tarrio told NPR last summer. “Start getting more involved in local politics, running our guys for office from local seats, whether it’s a simple GOP seat or a city council seat.” Some members of these groups have already attempted to do so, including a member of the Oath Keepers who was at the Capitol on Jan. 6 and ran for the New Jersey State Assembly.

While this footage is not considered to be shocking, these supporters boast about how they were involved in the brutal Jan. 6 shooting. “Hearing the Swamp Congress blaming Proud Boys for 1/6 makes me so proud of them,” one person posted on a popular pro-Trump online forum during the hearings. “The Proud Boys are real men, that’s why our authoritarian government will lie and makeup evidence against them,” another person agreed. Other online users saw it as an appeal to action. “You should be uniting with people you work with or go to church with,” one user wrote. “Has to be local. There is no other way. And if local works, works real well, we link up with other locals.”

This view may not just be for fringe people. A number of recent polls indicate a substantial increase in Americans who think violence against the government can be justified. It rose from 10% to 38% earlier in the year in a Washington Post University of Maryland survey. Now, around one-third of Americans think violence against the government may be justified at times. The right has a stronger share: 40% of Republicans, compared to 23% for Democrats.

According to national security agencies, they also have been monitoring similar troubling trends. The Department of Homeland Security issued a terror bulletin on June 7, which described an eerie, interconnected patchwork of extremist threats. It included copycat attackers and violence from the Supreme Court’s decision regarding abortion rights. “As the United States enters mid-term election season this year, we assess that calls for violence by domestic violent extremists directed at democratic institutions, political candidates, party offices, election events, and election workers will likely increase,” the DHS bulletin warns.

Here are more must-read stories from TIME

To W.J. Hennigan at and Vera Bergengruen at


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