When I first met the leader of the Proud Boys, he was relaxing over a burger and chicken wings in an Irish bar, wearing his trademark mirror shades and a T-shirt emblazoned with the words: “Democrats eat and fuck children.” His protective vest lay on the ground beside his seat, a reminder that this notorious rabble-rouser was recovering from a stab to the stomach, received during a brawl near the White House in the aftermath of Donald Trump’s electoral defeat.
Enrique Tarrio spoke softly, talked freely and was not drinking alcohol as he was teetotal — despite insisting that his men-only group was little more than a laddish drinking club. Such claims seemed less convincing, however, as that night in November 2020 wore on. It began with amiable chat in a Washington bar — but it ended with the beating of a black woman by his band of far-Right thugs.
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Yet it was easy to see why even Tarrio’s foes called him charismatic, with his ready smile and relaxed style. At one point, as we talked, I told him that his group reminded me of the hooligans that used to plague British football with their tribal violence in my childhood. He was intrigued. He fired off questions to me about their activities, listening intently as I explained how gangs of thugs in the Seventies and Eighties would attack fans supporting rival teams in the stands and streets surrounding stadiums after games.
Tarrio nodded. “Yeah, I think that’s what we are,” he said, flashing his big smile.
Now, this leader of a gang of political hooligans has been given 22 years in prison for playing a central role in the Jan 6 attack on the Capitol building, which took place just a few weeks after our meeting. His is the longest sentence so far related to the lethal attack that has seen more than 1,100 people charged.
Despite being in Baltimore on that fateful day, barred from Washington due to an earlier arrest, Tarrio was deemed to be a “general” organising the assault, which took place as legislators were certifying President Biden’s election victory. He was convicted most seriously of seditious conspiracy, a little-used charge from the Civil War era, with the judge calling him the “ultimate leader of that conspiracy” and a man “motivated by revolutionary zeal”.
In court, Tarrio cut a pathetic figure in his orange prison jumpsuit as he pleaded for leniency, bleated about “the temperature rising” after Trump’s false claims about a stolen election, and apologised for the riot. “I am not a political zealot,” he declared. But on the day we met at The Dubliner, a pub offering “hearty Hibernian fare” in America’s capital, he revelled in his infamy and gang leadership.
Surrounded by boisterous lieutenants from across the country, he had come to Washington with 300 of his followers for the so-called “Million MAGA March” to protest the results of the presidential election. The convicted thief, former jailbird and “prolific” FBI informant had taken over the Proud Boys two years earlier. Then his profile soared after Trump was pushed to condemn white supremacists in a presidential debate, and responded by saying: “Proud Boys — stand back and stand by.”
Several of his henchmen, drinking and munching burgers, also wore provocative T-shirts bearing slogans such as “I’d rather get Covid-19 than Biden-20” or claiming that General Pinochet — a military dictator whose death squads killed thousands of political opponents in Chile — “did nothing wrong”. Others were clad in the distinctive black Fred Perry shirts with yellow-edged collars, adopted by the group to the horror of the British company, which stopped selling them in the US and Canada. A couple displayed “RWDS” patches — standing for “Right Wing Death Squads” — as reportedly worn by an extremist who shot dead eight people in a Texas mall earlier this year.
Tarrio sold such incendiary paraphernalia from his Florida base. Yet he insisted the Proud Boys — widely seen as a bunch of racist and violent misogynists — were simply mischief makers. He argued the Left had lost its sense of humour as he told us how his group’s culture supposedly revolved around having fun, delighting in mockery of themselves and everyone else. The Afro-Cuban agitator denied they were racist, spoke of social justice, talked about his political ambitions and — after bragging about how Trump boosted their support — began outlining plans for a Proud Girls chapter.
This sounded interesting, given the group’s roots in rampant misogyny under his predecessor. He was the clear leader of their pack, demonstrated by the deference of his sidekicks. But just at that point a tall, bald, bearded and rather menacing man rushed up to our table and interrupted him, telling Tarrio that some Proud Boys were trapped in a restaurant by Antifa activists from the Left “throwing fucking explosives”.
This character — who wore one of those RWDS patches — was Jeremy Bertino, vice president of the Proud Boys chapter in South Carolina. Later, he became the pivotal figure in securing Tarrio’s prosecution after turning on his former comrades in the hope of winning a softer sentence.
After making some calls to check out the situation, including one to a police officer later arrested for aiding the group’s activities, Tarrio polished off his burger and joked to Bertino that while he wanted a shower and some sleep, “you want to party”.
The police officer told Tarrio he was heading over to the restaurant at the centre of the confrontation, urging him “to make sure things don’t escalate”. This did not deter the Proud Boys leader. Instead, his group of about 18 men pulled on body armour, donned helmets and set off along the Washington streets ready for battle — joined by a beefy, pony-tailed Swedish bystander, who had bumped into them in the bar.
The men laughed and joked as they strolled along the streets, declaring that they were going to “beat shit out of Communists”. Even in this strongly liberal city, some people applauded them while others asked Tarrio to pose for selfies with them. After some minor skirmishes, the “prisoners” were freed. So as darkness fell, the group of extremists — fuelled on alcohol and pumping adrenaline — went searching for their foes in Antifa, yelling out intimidatory chants such as “Whose streets? Our streets”.
Their numbers swelled as they marched toward a square near the White House. Trump supporters in red “Make America Great Again” hats thanked them profusely for their efforts. “We’re here to protect you,” responded a pompous Proud Boy. Yet there were also growing crowds protesting against them. One brave woman asked them to justify claims of a stolen election as she filmed their responses on a phone stuck in their faces, a mission that ended with a predictable torrent of abuse.
Tarrio had disappeared but just as some Proud Boys were starting to ask what had happened to their leader, he appeared on a scooter to give them a pep talk, urging them to stay calm and focused. “Hasta la vista, antifascista!” he shouted at another point.
The scenes were chaotic. There was pushing, shoving, and shouting from both sides. Teams of police blocked off side streets as the mood grew tense. “Let us do your job for you,” the Proud Boys told the cops, alluding to their supposed shared foes in Antifa. Then the fights broke out. People ran, punches were thrown. There were shouts, screams and nasty-sounding thuds.
The police cleared the crowd to reveal a middle-aged black woman lying on the ground with blood on her face. Beside her were a smashed phone and braided hair that had been ripped from her head. It was a grim sight. Officers helped the shaken-looking Antifa activist to her feet, protecting her from the mob. One man beside me, his face twisted in fury and loathing, was screaming: “Now you can see what it is like, you bitch. You fucking bitch. How does it feel, bitch?”
This sort of uncontrolled tribal hostility felt wearingly familiar in the aftermath of that election, which stirred up deep divisions that were then inflamed by Trump’s narcissistic challenging of the result. The pro-Trump protest that day had been peaceful with thousands strolling in the sun under a sea of colourful flags and banners. Yet still I had watched amazed as an affable white-haired old woman suddenly unleashed a torrent of abuse when she spied a trio of Antifa activists, hiding for safety behind the police they sought to stop funding.
Reporting on that election, I spoke to many voters across the American divide. Most were friendly, open, and often eloquent when discussing their perspective — yet for all the familiarity of the chain stores and fast-food restaurants in the streets, it frequently felt like visiting different nations when these people talked about politics. Two days before the protest, I was in Richmond, Virginia, as rival militia brandishing sub-machine guns met an armoured car driven by the conspiracy theorists of InfoWars at a “Stop the Steal” rally. People spoke openly about the threat of civil war. So will a second bout between Biden and Trump further rip apart the bonds of this society?
The last I saw of Tarrio was when he headed home after meeting his men by the Washington Monument, clutching a bottle of water. One Proud Boy in a Pinochet T-shirt had a badly bruised face. Police later reported a stabbing and several arrests amid the melee. No one was laughing as the self-styled pranksters of the ultra-Right dispersed into the night.
Tarrio gave me an unsettling insight into a violent, hate-filled sub-culture bubbling away in the heart of American democracy. He was friendly and smart, someone who could have contributed much to society, yet took a delight in stirring up the hooligans, misogynists and racists that followed him and fell for his stunts.
Ultimately, he was a provocateur who used his charisma and flair for publicity to stir tensions. There were are valid questions about the length of his punishment. But he played with fire, fuelled an explosion — and now this 39-year-old man will spend many years behind bars reflecting on his foolishness. “I was my own worst enemy,” he admitted to the court in his bid for a softer sentence. Tarrio was right on this count. Yet as one defence lawyer stated, the ultimate architect of those toxic events that stained American democracy is running again for the presidency.