Proud Boys Chats Reveal How They Coordinated During the Capitol Riot

Thousands of private communications offer more insight into the group’s role on January 6, prosecutors say.
May 14, 2021, 9:04pm
In this Jan. 6, 2021, photo, Proud Boy members Joseph Biggs, left, and Ethan Nordean, right with megaphone, walk toward the U.S. Capitol in Washington, in support of President Donald Trump.
In this Jan. 6, 2021, photo, Proud Boy members Joseph Biggs, left, and Ethan Nordean, right with megaphone, walk toward the U.S. Capitol in Washington, in support of President Donald Trump. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

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“Make no mistake…we did this.” 

That’s what Proud Boy Chairman Enrique Tarrio wrote in a text message at around 2:30 p.m. on January 6, approximately 15 minutes after rioters overwhelmed police and breached the Capitol, according to newly-filed court documents. 

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Prosecutors say they’ve obtained thousands of pages of text messages and private Telegram chats between high-ranking Proud Boys that offer more insight into the group’s alleged coordination before, during, and after the deadly insurrection—including a “Ministry of Self-Defense” that had an established chain-of-command and video planning conferences prior to January 6. 

Snippets of chats were released Thursday in the case against Proud Boy “Sergeant-at-Arms” Ethan Nordean, who is among those facing serious conspiracy charges for his alleged actions on January 6. 

The new documents also raise fresh questions about Tarrio’s involvement in the Capitol riot, despite the fact he was absent on the day itself. 

Prosecutors seem to be particularly interested in messages referencing the “Ministry of Defense” or MOSD, described by one Proud Boy as a “special chapter” of the organization that was dedicated to planning for January 6.  

On December 29, Tarrio announced the leadership and structure of the “Ministry of Self-Defense,” which included himself, Nordean, Joe Biggs (a Proud Boy organizer from Florida), and Zach Rehl, (leader of the organization’s Philadelphia chapter), prosecutors say. Two other members of the upper-tier leadership who were part of the “Ministry” have not yet been identified by prosecutors. 

The next day, the leaders of the Ministry of Self Defense held a video call to prepare for January 6, and discussed how the upcoming event would differ from other recent Proud Boy rallies in DC, according to prosecutors. For one, they would be forgoing their trademark black-and-yellow uniform and going “incognito” to blend in with the crowd. Another difference was that their main event would be during the day, instead of at night. 

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“We’re doing a completely different operation,” said Rehl. “And there’s gonna be a lot of contingencies and plans that are laid out.” 

The “Ministry” had at least one more video conference prior to January 6. 

Though Tarrio was involved in planning January 6, he wasn’t actually there on the day. According to the newly-released text messages, Tarrio told other Proud Boys in the chat that he suspected he would be arrested once he arrived in Washington D.C. from Florida in relation to alleged crimes committed at a previous event. His prediction came true. And during his arrest on January 4, police discovered high-capacity magazines (forbidden in D.C.) with Proud Boy insignia on them. 

Tarrio was released from jail the next day and ordered to stay away from the protests in Washington. Nordean assumed the role of “de facto leader,” while Tarrio watched events unfold from a hotel room in Maryland. 

But the text messages suggest that Tarrio was still coordinating with Proud Boys on the ground.

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The Proud Boy chats were awash with bellicose rhetoric on January 6. saying they hoped that Trump supporters, “normies,” would “burn that city to ash today.” Another wrote “I will settle with seeing them smash some pigs to dust.” 

At one point, one of the leaders wrote “Storming the Capitol now” and urged others in the chat to “get there,” according to the court filings. 

Just after the Capitol was breached, one Proud Boy directed a message to Tarrio. “I told you we should have rushed the police line on the 12th.. This could have been us,” they wrote, seemingly referring to showdowns with police at a violent protest in D.C. a month earlier.  

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“This is so much better,” Tarrio assured him. “‘Make no mistake… we did this.” (Tarrio has not been accused of having any criminal involvement in the events of January 6). 

The newly-filed court documents also raised questions about the relationship between top-ranking Proud Boys and Dominic Pezzola, a.k.a. Spazzo, a Proud Boy from Rochester, New York. Pezzola is facing conspiracy charges and was allegedly responsible for the first breach of the Capitol when he smashed the window. Investigators said in January they found a thumb drive full of bomb making instructions when they searched his home. 

Proud Boy leaders have denied having anything to do with him. But the Ministry of Self-Defense Telegram chats, which he was a member of, suggest otherwise. 

And, around the same time that North Carolina Proud Boy leader Charles Donohue was seen on video with Pezzola carrying a riot shield that had been stolen from police, he wrote in the Telegram chats, “got a riot shield.” Others in the chats immediately recognized Pezzola as being a member of the group,  prosecutors say, long before he was “outed” as a Proud Boy in the media following the Capitol attack. 

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Also noteworthy were some of the Proud Boys’ reactions after the events at the Capitol. They seemed exhilarated, and eager to claim responsibility for what had happened. 

“I’m proud as fuck at what we accomplished yesterday,” Rehl wrote, according to prosecutors. One of the unidentified Proud Boy leaders was initially a bit less ebullient. “We failed,” they wrote. “The House is meeting again.” They later conceded, “We accomplished our mission today.” 

The government released segments from the chats following a back-and-forth with Nordean and his lawyer. 

Under federal law, prosecutors are obliged to share any evidence they plan to use in the case with the defense. In this instance Nordean and his lawyer received the trove of text messages and Telegram chats, tried to argue that they contained “exculpatory evidence,”  and filed a notice to the court asking it to reconsider his pretrial detention order. 

Specifically, he said that they show the Capitol attack wasn’t planned, that he had nothing to do with Pezzola, a.k.a. Spazzo, and that he’d sworn off politics and political rallies since January 6. 

Prosecutors see a very different version of events in the texts. 

“Far from being exculpatory, when placed in context, these and other Telegram messages produced to defendant Nordean contain additional evidence of the criminal conduct,” prosecutors wrote. 

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They also note that even though Nordean has turned on Trump (“Fuck you Trump you left us on [t]he battle field bloody and alone” he wrote, according to prosecutors), he still seemed determined to pursue Proud Boy organizing and remain in the public eye. He reluctantly agreed to the organization-wide three-month “stand down” order from rallies, but didn’t seem happy about it. 

“Shit is real now,” one Proud Boy wrote. “People are going to go to jail and be charged with sedition.” 

“They’re coming for you no matter what,” Nordean replied. “Wake the hell up I’m not gonna be sitting on my ass waiting for the end.” He also helped coordinate a cabin trip for top-level Proud Boys after January 6, and wrote in a Telegram post that they would discuss switching up their classic Black-and-Gold uniform at future rallies, “SHTF safe locations” (shit hits the fan), their six-month and one-year plans, secure vetting for prospective members, bulk armor deals, and Ministry of Self-Defense. 

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He also hinted at his own political ambitions. “I’m gunna take over a small city in Florida and run it,” he said on January 21, according to messages. “I’ll be the mayor and my boys will be in city council.” 

Echoing some of the Proud Boys’ own rhetoric, prosecutors concluded that Nordean’s argument for pretrial release was a “false flag.” 

Gavin McInnes was a co-founder of VICE. He left the company in 2008 and has had no involvement since then. He later founded the Proud Boys in 2016.