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Jan. 6: Proud Boys Lieutenant Joe Biggs, Who Warned of “Second Civil War,” Sentenced to 17 Years

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Image Credit: Reuters / AP (Biggs/Rehl)

Two former leaders of the right-wing Proud Boys gang were sentenced Thursday for their actions during the January 6 insurrection, with the judge handing down some of the longest sentences yet for people involved in the 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol. Joseph Biggs, the former leader of the group’s Florida chapter, was sentenced to 17 years in federal prison. Zachary Rehl, the former leader of the Philadelphia chapter, received 15 years. The two men were convicted in May of seditious conspiracy and other charges alongside other Proud Boys leaders, including the group’s former national chair, Enrique Tarrio, who is expected to be sentenced next week. The heavy sentences show that the Justice Department and the judge in the case viewed the Proud Boys as “top organizers, planners and executors of the riots on January 6,” says HuffPost senior editor Andy Campbell, who has written a book about the Proud Boys. He also notes that Proud Boys leaders had close ties to top Trump allies, suggesting Trump was aware of the possibility of violence on January 6 when he urged his supporters to march on the Capitol. “We have an engrained extremist crisis at the highest levels of government on the right.”

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StorySep 26, 2022“We Are Proud Boys”: Far-Right Gang Normalized Political Violence, Embraced by GOP as Legit Discourse
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Two leaders of the far-right Proud Boys have been given lengthy prison sentences for their role in the January 6th insurrection. Joseph Biggs, who is a top lieutenant in the Proud Boys, received a 17-year sentence. Zachary Rehl, the former head of the Proud Boys in Philadelphia, got a 15-year sentence. They had been convicted of seditious conspiracy in May. But the sentences are only about half as long as what federal prosecutors had recommended. The U.S. District Court Judge Timothy Kelly did agree to apply a terrorism enhancement in calculating their sentences. Judge Kelly, who was appointed by Donald Trump, talked about what happened on January 6, 2021, saying, quote, “That day broke our tradition of peacefully transferring power … The mob brought an entire branch of government to heel,” he said. After the sentencing, Biggs and Rehl’s attorney, Norman Pattis, spoke to reporters outside the courthouse.

NORMAN PATTIS: Where’s Donald Trump in all this? He stood on the Ellipse, basically told people, 74 million of his followers, “The election’s stolen. Go to the Capitol. Fight like hell, or you won’t have a country anymore.” Some people listened to him. Were they supposed to know that he was full of hot air? And was he full of hot air? I look forward to his trials. I look forward to seeing him testify someday.

REPORTER: So, do you blame President Donald Trump for January 6th and the actions of the Proud Boys?

NORMAN PATTIS: Do I blame him? As Judge Kelly noted in the Rehl sentencing, it’s a mitigating factor but not a justifying or excusing factor. But, you know, if your president tells you your country’s been stolen, the country that people fought and died for, people are trying to take your vote from you, how are you supposed to react to that? And these people reacted violently and to their detriment.

AMY GOODMAN: Ahead of the sentencing, both the Proud Boys broke down in court crying, with Rehl saying, quote, “I’m done peddling lies for other people who don’t care about me.”

Seattle Proud Boys leader Ethan Nordean is scheduled to be sentenced today, along with Dominic Pezzola. And on Tuesday, Enrique Tarrio will be sentenced. He’s the former national leader of the Proud Boys. Federal prosecutors are seeking a 33-year sentence for Tarrio.

Joining us now is Andy Campbell, senior editor at HuffPost, author of the book We Are Proud Boys: How a Right-Wing Street Gang Ushered In a New Era of American Extremism.

Welcome back to Democracy Now!, Andy. Talk about what happened in court yesterday and the significance of these 17- and 15-year sentences. Though long, they are about half as long as what the prosecutors requested. And as you answer that question, talk about the enhanced charge of terrorism and what the judge did with that.

ANDY CAMPBELL: Right. Well, you know, these are, as you said, two lieutenants who have been with the gang for a long time, pushing the same rhetoric that made January 6 happen. Both of them sobbed in court, saying they regret their actions, that, you know, this was — January 6 was a slip-up of the mind. But we know, from evidence in both their cases and throughout their violent history, you know, four days after the news networks called the election for Joe Biden, Joe Biggs, the gang’s top propagandist, I would say, published a blog titled “The Second Civil War Is Closer Than You Might Think. Buy Ammo. Clean Your Guns. Things Are Going to Get a Lot Worse Before They Get Better.” These guys, alongside Donald Trump, immediately after Trump lost, saw January 6 as their last stand for Trump. So, they were — there was an air, through their sobs right before their sentencing, of, you know, they were claiming that this was a slip-up during the day, that they followed Donald Trump erroneously. But we know for a fact that these guys were ready and willing to bring violence to the situation for Trump, just as they always have.

Now, the sentences that each of these lieutenants got show that the Justice Department and now the judge overseeing the case, Tim Kelly, see the Proud Boys as the — one of, if not the top organizers, planners and executors of the riots on January 6. I mean, these are, with the terrorism enhancement, very serious charges. Seditious conspiracy is a rare charge, historically brought against terrorists working on American soil. This is very serious. Now, will the sentences have any sort of tamping-down effect on our overall extremist crisis? I don’t think so. But certainly, the 15- and 17-year sentences for two top lieutenants of the Proud Boys doesn’t bode well for our last three defendants, especially the chairman, Enrique Tarrio, who, the government argued successfully, oversaw the entire thing from start to finish on January 6.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go back to January 6, 2021. This is Proud Boy Joe Biggs in a selfie video outside the Capitol.

JOSEPH BIGGS: So, we just stormed the [bleep] Capitol. 

PROUD BOY: Yeah, we did.

JOSEPH BIGGS: Took the mother[bleep] place back. It was so much fun!

PROUD BOY: So much America! So much America!

JOSEPH BIGGS: January 6 will be a day in infamy.

AMY GOODMAN: So, tell us more about who Proud Boy Joe Biggs is, and also his relationship with InfoWars and Alex Jones, a correspondent. Tell us about him.

ANDY CAMPBELL: Sure. He’s an Army veteran. He was in the Army for eight years, did tours of Iraq and, in fact, got a head injury there. He’s also a former InfoWars correspondent and, through that, was able to consistently put the Proud Boys in front of a huge, sweeping audience that Alex Jones enjoys. He was their top propagandist, like I said, you know, throughout their careers. He’s putting Proud Boys, helping Alex — putting Proud Boys in front of Alex Jones to help him celebrate the violence that they were committing against the GOP’s perceived enemies. And one of these defendants, Ethan Nordean, went on Alex Jones’s show in 2018 after knocking a protester out cold. Alex Jones said it was one of the most beautiful American moments he had ever seen. And so, Joe Biggs was instrumental in helping the Proud Boys become a big part of the GOP conversation and, ultimately, become the architects of the biggest last stand for Trump ever. So, Joe Biggs is their propagandist.

Zachary Rehl is the leader of the Philadelphia Proud Boys — former leader now — who marched with Biggs on January 6th in front of the pack of rioters who marched toward the Capitol. And it was in between the Ellipse and the Capitol where Joe Biggs came upon a police barricade. He breached that barricade, allowing the other rioters to go through and giving this sort of tacit endorsement to storming the Capitol. It was a pivotal moment for this entire riot. And it’s for that breach that Joe Biggs created that they got the terrorism enhancement on their charges. Now, Judge Tim Kelly said, colloquially, “I’m not going to liken what the Proud Boys did to plotting to blow up a government building; however, it was the blowing up of the American process of the peaceful transfer of power that makes this terrorism enhancement accurate.” And it’s a big reason why their sentences are so substantial here.

AMY GOODMAN: Andy, I wanted to ask you about this comment of Joe Biggs. November 10th, 2020 — that’s just after the news networks called the election for Joe Biden — Biggs posted a blog post on his website, The Biggs Report, in which he called for — well, directly for civil war, saying, “Buy ammo, clean your guns, get storable food and water.” He wrote, in this now-deleted post, “Be prepared! Things are about to get bad before they get better.” But, you know, that was public. But it’s not only about Biggs here. We’re going from the boots to the suits. And this is the issue that was raised by Rehl in court, also raised by the lawyer, is they thought they were being patriots for the president of the United States, who said that we’re talking about a stolen election. So, certainly, Donald Trump knew about this. Talk about what these sentences mean for Donald Trump, who has been accused, has been indicted over and over again.

ANDY CAMPBELL: Right, absolutely. I mean, the Proud Boys can argue all they want that it was an accident, that they were just responding to Trump, but that is their directive as a gang. Not only have they consistently committed violence on behalf of Trump’s words, on behalf of Tucker Carlson’s words, the overall GOP grievance machine, but they are close friends with Trump’s top people. Enrique Tarrio was in contact with Roger Stone, one of Trump’s top confidants, on January 6th, leading up to January 6. And after January 6, Roger Stone admitted to me for the book that he had been advising the Proud Boys politically and helping them become a more political machine for years leading up to January 6th. These guys had an absolute line to Trump.

I’m not trying to suggest that I have any evidence that they spoke or got word to Trump on the day — we don’t know that yet. But certainly, Trump knew that there was a street gang and a bunch of rioters out there waiting in the wings to mobilize on his word. In fact, shortly after Trump posted a message on Twitter saying his followers — you know, this protest would be wild in Washington on January 6th, Joseph Biggs wrote to Enrique Tarrio encouraging him to get, quote, “radical and real men” to answer that call to action. So, these —

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, Andy, when it comes to Trump knowing, we already know that on January 6th, when he was told that men were armed coming to his rally, Trump’s response was to say, “Don’t force people to go through metal detectors.”

ANDY CAMPBELL: Absolutely. And Michael Cohen said — prior to January 6th, in an interview with CNN, he said, “Trump knows he has Proud Boys in the street, and he’s excited about it.” “January 6th,” Cohen said at the time, “is going to be really bad,” because Trump knows he has these very violent people in the street for him, and he loves it. And that’s just how it’s played out over and over again before January 6th. And let’s not forget, the Proud Boys, despite their leaders being in jail, are still doing all of the same violence on GOP’s grievances that they were before. It continues today.

AMY GOODMAN: Particularly going after drag shows, particularly going after pro-choice protesters and abortion clinics?

ANDY CAMPBELL: Right, absolutely. And, you know, people ask, “Well, the national leaders are all behind bars. They’ve dissolved their national chapter. Doesn’t this mean the end of the Proud Boys?” And certainly, it does not, because they work locally. They are at abortion clinics. They are at school board meetings. They are, you know, mobilizing on words of other big GOP voices, like Ron DeSantis, across the country at rapid clip. And so, the only thing that’s really changed about the Proud Boys since these convictions and these sentences is that they’re not amassing on a huge level for Trump like they used to. But nobody is doing that. And that may change during the election.

I think it’s important to note that if the Proud Boys dissolved tomorrow or they changed their name, which I don’t expect, it doesn’t change the fact that we have an ingrained extremist crisis at the highest levels of government on the right and that the Proud Boys have done what Judge Kelly called, you know, the breaking of the tradition of peaceful transfer of power. They have so normalized violence that you can expect to be scared at a polling place, be scared at an abortion clinic, be scared at American political rallies, because we have this extremist contingent. And that is the damage that the Proud Boys did, and continue to do to this day.

AMY GOODMAN: Andy Campbell, I want to thank you for being with us, senior editor at HuffPost. His book is We Are Proud Boys: How a Right-Wing Street Gang Ushered In a New Era of American Extremism.

Coming up, we go to Minnesota, where a water protector is on trial, facing five years in prison for engaging in peaceful protest against the Enbridge Line 3 tar sands oil pipeline. Back in 30 seconds.

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