A prominent member of the neo-fascist gang the Proud Boys who federal prosecutors argued played an instrumental role propelling the group towards political violence has been sentenced to 17 years in prison.
Joe Biggs, who was convicted of seditious conspiracy earlier this year alongside three other members of the group for their roles on January 6, had called the assault at the US Capitol a “warning shot” to the government in its aftermath. He now faces one of the longest prison sentences to date among hundreds of people charged in connection with the attack.
A jury had also convicted Biggs on charges of conspiracy to obstruct an official proceeding; obstruction of an official proceeding; conspiracy to use force, intimidation or threats to prevent officers from discharging their duties; interference with law enforcement during civil disorder; and destruction of government property.
Sentencing guidelines suggested Biggs could face 27 to 33 years. Federal prosecutors sought 33 years for both Biggs and former Proud Boys leader Enrique Tarrio, who is scheduled to be sentenced on 5 September. Zachary Rehl, who was also convicted of seditious conspiracy and other crimes, will also be sentenced on 31 August. Co-defendants Ethan Nordean and Dominic Pezzola will be sentenced on 1 September.
The longest sentence connected to the attack was handed to Stewart Rhodes, the founder of the far-right anti-government militia group the Oath Keepers, who was sentenced to 18 years in prison earlier this year after he was separately convicted of seditious conspiracy.
Biggs and Rhodes are among dozens of January 6 defendants who amplified Donald Trump’s bogus narrative that the 2020 presidential election was stolen from him, a false belief that fuelled violence in Washington DC and Biggs’ warning of a coming civil war.
US District Judge Timothy Kelly determined that Biggs’ actions were not “spontaneous” but deliberate attempts to obstruct a joint session of Congress and upend the results of the 2020 election as lawmakers and Vice President Mike Pence convened to certify the results.
“The mob brought an entire branch of government to heel,” the judge said during a hearing on Thursday.
But the judge was reluctant to adhere to the “stratospheric” sentencing guidelines in Biggs’ case, which he contrasted with plots to blow up government buildings and other mass casualty events. Assistant US Attorney Jason McCullough argued that the Proud Boys brought the US “to the brink of a constitutional crisis” with a campaign of fear and a show of violence that presents an ongoing antidemocratic threat.
Prosecutors had previously characterized Biggs as a “vocal leader and influential proponent of the group’s shift toward political violence” who relied on an “outsized public profile” and previous military experience to lead a “revolt against the government in an effort to stop the peaceful transfer of power.”
The US Army Veteran and former staff member with Alex Jones’ conspiracy theory-fuelled website InfoWars emerged as a prolific figure within the Proud Boys, where he “viewed himself and his movement as a second American revolution where he and the other ‘patriots’ would retake the government by force,” prosecutors wrote in a sentencing memo.
January 6 was “the last time” he intended to join the Proud Boys, Biggs told Judge Kelly on 31 August before he received his sentence. He said he wants to spend more time with his daughter.
“I‘m not a terrorist, I don’t have hate in my heart,” Biggs said. “I know that I messed up that day, but I’m not a terrorist.”
Mr Trump invoked the group’s name during the first 2020 presidential debate: “Proud Boys, stand back and stand by, but I’ll tell you what, somebody’s got to do something about antifa and the left because this is not a right-wing problem. This is a left-wing problem.”
Almost immediately, members of the Proud Boys and their allies heard his remarks as a call to action, with far-right online spaces lighting up with celebratory comments and images of T-shirts and other items bearing what became to the Proud Boys a “stand by” catchphrase.
“President Trump told the Proud Boys to stand by because someone needs to deal with antifa ... well sir! we’re ready!!” Biggs wrote on the social media platform Parler.
“Standing by, sir,” Tarrio wrote on Twitter.
Jeremy Bertino, a North Carolina Proud Boy who served as a key government witness at the trial, testified to the House select committee investigating the January 6 attack that Mr Trump’s comments were a “call to arms” that helped swell the groups’ ranks “exponentially” afterward.
Biggs took Mr Trump’s comments as a signal to “f*** up antifa,” according to the hundreds of private and public messages and social media posts obtained by prosecutors. “Let’s get radical and get real men,” Biggs told Tarrio two weeks before the attack.
“No one looks at us from our side and sees a drinking club,” Biggs said. “They see men who stand up and fight. We need to portray a more masculine vibe.”
The now-convicted members of the Proud Boys and others assembled a “Ministry of Self-Defense” group chat on 19 December, 2020 to prepare for January 6, with a member at one point discussing “stacking bodies in front of the Capitol.”
Before his arrest two days before the riots, Tarrio wrote to Biggs: “Whatever happens … make it a spectacle.”
Biggs, Rehl and Ethan Nordean marched with hundreds of people towards the Capitol, pushing past law enforcement and breaking through every police barricade. Pezzola, the one Proud Boy defendant in the group of five who was not convicted on treason-related charges, seized a riot shield from an officer and used it to break a window, through which the first members of the mob entered the Capitol, according to the indictment.
In a video he posted of himself marching towards the Capitol, Biggs called January 6 “a day in infamy.”
“American citizens are storming the Capitol, taking it back right now,” he said in another video. “We’ve gone through every barricade thus far.”
“Every barrier between the defendants and other rioters and the Capitol represented a distinct point to stop and turn back,” Judge Kelly said on Thursday. “Tearing down that fence was a discreet act that facilitated that crowd’s surge forward.”
At trial, Biggs’ attorney Norm Pattis argued that it was the group’s “commander in chief” Trump who “sold them a lie” about the 2020 election, a defence argument echoed among dozens of January 6 defendants. Tarrio’s attorney similarly argued in closing arguments that then President Trump’s words and “motivation” fuelled the attack, not Tarrio.
“They want to use Enrique Tarrio as a scapegoat for Donald J Trump and those in power,” Nayib Hassan said.