<img height="1" width="1" style="display:none" src="https://www.facebook.com/tr?id=192888919167017&amp;ev=PageView&amp;noscript=1">
Wednesday, November 29, 2023
Nov. 29, 2023

Linkedin Pinterest

Westneat: Proud Boys trials’ lessons

We could all learn from cases against group charged in Capitol riot


There was a moment during judgment day for the Proud Boys, including for the Seattle-area leader Ethan Nordean, when a bright and basic line got drawn. Nordean, the Proud Boy “war footing ground leader” from Auburn who was found guilty of seditious conspiracy for the U.S. Capitol riot on Jan. 6, 2021, had been arguing in court for leniency.

It wasn’t that violent that day, his lawyers said. Nordean only hurt some Capitol building security fences, not any people. Yes he was the guy with the bullhorn, and yes he wrongly led a band of 200 or so into the Capitol in a “stop the steal” uprising. But he was drunk, his lawyers said. And if you think about it, other Proud Boys argued, they were all victims — gulled, like tens of millions, by a con artist of a president.

“What they’re guilty of is believing a president who said the election had been stolen from them,” one of the Proud Boy lawyers said. “What reason did they have to know otherwise?”

Enough, said the judge.

“That day broke our tradition of peacefully transferring power,” summed up U.S. District Court Judge Tim Kelly. “It’s among the most precious things that we had as Americans. Notice I said ‘had.’ We don’t have it anymore. We can’t just snap our fingers and get it back. You’re going to have to be accountable for your role in that.”

With that, it felt like years’ worth of disorienting fog might be starting to clear a bit. At long last, a boundary was set. A limit reached. Finally, some accountability.

I’ve been noticing this old concept creeping back into our unmoored public life, if ever so gingerly. The Proud Boys trials were a watershed in restoring some semblance of accountability.

On trial was this revisionism that Jan. 6 was just another protest, or as the GOP has called it, “legitimate political discourse.” But jury after jury, and now the judges too, have been clear-eyed about what it really was: a movement to use lies, fraud and force to stop the wheels of democracy.

Nordean and his pals were the muscle part of it. The ringleader got sentenced to 18 years in prison, shy of what federal prosecutors requested (27 years) but many times what Nordean thought he deserved (less than two years).

It’s important to add: This judge was appointed by Donald Trump.

For his part, Nordean was stoic but previously had lamented that Trump “left us on the battlefield, bloody and alone.”

The entire GOP is going to be left bloody and alone if it doesn’t accept some responsibility for this era and move on from Trump. But I also wonder about my own liberal tribe, and its sometimes tenuous relationship to this concept of accountability.

Can we push for, and then celebrate, righteous prosecutions and prison terms for right-wingers, when at the same time we refuse to hold people accountable for myriad crimes committed in our own cities? Recently when I wrote how Seattle’s Little Saigon neighborhood is being destroyed by official neglect, some police officers and others in the criminal justice system said they feel there’s an implicit message to look the other way.

“The stuff you’re talking about in Little Saigon, the shoplifting, stolen property, theft, burglary, vandalism … the jail tends not to book for these, so there’s no incentive to investigate them in the first place,” one Seattle officer wrote.

I’m not saying that vandalizing a storefront is anywhere near as grave as storming the Capitol. Nor am I saying the justice system is unbiased or should be trusted uncritically; we’ve all watched it abuse people over the years.

But the answers can’t be to water down or completely abandon the principle of accountability. Or to disable the justice system. You can’t push for that and simultaneously cheer the long incarceration of some Proud Boys, in any case. That’s like the hypocrisy of the supposedly “law-and-order” Republicans, who are now calling for defunding the FBI.

One of the Proud Boys’ mottos, that they printed on T-shirts and chanted during the Capitol riot, was, ironically “(bleep) around, find out.” Of course they were the ones doing the bleeping around. And would be the last to realize they would be the ones finding out. To the tune of about 18 years.

It’s clarifying, this finding out. Some lever for getting back on track has been desperately needed in a nation going wide off the rails.

And if we’re honest, Seattle could stand to bring a bit of finding out back into our civic system as well.

Support local journalism

Your tax-deductible donation to The Columbian’s Community Funded Journalism program will contribute to better local reporting on key issues, including homelessness, housing, transportation and the environment. Reporters will focus on narrative, investigative and data-driven storytelling.

Local journalism needs your help. It’s an essential part of a healthy community and a healthy democracy.

Community Funded Journalism logo