BIG VALLEY: California Proud Boys use secretive network to promote 'their white supremacist agenda' -- and go largely unscathed
November 2020 Trump rally in Sacramento turns violent (Footage from ABC7 News)

Nationally, the Proud Boys organization is being tested by the ongoing prosecution of some of its top leaders for conspiracy in the assault on the US Capitol and internal dissension over the revelation that its chairman is a longtime federal informer.

But as the weight of state prosecution and media scrutiny bears down on the national leadership, the organization remains active and viable in many parts of the country — an indication that the future of the violent nationalist gang in the Biden era might focus on deepening engagement with local fights rather than highly publicized national-scale operations. California's Central Valley, where a 275-mile span of Highway 99 from Sacramento to Bakersfield allows members from various Proud Boys chapters to reinforce each other in varied local confrontations with leftist adversaries, provides one example.

This is the first in a four-part series focused on post-Jan 6. MAGA activity in California's San Joaquin Valley. You can read other installments in the series here.

Alliances forged by Proud Boys with both local GOP activists and law enforcement have been challenged by the fallout over Jan. 6, but not completely undone, and in some cases new ties have blossomed. And while dozens of Californians have been charged in the breach of the Capitol, Proud Boys in the Central Valley have remained largely unscathed by the prosecutions, with the exception of Ricky Christopher Willden, a Madera County member with a history of clashing with leftists who was arrested by the FBI on June 30.

While continuing to forge ties with GOP activists, law enforcement and an anti-LGBTQ crusader, Proud Boys in the Central Valley have interjected themselves in an array of local fights, including opposing police accountability and joining forces with an annual "Straight Pride" rally in Modesto, and counter-protesting residents trying to preserve an LGBTQ-friendly theater in Fresno. They provided security for the Recall Gavin Newsom event in Bakersfield in February. Further south, in Orange County, Proud Boys joined a May 11 protest outside the Los Alamitos USD School Board to oppose adoption of new "social justice standards."

"There was a widespread belief that the legal crackdown would really hamper the group in its ability to organize or lead to its demise," said Cassie Miller, a senior research analyst at the Southern Poverty Law Center. "The problem is this group is so massive and well networked and there are so many chapters across the country that have autonomy that its network and organizing model have stayed in place. We've continued to see them involved in local organizing, much as in the past. There's been some strategic shift. People are interested in running for office. But they're still holding public rallies that descend into violence."

Miller said California has been a Proud Boys stronghold, along with the Pacific Northwest and Florida, for a number of years, and those same places continue to see the most activity.

Willden, a fixture at confrontations with leftists in Sacramento and Los Angeles, and in Portland, Ore., reportedly used the Christian fundraising app GiveSendGo to raise $1,300 for himself and 12 other Proud Boys from California to travel of the Jan. 6 "Save America Rally" in Washington DC. Eddie Block, a Proud Boy from Madera who relies on a wheelchair for mobility due to a disability, was also in Washington on Jan. 6. Block is well known among both far-right activists and antifascist researchers for live-streaming Proud Boys rallies on his YouTube channel. Block and Willden had traveled together at least once prior to the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol: When the Proud Boys rallied in Portland on Oct. 2 to try to pressure law enforcement to crack down on Black Lives Matter protesters, Block filmed Willden while saying, "This is my boy, Chris. He's here from Fresno. He came with me. He's taking care of me."

Block's video of Proud Boys leading a march on Constitution Avenue to the Capitol before Trump's speech at the Ellipse on Jan. 6 was mined by amateur researchers to identify participants in the siege. FBI agents raided Block's house and seized electronic devices on Jan. 22. Blocks' video is widely cited in charging documents against Proud Boys leaders Joe Biggs, Ethan Nordean, Zach Rehl and Charles Donohoe, who were indicted for conspiracy to interfere with the electoral certification, and also in government filings for six other Proud Boy defendants facing separate conspiracy charges who were from the Kansas City chapter and from Arizona. Nearly six months after the initial Proud Boys arrests, Willden was arrested by the FBI at his home in Oakhurst, in the Sierra foothills. The government alleges that Willden was part of a large crowd at the east door of the Capitol when it was forced open, and that publicly available video shows him "spraying an unknown substance from a green can toward police officers" guarding the door.

Judges have cited danger to the community in their decisions to keep top Proud Boys leaders in pre-trial detention. In comments from the bench during a June 23 detention hearing for Charles Donohoe, president of the North Carolina Piedmont chapter, Judge Timothy Kelly made it clear that he views the Proud Boys as posing not only a risk to the government, but to the community at large.

"There is significant evidence of a leadership role, significant evidence that Mr. Donohoe was part of a network," Kelly said. "Mr. Donohoe has the capability to assist in events that produce violence. He's now shown the capability to produce violence, whether against law enforcement or other civilians. These capabilities on behalf of Mr. Donohoe and his cohorts remain."

Once primarily a concern for local antifascist and Black Lives Matter protesters — and extremism researchers — the Jan. 6 siege telegraphed the Proud Boys' reputation for violence across the country as a national security threat. But the public relations liability of Jan. 6 has had little, if any, discernible impact on Proud Boys' activities in the Central Valley.

Proud Boys from the Central Valley and Fresno chapters showed up in force and wearing their traditional black and yellow colors at two city council meetings in Modesto last month.

"Shame to allow these Proud Boys in the city council meeting because, you know what… on January 6th they attacked our Capitol, the hallmark of our democracy," a speaker identified only by the initials "PB," told council during the public comment portion of the meeting on June 22.

Proud Boys in the council chamber jeered and responded with their customary salute: "Uhuru!"

"They're just here to divide and conquer our community," the speaker continued. "You know what? They talk about Bill of Rights and Constitution and all this nonsense, but they're bringing hate. They're bringing an agenda of hate and bigotry, advancing their white supremacist agenda."

In video of the meeting, other audience members can be heard yelling out, "Proud Boys are Nazis," and, "Proud Boys, leave right now. You're not welcome in our community."

At one point, when an argument broke out between Proud Boys and residents calling for police accountability, Mayor Sue Zwahlen ordered the meeting into recess to restore order, and interim Chief Brandon Gillespie had to admonish Proud Boys and their allies to stop interrupting the brother of a man who was killed by a Modesto police officer while he was addressing council.

During an April 1 interview on the "Rebel Radio Now" podcast, Fresno Proud Boys chapter President Mark Mazzola suggested to host Todd Cotta that no Proud Boy has ever committed a criminal offense.

"In fact, I can't remember a single time I've ever seen a Proud Boy get involved with something that was a criminal offense," Mazzola said. "People want to talk about the march on DC at the Capitol building; I don't remember seeing a single Proud Boy wearing a Perry out there." (Proud Boys Chairman Enrique Tarrio instructed members to not wear their traditional black and yellow color, which are incorporated into the Fred Perry polo shirts customarily worn by members, on Jan. 6.)

Cotta, a former Fresno County sheriff's deputy who ran unsuccessfully for California State Assembly last year, tossed Mazzola a softball question, using scare quotes to signal his shared disdain for the government's effort to hold the Jan. 6 rioters accountable.

"In that siege on the Capitol, that was not a Proud Boys function?" Cotta asked.

"Not as far as I'm aware of," Mazzola responded.

The relationship between the Proud Boys national organization and local chapters appears to be a subject that members are reluctant to discuss.

During a second episode devoted to the Proud Boys, on April 21, Cotta asked another Fresno member nicknamed Guyo how the national organization was functioning.

"We work through our ways," Guyo responded. When Cotta tried to elicit more, Guyo deflected: "We have a network. We just don't necessarily talk about it."

During the April 1 podcast, Cotta shared with Mazzola and the sergeant at arms for the Fresno chapter — a man with the nickname Chongo — that the Proud Boys earned his admiration when he heard about members responding to a man using an Airsoft gun to shoot marbles at Trump supporters at an event in Bakersfield where Cotta appeared as a speaker last October. Cotta said Proud Boys members chased the man down and detained him until police could make an arrest.

During the interview, Cotta expressed concern that the Proud Boys need to clean up their PR.

"The misinformation that is coming out about you guys is intentional," he told Mazzola and Chongo. "And you guys really have a challenge ahead of you. Even the 1 percenters and the bike guys, the [Hell's Angels] and those guys, they had to do their little toy runs and all those other things." He added a caveat that he's wary of outlaw bikers, and doesn't lump the Proud Boys into the same category.

"But what you guys have to do is separate yourself from what you're saying," Cotta continued. "Just a quick search on Google, they are 100 percent trying to crush you guys. And you guys have to figure out a way to combat that."

Backlash in the immediate aftermath of the Jan. 6 insurrection local Republican organizations to distance themselves from the Proud Boys, whose function as a de facto GOP security force was cemented when Trump said, "Proud Boys — stand back, and stand by," during his Sept. 29, 2020 debate with Joe Biden.

Proud Boy Jeffrey Perrine, who was elected to the Sacramento Republican Party Central Committee in March 2020, was ousted from the party in February 2021. Party leaders called for Perrine's resignation after being confronted with a video from a 2018 rally in Portland that shows Perrine saying: "All the illegals jumping across the border, we should be smashing their heads into concrete, separate them from their kids, making sure they're not with pedophiles and child molesters, people like the left."

Notwithstanding Perrine's departure from the Sacramento County Republican Party, the gap between the Proud Boys and the nationalist, conspiracy-minded base of the GOP has all but vanished.

Jorge Riley, a GOP activist from Sacramento who bragged about occupying House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's office during the Jan. 6 siege on the US Capitol, was forced to resign from his position with the California Republican Assembly, an organization that works to elect GOP candidates. Released from custody with pending federal charges, including obstruction of an official proceeding and disorderly conduct, Riley not only appears to be unrepentant, but has openly flaunted his connections to the Proud Boys. Appearing alongside Perrine and far-right live-streamer Josh Fulfer at a Recall Newsom rally in Sacramento in early March, Riley says in the video: "I may or may not have rubbed my butt on Nasty Pelosi's desk."

In keeping with the Proud Boys' lack of remorse for their role in the Capitol insurrection, harassment and violence directed at leftist counter-protesters has also carried over from the period before Jan. 6.

Upwards of 50 Proud Boys from the Fresno, Modesto and Bakersfield chapters showed up reportedly wearing ballistic vests and carrying hunting knives and mace to oppose local residents protesting the pending sale of the Tower Theatre to a conservative church in April.

During the confrontation, a pregnant woman protesting against the sale was shoved to the ground, said Jaguar Bennett, a spokesperson for the Save the Tower Theatre Demonstration Committee. No arrest has been made in the assault on the pregnant woman, but Marcus Kelly, 43, was arrested for possessing pepper spray as a convicted felon, according to a local report. Police reportedly said Kelly got in a fight with someone at the protest, and that he was seen talking and standing with the Proud Boys, but that he denied any affiliation.

Flanked by the police chief and members of Fresno City Council, Mayor Jerry Dyer denounced the Proud Boys during an April 14 press conference.

"I don't have an issue at all talking about the Proud Boys," Dyer said. "I think the fact they are going out there dressing in the manner in which they do, in a very intimidating factor, the fact that they have made intimidating comments to people who are out there, the fact that one of them pushed a pregnant woman this Sunday, which is absolutely uncalled for. If denouncing that behavior, denouncing that organization, if that is what is called for, then I believe each and every one of us city leaders have done that and will do that. They have no place in the city of Fresno, if they are going to be creating a divide, as they have. The vast majority of these individuals, if not all of 'em, are not even from the city of Fresno. Yet they come into our community and they try to create a divide. We are one Fresno, and that's exactly what we stand for. And when people come to Fresno, and think they can intimidate and divide this community, they're absolutely wrong."

Since his arrest in Fresno on April 11, Kelly has racked up a new charge for assault and battery, unlawful use of pepper spray and felony child endangerment following a road rage incident in Seal Beach on June 14. According to a statement posted on the Facebook page of the Seal Beach Police Department, Kelly followed the other driver, who had pulled off Pacific Coast Highway and stopped his car on a side street. The police said Kelly pulled up alongside the other driver's vehicle and sprayed bear spray into his vehicle.

"Three people inside the victim's vehicle, including one child, were exposed to the bear spray," the police said. "The victims all suffered injuries, including eye and skin irritation. When officers responded to the scene, they were also affected by the residual spray in the air and on the victims. The victims were treated by Orange County Fire Authority personnel."

In Modesto, a man who identified himself as Steve, complained to city council about being harassed by Proud Boys as they sat behind him during the June 22 meeting.

"I was called a homophobic slur, so I don't know where you get the idea that these guys are not homophobic," Steve said. "Also, outside this very building they physically swarmed around me to intimidate and harass me, although I repeatedly told them to get away from me.

"But I would like to introduce you to your new friends, the Proud Boys," he added with mounting frustration.

"Uhuru," the Proud Boys saluted in unison.

"Because if you don't fight it and you don't stand up against this hate group, which did participate in the insurrection at the Capitol, then what are you even here for?" Steve continued. "Modesto is located within the United States of America. That is a big issue."

This is the first in a four-part series focused on post-Jan 6. MAGA activity in California's San Joaquin Valley. You can read other installments in the series here.