North Carolina Proud Boy Bill Whicker III yells at antiracist counter-protesters in Raleigh in November 2020. Ryan Barry, who was arrested for assault in DC on Tuesday, is at far right. (photo by Anthony Crider)
For some of the North Carolinians who promoted the militant effort to overturn the electoral certification and participated in insurrection, the storming of the Capitol on Wednesday was the fulfillment of years of violent rhetoric and confrontation. Base on their social media accounts, the events of the past week have reinforced their commitment to their anti-democratic cause and galvanized them to accelerate their efforts.
“Some people will love what we did today; some will hate it,” Joshua Pennington of Burlington tweeted shortly after police restored control of the Capitol building. “I don’t care either way. My opinion is that it was needed.” Pennington dismissed comments on his thread pointing out that by confirming he had been in the Capitol, he had just “admitted to participating in a riot on federal property.”
“Not worried,” he responded.
The insurrection resulted in five deaths, including an Air Force veteran who joined the mob of Trump supporters and a Capitol police officer. FBI Director Christopher Wray has committed his agency to “hold those responsible for the criminal acts of violence and destruction that unfolded during the US Capitol breach,” describing it as “an affront on our democracy.” So far, federal authorities have charged 18 individuals, including an Alabama man who parked a truck containing 11 Molotov cocktails, a M4 carbine assault rifle and rifle magazines loaded with ammunition near the Capitol on Jan. 6. Authorities have also arrested a West Virginia lawmaker who live-streamed his breach of the Capitol on Facebook. Among multiple others arrested by the DC police for offenses related to the insurrection are two North Carolina Proud Boys.
The FBI is currently seeking information about a man who was seen placing pipe bombs at the Republican National Committee Headquarters and Democratic National Committee headquarters around the time Congress was convening for a joint session to ratify Joe Biden’s election.
A self-described “MAGA Rebel TrumpDog,” Pennington exemplifies the illiberal amalgam of Confederate sympathy, QAnon conspiracy, hardline anticommunism and pro-Trump fanaticism that united the varied groups that stormed the Capitol. Among the various right-wing groups that coalesced on Wednesday were members of the Proud Boys, who helped lay the groundwork for Jan. 6 with two preceding violent rallies in DC since the Nov. 3 election, have a history of working with various elements of the far-right coalition. Over the past two years, Proud Boys have joined forces with others confronting antiracists seeking to remove Confederate monuments in North Carolina. More recently, the all-male right-wing paramilitary provided security for a QAnon-inspired “Save Our Children” rally in Fayetteville and a protest against COVID restrictions at the Governor’s Mansion in Raleigh.
At least two North Carolina Proud Boys have been arrested during the events surrounding the insurrection, along with seven other North Carolina residents. Jay Thaxton, a 46-year-old Proud Boy from Concord who is a Marine Corps veteran, was charged along with six others for violating the curfew imposed by DC Mayor Muriel Bowser on Wednesday evening. The group also included two other men from North Carolina — James Smawley, 27, of Charlotte, and Tim Scarboro, 33, of Monroe — and three men from Pennsylvania.
The night before the so-called “wild rally” that led to the storming of the Capitol, Ryan Barry, a 26-year-old Proud Boy from Clayton, was charged with simple assault in what the DC Metro Police have termed “unrest-related offenses.”
Five other North Carolinians also face unrest-related charges from DC police, including 46-year-old Thomas Gronek of Asheville, who brought a school bus with a Grateful Dead-inspired paint job and was arrested for possession of two rifles and what police described as a “large-capacity ammunition feeding device and unregistered ammunition.”
Far from being chastened by the public outrage over the insurrection, Pennington posted a Twitter thread on Thursday that expressed pride in the action and promised more to come, while directly referencing QAnon beliefs. Pennington also sought to dispel the widely shared disinformation that “antifa” was responsible for storming the Capitol, arguing that the political right should take pride in the deed instead of deflecting responsibility.
“I can tell you what happened, because I was there,” he wrote. “On the front lines, getting tear gassed, pepper sprayed, hit with flash bangs and paintballs.”
The next part of Pennington’s tweet referenced a mysterious figure named “17,” likely code for “Q,” the 17th letter of the alphabet. In the QAnon epistemology, Q is an anonymous government official with high-level security clearance who leaves crumbs of information on social media assuring Trump’s followers that the outgoing president has a plan to defeat his enemies. In doing so, they believe Trump will expose a sinister, international cabal of pedophiles that supposedly controls the Democratic Party, a significant number of Republican elected officials, Hollywood, the Vatican and other institutions, leading to a violent reckoning.
“Remember when 17 told us that military would be working with civilians?” Pennington wrote. “That’s exactly what happened yesterday. Active and non-active military Patriots took the lead. Do you think it’s a coincidence that the woman killed served 14 years in the USAF? No, it’s not a coincidence! Remember when 17 said the end won’t be for everyone? We are seeing that on full display after what we did, which was necessary btw, we are being bashed by everyone it seems for doing the right thing. One of 17’s favorite phrases is ‘Nothing can stop what’s coming’ — that’s a fact, especially now! They couldn’t stop us yesterday, and they won’t be able to in the future. This is only the beginning of the end game!
“Also, what we did yesterday led us to Red 1,” Pennington continued.
In Q lore, “Red1” references a prediction made in 2017 that Trump would be permanently banned from Twitter, which a post on the WeLoveTrump.com website explained on Friday “basically means the very first thing that would happen that would signal and kick off the chain of events that we have ALL been waiting for.”
For Pennington, Twitter’s decision to ban Trump was cause for encouragement.
“So, the question is was yesterday [the storming of the Capitol] part of the plan?” he wrote. “My answer is yes.”
Jan. 6 was not Pennington’s first foray into far-right activism. On Dec. 12, he traveled to DC and roamed the streets with a crew from Alamance County looking for fights with left-wing adversaries. One of the men in the group was filmed knocking a person to the ground and kicking them in the head. The attacker who was with Pennington later confirmed the assault in a comment on Facebook.
Pennington was present on Aug. 20, 2018, when students and antiracist activists tore down the Silent Sam Confederate monument at UNC-Chapel Hill. A graduate student said he alerted police that Pennington was carrying a knife, an assertion that Pennington has vigorously denied.
But the following day, Pennington wrote on Facebook that he “would like to get any army and march into Chapel Hill.” He continued, “Let’s organize something.” In another thread, he wrote, “I say we show them how violent we can be. We need doers, not talkers!”
Pennington was among the first to arrive at a pro-Confederate event five days later at the site of the toppled statue, carrying a large Confederate flag. Clashes between neo-Confederates and antiracists that day resulted in nine arrests. A neo-Confederate from Alamance County was convicted of simple assault for punching a student in the face, and three antiracists involved in scuffles accepted guilty charges for simple assault through deferred prosecution.
Thaxton, the Proud Boy and Marine Corps veteran who was arrested in DC on Wednesday for violating curfew, is also closely aligned with the neo-Confederate movement in North Carolina. Thaxton has frequently shown up in Pittsboro, Graham, Lexington and Statesville during confrontations between neo-Confederates and antiracists, often livestreaming on Facebook for the benefit of supporters. In livestreams from Lexington in July 2020, Thaxton disparaged Black Lives Matter protesters opposed to the Confederate monument by telling his viewers he was “keeping the natives at bay” and called his adversaries “street rats.” In another livestream from Graham that same month, he can be heard chatting with Jessica Reavis, an organizer with League of the South, which advocates the creation of a white ethno-state. Thaxton has also shared a Facebook page that the League used as a recruitment platform.
Along with North Carolina Proud Boys Jeremy Bertino and Bill Whicker III, Thaxton was part of Proud Boys Chairman Enrique Tarrio’s entourage at the Second Amendment rally in Richmond, Va. in January 2020. On the eve of the rally, the group of prominent Proud Boys was joined by conspiracy trafficker Alex Jones of InfoWars.
The three North Carolina Proud Boys were particularly busy in 2020, which saw the organization and their individual profiles raise considerably. Beyond the Second Amendment rally in January, one or more of the men attended a July 4 Proud Boys march in DC, the “Save Our Children” march in Fayetteville, a pro-Trump rally in DC in November, a reopen rally in Raleigh in November, and then another pro-Trump rally in DC in December.
In December, Thaxton subtly threatened an antiracist account on Twitter, which he mistakenly identified as Megan Squire, a computer science professor at Elon University who is a renowned expert on right-wing extremism.
“I am no president of anything, just a Proud Boy that served in the USMC and can’t wait to show you all the cool things Uncle Sam taught me,” Thaxton wrote.
Even before Jan. 6, the Proud Boys had hardened their rhetoric, graduating from aggressive trolling to an increasingly revolutionary posture.
Among the North Carolina Proud Boys, Bertino and Whicker in particular have gained prominence in the broader far-right movement. Three days before the insurrection, Bertino and Whicker were invited to join a YouTube video chat with British far-right activists, including Tommy Robinson, who were keen to hear their American counterparts’ predictions about the upcoming showdown over Biden’s electoral certification.
“Guys like me and Jeremy and Tommy and all of you guys, whether you’re boots on the ground or not, we’ve made our choice,” said Whicker, who lives in Hillsborough, suggesting they were already beyond the point of no return. “So, if everything folds and Trump doesn’t get in and it proves one major thing — that our democracy is a sham and it’s destroyed — then also guys like us who have made our choice to stand up for our inalienable rights and our constitutional freedoms are marked men.”
By Thursday, Whicker was expressing betrayal following Trump’s video entreaty for his supporters to go home.
“I just hope a lot of people are learning this morning, that Trump is part of the system,” Whicker wrote on Parler on Thursday. “The movement is real, the people are real, but Trump has proven himself not to be.”
The fallout over the attempted insurrection puts Trump’s supporters at a crossroads. On one hand, many are ready to break with electoral politics altogether — including support for another presidential run by Trump in 2024 — to wage an open assault on democracy. On the other, moving beyond Trump could prove difficult, considering he’s central to the QAnon belief system.
“Fuck you, Trump,” Bertino posted on his Parler account on Thursday. “This was never about you. It was about We The People.”
Bertino, who is recovering from a stabbing, watched the storming of the Capitol remotely.
In a video posted on Wednesday on Rumble, he raged: “244 fucking years ago, we decided we were not going to be subjects to a tyrant. And guess what? We’re right back here again. Only the tyrant is not just one fucking man — not a king — but an elected bunch of fucking snakes. Nancy Pelosi — and I don’t even care what fucking side of the coin you’re on, or what fucking party they’re with. They’re all swamp-dwelling fucking donkeys.”
As much as anything else, Bertino said, he was disappointed the Capitol stormers had voluntarily left and allowed Congress to reconvene and certify the election. He didn’t appreciate the framing among conservatives that the event was peaceful — and not because it was false.
“Since when has peace ever brought on fucking change?” he asked. “Never. Peace brings on fucking complacency. That’s what it brings on. The only thing that brings on real change in this world is fucking violence. Sorry, but it’s the truth. Violence is the only thing that gives you freedom.”