“1776 Returns,” a nine-page document federal prosecutors have obtained as part of its case against former Proud Boys head Enrique Tarrio, may give us a window into the group’s plans to storm government buildings on Jan. 6, 2021. Though it does not specifically mention the Capitol, the document reportedly offers a five-point plan ahead of Jan. 6 for group members to appear “unsuspecting” and to “not look tactical” while occupying government buildings, and to chant “We the People” and “No Trump, No America” to blend in with protesters. According to the New York Times, it included a section that was apparently intended to instruct the public how to act.
One person very interested in the document’s contents is Colin Clarke, a former professor at Carnegie Mellon and an expert in counterextremism who is now a senior fellow at the Soufan Center. Over the phone, he told me “1776 Returns” offers one of the clearest records yet of what happened before the Capitol riot—and what really occurred on the ground that day. We spoke about what this document teaches us, how it compares to what he sees regularly when monitoring far-right communications, and what this means for pending trials. Our conversation has been edited and condensed.
Aymann Ismail: What is new in this document? What does it show?
Colin Clarke: It shows a lot of forethought, that it’s deliberate, that this wasn’t just, as a lot of people claimed, something spontaneous that just happened. For some of the Capitol stormers, I think they were swept up in the moment. But for many people, especially the leaders of groups like the Proud Boys, this was premeditated. This was a very deliberate decision to go there and to cause real upheaval. That was the point, to dredge up some instability. If all things worked well, they would be able to turn the election. Because it failed, I hear a lot of people dismissing it, but the intentions were real. These people legitimately wanted to overthrow the government and overturn the election. We can’t forget that that was the overarching objective here, by any means necessary, frankly, even if that meant killing lawmakers.
The document reportedly instructs Proud Boys members to blend in with the crowd and not “look tactical.” Is it common for groups like these to use protests to shield their activities?
They use that actual phrase. It’s smart. It’s surreptitious. Just like with any ambush or assault, you don’t want to necessarily announce your intentions. Now, certainly some people there were trying to intimidate the Capitol police and wanted to be a show of force, in some respects. But for others, especially the ones that aren’t making the most noise chirping on social media, they had a very deliberate plan for what they wanted to do. That includes being quiet about it up until you’re ready to spring your ambush.
Does this look like other planning materials you’ve seen for the Proud Boys and other far-right groups? Are documents like this common?
This is different because it’s not propaganda. This wasn’t something people were bragging about or trying to flex. This was actual instructions that certain people likely took quite seriously and were planning to act on, and did act on. This is something that should not be dismissed. I think it’s separate from a lot of the stuff that groups like the Proud Boys do. A lot of it is attention-grabbing and trying to simultaneously appeal to their own core group of members while also “owning the libs.” A lot of it is performance art or virtue signaling, where they do something and call attention to it to use it for propaganda value.
This is different. This is strategic. This was something far more insidious, in my opinion.
You used the word “smart.” Is it particularly sophisticated or advanced, from what you can tell?
I don’t know if I’d say particularly sophisticated. It’s pretty straightforward: Go and infiltrate these buildings with various supporters and hope that it causes change, hope that you catch the opposition off guard in a vulnerable moment and that you could actually move forward achieving some of the things that you sought to achieve here.
How significant is it that it’s coming to light?
It’s significant for people like us that have been tracking this fiasco from the beginning, because it shows deliberate intent. That’s one of the big things, when you’re talking about in court, what was the planning that went into this? Was this premeditated? And this points to more evidence that, absolutely, it was premeditated, that this was all part and parcel. Now, I don’t mean to suggest that everybody was on the same page. I think multiple groups in this broader network had their own plan, but there was a clear intent on the part of the Proud Boys, on the part of their supporters, to do something more than just protest. The plan was action-oriented, and it’s spelled out in this document.
Ultimately, it’s another log on the fire in terms of evidence pointing in the direction that this was a really big deal. You still have Republicans that want to deny the severity or downplay it, but this is obviously a pivotal moment, I think, in our country’s history. It shows, unfortunately, just how fragile the state of our democracy still is that you have these very illiberal elements in American society that think nothing of trying to overturn a free and fair election. We can’t just soft-pedal that and make this out to be a bunch of freedom-loving patriots who got caught up at the wrong place at the wrong time. That’s not what this is. This was a planned coup. It was an insurrection. It’s not surprising to me that documents like this were circulating and are now surfacing. I’m sure there’s others that we don’t know about. I’m positive of that.
The plan didn’t appear to show plans to enter the Capitol. What does that tell us?
The document was titled “1776 Returns.” These people are calling each other patriots. It just feeds into, I think, the overall spirit of what these people were trying to do. The document contained a detailed plan to surveil and storm government buildings around the Capitol on Jan. 6. That’s a big deal.
What should law enforcement have done if they’d seen this plan in advance? Should every document or plan like this be taken seriously?
I often am very skeptical of things like this. So, if this is deemed authentic, which it seems to be if the Times is reporting on it, this is in line with a lot of the other things we know about that day. I think there’s some weight to it. I don’t think random documents would necessarily make their way into a story like this. But it dovetails with showing that these leaders had a plan, the leaders of a lot of these groups had movements, and that the plan was quite, quite robust. This wasn’t something in its infancy. There was a lot of thought and strategy that was devoted to what would happen on Jan. 6.
Is the indictment of Enrique Tarrio, and also Stewart Rhodes of the Oath Keepers militia, a big deal in security circles?
They are because they’re a deterrent, were this to happen again in the future. I think part of the reason we saw such a big turnout on Jan. 6 was we’ve lived with the double standard for so long that a bunch of white people know that protesting in favor of President Trump would be beyond the reach of the law. The indictments show that that’s not the case. I still think there’s something of a double standard, but at least this isn’t complete impunity for the people involved.
Have you seen chatter about these trials on right-wing message boards and the deep web? Will it have any effect?
It’s been all Ukraine. From the things that I’m looking at, that’s pretty much what we’re monitoring right now, is right-wing reaction to the Ukraine conflict. A lot of this stuff has been back-burnered for now.
How important do you think convictions are? Will they change that?
Well, it could very well be used as some kind of an attempt to squeeze the defendants to get more information about what the contours of the broader conspiracy looked like. I don’t know what form that takes, if it’s cutting a deal, shaving off years, etc. But I think that there’s clear leverage when you’re prosecuting somebody. One of the complaints that I’ve heard previously was that the government’s only going after low-hanging fruit, going after easy marks. By going after leaders like Rhodes, like Tarrio, they’re showing that no, it’s not true, that there is going to be accountability for the leadership, that these people aren’t beyond reproach.