OPINION: You can want Proud Boys in jail and prison reform

In a time of widespread political violence and intimidation from the American right, there can be a sense of relief when influential leaders of hate groups finally face accountability for their criminal actions.

One such moment occurred last week, as long prison sentences for top members of the Proud Boys were handed down for their involvement in the 6 January 2021 insurrection. The hate group’s leader, Enrique Tarrio, received the longest sentence of anyone convicted in connection with 6 January so far – 22 years for seditious conspiracy and his leadership role in the plot to prevent the peaceful transfer of presidential power from Donald Trump to Joe Biden.

The Proud Boys were out in force at the US Capitol that day, playing a key role in breaching its defences so the right-wing mob could enter the halls of Congress. The government estimates there were over 1,000 members present, about ten times more than there were members of the Oath Keepers, an extremist “patriot” militia group whose leader, Stewart Rhodes, got an 18-year sentence for seditious conspiracy.

I’ll admit to feeling a sense of satisfaction at seeing the street-level enforcers of white supremacist, patriarchal American authoritarianism facing the harsh punishments the American carceral system is known for. But if we allow ourselves to sit for too long in such satisfaction, we risk losing sight of at least two larger concerns that need our urgent attention.

Firstly, the American carceral system is riddled with flaws and injustices. And secondly, locking up the national leaders of groups like the Proud Boys doesn’t change the fact that its local members still engage in intimidation, for example at school board meetings where they show up to support anti-LGBTIQ initiatives or to oppose initiatives to benefit LGBTIQ students. These fascist displays go underreported, largely buried in local news despite occurring across the country, and if we’re distracted with thoughts of the likes of Tarrio “rotting in jail” – as the saying goes – we’re less likely to pay attention to right-wing street brawlers’ continuing activities on the ground.

Just last week, Proud Boys showed up to a Miami-Dade (Florida) School Board Meeting to harass and intimidate those who supported a resolution proposed by a school board member to recognise October as Lesbian, Bisexual, Gay Transgender and Queer History Month – something the school district could do without violating Florida’s notorious “don’t say gay” law, since the formal recognition would not affect classroom teaching. The resolution was ultimately voted down 5-3.

In the same week, right-wing agitators supporting a resolution that would force teachers to out their transgender students to their parents engaged in an altercation during a board meeting of the Orange Unified School District in Orange County, California. The resolution passed, though California courts are likely to strike it down.

And as for rotting in jail, the phrase seems less metaphorical and more literal when you realise many American prisons lack air conditioning, an increasing problem in this climate change-addled era, and have hazardous mould problems. And of course, there’s the systemic racism – Black Americans are incarcerated at a rate of roughly five times that of white Americans, and Black men receive on average sentences more than 20% longer than white men for the same crimes. Further, the prison labour system is unconscionably exploitative and riddled with human rights abuses, and post-release employment opportunities are severely limited for people with criminal records.

All of this is just scratching the surface of the injustices inherent in the American criminal “justice” system, which is punitive rather than restorative. The impact extends well beyond incarcerated individuals, to their families and communities, and disproportionately disrupts Black communities.

In light of all this, prison abolitionists and prison reform advocates – even those who had come face to face with Proud Boys on the streets – responded to the sentencing of prominent Proud Boys with ambivalence.

At the end of the day, I’m not really sorry about any suffering that Steward Rhodes, Enrique Tarrio, and their ilk suffer in prison. After all, they represent the forces committed to keeping the United States in thrall to racial and gender injustice. At the same time, American liberals and leftists need to keep pushing for radical structural prison reform and pointing out political intimidation and violence at the local level, which is where the rubber meets the road in our not (mostly) hot but certainly simmering civil war for America’s future.

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