In late September 2019, Charles Donohoe took to the encrypted messaging app Telegram with a call to arms.
“We need to stop fighting antifa in the streets where the cops are and start fighting them in bars and alleys,” Donohoe, a member of the far-right streetfighting group the Proud Boys, wrote. “We need to stomp them. We need to ruin their lives physically like they have ruined ours financially with doxxing. We need to rack up their hospital bills. We need to use special operations tactics and lightning strike them.”
At the time of the post, Donohoe’s Telegram profile picture was a photo of him in the Proud Boys uniform, shaking hands with a D.C. Metropolitan Police officer.
Donohoe, the 33-year-old leader of a Proud Boys chapter in North Carolina, was arrested Wednesday morning on a conspiracy charge for his alleged role in the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, as The New York Times reported. He is accused of conspiring to interfere with law enforcement at the Capitol, where members of the Proud Boys broke in after overrunning police.
As new charges are unveiled in the Capitol attack, prosecutors appear to be focusing on the Proud Boys as some of the riot’s main instigators, along with the far-right group the Oath Keepers. But like other Proud Boys, including the chapter led by a man charged in the same conspiracy, Donohoe previously flaunted his apparently warm relationship with police—even as he promoted extralegal violence on the side.
Donohoe’s lawyer did not return a request for comment for this story.
During a July 2019 Proud Boys demonstration in Washington, D.C., Donohoe ran into Collin Cole, a Metropolitan Police Officer with whom he had previously served in the Marines. The pair shook hands and the image soon circulated in Proud Boys circles as evidence that the group was not racist. (Cole is Black.)
Later, Donohoe tagged Cole on Facebook and the pair chatted about the upcoming rally, and the counterprotest expected from the left. “I’ll be working downtown today for the protests,” Cole commented on a picture Donohoe had taken from his hotel window of a car with a “Trump: Build The Wall” trailer.
“You’ll see me me [sic] I’m with the proud boys,” Donohoe wrote back. “Don’t publicly announce this please antifa is trying to ruin our weekend.”
“Of course not!” Cole wrote back. “I’ll keep an eye out.” He later commented to note that he was now standing by the Trump sign, and to ask whether Donohoe was still in his hotel room. (Earlier in the comment thread, someone had urged Donohoe to “stay safe brother. Hit a commie for Mommy!!!!”)
Reached by phone, Cole said he was unaware of Donohoe’s recent arrest.
“Wow. Wow. Wow. I do not want to be associated with that,” Cole told The Daily Beast after learning that Donohoe had been charged in relation to the Capitol riot. Cole said that he’d known Donohoe to be a “great guy” when they served in the Marines, and that while he knew Donohoe was now affiliated with the Proud Boys, was not in close contact with him.
Cole said that when he commented on Donohoe’s pictures, he wasn’t very familiar with the groups Donohoe referenced.
“I guess he was just warning me like, ‘Be careful, antifa’s attacking,’ but it wasn’t anything past that.”
D.C. Metropolitan Police did not immediately return a request for comment.
But Donohoe’s picture with Cole was far from the Proud Boys’ only photo-op with police, even when it came to the chapters tied to those arrested on Wednesday.
Arrested on the same day as Donohoe was Zach Rehl, leader of the Proud Boys’ Philadelphia chapter. The Philadelphia Proud Boys have frequently rubbed shoulders with their city’s police force. Rehl is the son and grandson of Philadelphia Police officers, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported. (Philadelphia Police did not return The Daily Beast’s request for comment, and an attorney for Rehl could not be reached.)
Last summer, the Proud Boys attended a party at the Philadelphia Police union’s headquarters, carrying a large Proud Boys flag. The union later disavowed the group, but other connections also came to light. In June, the Philadelphia Proud Boys tweeted pictures of themselves in uniform posing with a police officer inside a police station, where the group said it was delivering snacks. (It’s unclear whether Rehl was in the pictures.) As The Daily Beast first reported, after a rally in September, the Philadelphia Proud Boys were accompanied back to their cars by a police caravan. A Philadelphia Police officer was filmed talking to and shaking hands with the group in what the city’s district attorney described to The Daily Beast as an “extra-friendly” interaction.
Philadelphia Police detective Jennifer Gugger is reportedly under investigation by her department for allegedly attending a rally that preceded the attack on the Capitol, where a Capitol Police officer would be killed in the melee. When then-Vice President Mike Pence tweeted his condolences about the Capitol Police officer’s death, Gugger reportedly replied with a reference to the QAnon conspiracy theory. “You’re a traitor and cabal operative and pedophile!” she tweeted at Pence, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer. “You preach of god and that god will judge you!”
Seven members of the police force for the Philadelphia-based Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority also attended the rally, with two members receiving three-day suspensions this week.
The sometimes-alliances between police and Proud Boys have led to cops actually joining the far-right group, with a Fresno police officer suspended this week after allegedly appearing alongside Proud Boys at an anti-LGBTQ event in that city. Meanwhile, another cop, Brian Sicknick, died after a scuffle with rioters at the Capitol.
A new indictment unsealed Friday accuses Donohoe, Rehl, and two other Proud Boys leaders of coordinating to overrun police at the Capitol. According to the document, all four participated in Proud Boys planning chats ahead of the event, with Rehl fundraising for equipment and Donohoe creating a designated communications channel for the Jan. 6 siege. “Everything is compromised and we can be looking at Gang charges,” Donohoe allegedly wrote on Jan. 4, urging Proud Boys to abandon an old channel, which he said was no longer secure. On the morning of the attack, another Proud Boy allegedly used the channel to give orders, noting that “cops are the primary threat, don’t get caught by them or BLM.”
Later, the Proud Boys allegedly stormed the Capitol, pushing over police barricades while some of them entered the building through a door that had been opened by a Proud Boy who broke through using a stolen police riot shield.
The Proud Boys sometimes navigate their complicated relationship with the law by describing themselves and the police as mutual enemies of anti-fascists. At a Proud Boy rally in Portland last summer, where journalists detailed apparent coordination between the group and police, one Proud Boy reportedly asked two officers “when are y’all taking the patches off and just gonna fuck these motherfuckers [anti-fascists] up together?” The officers reportedly laughed.
Donohoe pulled a similar move with his appeal for Cole to be on the lookout for “antifa,” and a picture of them together was soon recycled into an anti-antifa meme in Proud Boys circles on Facebook. “This is what antifa attacks,” one caption read. “This is what antifa calls racism.”
But even as he warned police of potential leftist violence, leftists in Donohoe’s home state accused him of seeking out fights. Days before the D.C. photo-op, Donohoe attended a rally in Greensboro, North Carolina, where Proud Boys allegedly hurled homophobic slurs against counter-protesters.
Lindsay Ayling, a demonstrator on the left, said some Proud Boys recognized her and that Donohoe later entered a bar and attempted to start a fight with her.
“A few friends and I were sitting at a table at the other side of the bar from Donohoe,” Ayling told The Daily Beast. “He walked aggressively toward me, then stood right next to me and stared me down. I said, ‘We don’t want to hang out with you,’ and he replied, ‘I know you don’t.’
“I suggested that in that case, he should leave,” she added. “I could tell he expected me to either throw a punch or get scared and walk away. Since I didn’t do either, he got a kind of awkward look on his face until a bartender came over and said he should go back to his own table.”
She tweeted about the encounter at the time, including pictures of Donohoe. Three months later, using the picture of him and Cole as his profile picture, Donohoe took to Telegram to advise Proud Boys to skirt police scrutiny by beating up leftists in bars.