They joined the Wisconsin Proud Boys looking

They joined the Wisconsin Proud Boys looking for brotherhood. They found racism, bullying and antisemitism.. Daniel Berry says he was searching for camaraderie. The 40-year-old Army veteran yearned to forge the sort of bonds he had in the military: a brotherhood of like-minded men watching one another’s backs, holding one another up, united in a common goal.

Last year, Berry said, he remembered a guy at the local Veterans of Foreign Wars hall asking him if he had heard of the Proud Boys. The group was vocal in its support for then-President Donald Trump, whom Berry had voted for. They called themselves “Western chauvinists” and said they welcomed true men. That sounded about right for Berry, who considers himself a dyed-in-the-wool patriot.

He did some internet searches and sent off an email. Almost immediately, he received a link to an encrypted chat room.

And so began Berry’s journey into the dark world of the Wisconsin chapter of the Proud Boys.

Berry, along with a member of the Wisconsin Proud Boys and another former recruit, told USA TODAY the group is a den of racism and antisemitism. Moving up within the group, they said, is dependent on sadistically bullying potential members and promoting white supremacist talking points.

Berry and two other men, who asked not to be named because they fear violent repercussions from members ofthe Proud Boys, provided a unique view into an organization that has become a magnet for racists and violent extremists. They spoke and emailed with USA TODAY independently, providing screenshots of chatrooms, photos, memes and audio recordings that backed up their claims.

Their accounts reveal the face of a group that masks itself as a harmless, multiracial drinking club, one that reaches new members by preaching free speech and patriotism. At least in Wisconsin, the men said, the Proud Boys stands less for brotherhood and more for the racial hatred espoused by outmoded organizations like the Ku Klux Klan and Aryan Nations.

“Initially it was truly a brotherhood,” Berry said. “But what I experienced was more like a cult.”
Why men join the Proud Boys

Since its inception in 2016, the Proud Boys has been a hard group among the far-right to pin down. Experts now agree it’s an extremist group masquerading as a benign boys club.

The Proud Boys espouses a vague political ideology of unfettered free speech and nationalism, expressed through offensive language, controversial memes and shocking imagery. Its public messaging is rife with inside jokes and trolling that experts say is designed to hide the group’s true intentions and draw in recruits.

In 2018, the FBI categorized the Proud Boys as an extremist group with ties to white nationalism. The Southern Poverty Law Center estimates the group has 43 chapters in 29 states.

Proud Boys leaders such as national chairman Henry Tarrio, who goes by Enrique and self-identifies as Afro-Cuban, insist it’s not a white supremacist group. They point to nonwhite members as evidence.

“We’re a little rough around the edges, but we’re definitely not what they make us out to be,” Tarrio told Business Insider last year.

At least 25 people associated with the Proud Boys are among the more than 400 arrested in connection with the Jan. 6 insurrection, according to a USA TODAY analysis.

Proud Boys across the country have alsobeen charged with felonies stemming from their violent street fights, often with anti-fascist, or antifa, protesters.

“I wouldn’t call them terrorists. They’re street fighters,” said Daryl Johnson, a security consultant and former senior analyst for domestic terrorism at the Department of Homeland Security.

But he and other experts said law enforcement, and the public, still should be wary of the Proud Boys, which saw a huge influx in members in 2019 and 2020. The group is increasingly likely to be an incubator for extremists who could graduate from street brawls to more serious violence, Johnson said.

“They’re one of these environments where people get immersed and indoctrinated,” he said. “They’re not one of these groups that’s going to stand back holding signs; they’re looking for a fight, and they could serve as a radicalization facilitator.”

Becoming a Proud Boy

Berry and the two other men described their first contact with the Wisconsin Proud Boys identically. Each said he received a link to join a private group on the encrypted messaging service Telegram.

Berry and the other recruit — both white, middle-aged conservatives — said they hoped the chatroom would be a place to discuss issues like border security and gun rights.

Berry said he was looking for somewhere he could be himself: a safe space to discuss conservative and libertarian politics outside the confines of his home, where his views often clashed with those of his left-leaning wife.
Daniel Berry, a former member of the Wisconsin chapter of the Proud Boys, stands for a portrait in his home.

None of the prospective members trusted the news media, which they believed falsely painted the Proud Boys as extremists and white supremacists.

Berry said media portrayals of the groupreminded him of his experience in college, where professors and fellow students scorned him for being in the military. Berry’s time in the Army didn’t match their stereotypes, he said, and he didn’t think they’d ring true for the Proud Boys, either.

Participants in the chatroom didn’t use their real names. But upon joining, applicants were required to send Proud Boys leaders a copy of their state-issued ID cards. This was ostensibly so leadership could check their criminal records, but the men who spoke with USA TODAY noted it gave the group power over them.

That chatroom, all three men said, is fairly mild. Senior members dropped in, they said, to encourage recruits to attend a “vetting meet,” usually at a rural Wisconsin bar.

Between 30 and 50 Proud Boys and pledges showed up at those events, urged in advance not to wear the group’s signature black and gold colors, Berry and the other men said. Each applicant was called to a table, where he was grilled by leaders and senior members of the Proud Boys on why he wanted to join.

Berry and the other men who spoke with USA TODAY made it past this stage. They were given a link to a second Telegram chatroom.

That’s where, they said, things got nasty.

Testing the recruits

The second chatroom was swamped with every type of shocking content imaginable, the men said, with participants posting photos and videos of people getting killed and seriously injured. Users swapped the most explicit pornography they could find, often featuring people defecating. The images flowed in a septic tide of racist, antisemitic and homophobic banter.
Members of the Proud Boys march near the White House and Black Lives Matter Plaza on Dec 12, 2020.

One of the men who spoke with USA TODAY described the content: “Videos of Muslims being set on fire or blown up? Check. Memes intended to laugh at Holocaust-era Jews? Check. Pictures of women being raped? Check. Memes poking fun at raped women? Check. I could go on, but you get the point.”

The images and memes, examples of which were shared with USA TODAY, didn’t drive away Berry or the other two men. They said they’ve heard plenty of racist and homophobic comments before in their mostly white communities.

Berry said the chapter president had told him the chatroom would be rough, like a hazing ritual. Only those with the toughest skin, who weren’t offended by anything, would survive, he said.

Berry said he believed it all played into the ethos of the Proud Boys as a group of tough guys fighting for free speech and independence.

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