KENOSHA, Wis. – Daniel Berry said 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 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. Members 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 chatroom.
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 the two other men, who asked not to be named because they fear violent repercussions from members of the 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 such as 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 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 said 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 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, according to a USA TODAY analysis.
Proud Boys have been charged with felonies stemming from their 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.
He and other experts said law enforcement, and the public, 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 such a 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.
None of the prospective members trusted the news media, which they said falsely painted the Proud Boys as extremists and white supremacists.
Berry said media portrayals of the group reminded 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.
Thirty to 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, and participants posted 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.
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 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.
Proud Boys recruits in Wisconsin not only had to run the gantlet of the chatroom, he said, but they had to participate if they wanted to advance. Anyone who expressed discomfort with the conversation was viciously ridiculed.
“They would constantly say, ‘Fit in or f--- off,’” Berry said, referring to a motto popular with the Proud Boys. “And so it was in your best interest, if you want to stay with the group, to just roll with what they were saying, and basically get on board with that inflammatory stuff.”
As he and other Proud Boys recruits attended more meetings, they said, they found that many of the men wholly embraced the racism and antisemitism behind the code words and inside jokes.
Serenading an accused killer
In January, after pleading not guilty to felony charges including reckless homicide, Kyle Rittenhouse went for beers with his mom at a bar called Pudgy's near Kenosha.
There Rittenhouse, who is accused of shooting and killing two men and injuring a third during Black Lives Matter protests last summer, met with Wisconsin Proud Boys, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinal.
The Proud Boys serenaded Rittenhouse with a rendition of the song "Proud of Your Boy," which was written for the animated Disney movie "Aladdin" and is the origin of the Proud Boys' name.
That the Proud Boys embraced Rittenhouse speaks volumes about the group, Berry and the others said.
Despite the Proud Boys’ claims of being open to all ethnicities, the Wisconsin chapter is overwhelmingly white, Berry and the other men said. Berry remembered just one man who wasn't white at Proud Boys gatherings. He said the ethos of the group was clear: Get on board with racism or leave.
It was clear to Berry and the two others that the only way to rise through the ranks – to become an official Proud Boy – was to signal allegiance to antisemitism and white supremacy.
“The ones that were definitely racist – at meets, when we talked with them, it was patently obvious that they were racist – they moved up,” Berry said.
The recruiting process the men described is similar to ones used by white supremacist organizations for the past couple of decades, said Amarnath Amarasingam, an assistant professor in the School of Religion at Queen's University in Ontario, Canada, who researches terrorism and radicalization.
Like most extremist groups in the USA, the Proud Boys primarily attracts young white men who believe they're joining a powerful political force that will fix the problems in the world.
Amarasingam said the Proud Boys, like other racist groups, cloaks its ideology to draw in recruits, then reveals its racist side once members are reeled in.
"They've been confusing researchers and academics for years," Amarasingam said. "I wouldn't fault a random person who thought, based on their public rhetoric, based on the diversity of the group, that they're not actually white supremacists."
Though it doesn't mention the Proud Boys, the strategy says the recruitment of impressionable young men into hate groups via the internet is a major and growing threat to the public.
The Proud Boys' membership rituals
As Berry and others learned, the expectation to engage in racist, hateful banter served another purpose within the Proud Boys Telegram chatroom.
The recruits were told they would be kicked out if they took screenshots of the chatrooms. Berry and the others said they learned that the group's leaders stored screenshots and videos that they could use against the men.
Berry said he stuck it out in the chatroom for weeks. He acknowledged that he engaged in racist and homophobic conversations, figuring they would eventually subside to reveal the brotherhood he had been searching for.
Thirty days in, Berry, like other Proud Boys applicants, was required to record a video reciting one of the group’s credos: “I, Daniel Berry, am a proud Western chauvinist who refuses to apologize for creating the modern world.”
The video, which USA TODAY viewed, was the last step in becoming a "First Degree" Proud Boy, Berry said. He waited for an invitation to be “beaten into” the group – a ritual in which a circle of Proud Boys repeatedly punches a First Degree while he recites the names of five breakfast cereals.
Anyone who makes it through is a "Second Degree." (The highest level, Fourth Degree, is reserved for members who get into a fight with a member of antifa.)
“It’s a big joke, but the last couple, apparently from what I understand, and definitely the one that I attended, have been more abusive,” Berry said. “It's not been, ‘Hey, let's punch this guy because he's a brother.’ It's been, ‘Hey, let's beat the crap out of this guy.’”
Berry never made it that far.
The atmosphere inside the vetting chatroom grew more alarming, Berry said, including sadistic bullying that ended up with a prospective Proud Boy in a hospital.
‘Where is your humanity?’
All three men interviewed for this story recalled with disgust the treatment of one recruit.
The man, known by the nickname “Tony Gavin,” became the Wisconsin Proud Boys’ whipping boy, Berry and the other men said. For weeks, they said, senior members bullied the man incessantly, questioning his sexuality and mocking the fact that his wife has a disability. The abuse was delivered by text, memes and videos posted to Telegram.
The bullying got so bad that “Tony” was admitted to a hospital with a heart problem, Berry said.
“They let him into that chat to make sure that everybody would gang up on him and see if the group coalesced around being a bully to this guy,” Berry said. “Once the entertainment part was gone, they kicked him out of the group, and they continued to terrorize him until he went to the hospital.”
Around the same time, another Proud Boy posted a meme to the chatroom mocking rape victims. It wasn't the first, but it was particularly extreme. Berry decided he’d had enough.
Far from the camaraderie he had come for, Berry said, he had found racism, sadism and bullying.
“Like, where is your humanity? Where is your soul?” he said. “This is definitely a fake brotherhood.”
What do the Proud Boys represent?
Tarrio, the group's chairman, and others said the Proud Boys has always been open to nonwhites and people of every religion (except for Islam), and gay men are welcome.
Over text messages and on his Telegram channel, Tarrio claimed the men interviewed by USA TODAY are not really Proud Boys and do not represent his group.
He declined to be interviewed for this story. So did the president of the Wisconsin chapter of the Proud Boys, who goes by "D-Bow the Viking." (None of the men interviewed knows his real name.)
Proud Boys founder Gavin McInness, who said he cut ties with the group, claimed that anybody espousing racism or homophobia isn't a true Proud Boy.
McInnes declined to answer questions in a brief phone call. In an email, he claimed that the accusations of the men who spoke with USA TODAY were false and that reporting them would make the group more likely to be a haven for racists.
“When you spotlight some dumb rumor about the club going full white nationalist, a much more sinister option arrives. Blacks and gays and Jews etc. go, ‘I guess this club isn’t for me,’ and leave,” he wrote. “Subsequently, bonafide white nationalists then become attracted to it. In other words, you are creating hate where it wasn’t previously.”
The men who spoke with USA TODAY don't know whether what they observed in the Wisconsin chapter reflects the movement as a whole, but they warned that what happened could be a harbinger of widespread problems.
“We are letting in and promoting way too many men who embody the very worst of this country,” a Proud Boy wrote in an email. “As the ranks of the racist members increase, the likelihood of promoting those who agree with that disgusting behavior is also increased."
Samantha Kutner, a researcher who has studied the Proud Boys for years and founded Intuitive Threat Assessment, an agency specializing in intelligence on violent extremism, said the Wisconsin chapter doesn't appear to be an aberration.
Kutner, who has interviewed more than 20 current and former Proud Boys, said the organization has left behind any notions of egalitarianism or diversity.
“It’s true that for some Proud Boys, involvement might be just meeting up once a month with the boys and drinking and complaining about the wife and then going home,” Kutner said. “But when you look at the group as a whole, and its aims, they are a violent, crypto-fascist, extremist organization.”
The group's hierarchical structure and recruitment process push members further into the world of extremism, she said.
"As a function of the 'degree' system, you can become significantly more radicalized by the sheer exposure to the anti-trans, misogynistic, homophobic and antisemitic content," Kutner said.
"Their whole joke is blurring the line between satire, humor, edge and reality," she said. "I don't think a lot of them know where the line is, but they get pulled closer to it as a function of being in the group."
Since the Capitol insurrection Jan. 6, there have been signs the Proud Boys is fragmenting. After a leadership battle last year, a faction split off to create an explicitly white supremacist group that calls itself the "Proud Goys."
Current and former members seldom speak to the media, making it hard to understand exactly where the group is headed. As the Wisconsin men attested, there may be good reason for that.
Speaking out: Under threat
Since contacting USA TODAY, Berry has been publicly disavowed by the people who had invited him to become a brother.
In late May, a blurred copy of his driver's license was posted on the Wisconsin Proud Boys public Telegram channel. It was accompanied by a message posted by "D-Bow" deriding him and threatening to share videos Berry posted.
Berry said he heard from someone inside the Wisconsin Proud Boys that his life has been threatened. He stopped leaving the house when his wife is home. He sleeps during the day and keeps vigil at night, walking the perimeter of his property and relying on his guard dog to warn him of intruders.
Berry said he has no one to blame for this predicament but himself. Against his better judgment, he said, he trusted the Proud Boys’ propaganda and listened to conservative pundits who praised the group.
After more than five months, Berry said, he quit. He said he's appalled that he ever got involved with the Proud Boys.
"I was in the wrong, not just in joining the group but the things that I did," he said. "I did this to myself, and I am not the good guy here."
Another drinking club that became violent
To many experts who study extremism, the Proud Boys is merely the latest in a long line of groups that claim to be one thing, when behind the curtain they are really another.
Daryle Lamont Jenkins, who has tracked extremists since the 1980s, said the origin story of the Proud Boys – "that they’re a drinking club that got out of hand and became political" – sounds familiar.
At the outset, Jenkins said, “the Ku Klux Klan were basically just old Confederate soldiers who needed to blow off steam, who needed to have some sort of fraternal organization that they wanted to belong to so that they could maintain their camaraderie that they had during the Civil War.”
Before long, Jenkins said, the Klan became more political, darker and more hateful – a terror group that intimidated, attacked and killed Black people. “It’s the same exact origin story.”
Contributing: Bruce Vielmetti of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Proud Boys recruitment targets men looking for community