Proud Boys marching in Washington D.C. Photo by Can Merey/picture alliance via Getty Images
The Proud Boys have long tried to maintain the facade of being a multicultural organization, quickly attempting to refute any charges of racism.
The group, known for pathetic initiation rituals, bizarre rules outlawing masturbation, and being mentioned by Donald Trump in a national debate, nonetheless attracted eventual members of a more staunchly terroristic organization with a penchant for the tenets of the Third Reich.
The FBI designates the Proud Boys as an extremist organization with ties to white nationalism. Boasting thousands of members, it provided muscle for right-wing groups over the summer during Black Lives Matter protests across the United States, and received renewed national attention after the president’s call for them to “stand down and stand by.”
(Gavin McInnes founded the Proud Boys in 2016. He was also a co-founder of VICE. He left the company in 2008 and has had no involvement since then.)
Motherboard has seen evidence that three members of the Base—a neo-Nazi terror group under an intense federal crackdown—and one more recruit had early dealings with the Proud Boys. In all four cases, affiliation with the Proud Boys was an entry point into a wider fascist ecosystem. And though the Proud Boys isn’t an outwardly paramilitary organization, evidence shows that for some extremists, it has been a stop along the way to joining a fully-fledged neo-Nazi terror group.
Wisconsin native Yousef O. Barasneh, 22—an active member in the Base under the alias “Josef” and among those the FBI arrested in January on terrorism related charges—openly talked about how he had an early brush with the Proud Boys when he was looking for a place to channel his hateful activism.
“Back when the Proud Boys were big and I started wanting to do something politically,” said Barasneh in a summer 2019 post in an encrypted chat room, before denigrating the group for its lack of true commitment to Nazism: “I tried joining them and they were all like that.” After that experience, he joined the Base. (Barasneh’s lawyer did not respond to Motherboard.)
Another Base member known as “Ryan,” who has yet to be identified publicly, said he had a similar experience. “I tried joining Proud Boys way back,” he wrote in the same chat room in June 2019, “but they didn’t respond or anything.”
Twenty-something Massachusetts native Chris Hood, who was once an enthusiastic member of the northeastern cell of the Base and went on to found another violent neo-Nazi street fighting gang this past spring, was doxxed by antifascist activists who revealed he was a member of the Proud Boys prior to joining the Base. In a secretly recorded phone call in October of 2019 with other members of the Base, obtained by Motherboard, Hood discussed his past in white nationalist organizations and said, “I was with the Proud Boys.” (Hood did not respond to an emailed request for comment.)
In November 2019, regional cell leaders and the founder of the Base, New Jersey native Rinaldo Nazzaro, vetted a Texas recruit going by the name “John Lee.” Lee revealed his past membership in the Proud Boys and why it was a portal into something even more hardcore.
“I started reading materials that challenged what you would call my ‘traditional beliefs’ about race and how the Jews have infiltrated the United States government,” Lee said in a November 2019 phone call obtained by Motherboard detailing his “vetting” interview into the Base. “And I realized how long I had it wrong. I was led to join the Proud Boys.”
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As Lee put it, he saw the group as an entry point into far-right activism. Members of the Proud Boys hated Jews and people of color, but it didn’t go far enough.
“There’re plenty of people in the Proud Boys who don’t believe that Jews have a place in this country and they want to put a stop to it. And whenever someone talks about doing something, they’re immediately shut down or banned from the band, from the group, because, you know, the boys don’t want to have that image,” said Lee.
“I think they are a gateway group as well as a long-term membership group,” said Brad Galloway, a former skinhead turned researcher at the Centre on Hate, Bias & Extremism at Ontario Tech University in Canada. “They foster [a] certain charismatic leadership that is needed to recruit, sustain, and give access to the broader movement by their visibility out in the public sphere. I have heard of guys who were once interested in Proud Boy ideology moving on to becoming members of the Base.
“The group also has the predictable attraction of the common young white college student, the idea that they are being deprived of basic rights because [people of color] are being given similar rights and so on.”
Proud Boys chairman Enrique Tarrio blamed reporters covering his group for its popularity as a gateway to right-wing extremism. When reached for comment on Telegram, Tarrio sent a voice message littered with profanity and personal insults. He claimed that people think of the Proud Boys as a starting point in the far-right movement not because of the group’s activities, but “because of reporters like you that report on this thing, and those actual people think that they have a home here and they don’t.”
Many in the more militant neo-Nazi circles, adherents of the early-1980s terror manual Siege by James Mason, have looked down on the Proud Boys as a delinquent street group. A member of the Base characterized it as a pointless and directionless organization, calling it “light shit” in a June 2019 post, while a former cell leader in Atomwaffen Division—a parallel terror group that shared a member with the Base—told Motherboard, “We all despised the Proud Boys.“
But in the recent months of nationwide political and social unrest surrounding the presidential election, a deadly pandemic, and BLM protests, some Proud Boys have taken on the aesthetics of the far-right.
In August 2020, one Telegram channel popular among the Proud Boys posted a photo of a bulletproof vest, a bag with an “RWDS” (Right Wing Death Squad) patch, and a rifle, with the caption “Prepare my friends.” While the image was undoubtedly meant to inspire other Proud Boys to pick up where Kyle Rittenhouse—the armed teen in Kenosha, Wisconsin accused of brazenly murdering three activists at a BLM protest—the vest and gun photo was first popularized by the Christchuch, New Zealnd shooter, who killed 50 unarmed worshippers in March 2019 and was mythologized in neo-Nazi terror circles.
Likewise, the trademark skull mask, a piece of clothing synonymous with accelerationist neo-Nazis who subscribe to Siege and want to hasten the collapse of society, has appeared among Proud Boys and their various social media postings. According to Newsweek, in the wake of the election defeat of President Trump, one Proud Boys leader, Kyle Chapman—himself a white nationalist—has begun an insurrection against national leadership because he wants the group to be more overtly white supremacist.
“We will no longer cuck to the left by appointing token negroes as our leaders. We will no longer allow homosexuals or other ‘undesirables’ into our ranks. We will confront the Zionist criminals who wish to destroy our civilization,” he reportedly said over Telegram.
With files from Zachary Kamel.