In May of 2017, eight men met at Mackesey’s Irish Pub in downtown Madison to drink beer and talk politics. The men, all of them White and most in their 20s, had met online and were getting together for the first time.

The meeting would establish the Wisconsin chapter of an emerging national group called the Proud Boys. For Thaddeus Pall, it was a rare opportunity to openly express his support for
President Donald Trump in liberal Madison.

As the men were leaving the bar for a member’s apartment, Pall, then 26, separated from the group to buy cigarettes. According to Madison police, as Pall was returning to his new friends, he was approached on the street by men in hoodies with what Pall described as baseball bats or wooden sticks. He told police the men had targeted him as a Trump supporter because of his T-shirt, which read: “Basket of Deplorables 2016.”

Pall said one yelled, “He is wearing a Trump shirt! He’s a Nazi!” and three surrounded him, pummeling his head, hands and arms and shattering his cell phone. Pall told the officer he did not know who the attackers were but thought he knew what they were: anti-fascist activists known as “antifa.” An “antifa” website later published a blog post detailing the attack and claiming responsibility.

After the beating, Pall tweeted a photo of his face and hands covered in blood. As a member of the Proud Boys, a libertarian men’s club that conveys special status on members who are attacked by anti-fascists, Pall had just achieved the highest degree of membership.

But Pall, a former Madison resident who later moved to northern Michigan, said in an interview that he is no longer active in the Proud Boys, although he said the attack did not alter his feelings about the group.

“I think people need to calm down. It’s just politics. People can have different views. We all want the same things — we all want a better planet, a better world, a better future. This disagreement is really about how you get there,” Pall said.

The Proud Boys were founded at the height of the 2016 presidential campaign by Gavin McInnes, a New York-based conservative online talk show host and co-founder of Vice Media who has since cut ties with the company. He estimates the membership at about 5,000 men nationwide.

McInnes and his followers believe there are 10 ways to “save America”: Abolish prisons, give each American a gun, legalize drugs, end welfare, close borders to illegal immigrants, outlaw censorship, venerate the housewife, glorify the entrepreneur, shut down the government and declare “the West is the best.”

Members also traffic in inflammatory language. A female reporter arranging an interview for this story with Wisconsin Proud Boy members in September was asked by the interview subject whether he should bring condoms. In a later interview, McInnes told the reporter she should give up her career, that “you need to find a man,” and that she would run out of eggs if she did not get pregnant soon.

In McInnes’ view, there is a demand for men’s clubs like the Proud Boys because, “There’s a real war on masculinity in this country that starts in kindergarten and goes all the way to adulthood. And it’s not natural.”

‘Cereal’ beatings

The Proud Boys call themselves “proud Western chauvinists” who “refuse to apologize for creating the modern world.” Initiation into the group is a multi-step process. A first-degree member simply declares he is a Proud Boy. Initiation at the second degree involves getting punched by other members while naming five breakfast cereals. Third degree is earned by getting a Proud Boy tattoo. Fourth degree is a “consolation prize” if a member “endures a major conflict related to the cause,” as Pall did.

Members often greet each other with the group’s ironic rallying cry, “Uhuru!” The word is Swahili for freedom and was taken from a video showing an activist calling for whites to make slavery reparations to African-Americans.

The Proud Boys also have a “no wanks” policy urging members to avoid masturbation and pornography to motivate them to get “off the couch” and meet women. Group members have participated in rallies that drew anti-fascists in Portland and Berkeley that turned violent. The attack on Pall in Madison has been investigated by the FBI; federal authorities have called “antifa” members domestic terrorists. No charges have been filed.

McInnes fiercely distanced the Proud Boys from White Nationalists and the recent deadly demonstration in Charlottesville, Virginia. But experts have said that some of the group’s beliefs overlap with Alt-Right ideology.

In October 2017, a University of Wisconsin-Madison graduate student, who at the time was being vetted as a possible new member of the Proud Boys, was relieved from his teaching assistant position. Doctoral student CV Vitolo-Haddad had written a blog post showing the graduate student had spread racist and anti-Semitic messages at Oberlin College in 2013 plus a 2016 tweet about “gassing” Jews.

The student claimed the 2013 incidents were jokes intended to provoke an overreaction, according to news reports from the time.

Just a drinking club

Late one night in early October 2017, as a full moon swelled above the outside patio of The Explorium Brewpub at Southridge Mall near Milwaukee, three Proud Boys — Patrick, Eric and Brad — met to drink beer and explain their vision for the future of America. Patrick seemed friendly and approachable. Eric and Brad arrived wearing matching black and yellow Fred Perry polo shirts, the uniform of the Proud Boys. Eric appeared wary; Brad was combative.

Earlier Brad had warned in text messages that the group had nothing to do with the Alt-Right or White Nationalism, that such an association would put them in physical danger, and he threatened to call off the interview.

All three asked to be identified by first name only. “Antifa” members had posted personal information about Eric and other Proud Boys members online following the Madison attack. Patrick, who also declined to be photographed, said he feared he could lose his job.

Asked to describe the group, Brad took a slug from his beer. “First and foremost, we’re a drinking fraternity,” he said.

The men said they learned about the Proud Boys by watching YouTube videos of McInnes, who hosts an online talk show that combines right-wing politics with satire. During the 2016 election cycle, Brad said, he listened to McInnes’ show daily while he got ready for work. It was the group’s use of unfiltered expression that drew him in.

“Everybody has a platform. We have a platform. Black Lives Matter has a platform. And you know, I’m sorry for the people who don’t like it, but the Ku Klux Klan and the Neo-Nazis have a platform. That’s free speech,” he said.

Brad and the other members said they also are tired of the pressure to feel guilty for being who they are.

“None of us ever knew anybody that owned a slave,” he said. “Personally, my family didn’t emigrate here until the first World War. I share no White guilt. I’m not guilty about any of the things that happened here 200 years ago. I wasn’t here. My relatives weren’t here. We didn’t move here until way after the Civil War. So I’m done being villainized as the White devil. I’m not him.”

The Proud Boys have said there was no public space for people to support Trump without being labeled “Nazis.”

“It’s now counterculture to call oneself a conservative,” said Patrick. He recalled feeling alienated when he was told he could not use the bathroom at his neighbor’s house because of his “Make America Great Again” hat.

“We were all hanging out drinking beers in the backyard, and I laughed, thinking they were joking, and they were dead serious. They now look at it as a personal affront to them if you have a different political view … it used to be the liberal was the defender of free speech and to stick up for people that have contrary opinions,” he said.

Patrick and Brad said they both voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012. All three became avid Trump supporters. Eric, who was the Wisconsin chapter president in 2017, said he was attracted to Trump’s rejection of political correctness: “He kind of just put it in your face and didn’t care what people thought.”

Rather than provocateurs, Eric saw the Proud Boys occupying a middle ground.

“I liked that they weren’t (a) White Supremacist, white Nationalist group, but they weren’t trying to appease the left,” he said.

He said he was also drawn to the group’s respect for the traditional family.

“It’s basic family values … morals. The values that our grandparents were raised on,” he added.

Asked about his view of feminism, Eric responded, “It’s cancer … I just think it’s taken so much away from the traditional family that it’s contributed to the degradation of the American family. When it came to equality for women and equal rights and votes, OK yeah, that’s all good and well. But now it’s just turned into kind of what’s seeming to be anti-male basically.”

Proud Boys rejected Alt-Right label

McInnes said he got his ideas about Western values from Pat Buchanan’s 2002 book “The Death of the West: How Dying Populations and Immigrant Invasions Imperil Our Country and Civilization.”

“The West is about you doing it your own way and not being hindered by rules,” McInnes said. “It’s about the frontiersman, it’s about being an explorer. It’s about grit, it’s about mobility. It’s about Lewis and Clark. It’s about Columbus … Look at Malaysia and Indonesia and all these Muslim countries — they’re steeped in religious dogma,” McInnes said. “That’s not Western.”

McInnes rejected descriptions of his group as being part of the Alt-Right or White Nationalist movements. He said the Proud Boys do not discriminate based on race or sexual orientation, and some of the Proud Boys members are black.

Yosef Ozia is African-American, a libertarian and a member of the Proud Boys in Atlanta.

“Me being in the group, I have met all different colors of the rainbow. Different backgrounds, different religions, all that. From Sikhs to Muslims. From me being Jewish, to Christianity,” he said.

Despite the Proud Boys’ defense of free speech, the group and its founder have threatened to sue journalists and others, including Vitolo-Haddad, for linking the group to White Nationalism. Brad threatened to sue Wisconsin Public Radio if a reporter brought up questions related to the topic in an interview.

The Southern Poverty Law Center, which monitors extremism in the United States, said it did not include the Proud Boys in its 2016 list of “hate” groups. Heidi Beirich, director of the SPLC’s Intelligence Project, said the group did not exist at the time the report was being prepared, but that researchers would take a look at the group for 2017.

Explained Ryan Lenz, SPLC’s senior investigative writer: “As the Alt-Right took to the streets or took to the Internet … what the Proud Boys were to become in relation to that was not quite clear. We were aware of their presence, we were aware that they were attending these rallies, we were aware that they started these fight clubs and other things like that, but … I don’t think they even knew what their group would become. I’m not so sure they know quite yet.”

But Lenz said there are echoes of White Nationalism in the Proud Boys’ rhetoric.

“When you talk about Western ideals … what you’re talking about is European ideals and the descendants of Europe. America for that matter, as many in the Alt-Right and many racists argue, is the natural successor to Europe, which was a great ‘civilization,’ ” Lenz said. “It was only when immigration from other continents started to infuse in Europe and then ultimately in the United States that they would argue the greatness of that continent and this country were undermined. Western values are the values of Whiteness.”

McInnes: Feminism relied on ‘blatant lies’

What is not equivocal is McInnes’ stance on other groups, including Muslims and women. McInnes’ Twitter profile described him as a libertarian family man who favors closed borders and a free market. He lists himself as pro-West, gun, life, gay, Israel, Trump, cop and First Amendment. He opposed Nazis, the Alt-Right, feminism and Islam.

“I would say that feminism was done in maybe 1979,” McInnes said. “And since then, it’s just been women inventing problems and lying to create a world where feminists are needed. Like saying one in four women will be sexually assaulted or raped in college — or saying that women earn less than men and there’s a wage gap. Like just blatant lies to justify their existence.”

McInnes said he believed that women gravitate towards occupations that pay less.

“Women tend to choose jobs that are less strenuous, less risky, they tend to want to go home for their daughter’s piano recital rather than stay at the office all night, and that costs them promotions down the line,” he said.

Alice Le Fae belonged to the Proud Boys’ Girls — a group of women who are married to, dating or otherwise support members of the Proud Boys. She said being a full-time mother is more “fulfilling” than focusing on a career.

“We’re not feminists, but we love femininity, which has kind of been a lost thing in Western culture,” Le Fae said. “Our generation and the generation underneath me was kind of raised to be a career woman, go out and do your own thing. … That’s something that we’re proud of is the old Western culture and being a housewife, raising families.”

The Proud Boys who gathered in Milwaukee said they do not share McInnes’ stance on Muslims. But they were concerned about Sharia Law coming to the United States.

“The reality is that the ideologies that people have who gravitate toward being a Proud Boy, the ideologies of anti-Islam as Gavin has on his Twitter page, or anti-feminism, these are things that play deeply into the grains of the Alt-Right, and whether you know it or not, you’re becoming a very distinct element of the Alt-Right” said Lenz.

Offensive statements all ‘a joke’

Lenz said it is common for groups like the Proud Boys to use irony and humor as a tool of plausible deniability.

“If someone were to become critical of the Proud Boys, all they would have to do is look to the process by which one becomes a Proud Boy and they can say, ‘Look you guys are stupid, you’re actually taking this on face value and thinking we’re a threat?’ ” Lenz said. “So it’s this weird sort of thing. You don’t know if it’s actually real or if it’s a joke. But I’ll tell you this, in the streets, during these Alt-Right rallies, when the Proud Boys show up to defend the First Amendment principles of racists and extremists, that is not a joke. It’s very real and very serious.”

Alexandra Hall

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The nonprofit Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism collaborates with Wisconsin Public Radio, Wisconsin Public Television, other news media and the UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. All works created, published, posted or disseminated by the Center do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.