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For one Proud Boys tracker, trial offers long-awaited accountability

For years, Megan Squire warned about the Proud Boys’ mobilization to violence. Now, she’s watching them stand trial over the U.S. Capitol attack.

(Evelyn Hockstein for The Washington Post; iStock; Natalie Vineberg/Washington Post illustration)

The Proud Boys first landed on Megan Squire’s radar in 2017, when they began showing up to anti-Muslim rallies and “Make America Great Again” events as a rowdy, menacing presence.

Squire, a computer scientist who was then teaching in North Carolina, wasn’t sure how to label the group for her research into online extremist networks. Proud Boys floated in the same far-right circles as white-supremacist and anti-government factions but had no coherent ideology and operated like a street gang.

Squire put the Proud Boys in a category of their own and “started digging.” She built databases tracking their movements and money, watching with concern as they became more organized, more active and more violent.

This mobilization unfolded publicly, Squire said, and yet the Proud Boys weren’t considered a serious threat until dozens of them joined a mob of President Donald Trump’s supporters in storming the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.

All five Proud Boys on trial this month in the Justice Department’s landmark seditious-conspiracy prosecution were in Squire’s original data set. Another member who pleaded guilty and is expected to testify previously filmed himself railing against Squire on social media, and posted her private information on Telegram in retaliation for her research.

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What to know about the Proud Boys sedition trial
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After years of observing Proud Boys act as if they’re above the law, Squire said, the trial offers the promise of long-awaited accountability.

“This is where you end up when you’re in this movement. It’s not going to end well,” she said. “To use their own favorite expression: You eff around, and you find out.”

Testimony began Jan. 12 in the federal trial of former Proud Boys leader Enrique Tarrio and four of his top lieutenants, all accused of steering a weeks-long effort to forcibly stop the swearing-in of President Biden. An indictment alleges that the men mustered and coordinated the movements of as many as 200 to 300 people around the Capitol on Jan. 6.

Squire, now at the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Project, is among a small cadre of academic researchers and leftist activists who saw early signs of the risk posed by the Proud Boys. She waited years for law enforcement agencies to catch up. Since the first appearances at local rallies, the group’s thuggish behavior made it “clear from the very beginning that the Proud Boys would emerge as leaders above the other street-level extremists,” journalist Andy Campbell wrote in a new book, “We Are Proud Boys,” which chronicles the movement’s rise.

The trial, veteran Proud Boys observers say, is a test of how the courts deal with right-wing political violence. It should also offer a window into the inner workings of a national extremist group and a hard lesson about ignoring the risk posed by hate-fueled online networks.

“It almost always eventually gets into the real world, either through a rally or an attack on the Capitol or sending people to your house to harass you,” Squire said.

The Capitol attack wasn’t the first time Squire’s research proved prescient. In the weeks before the deadly 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Squire was tracking extremists and mapping out connections among the groups planning to attend. Her findings were part of a database that eventually grew to more than 700,000 Facebook user accounts that belonged to nearly 2,000 online groups dedicated to various extremist ideologies. The connections Squire uncovered later helped piece together how that weekend descended into a frenzy of racist violence.

At least one Unite the Right organizer was a Proud Boy, though the group mostly stayed away from the event, Squire said. Ahead of the rally, Proud Boys founder Gavin McInnes, typically a proponent of street confrontation, distanced himself and warned members they could be kicked out if they “rub elbows” with racists while wearing the group’s colors or insignia.

That move, Squire said, probably bought the group valuable organizing time by allowing them to avoid the scrutiny — and paralyzing lawsuits — experienced by other far-right factions that were more significant players.

“They weren’t held to account for any role in Unite the Right in Charlottesville — that kind of gave them an out,” Squire said of the Proud Boys. “They kind of got a pass that allowed them to continue to grow.”

In real time, Squire traced that growth as Proud Boys forged connections with other factions that would eventually coalesce to storm the Capitol.

Squire said she pored over several hundred Proud Boys-related social media accounts and compiled a list of about 8,000 members, prospects and fans. She then cross-referenced them for affiliation with other far-right movements to learn how extremists communicate. That helped to map out their beliefs and driving issues, she said, but the operational structure of the Proud Boys remained shadowy.

“It was all very confusing, and I was like, I want to understand this,” Squire recalled. “So what better way to do that than to look at who’s paying who.”

In 2018, Squire began following the money that flowed among Proud Boys members, largely through transactions on the Venmo app. Payments clustered in one area, for example, signaled chapter-style organization, “a cell,” she said.

Squire said members were shockingly indiscreet in those days, often writing “dues” in the memo section, contradicting leaders’ statements that the group doesn’t collect membership fees. Through Venmo receipts, she was able to track social links, even “who was drinking buddies,” in big chapters in New York, Texas, Georgia, Los Angeles and the Pacific Northwest. She also uncovered how the Proud Boys promoted and sold tickets for “West Fest,” a gathering in Las Vegas.

“There were several times when they were paying each other for bus rentals to go across state lines and beat up protesters — ‘communists,’ as they called them,” Squire said.

The Proud Boys weren’t hiding in the shadows, and neither was Squire.

Domestic-extremism reporters frequently cited her. She and other researchers tweeted the findings to thousands of followers. In a 2018 profile, Wired magazine called Squire “antifa’s secret weapon” for the value of her data to militant antifascists trying to unmask extremists. In 2020, Squire warned on NBC News that Trump’s debate stage request for the Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by” was interpreted by some as marching orders: “To say Proud Boys are energized by this is an understatement.”

Still, even after Proud Boys attacked protesters in the wave of racial justice demonstrations in summer 2020, extremism researchers say, there was little indication that authorities viewed them as particularly alarming.

“Simply put, they’re one of the most dangerous and influential extremist groups in America, thriving during a time when federal law enforcement agencies deem far-right extremism as one of the country’s top threats,” Campbell wrote in his book on the Proud Boys. “And yet they flew largely under the radar — past federal law enforcement, congressional oversight, and some sections of the mainstream media — until they stormed the Capitol, and by that time the threat they posed was existential.”

The Proud Boys did not take kindly to Squire’s work. Soon, she found herself in the group’s crosshairs. The nasty, threatening messages she received escalated, she said, after she started closely tracking Proud Boys who demonstrated against Confederate statue removals in North Carolina, where she lived.

One time, a far-left activist in North Carolina tweeted a photo of an unidentified Proud Boy at a rally. Squire had seen the man’s face before and knew that he had given media interviews, including to The Washington Post, as “Jeremy Onitreb.” When she started checking him out, Squire said, she figured out that he was spelling his real last name backward: Bertino.

Bertino, Squire said, was livid with her for publicly identifying him.

He started a Facebook group called “March of the Patriot” and filmed videos in his car threatening to show up to Elon University, where Squire taught. He later used a people-finder service to dig up Squire’s personal family information, which he then posted on Telegram. Squire provided screenshots of the posts.

Squire said she repeatedly asked Telegram to remove the information, but the platform took no action, a reflection of how little recourse there was for online targets of the Proud Boys and similar groups before the Capitol riots. The information stayed up for nearly a year until Squire mentioned it to a Wired reporter who was writing about Telegram.

“When the reporter called Telegram, they finally took it down, but it took 10 months,” she said.

In October, Bertino became the first Proud Boy to plead guilty to seditious conspiracy charges and is expected to be called as a government witness in the trial of Tarrio and the others; federal prosecutors referenced him repeatedly in opening statements this month.

Bertino was part of a Proud Boys leadership circle dubbed the “Ministry of Self Defense,” which prosecutors say used encrypted chats to coordinate the group’s large Jan. 6 contingent. He also pleaded guilty to a gun charge after the FBI found six loaded firearms and 3,000 rounds of ammunition at his home, in violation of conditions from an earlier conviction.

J.P. Davis, an attorney for Bertino, acknowledged in a statement that his client shared Squire’s personal information on Telegram and advocated that she be removed from her job, saying it was “in response to what he perceived as Ms. Squire having taken similar action against him.”

“Mr. Bertino now views those actions as childish,” the statement said. “They do not reflect who he is today, and Mr. Bertino wishes Ms. Squire nothing but the best going forward.”

The Jan. 6 prosecution dealt a severe blow to the national framework of the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers, the two groups whose leaders were charged with seditious conspiracy. Even with a vacuum at the top, however, the Proud Boys have managed to rebrand and recruit new members in several cities. These days, they’re involved in anti-LGBTQ demonstrations.

Squire is keeping an eye on “a big new chapter called Cape Fear Proud Boys” in eastern North Carolina. She checks in on Telegram channels where the group’s supporters still glorify hate and violence. Whatever the outcome of the federal trial, Squire said, she won’t be closing her Proud Boys files anytime soon.

“They like to show up at the culture-war stuff — drag-queen story hours. A few tried to run for office,” Squire said. “They’re still percolating out there.”

Rachel Weiner contributed to this report.

The Proud Boys trial

The latest: Here’s what you need to know about the Proud Boys Jan. 6 seditious conspiracy trial.

How did we get here? Former chairman Henry “Enrique” Tarrio and four leaders of the Proud Boys face trial on charges in the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol attack. In November, Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes was found guilty of Jan. 6 seditious conspiracy.

Who is involved? Created in 2016, the Proud Boys is the most active right-wing extremist group in the country. Here’s what we know about the Proud Boys’ involvement in Jan. 6.

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