– By Anne Speckhard, PhD, Director of the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE)
“Last thing you think is that you are joining a racist organization when the leader is Puerto Rican and Black,” 39-year-old white Joshua Pruitt says. Josh, one of the Proud Boys who rioted inside the Capitol on January 6th was inducted into the Proud Boys in Fall of 2020 and began his slippery slide into what many are now terming as insurrectionism and domestic terrorism, a slide that was both frighteningly quick, as well as based on vulnerabilities created way back in his childhood.
“I was a Trump supporter,” Josh explains of how he fell into extremism, “nothing extreme. I was not in the far right at first, in 2016.” But three months ago, he recalls, when the initial MAGA march was happening in D.C., a friend called saying he had an expensive bottle of whiskey and invited Josh to come to the march and share the bottle. “I was a bartender in D.C. for 15 years, he had $130 a shot whiskey, so sure I’ll come for that! Have a shot, have a beer. We walked Pennsylvania Avenue to the Capitol.”
That’s when the trouble began. “Me and him, we get down there. I’m a little amped up as it is. I see Antifa. I walk up to a fence. I want to hear what they are saying. Basically they were blocked by cops, but one of the guys started coming at me to rile me up, with a bull horn yelling at me. He said that he was going to fu%$ me in the ass and taunted me, ‘Come over the fence.’”
When asked how he knew it was Antifa, Josh answers, “They had police protection, all black and masks on. You can tell. They were not Trump supporters on the other side and going at us.” Indeed, this is reciprocal radicalization, a process that has been going on all over this country over the last year in particular, as Antifa and other groups on the far left clash with far right and white supremacists and more recently with the Proud Boys, each riling the other up a few notches until both sides are spoiling for a fight and talking about, or actually, arming themselves.
Josh didn’t need a weapon. He’s a trained fighter. “I was an MMA [Mixed Martial Arts] fighter, a body builder. I got riled up,” he recalls. Josh’s way of letting off steam in these situations is to drink with his friends. “I go to a bar. Two beers, shot a Jameson. I was leaving to go home, then ten Antifa [suddenly show up] ready to jump me. They followed me [to the bar.] Me being the knucklehead, [I think] 10 of you, one of me. I’ll get five of you before they hit me. Then some guys came behind me. I later learned they were Proud Boys. They kept me from getting jumped. I want to hang out and didn’t want to go home. I didn’t want to get jumped.” So in classic gang mentality, Josh fell in with his protectors despite not knowing much about them.
“I didn’t even know who Proud Boys were,” Josh explains. “I hung out with them that day. There were some scuffles with Antifa, three fights. They all swung at me first. I am a trained fighter. One swung a knife at me. Another one stabbed right in front of me. None of us to my knowledge had weapons. No one was able to hit me. I had a knife swung at me. I moved his arm and knocked him out after.” I ask Josh if this is the night a Proud Boy was involved in a stabbing that ended in death.
“This was the first one, three stabbings, the third one was the killing. No one got hurt that night,” Josh answers. “Apparently the person I was right, besides. I pulled someone off him, it was Enrique Tarrio, the leader of the Proud Boys. By the end of the night he asked me to join the Proud Boys,” Josh explains. Josh was inducted that night by Enrique and the video of it immediately went viral on social media. “17 million views of me being inducted into the Proud Boys, right outside the JW Marriot.”
The repercussions for Josh were immediate. “I got blasted the next morning on social media. [I’m] bald, white and big, with a beard, so I fit the narrative [of a racist]. So I know why they attacked me. I was in the majority of videos, partly because I was with Enrique. I got doxxed, couldn’t get a job. I was partially on a schedule at one bar. They took me off the schedule. They said other workers had to be put on.”
“My first thought process is, I’m not racist,” Josh explains. “That’s just a joke. Anyone who knows me from growing up, knows that’s not true. The majority that know me don’t believe it. I’ve even had people who don’t know me, after we have conversations change their mind. It’s not the truth.” Indeed, spending most of his life in diverse Washington, D.C., Josh has had friends and romantic relationships of many races and ethnicities.
When I ask Josh how he felt about being accused of being racist and being called out on social media, he answers, “I wasn’t mad. More scared than mad, worried about people noticing me.
My best friend [told me], ‘There’s no bad media. Infamous is still famous. No one is going to touch you. No one is going to do anything.’” It didn’t turn out true, but Josh still had that to learn. At that point, he didn’t have a clue on how to respond to the accusations.
“At that point I laid low,” he explains. “Then I went to the next rally. I had met the Proud Boys,” he explains, “but I didn’t stay in contact, had no one’s numbers.” But the Proud Boys remembered Josh. “I apparently made a name for myself,” he states. “They said I held my own, stayed in the front line. What I am known for is sleeveless, not hard to miss me.”
“Same thing happened,” Josh recounts of the November MAGA rally. “We got into it a few times, not as harsh as the first one. After that night I heard I had a price on my head, from Antifa and BLM.”
“After that I knew a lot more people, exchanged contacts,” Josh explains. “Conservative groups reached out to me. And I saw disgusting stuff on the internet about me. People taunting me. One of the main things that really made me mad, two days after original video came out, some girl I never dated saying I used to beat my ex-girlfriends. I went off at her and said, ‘Take it down.’ It was not true at all. If you can give a name or someone come forward, but I know it’s not the case. It’s never happened in my life. Screwing my character. She took it down after two hours. She knew she just made it up.”
“‘You look like someone who hits your girlfriend.’ What does that mean?” Josh rants. “That’s not a thing! My kid’s Mom is politically different, but she said, ‘I never feared you putting your hands on me.’”
Josh tried not to let the Internet assault and being doxxed get to him, but even though he’s an MMA fighter, he’s got a sensitive side. He also has a strong streak for justice and supports the police. “I have been a bartender for 15 years,” Josh says. “I know a lot of cops.” Hearing that Antifa and others were using “spray bottles of piss at the cops, I was infuriated.” He offered to stand up for the cops, telling his police friends, “I can do what you are not allowed to do,” but they didn’t take him up on it. “I wanted to protect the cops.”
He ended up on the other side of things, however. “Then it goes on to the January 6th where we go into the Capitol,” Josh explains. “I had no clue that anyone was going to go in that building.” Before talking to Josh, I read the social psychology literature on mob mentality. Some authors argue that individuals lose their sense of self in crowds, deindividuate, and take on group think in which they temporarily suspend their judgement and take on the norms of the group. Likewise, there is good evidence that individuals in mobs, particularly those who hide their identities under balaclavas or masks, tend to be more violent than they would be on their own. Yet, other researchers argue that mobs tend to bring together like-minded individuals who often share a grievance and that there is a continuum of views existing among the mob, with some instigating for violence, where others may not be interested in violence at all. As I listen to Josh, and particularly after hearing his childhood history, I see a person for whom belonging, a sense of significance and dignity are really important. It seems that once falling in with those who do endorse violence, he is the type to be swept up in a mob mentality.
“We started at the other end where Trump was speaking,” Josh explains. “[It was a] cluster fu%&. I didn’t hear a single word that he [President Trump] said. You couldn’t get that close. So then we walked down to the capitol. 15 of us at the time. We get pretty close to the capitol. Then we see the fu%$ happening. It was getting really weird. The last thing you think is anyone would go into the capitol, [but I] see them rushing up. I waited a few minutes. I walked up and I walked through the front door, an open door, [with the] cops waving us in. I think it’s okay, if they are waving us in. Now [in hindsight,] it seems like a set-up. Why not let everyone in and charge everyone?”
Inside the Capitol, Josh was completely shocked by what he was seeing. “How do you say back the blue, and then attack the blue?” he asks, incredulous about those who were attacking the Capitol police. “There is video of me. I’m trying to pull people back. I hit one person in that building—someone swinging at a cop. I don’t believe in that, stealing shit, and taking pictures of people’s office, fu%^ disgusting, I saw that and it pissed me off.”
“I had two cops ask, ‘Can you help us? You are obviously the voice of reason,’ because I was backing people up and saying, ‘We need to leave.’ I could see there was no purpose and it was disgusting.”
Josh’s cognitive dissonance was overwhelming him, but he didn’t know what to do. “I was mad at Antifa for shooting piss at the cops to being in this building,” he explains still trying to make sense of it. “I grabbed people to back them off. I thought it was wrong. There was a picture of me throwing a sign in aggravation. We had just gotten gassed. You’re mad. You hit a wall instead of hitting someone else. I threw a sign.”
Josh knew he needed to get out, but he didn’t know how to exit the building. “I have to get the fu%$ out of here,” he recalls thinking. “I don’t want any part of this. Walk around looking for a damn exit. I was gone by 3:30. I was in for 30-40 minutes. At the end of it I was trying to get people to leave. Finally I thought I need to get out myself, the fu%$ out.”
Josh was arrested that same night. “I got arrested for [breaking] curfew, trying to walk into the hotel I was staying in.” This was after he had agreed to escort a young woman to her hotel. Josh was surprised at how he was treated by police he respected. He doesn’t remember them reading him his rights. “They pulled me into an interrogation room and showed me pictures of me in the Capitol and said I’ll be charged with felony rioting. I see the goddamn picture. It’s literally me. I’m not going to deny it,” Josh recounts. “I was very cooperative with the cops. I told the story. I didn’t say, ‘fu%$ you’.”
At the time I interviewed him, Josh was not yet charged and was hoping it would all go away.
“I didn’t come from another state to do it, [so I] couldn’t be charged for felony rioting. [Maybe I’m] on the lower end of charges, for entering the capitol building. Might be beatable because I got waved in by cops. I didn’t think I was doing anything wrong. I thought it was fu$# disgusting and I started trying to help. Can you find the video of the cop asking me to help them, backing the people up and thanking me?”
Still without charges, Josh quickly found that he was being tried in the court of public opinion, once again. “On Sunday I got approached at a bar. People tried to attack me. They make me out to be a monster. I went to watch football. A girl comes screaming up to me, ‘I know who you are! You are a piece of shit! You should fu%$ die! You need to leave!’ I wasn’t bothering anyone. I was just watching football and having a beer. I don’t need any more problems. I got attacked, so I paid my bill and left.”
“I’ll get my character assassinated now. I’ve gotten death threats,” Josh says. I notice he’s got a Thor hammer necklace and wonder if that is a symbol from white supremacists. “I got into Norse mythology from my ex-girlfriend,” Josh explains. “She’s from Poland. She has spears and hatchets and swords on the wall. It has nothing to do with that and I didn’t know it was a thing,” Josh explains. “The Thor hammer is racist. I didn’t have a fu%$ clue. It wasn’t when it was originated. The majority of my friends still talk to me and the majority are Black, anyone who looks at my social media wouldn’t see me with a bunch of skin heads.”
Josh is now charged with eight separate charges. “I don’t have money for a lawyer,” he tells me.
He’s scared and rumors are flying. “I’ve been hearing some other crazy stuff. I hope I wouldn’t get charged with this—murder for the cop who died. I don’t think that would hold up with me. I don’t think I was in the building at that time. I’m back the blue. That person who hit the cop with the fire extinguisher should go to prison, not cool.”
Suddenly Josh launches into a far-right trope, “I heard Antifa was there dressed up as Trump supporters. The guy with the horns on his head, is Antifa and he was the first one in the building. He goes to everything. I saw him earlier in the day talking on a bull horn. We walked by him laughing, as he was acting a fool.” I decide not to engage him on this and just ignore it.
When I ask Josh if he still considers himself a Proud Boy, he answers thoughtfully, “I would say yes. It’s a good question. I don’t really know these guys. Am I affiliated? Yes. What they stand for is not what they are being told they stand for,” Josh explains. Many academics would have to agree on that, as has been hard to decipher exactly what the Proud Boys really stand for. Founded in late 2016 by Gavin McInnes, the co-founder of Vice Media, who has been adamant in arguing that the Proud Boys are not an “alt-right” white nationalist group. However, the Southern Poverty Law Center has documented their anti-immigrant rhetoric, misogyny and violent activities and the FBI designated them as an extremist group with white nationalist ties as early as November 2018.
“I haven’t heard one guy say one racist thing when I am hanging out with them,” Josh states. “What they stand for, it’s not definitely not that [white supremacism]. They are on the right, not even far. Definitely Trump supporters. A lot are ex-military and just don’t want our country taken over, don’t believe in a stolen election which is what we think. If there had been no concerns over voter fraud, I could give two fuc%$ who the president is. As a bartender it made no difference in my life,” Josh says, making me laugh. “If legit Biden won I’d have beers at the inauguration. But it seems like there was a bit of fraud. [We were] unhappy with it. No one gives a fu%$ if Trump is President again. I’m not even going to vote again. For what? They just pick who they want anyway. The amount of votes is going to be so much less. It will be a landslide, because 50 million people won’t vote. Me and my sister are not voting again. No point, just a waste of time,” Josh rants as I think this is how we can lose our democracy, when voters no longer believe in it. The “big lie” about the election fraud has had far reaching consequences and it’s going to be people like Josh who pay with prison time, not President Trump, who incited them to violence.
When I ask where Josh gets his information, he admits to watching far right videos. “I probably watch way too much shit from certain people,” Josh states. “Ben Shapiro, Officer Tatum, Conservative Twins. I watch too much,” he admits. From what I can see, Josh seems easily influenced, still has a childlike mind and has a deep need to belong to what he thinks is right. “[I was] too involved than I should have. Seems there was fraud, don’t know if it was enough to steal the election, but fraud yes. I don’t think it was 20 million votes. Georgia, idea of Pennsylvania, he’s winning by 7 million and then only 500 in the morning. Doesn’t make sense to me. That’s me thinking I’m being logical.”
Josh’s radicalization into violent extremism has no religious roots as it does for some. He explains, “My parents took me to Catholic church when I was young. I’m not into it. I believe there is a higher power, but on Sundays I watch football or go to the gym.”
When I go back to how Josh joined the Proud Boys, he lays out his code of loyalty and honor and explains about being jumped by 10 guys who he believes were Antifa when the Proud Boys came to his rescue. “I didn’t even know who these guys were. I was going to handle it on my own. They came out of nowhere and protected me, helped me from not getting jumped. Fu%$ it, I’ll hang out with them. At least I won’t get jumped the rest of the day. I’ll hang out and drink. I know how to fight. They saved my ass earlier. I’m going to have their backs. That was my thought process. I don’t regret.”
I ask him if he went to the Capitol with them and he answers, “I showed up with the Proud Boys, but I got lost from them.” Then he goes back to his confusion of what he’s now embroiled into as a result, ruminating over his innocence in entering with the other rioters. “There’s video of people getting waved in by cops, in the front fu%$ door. I hope they have all the video in the world of me. It will save my ass,” Josh states. “I went in there as a God damn Patriot, not as a rioter, not to fight cops, to take pix on people’s desk, steal podiums. Put 300 people together, 30 will be dumbasses,” he says.
Josh is worried about the charges and worried that he won’t be able to get anything but a court appointed lawyer. “Murder charge on everyone is a fu%$ joke,” he states while complaining about how he’s getting attacked now from all sides. “I’m getting messages, ‘Oh you are going to prison. You are going to get fuc%$ in the ass.’ People can be really nasty just for having another opinion of them. Look, if you find a video of me knocking a cop, you are right. [But] that I was inside, it’s not so goddamn black and white, [there’s a] shit load of grey in my area. Videos of me actually helping. They are not going say that. They want to nail me on the one charge. I was cooperative with arresting cops. Most [rioters] said ‘Fu%$ off.’ They thanked me.”
I interviewed Josh the day before the inauguration. He has orders not to leave D.C. but this is extremely agitating for him, making me wonder if when it comes to these kinds of cases if mental health interventions could be useful alongside legal repercussions. “I don’t want to be here anymore. Right now I’m not allowed to leave D.C. If wasn’t told to stay here, I don’t want anything to do with DC tomorrow. I’m not leaving my house tomorrow, literally. I don’t want any part of it. I don’t want to be accused of being involved in it.” The Proud Boys have also told him not to go out tomorrow. “I live nearby. I could technically walk down there,” Josh explains. “Tomorrow is the apocalypse,” he says, obviously worried about what will happen.
I ask him how he’s coping with the distress and confusion. “Sleeping and I’m drinking more than I should. Taking my mind off of shit, trying to stay busy, doing relatively nothing. I’m emotionally fu%$ right now, not happy, but I learned don’t stress over shit that hasn’t happened, don’t know, and try to be as positive as I can. I don’t know the outcome of this, have to prepare for the worst.”
“Crazy fu%$ shit going on,” Josh says when I ask him about the bad actors who were in the Capitol alongside him. “Grabbing the police gear. The way I saw people acting, you got into the building, okay you proved your point, why trying to get further in the building? Your protest stops right there. Why try to push past the cops? Where are you trying to go? You are going to hurt congressmen and women? Why that’s just a bad idea. There were definitely some people in there with ill intent, which is sickening. All this shit that you sit back and preach about violence, and you come with this thought process? Come on guys, grow the fu%$ up. Don’t be a hypocrite.”
Those were Josh’s thoughts inside the Capitol when he saw things happening that violated his values, but I ask him to turn back to what he was thinking as he joined them. “We are protesting, proving a point,” Josh explains, “Going in and then leave. We had control, and cared about a real election not being cheated.”
Some obviously had prepared for crimes, coming with a gallows, and saying they wanted to execute Congressmen and Josh agrees there were very nefarious actors among those inside the Capitol, but denies being of their mindset, “There were people trying to get to the Congressmen. I’m not going to hurt a Congressman. That was not even in the back of my mind. Fu%$ this is what they are trying to do? Some of this is an act of stupidity. I had no ill intentions. Maybe people thought they’d take the ballots. I had no ill intentions. Probably a lot of them had ill intentions.”
At this point, the social media, cancel culture, real-life threats and the charges hanging over his head are wearing Josh down. “I am scared for my God damn life,” he says. “I want to leave so bad. I’m scared. There is nothing like everyone hating you. People who don’t even know you, people who don’t know you, hate you. That’s the worst.”
Josh is drinking to cope, explaining, “It’s my go to,” although he’d rather be working out. “I’m a body builder, but I’m scared to go to the gym. I don’t want to leave the house. I’m getting noticed everywhere I walk to. I’m scared to go to the grocery store. I can’t catch a fu%$ charge now. If someone talks shit and swings at me, I’ll be the bad guy, because I’m all over the news. If someone hits me in the face and I hit him back, guess who is going to jail? It’s me.”
“I believe I’m not a bad person,” Josh says as he condemns racists. “I think they are fu%$ idiots. That’s not a thing. It shouldn’t be a thing. We are all the same people, all the same blood. It’s just stupid. I don’t believe in that shit at all. People who are racist are honestly just full of fu%$ shit. It makes no sense. What defines people is their personality not their god damn skin color, nothing to do with their race. There is nothing racist about me. I don’t even have a lot of white friends. I just don’t. I grew up in a very ethnic area, not majority white.”
When I ask Josh if he agrees to our making a video from his interview for our Escape Hate counter narrative project he agrees immediately and offers advice to others about avoiding what he fell into. “My advice: You need to think about what you’re doing before you do it. That spur of the moment thing is not a thing. That’s when you make bad decisions. That’s even if you don’t mean to make bad decisions. Your intent to be good, then it can turn into something completely different. No one knows what you are actually thinking, what is seen from the outside is for them the truth.”
“Definitely another piece of advice,” Josh continues. “For kids or anybody, don’t become a part of anything you don’t know the whole background or story on. You might think they are part of something better. They might have a reputation of being something worse. I’m talking about gangs, anything in general. All of that stuff is bad. I’m more of a one-man army kind of person, that the only person who is going to look out for you, is you. You have to look out for yourself first. The idea that anyone is really going to have your back at the end of the day is a joke, not if it compromises them.”
Despite being a body builder and MMA fighter, Josh is naïve and childlike in many ways. As he tells me about his childhood it all makes sense. “Childhood wasn’t great. I had a big family that didn’t talk to me. I was the black sheep of the family. My mother died of heroin overdose. [Her family] blacklisted me because I reminded them of my mother. Dad was not very connected. My Dad has AIDs from heroin needles. I learned that at 8. Younger sister gave up for adoption at age 2. They did her a favor and gave her up. Older sister also given up. They kept me. I only knew her as a cousin. Six years ago I found out she was my sister. I only knew my mom till six. In early years my dad passed me back and forth to him and my aunt on my mom’s side, back and forth for a few years. I moved out of the house when I was 16.”
While Josh didn’t finish high school, he got his GED and found good jobs. “I’m not dumb,” he explains. “I went to college for digital media and animation,” he explains and then worked his way up in sales at various places becoming top in the stores where he worked.
Josh is a drinker, but says he doesn’t overdo it because he’s into body building. “I didn’t get into drugs,” he says. “It scares me. I saw my mother die from it. Someone could offer me a million dollars to do heroin. I’d say no, moral aspect.” Then he admits. “I saw the overdose.”
In many ways Josh is a big kid in a man’s body still figuring life and relationships out. He’s alone and needs support in his life and the Proud Boys came to fill that need at the same time that a massive national crisis was occurring in which our own President refused to concede his election loss and was telling the country and the Proud Boys, in particular, that they needed to be strong and fight for democracy. In fact, the President pushed men like Josh to attack our very institutions and probably ruin their lives in doing so.
While Josh couldn’t hear what President Trump actually said as they gathered outside the White House he did get the message and heeded it. Now he says, “Trump told us to go. I listened to our President.”
I stayed in touch with Josh as we prepare his counter narrative video asking for photos and his opinion and making sure he’s still comfortable with it. He gives me his Instagram page and I studied it with our video editor but there aren’t even any pictures of him in a MAGA hat or at any protests. It’s all about body building, girlfriends and gear that he sells for body building fans. After he was charged, Josh told me both his Instagram and Facebook have been taken down, despite there not being any radical content on his Instagram page from what I could see. The takedown cripples his ability to sell gear and to communicate normally and makes Josh furious that a big tech company can censor him for what appears like no reason. I encouraged him to appeal it.
Meanwhile, I ask Josh if we should refer to him as a former Proud Boy, but he says no, he is with them and points out that Antifa has attacked an ICE building in Portland, but no one is doing much about it. He feels that Black Lives Matter and Antifa can get away with things for which he’s going to be crucified. I watch the effects of cancel culture and de-platforming push him further in with an extremist group and solidify beliefs that aren’t good for him. Again, I wonder isn’t there a better way to prevent and intervene in cases like this?
Reference for this article: Speckhard, Anne (February 2, 2021). A Proud Boy Capitol Rioter’s Story. ICSVE Research Reports.
Anne Speckhard, Ph.D., is Director of the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE) and serves as an Adjunct Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Georgetown University School of Medicine. She has interviewed over 700 terrorists, their family members and supporters in various parts of the world including in Western Europe, the Balkans, Central Asia, the Former Soviet Union and the Middle East. In the past five years years, she has in-depth psychologically interviewed over 250 ISIS defectors, returnees and prisoners as well as 16 al Shabaab cadres (and also interviewed their family members as well as ideologues) studying their trajectories into and out of terrorism, their experiences inside ISIS (and al Shabaab), as well as developing the Breaking the ISIS Brand Counter Narrative Project materials from these interviews which includes over 200 short counter narrative videos of terrorists denouncing their groups as un-Islamic, corrupt and brutal which have been used in over 150 Facebook and Instagram campaigns globally.