To deradicalize extremists, former neo-Nazis use a radical method: empathy

Former neo-Nazi Shannon Martinez plays with two of her children at home.
Former neo-Nazi Shannon Martinez plays with two of her children at home.
Image: AP Photo/Jay Reeves
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After last month’s shootings at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and a grocery store in Louisville, Kentucky, reports revealed that in both cases, the shooters espoused radical, white-supremacist ideologies. According to the Anti-Defamation League, violence by white supremacists is on the rise in the US.

The trend raises the questions of how such extremism arises, and what, if anything, can be done to lead them away from it? To think through possible answers to these problems, Quartz spoke with Shannon Martinez, program manager of  Free Radical Project, an Illinois-based non-profit that helps people disengage from extremism. Martinez co-founded the non-profit with Christian Picciolini—both were former white supremacists. Now, Martinez says, they are “working together to build a more equitable and just future.”

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Quartz: How did you get involved with white supremacist groups?

Shannon Martinez: I was about 15 when I entered the movement. I grew up always feeling like the black sheep in my family, and I’d come to feel like any sort of mainstream identity wasn’t going to fit me. My first foray into counterculture was when I was 12 or so; I immersed myself into the hippie, 1960s anti-war rhetoric. One of my favorite books at the time was The Autobiography of Malcolm X. That morphed into hanging around skateboarders and punk culture.

Then, a couple weeks shy of turning 15, I was raped by two men at a party. I knew I couldn’t go home and tell my parents; I would be in more trouble for lying about where I [had been] and [for] drinking than they would be upset about my sexual assault. So I just shoved all that trauma down.

Within six months, I was so consumed with rage, and self-loathing and self-hatred. I needed somewhere I could be angry, and the angriest people in my subculture were the skinheads. They started fights at every show, and I loved that. I wanted to fight. I hated everything; I hated everyone. Part of me was like, They gotta take me in! Who’s worse than the Nazis? All I had to do was espouse this ideology, which was almost a relief to me, because I had this ineffable hate. To be able to just say, I hate all these types of people—it was almost kind of a relief to have that hate have a focus, instead of just being all-consuming. And eventually, I got further and deeper in, and only associated with other skinheads.

How did you get out?

When I was 20, I had been living with other neo-Nazis; it was a physical echo chamber. But then I moved in with the mom of a guy I was going out with. She took me in, and her willingness to extend compassion and empathy towards me when I did not feel deserving of it began to create this space around me, and it was what I needed to shift.

When you’re immersed [in an extremist group], you never think of the future; there’s only today. But she tangibly connected me with resources to move my life ahead. She asked me, Do you wanna go to college? And then she helped me figure out how to take my SATs, and how to apply and get in. That was at the height of my violent activities in the movement. The timing was very fortuitous for me; I would’ve ended up dead or in jail soon after that, I’m sure.

What drives people towards extremism, and how can we identify people who are at-risk?

I believe the large majority of people radicalized into violence are triggered by trauma. That can be personal trauma, like rape, assault, having a parent who’s incarcerated, or watching a parent or stepparent suffer abuse. It could be collective trauma, like systemic racism, war, or terrorism.

Research suggests that there are certain traits people prone to extremism might have, like people who need cognitive closure. They want to argue until they’re right. Or people who crave personal significance, or who want validation for the things they see that are wrong. Often, people who are more likely to be radicalized are people who are seeking their identity in opposition to the mainstream, or want resolution to negative socioeconomic circumstances.

Those early, emerging behaviors or beliefs are actually good things. They’re people who question the status quo, don’t accept the established order of authority. You see this a lot in precocious young people, and we need to find better ways to address those behaviors and monitor them over time. How can we use that precociousness in a pro-social way?

Obviously, there’s some trip wire that makes some people become more extreme. But I really believe a lot of that is an accident of location, geography, or whatever happens along the way that offers the opportunity for a vulnerable individual to have their broken and twisted needs met. One thing I’m obsessed with is working on prevention, [through] partnering with schools, school districts, and Holocaust museums.

How do people find Free Radicals, and what do you all do when people enlist your help?

Usually, they’ll see an interview or an article online and reach out. It’s often people who are concerned about someone in their life, or even people who have already disengaged but want to make a connection. There’s a community of former violence-based group members, and so many of us were totally alone once we disengaged. We want people to know that you don’t have to figure everything out on your own; we can help you while you go through this process.

For people who are newly disengaged or trying to get out, the first step is trust building and getting to know the person. That’s always the most labor- and time-intensive part. You let them know your story and vulnerabilities. What we’re doing is listening for the story behind the story: what got people to where they are. For every person doing horrible things, there’s a story that got them there. We’re listening for what Christian calls “potholes,” so we know where to begin our efforts and address their grievances in a more pro-social and proactive way.

For instance, is your frustration that there are no jobs in your area? Well, you dropped out of high school, so how do we get you back in school or get your GED? Or, let’s take a step back—if you have trouble reading, we’ll figure out how to get you to someone who can help you with that.

Not everyone has the expertise or background to take on the kind of work you do, but is there anything an average person can do to confront radicalism?

This might sound sort of fluffy, but: really develop compassion and empathy, particularly for viewpoints you might find abhorrent. Try to cultivate a practice of listening to the story behind people’s stories, and invite opening questions: Why do you feel that way? What are the fears behind that [belief]?

Be willing to share your own vulnerability. Shame is such a powerful driver keeping us from feeling like we are worthy of love and connection, but we can disarm shame by being open: sharing the worst things we’ve done, and the worst things that have been done to us.

One of the things we must do as a society is to lean into being uncomfortable. We can’t placate away discomfort so we don’t upset anyone, or so that no one’s mad at us. Some grievances extremists have espoused are legitimate, but we don’t know how to talk about them. It is true that white people will be a minority—but what does that mean? What is the fear behind that, and do you understand that much of that fear is based on hundreds of years of white supremacy? We’re just not good at having those discussions.