Staffed by former racists, an ‘exit’ program aimed at disillusioned white supremacist radicals in the U.S. is picking up steam
Staffed by former racists, an ‘exit’ program aimed at disillusioned white supremacist radicals in the U.S. is picking up steam
There is a life after hate. And there are people who know the road there.
The first of what have become known as “exit” programs developed in the 1990s in Sweden, based in part on the ideas of Tore Bjørgo, a social anthropologist interested in helping racist activists abandon white supremacy. The Swedish program also found ideas in a pre-existing Norwegian program, Project Exit: Leaving Violent Youth Gangs, not specifically tailored to people on the radical right, according to the London-based Institute of Race Relations (IRR).
In 1998, the idea was exported to Germany, which like the Scandinavian nations had experienced a dramatic upsurge in neo-Nazi activity in the wake of the dissolution of the Soviet bloc early in the decade. In the years since, similar programs have appeared in Italy and Australia. In 2011, an international network called Against Violent Extremism with complementary aims was inaugurated by Google Ideas, and in 2013, 26 organizations from 14 members of the European Union formed the Europe Network of Deradicalisation, the IRR reported.
Last year, a major gathering was held in the United Kingdom to explore the possibility of building an exit program in that country, the IRR said. And also in 2014, the European Commission recommended that all European Union members set up programs of their own, aimed at transforming radicalized individuals.
Now, a Chicago-based group called Life After Hate is starting an American program. The group’s recently inaugurated ExitUSA program (www.exitusa.org) is mainly staffed, like most exit programs around the world, by former racist activists. “At ExitUSA,” the group says, “we are dedicated to helping individuals leave the white-power movement and start building a new life, just like we did.”
Some of the older exit programs have come under occasional criticism for ignoring the social basis for racism, for glorifying former extremists as newly minted “experts,” for failing to root out participants’ ingrained racism and anti-Semitism, and for being used by state security apparatuses. But there seems to be little question that in at least some cases, they have done important work.
To better understand the significance of exit programs and in particular the work of ExitUSA, the Intelligence Report talked to five people. Three of them — Christian Picciolini, Tony McAleer and Angela King — are former white-power activists and principals of Life After Hate. Two others — Pete Simi of the University of Nebraska and Kathleen Blee of the University of Pittsburgh — are academics who have investigated the radical right. Both Simi and Blee were funded by the National Institute of Justice for an ongoing study, “Research and Evaluation on Domestic Radicalization to Violent Extremism: Research to Support Exit USA.”
Life After Hate, Co-Founder and Board Chair
Tell us about the beginnings of Life After Hate.
Life After Hate initially started as a literary magazine for us to basically publish short stories about our lives. It was a blog, essentially. We quickly started to realize that people from all around the country and all around the world had similar stories they wanted to share about the mindset of someone who goes from a relatively normal kid to somebody who is politicized and brought into this violent extremism subculture.
In the time you’ve spent helping people leave the movement, are there some overarching truths you’ve been able to discern?
Happy people don’t plant bombs, and happy people don’t behead people, and happy people don’t paint swastikas on synagogues. It’s just not the case. Disenfranchised, lonely, self-loathing people do that. There is something missing from their life, something that they didn’t get, whether it was as a child or maybe they were abused or maybe they came from a broken home or something was missing. Even for me, who came from a relatively normal household, there was something missing.
How does understanding that reality lead to a successful “intervention” to get someone out of an extremist movement?
It’s about changing their perspective just a little bit. Because often when you change their perspective just a little bit, it allows them to see the cracks in the foundation of the ideology that they believe in. I don’t force it. I let them come to the conclusion on their own. At least that’s the goal.
I approach every one of these cases differently. I do my homework. I try to build a rapport and I try to listen, mostly, and I offer opportunities and solutions that will take them out of the lifestyle into a better place, because you talk to just about anybody in the movement and they’re miserable. They’re miserable with their status, they’re miserable with everything, and they can never figure out why. It’s because of their ideologies, it’s because it can never get better.
Life After Hate, President, Executive Director
As a former racist, please describe the process of leaving the movement.
It breaks down into two components of the journey. And that is disengagement and deradicalization. What the research shows is that the number one issue for someone entering an extremist group is childhood trauma. That information is useless from a preventative standpoint, but from an understanding of why people get into those movements, I think it’s crucial.
From my own personal journey, I grew up in a middle-class family. I was a bright, sensitive kid in a house where it wasn’t safe to be sensitive, where emotions were treated as weakness and shamed and ridiculed. I was beaten at Catholic school and shut down even further. I came into this world as a very bright, curious kid and became a very angry kid with what was happening to me.
I never dealt with the stuff that made me angry and it made the choice to join the movement make sense. I went from the skinhead scene to the polar opposite, the rave scene. But I never dealt with the stuff that got me there. I disengaged from the movement, but I was still an angry person.
So for you, anger was very much a driving force?
I believe that unresolved anger always expresses itself as violence. And because of that, I chose a youth subculture, I chose a music scene, and ultimately I chose a radical ideology that gave me permission to justify my anger.
What led you to finally leave?
My daughter. The interesting thing about young children is it’s safe to love them, it’s safe to open up, it’s safe to allow yourself to feel again with them, because they’re not going to shame you, they’re not going to ridicule you, they’re not going to reject you. That started a process of thawing and opening up the heart.
Life After Hate, Deputy Director
Do you think having personal experience in the movement has helped you better understand how to help people disengage from hateful ideologies?
I think so. We are uniquely positioned to draw from our experiences, being “formers” ourselves. We are able to look back in retrospect at the catalyst that drove us into the far right, whether that be specific experiences or a shared misunderstanding.
Was there also a catalyst for your leaving the movement?
There was, actually: Timothy McVeigh. After Oklahoma City, I decided I didn’t want to be responsible for that kind of destruction. But at the time, I was still at a point in my life where I very much needed to belong somewhere. And as we know from experience, being involved in far-right extremism isn’t something that leaves someone free to wake up one day and say, “See you later. I changed my mind. Have a nice life.”
The turning point came for me when I was doing time in a federal prison for my part in an armed robbery that was a hate crime.
When I was first incarcerated, I went in with the mentality that I was not responsible. I just sat in the car [during the robbery]. But I very much thought I was going to be in there fighting for my life every minute, with my back against the wall.
The most ironic thing happened in there. Women of color, women who I never would have met, who I never would have shown any type of respect or human kindness toward, showed me kindness and compassion even knowing that I was a skinhead and serving time for a hate crime.
Up until that point in my life, I dealt with everything pretty much with anger, aggression and violence. And to be shown kindness, it completely disarmed me. I had no idea how to react to that. Once I started to kind of re-form the bonds of human connection and started actually finding the human being in myself again, the fallacies, the stereotypes, those white lies that are told by the far right, it started to kind of just crumble away on its own.
Are those types of transformative experiences critical in getting someone to leave the movement? And what are they?
A transformative experience can be anything. It doesn’t have to be a large-scale event. It could be something as simple as witnessing an act of kindness. Having a family, starting to grow up a little bit and take responsibility and do some critical thinking about what we see around us.
Even the smallest thing could be enough to plant a seed in a person’s mind that may not sprout that day. It may not sprout in a week or even a month, but at some point that experience, that thought, is going to come up and that person is willing to think about it.
University of Pittsburgh, Distinguished Professor of Sociology
Why do you think programs like ExitUSA are important?
They’re important because leaving a racist group is a process. It’s a process that requires people to rebuild their identity, rebuild their social network, often rebuild their economic livelihood.
For all those things, people need a great deal of support. If people are going to successfully leave racist groups, they need people they can turn to for advice, people who have been through the same process, people who can help them build a new set of friends and a new set of supporters outside of that racist world.
So the process is a long one?
People are not in the group one day and out of the group another day. Leaving a racist group is like leaving any kind of a world that people are in. It can be a real back-and-forth process. People can start to leave, go back, pull out again, go back and forth for a long time.
Also, people have to exit on many levels. They have to exit in the sense of breaking their ties with people, changing who they’re hanging around with. They exit in terms of leaving the lifestyle, maybe the criminal actions or the violent actions they were associated with. And they exit in terms of changing their ideas.
How do individual departures affect the overall white power movement?
We have to go after the groups by attacking them at their base and their leadership. One of the things that exiting does is it shows people who are currently in the group that the group has weaknesses. One of the reasons these groups hold together is because there’s a sense of invincibility. It’s an us-against-them mentality. Watching people exit can be a really powerful message both to potential recruits and to people in the groups.
University of Nebraska, Associate Professor of Sociology
Do exit programs work?
As a social scientist, that’s a very sensitive question and one that should be taken very seriously. When we talk about the “effectiveness” of exit programs in common conversation, we use that word far too loosely.
I mean, we still use Scared Straight programs in our juvenile justice system. You walk into any [juvenile justice] program anywhere in the country and there’s bound to be some project, some program, that is based on the logic of Scared Straight despite decades and mountains of evidence that shows that Scared Straight programs don’t work and actually might even be counterproductive.
Effectiveness is a tricky thing.
But is there something to experiencing transformative moments?
We have to be careful about assuming that people, after the fact, when they look back, are identifying these critical moments. Interviewing people who have left not through a program but usually though some naturally occurring set of events, I find that it seems like it’s a very gradual process. They’re experiencing doubts at various points along the way. They have a lot of personal dissatisfaction with the things that are happening while they are involved.
But it is possible?
Yes. The movement’s not really fulfilling their needs the way that they thought. They had these expectations going in, and then their expectations really aren’t being met. It’s a learning curve, really.
At some point you get to where you realize, “Oh, wait a second, now I’m kind of banging my head against the wall. I was hoping that I was going to have this brotherhood, and there was going to be excitement and all these things. I was going to be fighting for this cause.” Then, at some point in time, they realize they’re going to wind up dead or in prison. Enough of those things pile up and they’re like, “This doesn’t make much sense to continue.”
So what’s your conclusion about exit programs?
Everything always has to be considered part of a larger toolbox. There’s never any program that’s ever going to be your catchall. But I think it is an important tool in the toolbox. We just don’t know which way to exactly formulate the tool. I think having programs that try and address these issues is critical, but we have to figure out how to best do that.