I am writing this piece with images of the January 6th insurrection at the Capitol still very fresh in my mind. It is a huge stretch to think of those brutal, sadistic, remorseless thugs and imagine summoning an iota of compassion for them. But others of their ilk–and many psychologists and researchers–say that’s precisely what’s needed.
They call themselves the “formers”: former Klansman, neo-Nazis, or generic white supremacists or other racial extremists who are now devoted to guiding those who’d followed similar paths to come to a better life.
Christian Picciolini is one of them. As a 14-year-old, he’d joined a violent group of white power adherents who became the “Hammerskin Nation.” As he described his feelings to Dave Davies in an NPR interview, the group threw him a “lifeline of acceptance…I felt a sort of energy flow through me that I had never felt before—as if I was a part of something greater than myself.”
From that point, Davies writes, Picciolini fronted for a “white power punk band, White American Youth, writing and performing songs that inspired others to commit racist acts of violence.”
Music, it seems, is a key element in the white supremacy movement. In Picciolini’s case, music was also much more.
Eight years later, in the act of beating up a young Black man, “His eyes locked with his victim, and he felt a surprising sense of empathy.”
That was the beginning of the end of the neo-Nazi part of his life. But the greater impetus came when he opened a record store in Chicago to sell white power music (imported from various parts of the world).
To expand his clientele, he added punk-rock, heavy metal, and hip hop music. Among his customers were Black, Jewish, and gay people.
They knew, he said,
“how hateful I was and how violent I was, but these customers came in despite that. And over time I started to have meaningful interactions with them, for the first time in my life.
“What it came down to was I was receiving compassion from the people that I least deserved it [from], when I least deserved it.
“I started to recognize that I had more in common with them than the people I had surrounded myself for eight years with—that these people, that I thought I hated, took it upon themselves to see something inside of me that I didn’t even see myself, and it was because of that connection that I was able to humanize them and that destroyed the demonization and the prejudice that was happening inside of me. Music brought me in, but in many ways it also brought me out.”
He left the movement.
In 2011, he co-founded a non-profit organization called Life After Hate, which helps members of hate groups choose a different path. In the 2018 NPR interview, he estimated he’d helped more than 100 people leave the extremist movement that had once consumed him.
“[Neo-Nazis] know that I’m a danger to them because I understand what they understand—but I also understand the truth.”
The premise is that though there was a “lifeline of acceptance” to draw Picciolini into that violent world, there was no such thing to help him get out. And there are many more like him. Life After Hate is designed to provide that help.
I watched a discussion about “Life After Hate,” sponsored by the Center for Humane Technology, which I’ve written about before. One of the speakers was Life After Hate’s co-founder and executive director, Sammy Rengel, who was a different sort of hater. He was a gang leader fighting white supremacists who saw himself as a revolutionary filled with rage and violence against law enforcement, government, and all white people.
The other speakers were Dmitri Kalantzis, who heads communications for Life After Hate, and Vidya Ramalingam, who collaborates with the group through the organization she founded, Moonshot CVE, which seeks to use technology to expand the outreach of the efforts to win over extremists.
The program was moderated by David Jay of the Center for Humane Technology.
Interestingly, the speakers were unanimous in their assessments of the needs of these people whom most of us have written off as hopeless—as well as the approaches that work.
And the big surprise to me was that ideology was not in the forefront.
Kalantzis said “the process of radicalization sometimes has nothing to do with ideology—at least initially.” It follows then, that “deradicalization isn’t about the ideology: it’s about helping the person behind the ideology.”
Rengel concurred with what Picciolini had expressed:
“If you’re compassionate to someone hateful, they may respond more than if you’re judgmental.”
Ramalingam, a woman of color who has devoted her adult life to combating white supremacy, actually spent two years getting to know these people so she would be better able to reach them. She noted that when her organization sends individuals Internet messages to test which ones garner the best responses, those that focus on ideology simply don’t resonate.
But one of the most effective, including with QAnon devotees, was “anger and grief can be isolating.”
“Armed groups reflect on the actions and behaviors of their loved ones and on their own needs for self care. Frustration, loneliness can be a driver.”
These people are “self-aware of their own needs and are looking for support.” Thus, those who seek to win them over should offer care when they are most in need.
If all of this sounds like being mushy-headed toward people who seem to us undeserving of such attention, Rengel stressed that you don’t have to feel you’re conceding your own values and beliefs, but in order to continue the conversation, you don’t simply condemn the values and beliefs of the person you’re trying to make a “former” extremist. As someone else said: “You condemn the racism–not the racist.”
Empathy and compassion, Rengel said, are combined with accountability and justice. The goal is restorative justice—focusing on rehabilitation and reconciliation with victims and the larger community—rather than punishment and vengeance. (I admit to having a hard time picturing this approach with some of those January 6th rioters.)
Skilled listening, Rengel stressed, can help the individual move from an emphasis on “my rights” to an appreciation of the rights of others.
Kalantzis confirmed that for many “formers,” accountability provided the pathway to change. “Deradicalization takes a lot of work. It’s not a linear journey.”
Exit services are hugely important, he said. “It takes society to accept an individual back into society.”
As in many things in life, timing is everything. Jay, the moderator, stated that he’d learned from a social media platform manager that when this company removes hateful messages, they contact the sender and explain why they’ve done so. Twenty-five per cent sent apologies and said they didn’t realize how racist their comments sounded.
Jay saw a lost opportunity: if the social media company had directed those expressing regret to a source for guidance, it might have prevented further radicalization.
It’s probably true that many of the January 6th insurrectionists could not be reached by the methods described above. But if it’s possible to make any kind of dent in the numbers of extremists, perhaps Life After Hate and organizations like it are worthy of our support.
Recall that Christian Picciolini was once writing songs encouraging violent racist acts and beating up Black people, and now he’s encouraging others who might be willing to commit such acts to pursue a different path.
Shane Johnson, a second-generation KKK member in Indiana, was described in a lengthy Mother Jones article as a vicious, angry person who beat up a Black man in front of the victim’s wife and children for no reason. The tattoo around Johnson’s neck reads “Jesus Was Not a Jew.”
But in jail for his crime, he felt remorse about what he’d done to that family. He came to see his life differently and escaped from the Klan, only to be beaten to near death by his former friends and family. Eventually, he, too found his way to Life After Hate, where he’s an anti-hate advocate. He calls himself “a civil rights activist.”
The Mother Jones article stated that:
“Confronting white supremacists online and in the streets may feel personally gratifying and politically urgent. Yet…deradicalization activists argue that much of what the left thinks it knows about shutting down racist extremists is misplaced. When it comes to changing individuals, denunciation may counteract rather than hasten deradicalization.
“If that seems like surrender, consider that some researchers who study hate groups think we should view violent extremism not only as a problem of ideology, but also as a problem of addiction: a craving for group identity, adrenaline, and the psychological kick of hatred. As with substance addiction, there may be no silver bullet for curing extremism, only a lifelong battle to leave such impulses behind.
“Researchers have just started to understand possible connections between participation in hate movements and addiction. A recent peer-reviewed study by [sociologist Peter] Simi and three co-researchers found that intense experiences with violence and music can trigger dopamine responses similar to drug use.
“Over time, they found, extremist identities ‘may generate neuro-psychological changes that…mimic addiction.’ Extremists may beat people up or listen to hate music both to reinforce their beliefs and to get a kick. ‘I can listen to white-power music and within a week be back in that mindset,’ a former member of the American Nazi Party told Simi. ‘I guarantee you it’s an addiction.’”
It appears that a multi-pronged effort is needed to heighten the white supremacists’ willingness to enter a different world and to reinforce their ability to remain in the new milieu. This is a topic that has been gaining attention as the problem has grown, and will surely receive more careful examination in the wake of the Capitol insurrection.
Interestingly, President Obama had awarded Life After Hate a $400,000 grant in January, 2017, to both expand its efforts and help the Department of Homeland Security identify and oppose hate groups. In June, 2017, the Trump administration revoked that grant.
Seven weeks later, the infamous Charlottesville, Virginia, “rally” took place. Trump’s refusal to condemn white supremacists while continuing his attacks on immigrants led to greater public awareness of Life After Hate, and contributions rose from $32,000 to almost $800,000. One donation, of $50,000, came from quarterback Colin Kaepernick.
How do these approaches strike you? Encouraging? Enlightened? Wrong-headed? Other? I am wondering if an individual’s expressing and demonstrating remorse might be an important indicator of whether the efforts would succeed. That question did not arise in my research.