SouthernPoverty Law Center
Staffed by former racists, an ‘exit’program aimed at disillusioned white supremacist radicals in the U.S. ispicking up steam
There is a life after hate. And thereare people who know the road there.
The first of what have become knownas “exit” programs developed in the 1990s in Sweden, based in part on the ideasof Tore Bjørgo, a social anthropologist interested in helping racist activistsabandon white supremacy. The Swedish program also found ideas in a pre-existingNorwegian program, Project Exit: Leaving Violent Youth Gangs, not specificallytailored to people on the radical right, according to the London-basedInstitute of Race Relations (IRR).
In 1998, the idea was exported toGermany, which like the Scandinavian nations had experienced a dramatic upsurgein neo-Nazi activity in the wake of the dissolution of the Soviet bloc early inthe decade. In the years since, similar programs have appeared in Italy andAustralia. In 2011, an international network called Against Violent Extremismwith complementary aims was inaugurated by Google Ideas, and in 2013, 26organizations from 14 members of the European Union formed the Europe Networkof Deradicalisation, the IRR reported.
Last year, a major gathering was heldin the United Kingdom to explore the possibility of building an exit program inthat country, the IRR said. And also in 2014, the European Commissionrecommended that all European Union members set up programs of their own, aimedat transforming radicalized individuals.
Now, a Chicago-based group calledLife After Hate is starting an American program. The group’s recently inauguratedExitUSA program (www.exitusa.org) is mainly staffed, like most exit programs aroundthe world, by former racist activists. “At ExitUSA,” the group says, “we arededicated to helping individuals leave the white-power movement and startbuilding a new life, just like we did.”
Some of the older exit programs havecome under occasional criticism for ignoring the social basis for racism, forglorifying former extremists as newly minted “experts,” for failing to root outparticipants’ ingrained racism and anti-Semitism, and for being used by statesecurity apparatuses. But there seems to be little question that in at leastsome cases, they have done important work.
To better understand the significanceof exit programs and in particular the work of ExitUSA, the Intelligence Reporttalked to five people. Three of them — Christian Picciolini, Tony McAleer andAngela King — are former white-power activists and principals of Life AfterHate. Two others — Pete Simi of the University of Nebraska and Kathleen Blee ofthe University of Pittsburgh — are academics who have investigated the radicalright. Both Simi and Blee were funded by the National Institute of Justice foran ongoing study, “Research and Evaluation on Domestic Radicalization toViolent Extremism: Research to Support Exit USA.”
Life After Hate, Co-Founder and Board Chair
Tell us about the beginnings ofLife After Hate.
Life After Hate initially started asa 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 allaround the country and all around the world had similar stories they wanted toshare about the mindset of someone who goes from a relatively normal kid tosomebody who is politicized and brought into this violent extremism subculture.
In the time you’ve spent helpingpeople leave the movement, are there some overarching truths you’ve been ableto discern?
Happy people don’t plant bombs, andhappy people don’t behead people, and happy people don’t paint swastikas onsynagogues. It’s just not the case. Disenfranchised, lonely, self-loathingpeople do that. There is something missing from their life, something that theydidn’t get, whether it was as a child or maybe they were abused or maybe theycame from a broken home or something was missing. Even for me, who came from arelatively normal household, there was something missing.
How does understanding thatreality lead to a successful “intervention” to get someone out of an extremistmovement?
It’s about changing their perspectivejust a little bit. Because often when you change their perspective just alittle bit, it allows them to see the cracks in the foundation of the ideologythat they believe in. I don’t force it. I let them come to the conclusion ontheir own. At least that’s the goal.
I approach every one of these casesdifferently. 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 thelifestyle into a better place, because you talk to just about anybody in themovement and they’re miserable. They’re miserable with their status, they’remiserable with everything, and they can never figure out why. It’s because oftheir ideologies, it’s because it can never get better.
Life After Hate, President, Executive Director
As a former racist, pleasedescribe the process of leaving the movement.
It breaks down into two components ofthe journey. And that is disengagement and deradicalization. What the researchshows is that the number one issue for someone entering an extremist group ischildhood trauma. That information is useless from a preventative standpoint,but from an understanding of why people get into those movements, I think it’scrucial.
From my own personal journey, I grewup in a middle-class family. I was a bright, sensitive kid in a house where itwasn’t safe to be sensitive, where emotions were treated as weakness and shamedand ridiculed. I was beaten at Catholic school and shut down even further. Icame into this world as a very bright, curious kid and became a very angry kidwith what was happening to me.
I never dealt with the stuff thatmade me angry and it made the choice to join the movement make sense. I wentfrom the skinhead scene to the polar opposite, the rave scene. But I neverdealt with the stuff that got me there. I disengaged from the movement, but Iwas still an angry person.
So for you, anger was very much adriving force?
I believe that unresolved angeralways expresses itself as violence. And because of that, I chose a youthsubculture, I chose a music scene, and ultimately I chose a radical ideologythat gave me permission to justify my anger.
What led you to finally leave?
My daughter. The interesting thingabout young children is it’s safe to love them, it’s safe to open up, it’s safeto allow yourself to feel again with them, because they’re not going to shameyou, they’re not going to ridicule you, they’re not going to reject you. Thatstarted a process of thawing and opening up the heart.
Life After Hate, Deputy Director
Do you think having personalexperience in the movement has helped you better understand how to help peopledisengage from hateful ideologies?
I think so. We are uniquelypositioned to draw from our experiences, being “formers” ourselves. We are ableto 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 yourleaving the movement?
There was, actually: Timothy McVeigh.After Oklahoma City, I decided I didn’t want to be responsible for that kind ofdestruction. But at the time, I was still at a point in my life where I verymuch needed to belong somewhere. And as we know from experience, being involvedin far-right extremism isn’t something that leaves someone free to wake up oneday and say, “See you later. I changed my mind. Have a nice life.”
The turning point came for me when Iwas doing time in a federal prison for my part in an armed robbery that was ahate crime.
When I was first incarcerated, I wentin with the mentality that I was not responsible. I just sat in the car [duringthe robbery]. But I very much thought I was going to be in there fighting formy life every minute, with my back against the wall.
The most ironic thing happened inthere. Women of color, women who I never would have met, who I never would haveshown any type of respect or human kindness toward, showed me kindness andcompassion even knowing that I was a skinhead and serving time for a hatecrime.
Up until that point in my life, I dealtwith everything pretty much with anger, aggression and violence. And to beshown 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 startedactually finding the human being in myself again, the fallacies, thestereotypes, those white lies that are told by the far right, it started tokind of just crumble away on its own.
Are those types of transformativeexperiences critical in getting someone to leave the movement? And what arethey?
A transformative experience can beanything. It doesn’t have to be a large-scale event. It could be something assimple as witnessing an act of kindness. Having a family, starting to grow up alittle bit and take responsibility and do some critical thinking about what wesee around us.
Even the smallest thing could beenough to plant a seed in a person’s mind that may not sprout that day. It maynot sprout in a week or even a month, but at some point that experience, thatthought, 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 likeExitUSA are important?
They’re important because leaving aracist group is a process. It’s a process that requires people to rebuild theiridentity, rebuild their social network, and often rebuild their economiclivelihood.
For all those things, people need agreat 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 thesame process, people who can help them build a new set of friends and a new setof supporters outside of that racist world.
So the process is a long one?
People are not in the group one dayand out of the group another day. Leaving a racist group is like leaving anykind 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 longtime.
Also, people have to exit on manylevels. 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 thelifestyle, maybe the criminal actions or the violent actions they wereassociated with. And they exit in terms of changing their ideas.
How do individual departuresaffect the overall white power movement?
We have to go after the groups byattacking them at their base and their leadership. One of the things that exitingdoes is it shows people who are currently in the group that the group hasweaknesses. One of the reasons these groups hold together is because there’s asense of invincibility. It’s an us-against-them mentality. Watching people exitcan be a really powerful message both to potential recruits and to people inthe groups.
University of Nebraska, Associate Professor of Sociology
Do exit programs work?
As a social scientist, that’s a verysensitive question and one that should be taken very seriously. When we talkabout the “effectiveness” of exit programs in common conversation, we use thatword far too loosely.
I mean, we still use Scared Straightprograms in our juvenile justice system. You walk into any [juvenile justice]program anywhere in the country and there’s bound to be some project, someprogram, that is based on the logic of Scared Straight despite decades andmountains of evidence that shows that Scared Straight programs don’t work andactually might even be counterproductive.
Effectiveness is a tricky thing.
But is there something toexperiencing transformative moments?
We have to be careful about assumingthat people, after the fact, when they look back, are identifying thesecritical moments. Interviewing people who have left not through a program butusually though some naturally occurring set of events, I find that it seemslike it’s a very gradual process. They’re experiencing doubts at various pointsalong the way. They have a lot of personal dissatisfaction with the things thatare happening while they are involved.
But it is possible?
Yes. The movement’s not reallyfulfilling their needs the way that they thought. They had these expectationsgoing in, and then their expectations really aren’t being met. It’s a learning curve,really.
At some point you get to where yourealize, “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 tobe 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 inprison. Enough of those things pile up and they’re like, “This doesn’t makemuch sense to continue.”
So what’s your conclusion aboutexit programs?
Everything always has to beconsidered part of a larger toolbox. There’s never any program that’s evergoing 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 havingprograms that try and address these issues is critical, but we have to figureout how to best do that.