How to make amends for a life of far-right radicalism
Shannon Martinez was a neo-Nazi. Now she helps other far-right extremists follow her back to civil society.
On a late summer morning in Athens, Georgia, Shannon Foley Martinez sits barefoot on her back patio, still in her pajamas, and clicks “follow” on the Twitter profile of a White nationalist named Adrian. He has almost no followers, so he notices her within minutes. “Hello,” he types via direct message. “Hello!!!!!” she responds as her 3-year-old son plays nearby.
Martinez is a former neo-Nazi who now works to de-radicalize people who are still in the movement. She was referred to Adrian by a friend of hers who researches right-wing extremism. When Adrian (not his real identity because of the sensitivity of the conversation) first started speaking to the friend, also via Twitter, the friend asked Adrian if he’d like to talk to someone who used to hold similar beliefs. “In response to your offer of a turncoat to talk to, that would be great,” Adrian replied. “As small a chance as it is, there is still a technical possibility I am misguided, and I owe it to myself to see that if I am.”
Adrian and Martinez talk about the findings of an earlier study she’d conducted on the online viewing habits of the far right that he’d also taken part in. Birds are chirping, the sky is blue and the temperature is in the 70s. Then he asks her, “What convinced you that the Jew’s [sic] were right after all?”
Martinez, smoking an American Spirit, is unfazed. She works without an office and smokes without an ash tray. She alternates between her back patio—knees up, feet propped on the base of the deck table—and her front porch, where she reclines, legs crossed, in one of those low-to-the-ground camping-and-soccer-games chairs. She tends bar about 30 hours a week, and her husband works at a restaurant. She is raising her seven children, ages 3 to 22, and a teenage stepson with autism. Her phone is a portal to her jumbled network of “formers,” academics, activists, law enforcement officers, policymakers, and amateur experts who are collectively working to counter the rise of far-right extremism. And it’s a means of connection with “actives” such as Adrian, whom Martinez hopes she can help to heal.
She steers their conversation away from doctrine (she’s given up on the idea of changing people’s minds via argument) and toward emotion. “Most of my change in worldview,” she types, “had literally nothing to do with the ideology. It had to do with why the ideology was seductive and felt empowering to me in the first place.”
“And why did it?” he asks.
“Because I needed an explanation for why the world seemed like a threatening and brutal place for me. Because I wanted to believe in something that felt like it mattered and was part of something bigger.”
“Do you now believe in a different explanation or none?” he asks.
“Well… I guess I have more understanding about why those needs rose to such an acute level in my life. And also an understanding that what I chose didn’t functionally meet my needs over the long term.”
She sees conversations like these as her responsibility, as amends-making for the four-and-a-half years she spent perpetrating violence on everyone—Jewish, gay, or Black people—her ideology told her to hate. “My entire life,” she is fond of saying, “is predicated on apology.” This doesn’t mean she’s mired in guilt. Instead, it means naming and working to repair the harm that she caused. “Anywhere my voice is invited to be, I will go,” she says, from Holocaust museums to universities to the U.S. Institute of Peace. “There have to be White role models for what it means to unearth and begin to deal with our relationship with White supremacy.”
Often, Martinez isn’t entirely sure of the real identity of the people she talks to. That doesn’t normally concern her. “I just need to know that I am not interacting with a bot. Which is pretty easy to tell. As long as they aren’t making direct threats I meet people where they are at,” she says.
Adrian wants to know if she empathized with a famous scene from American History X in which a Black educator asks a White skinhead, “Has anything you’ve done made your life better?”
“This is where it gets complicated,” she tells me. “Because honestly, at the time, my beliefs did help me.” Without them, “I probably would have killed myself.”
One night in 1974, Martinez says, her father was up late doing homework for college when her mother interrupted him to say she was going into labor. “And he was kinda like: ‘Now?’” Once they got to the hospital in Lowell, Massachusetts, little Shannon came out so quickly that her mother nearly gave birth to her in the bathroom. Her upwardly mobile middle-class family valued conformity and perfectionism, and she was inconvenient: “the little girl almost born on the toilet” who “seemed to come wired asking ‘why?’”
In first grade, for example, no one could give her a satisfactory answer as to why she needed to do her homework. “It didn’t make sense to me, so I just opted out.” She could never seem to get a handle on what exactly her parents wanted from her, so “from pretty early on, I treated the rules and expectations as irrelevant.” As she got older, and started coming home late, her parents decided she would be spanked with a ruler, once for each minute she was late. “My takeaway from that was not ‘be on time.’ It was ‘I can do whatever I want if I’m willing to endure the pain.’”
The kids in her neighborhood tended to self-segregate, but she had Black friends at school. She said she wasn’t explicitly taught to hate, though her parents did reflect the sort of socially acceptable racism of the era, cracking racist jokes, for example, or hurling racial epithets in traffic.
When Martinez was 11, her family moved from Delran, New Jersey, to the much Whiter town of Temperance, Michigan. She wound up in a largely childless neighborhood and started hanging out alone. She had trouble starting over and fitting in. She started dabbling in hippie and leftist culture, from early Vietnam War literature and The Autobiography of Malcolm X to The Beatles and the Beats. She also took solace in sports, where she had always thrived. But when she started attending a Catholic high school across the Ohio state line, she was no longer allowed to play. Though she was elected class president, she still didn’t feel like she fit in.
When Martinez was 14, two White men in their 20s forced her into sex at a party. She woke up the next morning with blood in her underwear and thought, “OK, I guess that really happened.” Her next thought was “I can’t tell my parents.” It was the late 1980s, and she didn’t have today’s language and understanding of sexual assault and consent. She figured this was just the unfortunate way she had lost her virginity, and it would be about a decade before she realized it was rape.
She tried to move on, but the trauma metastasized into a burning rage. Her music and books started getting darker. She drifted from the skateboarders to the punks, then realized the angriest people at the punk shows, the ones always getting into fights, were the skinheads. She started listening to their White power music. Things continued to fall apart with her family. “There is no access to goodness in me,” she decided. “It won’t be seen in me.” So she turned to the skinheads, figuring she was joining people who couldn’t judge her and would have to take her in. After all, “who’s worse than the Nazis?”
From the time she was 15 until she was 20, Martinez bounced around the country, living with her parents and various skinhead boyfriends. She said she dated five neo-Nazis, and four of them were physically abusive. Meanwhile, her own extremism mirrored her relationships: after the honeymoon phase, the isolation set in, and the violence started, and once it started, it escalated, and kept escalating. She became addicted to the sense of power her violence-based hate afforded her, and, in true addict form, she kept needing to take bigger and bigger risks to get the same payoff.
She posted racist flyers, including ones featuring images of lynchings, in neighborhoods and under windshield wipers and on the doors of houses of worship. She shouted racial epithets at strangers and neighbors. She started fights at shows over the tiniest of slights and jumped people of color for no apparent reason. She attended Klan rallies. She fell in with gun runners. She started engaging in paramilitary training, learning tactical maneuvers on paintball ranges and heading to the woods for target practice. She was convinced a long-promised race war was imminent. The work of dehumanization was demanding and constant.
One night, Martinez and her friends were driving in Houston and noticed the door to a gay nightclub was propped open. They hurled a can of tear gas through the door, closed it and blocked it from the outside with a cinderblock. Their plan was to head around back and beat people as they clamored through the exit. The only thing that stopped them was the approach of police sirens, and they fled the area.
It was around this time that Martinez, who was no longer welcome in her parents’ home, was in Texas and moved in with her then-boyfriend’s mother, a teacher named Carol Selby. Each time Martinez tells this part of her story, she insists she was an angry and imposing mess of a human when she showed up at Selby’s door.
But Selby remembers things differently. “I thought she was cute,” Selby says of Martinez. “She had this real short hair and big eyes and a beautiful smile.” Selby saw, or chose to see, not a vile skinhead, but more of a “precious little elf.” And this perspective gave her young charge room to breathe. Martinez did dishes and helped take care of Selby’s younger sons and realized she didn’t want them to be exposed to her “scumbag friends.” For the first time in a long time, she began reflecting on the impact of her actions on other people. Within months, the White supremacist ideology, which Martinez had already begun to question, fell away.
But even as she was leaving, the movement was transforming. Quite intentionally, the neo-Nazis were becoming less obviously threatening to become more dangerous. As Christian Picciolini, another former who was in the movement at the same time as Martinez, once told NPR, “our edginess, our look, even our language was turning away the average American White racist, people we wanted to recruit. So we decided then to grow our hair out, to stop getting tattoos that would identify us, to trade in our boots for suits and to go to college campuses and recruit there and enroll to get jobs in law enforcement, to go to the military and get training and to even run for office.”
Michael Jensen has spent the last five years studying individuals who have radicalized in the United States and committed illegal acts motivated by their extremist belief systems. A senior researcher at the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism at the University of Maryland, his dataset stretches back to 1948 and has information on more than 2,000 radicalized individuals. While it is not limited to any single ideology, one group stands out.
“Far-right perpetrators have committed more attacks in the United States than any other ideological group,” Jensen says.
When it comes to the most recent trends, he says, “what we’re seeing really is a movement towards more of an emphasis on this kind of mass casualty terrorism that’s being motivated by far-right extremist ideologies.”
Jensen’s assessment is echoed by several other institutions. A recent report by New Jersey’s Office of Homeland Security Preparedness showed that more than half the suspects involved in 32 domestic terrorism incidents in 2018 were White supremacists. And a separate report by the Anti-Defamation League concluded that right-wing extremists were responsible for all but one of the 50 domestic extremist-related killings in 2018.
The Anti-Defamation League report also noted that last year was the fourth deadliest in terms of domestic extremist-related deaths since 1970. In first place is 1995, large part because of the Oklahoma City bombing, which Jensen identifies as a “big watershed event.” That attack caused an outpouring of research and law enforcement activity to be “focused on the extremist far right in the United States.” Accordingly, “we saw a number of law enforcement operations to disrupt the far right,” he says.
“All of that changed on Sept. 11.”
After the 9/11 attacks, the federal government focused its massive resources almost exclusively on preventing Islamist terror attacks. “All while that’s happening, the extremist far right is still very active in the United States,” Jensen says, adding “they’re not getting the attention that jihadists get.” Until recently, Jensen adds, the media was following suit, making it harder for him and his team to even identify far-right crimes in the first place.
In 2009, a security analyst at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security named Daryl Johnson wrote a report that stated right-wing extremism was “likely to grow in strength,” potentially driven by such factors as gun restrictions, economic uncertainty, immigration, a perceived rising influence of other countries that undermines American sovereignty, and the election of the first Black president. Republican lawmakers condemned the report and forced the department to retract it, ushering in an era of virtual silence on far-right violence, and of treating instances of far-right terrorism as hate crimes, which are classified as a lower priority and afforded fewer resources.
Even when the Obama administration reframed its counterterrorism work as “Countering Violent Extremism,” few resources went to combatting right-wing extremism. In 2017, the administration issued a $400,000 grant to Life After Hate, a formers-led organization co-founded by Picciolini with which Martinez was volunteering at the time. (Neither is still involved with the group.) But the Trump administration changed the name of the administering office to the Office of Terrorism Prevention Partnerships, revoked the grant, and slashed the budget and staff.
In October 2018, as domestic terrorism incidents continued to mount, they only received a cursory mention in the administration’s National Strategy for Counterterrorism. It wasn’t until the end of the summer of 2019 and the mass shooting in El Paso, Texas, that Kevin McAleenan, then the acting secretary of Homeland Security, issued a Strategic Framework for Countering Terrorism and Targeted Violence that explicitly named White supremacist violence as a crucial threat to the nation. (McAleenan resigned Oct. 11, 2019.)
One of the formers with whom Martinez works is Caleb Cain, who was radicalized online from his home in West Virginia and recently left the far right. He explains his trajectory by drawing a five-tiered pyramid which he said he had climbed: from libertarian to conservative (watching Fox News, listening to Ben Shapiro) to civic nationalist (watching Alex Jones, reading Breitbart, following Lauren Southern and the Proud Boys). Cain said he was just about to advance to the next level, White nationalist fascist, which he defines as those who explicitly embrace fascism or neo-Nazism, or advocate for a White ethno-state, when he finally started to climb back down the pyramid. The only step left would have been accelerationist — those actively seeking to commit violence.
In Cain’s eyes, “civic nationalist” is also the level President Trump occupies. Indeed, just a few days after McAleenan’s report, Trump went before the United Nations and delivered an explicitly nationalist speech. In doing so, he was continuing the pattern he set when he launched his campaign by referring to immigrants from Mexico as drug dealers and rapists, called for a Muslim ban, responded to Heather Heyer’s 2017 murder at the Charlottesville “Unite the Right” rally by arguing there “were very fine people on both sides,” and uttered countless other far-right viewpoints.
Meanwhile, CVE work remains underfunded and poorly understood. Organizations such as Life After Hate and Free Radicals (Picciolini and Martinez’s new group) are unregulated. There are no industry standards and few empirical studies to guide deradicalization work. Their lack of measurable outcomes, in turn, makes securing funding even harder.
Nonetheless, Picciolini says he’s helped hundreds of formers get out of violent extremism. Martinez says she’s worked with about 75, and that about a third of those have been intensive, ongoing relationships. She lands the occasional paid contract, as in the case of the research study, and sometimes—but not always—receives speaking fees. But most of her work is entirely unpaid.
“After five years of that way of life,” Martinez types to Adrian, “I began to see how it really kept me looking at the world through victimhood, and that blaming/targeting Jews, blacks, and other races/ethnicities didn’t make me actually feel any safer or more empowered. It just kept my world really small and kept me focused on hurt and pain.”
“So, your current position,” Adrian responds, “is a sort of centrist self-improvement drive?”
A pattern was starting to emerge. Martinez would seek to explore the emotional needs that had drawn her—and him—to violence-based extremism. Adrian would try to pin down her new ideology: what simple answer of hers had replaced the simple answer to which he was still clinging?
But she had no simple answer. Her unidimensional worldview was instead replaced with complexity. She tells him she doesn’t have a label for herself, nor does she know all the answers. “What are your biggest issues?” she asks him, trying to pivot their conversation. But it doesn’t really matter if he answers, especially not during this first round. He is engaging with her, and that is enough for now.
One of the few things most experts agree on about extremists is that ideology is often secondary to the process of radicalization. In every case she’s ever encountered, Martinez said, she’s been able to identify some type of unhealed trauma. Sometimes it’s extreme, as in the case of a young woman interviewed for this story who was repeatedly raped as a child by her grandfather—and then, once in the movement, raped again by a White nationalist boyfriend. Daisy (a pseudonym to protect her privacy) got out of the movement, then found out her father and grandmother had known about her grandfather’s abuse, and it was at that moment, Daisy said, that she almost killed her family members and shot up a church. She calls Martinez “Mom” and reaches out to her regularly for advice, encouragement, and in one case, financial support.
Sometimes the trauma is less extreme, but there are always fundamental and unmet needs, Martinez says: the need to love and be loved, to speak and be heard, and to be a part of something greater than yourself. Deradicalization involves identifying the trauma, and finding new resources, behaviors and networks outside extremist groups to meet those needs.
It’s grueling work, and Martinez isn’t exempt from what she refers to as “fash fatigue”: the exhaustion that comes from fighting fascism. When she feels really overwhelmed and wants to quit, she drives over to Moore’s Ford Bridge, less than a half-hour from her house. It’s a nondescript span over the Apalachee River. There, in 1946, a White mob shot and killed two Black couples, among them a woman who was seven months pregnant. It’s widely considered to be the last documented mass lynching in America, and no one has ever been found guilty or held accountable.
“For me, it’s grounding,” Martinez says. The bridge is a reminder, when she gets too steeped in books and studies and Twitter conversations, that this isn’t just about ideas. “The reason that this [work] matters is that there are actual human beings who are harmed and communities that are devastated.”
Too often, she says, White supremacy is seen as an extremist ideology belonging only to a small group of terrorists. “And so, we have something outside of us, as White people: that ‘bad White supremacy out there,’ which then recuses us from having to do the internal work of identifying our own ways that we participate in and gain advantage from White supremacy.”
There’s a temptation, she says, to blame it all on YouTube algorithms, or sinister terrorist recruiters, or other outside forces. But in fact, we are all implicated. “We have to look at our children as potential White supremacist terrorists. And maybe that requires us to do something.”
In 2018, Martinez took a few of her children to visit the new National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama, which commemorates the lives of those who were killed at Moore’s Ford Bridge and thousands of others who were murdered in racial terror lynchings since the end of the Civil War. She watched as her son’s “12-year-old consciousness came to terms with the reality.”
Afterwards, she said, they headed to the memorial’s sister site, the Legacy Museum. There, a security guard, noticing her devastated son, suggested she take the boy to get some ice cream and cheer him up. She couldn’t, she told the guard. “Ice creaming it away is not going to help him as he grows up as a White man in America. It’s not going to help any of us.”
This article was first published in YES! Magazine, with additional photos.
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