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How one 'former' helps people leave violent extremist groups

Person gies presentation in front of projector
Shannon Foley Martinez give a presentation on radicalization. Foley Martinez, a former neo-Nazi skinhead, now works to help people escape extremist groups. (Photo courtesy of Foley Martinez)

Five years after the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, far-right ideologies continue to embed in mainstream American politics. While experts say white supremacist groups are nothing new, these organizations continue to recruit members, and communities nationwide are suffering more attacks. 

Days are busier for "formers” — individuals formerly part of these extremist groups — who now mentor those currently enmeshed in the movement on ways to disengage from violent extremism. 

Shannon Foley Martinez still has vivid memories of her time as a neo-Nazi skinhead — a counterculture, white-supremacist movement — from three decades ago. 

Foley Martinez recalls a time when she was 19, living at the family home of her then-boyfriend, who was also involved in white supremacy, in Texas. She’d been kicked out of her parent’s place in Georgia. 

“[My then-boyfriend's mother] had no reason to take me in but chose to anyway. And I [didn’t] have to prove myself through a willingness to use violence or espousing an ideology," Foley Martinez told VPM News. “I [had] this genuine belonging, as opposed to this sort of false belonging that I was actually experiencing while I was in the movement." 

Playing catch with her then-boyfriend’s two younger brothers on a hot spring day, Foley Martinez fell to the ground. Laying on blades of grass, she laughed deeply. The two young boys chuckled along with her across the lawn. 

“I began to have things that I didn’t know I was missing for the five years I was involved — like wonder and awe, genuine joy,” she said.  

Foley Martinez said laying in the grass that day was a turning point. She was only a few years older than those boys when she started hanging out with neo-Nazis. After about five years with these groups, Foley Martinez realized she didn’t want to expose those children to what she and their older brother had been involved with.  

“I would have died for my vile beliefs; I would have died for them. And I would have thought that was a good death, this death as a martyr for the cause or whatever,” Foley Martinez explained. “So, it's like, OK, if I really believe this, why don't I want them around it? Why don't I want them to be part of it?” 

Foley Martinez isn’t the stereotype many think of when summoning images of those involved in extremist groups, and she said from the outside looking in, most people wouldn’t have realized she was being radicalized. 

Growing up, Foley Martinez was a star athlete and took advanced classes at school. After moving to rural Michigan from Philadelphia, she was voted president of her sophomore class. As a kid, she said she was drawn to various countercultures and often questioned authority. But after a series of traumatic events — losing her support system by moving as a teenager and being raped by two men when she was 14 years old — Foley Martinez felt even more lost. 

Home life wasn’t perfect for her, either. She said she didn’t feel comfortable going to her parents after she was raped.  

But on the periphery of the punk shows she regularly attended were white-power skinheads, channeling their rage into violence.  

Her anger at the world was attractive to them. 

“I [didn’t] really feel like I belong[ed] anywhere. But this [was] at least a place where everyone who feels like they don't belong anywhere else chooses to belong together,” she explained. “My propensity at the time for just wanting to fight and destroy stuff was seen as an asset. Literally, all I had to do was show up in the body I was born in that had been broken by other people.” 

But living with a schoolteacher and children in that Texas respite, Foley Martinez said, was the first time her extreme right-wing perspective was broken. 

Within a year, she and her boyfriend broke up. She moved away and started the healing process. By the time she was 24, she was pregnant and had finished a few years of college. That’s when she started helping others extricate themselves from groups connected to the far right and white supremacy.  

It’s been about 25 years since she started helping people escape extremist groups, but Foley Martinez said the past 18 months have been busier than ever — particularly since the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.  

Growth in far-right and white supremacist groups

As white nationalists and right-wing sympathizers sparred with counter-protesters in Charlottesville’s streets, neo-Nazi sympathizer James Fields Jr. rammed his car into a crowd, killing Heather Heyer and injuring dozens of others. Some media outlets and terrorism experts have called the car attack a terrorist incident. But Fields was never brought to trial for terrorism-related crimes. He’s currently serving life in prison after being convicted of multiple counts of malicious wounding, murder and 29 federal hate crimes.   

Experts at the Southern Poverty Law Center note that while the trials following the Unite the Right rally have “dampened” the energy of the white power movement, the number of white supremacists has continued to grow since 2017 — a year that some Charlottesville residents call the “Summer of Hate.” 

Actions by these groups might be considered terrorist acts by community members or law enforcement agencies in certain circumstances, but based on their principles alone, these crews are not federally classified as domestic terrorist organizations. 

“Because [of] freedom of speech, people are allowed to believe these things, and these groups are allowed to exist and operate freely, as long as they're not engaged in violence,” said David Webber, associate professor in the Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness Department of Virginia Commonwealth University’s L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs. “That's very different from one of those groups that has been designated as a foreign terrorist organization by the government.” 

Violence caused by domestic extremists has been on the rise nationally in recent decades. Out of 893 terrorist attacks and plots in the U.S. documented by The Center of Strategic and International Studies between 1994 to 2020, the majority were conducted by right-wing extremists. An analysis by The Washington Post of CSIS data from this time frame also shows more than a quarter of far-right incidents and about half of documented deaths were caused by supporters of white supremacy. 

In 2020 and 2021, the center found a significant increase in the number of domestic terror incidents at demonstrations in cities — with white supremacists, anti-government militia groups and other “likeminded extremists” making up the majority of perpetrators.  

The groups also engage in recruitment efforts. A recent study by the Anti-Defamation League showed an increase in white supremacist propaganda being distributed across the country. Virginia had the second-highest number of reported incidents during the past year. A spokesperson for the group told The Virginian-Pilot that it’s hard to determine why the material is on the rise in the commonwealth, but that the Unite the Right rally might be a factor. 

“[Unite the Right] was kind of the first time that people were willing to be open, out and expressing these things — at least in my lifetime that I could remember,” Webber explained. “Then again, we see it with the January 6 rally ... . But I think it's also important to remember that white supremacy and far-right extremism is not a new thing.” 

Social media and the far right's mobilization

One of the key factors in these groups’ recent mobilization is social media, which is used to organize activities, build relationships with current and potential members, and spread misinformation or conspiracy theories — like the “ great replacement theory” or “false flag” operations. 

Dr. William Pelfrey, chairperson of the Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness Department at the Wilder school, said these groups didn’t act together prior to Unite the Right. 

"There's no question in my mind that that lack of condemnation [by then-President Donald Trump] represented a facilitator for future radicalization and actions,” Pelfrey said. “We would not have had the January 6 insurrection absent a clear path laid out by the president that enabled radicalization and far-right extremist ideology." 

This rhetoric has not only been seen on the campaign trail or from those in elected office, but also from mainstream media outlets. One of the most notable is Fox News host Tucker Carlson, who has repeatedly “pushed extremist views,” according to analysis by The New York Times. Additionally, Carlson was behind a controversial documentary promoting the conspiracy theory that the federal government staged the Capitol riot in order to justify the further restriction of civilians’ liberties.  

His claims prompted several legacy Fox News anchors to leave the network.  

In addition to conspiracy theories and hateful beliefs being protected under the First Amendment, federal and local law enforcement agencies have historically struggled to combat violent white supremacists and other homegrown extremist groups. In part, that’s because of a lack of uniformity in defining domestic terrorism. 

Pelfrey said authorities on the local, state and federal levels each have their own criteria and tactics for handling investigations and counterterrorism. But he highlighted several characteristics to describe a terrorist organization or attack.  

“Terrorism is a set of ideas. And it's more than just a violent act,” Pelfrey said. “It's different than extremist acts, which may or may not be terrorist. For something to meet a definition of terrorism, there has to be a broader political goal, consistent with the ideas of an organization or set of actors.”  

In The Year in Hate & Extremism Report 2021, SPLC researchers noted increased attention by authorities has challenged the white power movement, but “it’s clear that the criminal legal system, on its own, cannot adequately address the problem of far-right extremism.” 

Education, devised by diverse communities working together, they said, could aid in prevention efforts. 

What draws people to extremism and how can it be stopped?

With only a phone or computer at hand, Shannon Foley Martinez connects online from her Georgia home with people still involved with violent extremist groups. 

When she finds out a person’s loved ones are concerned about them, she said she simply strikes up a conversation and tries to provide another perspective beyond their own social network. Over time, she helps them leave these organizations and mentors them on what support they need after they’re finally out.  

“It's easy to just be like ‘They're just garbage people.’ But they're really just people who are struggling to make sense and meaning out of their own life,” Foley Martinez said. 

During the past 25 years, Foley Martinez said every person she’s worked with who has left these organizations experienced multiple levels of trauma during their lives. This includes problems at home, safety concerns or just not knowing what the future holds. In the process of trying to find meaning in their lives, individuals have engaged with what Foley Martinez said are “dehumanizing and violent worldviews.” 

“They're struggling with feeling truly seen and truly heard ... to feel an empowered, meaningful connection to something greater than themselves,” Foley Martinez said.  

Research from the Rand Corp. backs up many of Foley Martinez’s experiences. Rand interviewed 32 former extremists, primarily white supremacists, noting how negative life experiences, such as abuse and trauma, as well as the need for validation from social networks, can draw people to extremist groups.  

When some people feel insignificant or are at a crossroad, Webber noted they might graft their own situation onto the experiences of a larger group. 

“What [extremist groups] do ideologically is they provide you with an answer to the grievances that are causing you to feel that way, and they give you a solution,” he said. 

One way to address easy access to conspiracy theories or propaganda, experts noted, would be creating tougher regulations for social media companies, whose platforms allow extremist groups to distribute the information. Another tactic, suggested by Foley Martinez, is promoting media literacy and checking sources for stories found on social media. 

In terms of prevention, Pelfrey said local efforts could start in the classroom. He said creating educational programs in middle and high schools that promote diversity could be a proactive approach to instill in young students that “people of different backgrounds are equal.”  

“When law enforcement, when representatives of a variety of cultures and backgrounds — religious leaders, cultural leaders — go into schools and talk about equity and equality, those messages will hopefully obviate future extremist behavior,” Pelfrey said.  

Experts said that identifying warning signs for individuals who might be at risk of joining an extremist group is tough. Hints of fetishizing violence in conversation is cause for concern. 

Pelfrey said taking a “threat assessment” approach is important in determining when intervention might be needed. A red flag might be someone talking about a shooting or terrorist attack in a way that glorifies the perpetrator of the violence.  

As Foley Martinez hops on calls or messages people online who are still involved with extremist groups, she said she doesn’t engage with their beliefs or ideology. Instead, she listens for ways to connect them with resources that meet their needs.  

“I’m interested in the why. What are your fears surrounding this? What has this been serving in your life? What is the story behind the story for how you thought to this point ... [and] what you staked your life on,” she said.  

Editor’s Note: The reporter of this story is studying at Virginia Commonwealth University’s L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs in the Homeland Security and Emergency Management Department, but has not taken courses with the academics quoted here.  

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