Why People Become Neo-Nazis | AJ+

Portland, Oregon has a reputation. This is a city that’s
seen as very liberal. So liberal, the sketch comedy show, “Portlandia” has pumped out eight seasons
of material based solely on mocking its progressiveness. But there’s another side to Portland, one that upends its perception
as some sort of liberal paradise. In the 1990s, this area was known as
“Skin Head City” and it was a part of a region from where neo-Nazis used to
recruit for their so-called “Northwest Imperative.” Imaeyen Ibanga: You said you almost stabbed
a Black guy out here once. Why? Jason Downard: “Cause he was hitting on my girlfriend
at the time and it pissed me off and so then I pulled my knife out, and I was getting ready to stab him until
I looked up and there was a Portland PD about 10 feet away.” The ubiquity of the internet and social
media in the United States has only made the far-right recruitment process easier. Downard: “Social media is big on the, the recruitment nowadays, especially on Youtube.” But what is it about the far-right violence movement that lures people into it? Shannon Foley Martinez: “I liked
being afraid of me. You know,it’s very seductive when you feel
powerless to even the illusion of power.” David Newiert: “Right-wing extremism really is a
direct challenge to liberal democracy.” Hey fam. I’m Imaeyen, and for the third and final
part of our series on far-right extreme violence, we’ve traveled to one of the most
progressive cities in the nation, which also happens to be one of the whitest. And we’re here to uncover why, even
when Donald Trump leaves office, the problem of far-right violence
won’t end with his tenure, and how difficult it is to
escape a life built on hate. There are nearly 650,000 residents in
Portland and more than 77 percent of them are white. That makes this place the
whitest major city in the U.S., and perhaps the perfect breeding ground
for people looking to enlist new white people in the far-right
extremist movement. Downard: “We come down here and look for young kids and vulnerable kids, teenagers running around and
that are white, obviously, and try to introduce them
to the neo-Nazi movement. A lot of times we give
them like literature, white power music.” Jason Downard knows a lot about trying
to woo white people to the extreme far -right because he did it for years, and he says Oregon’s history made his
job of selling white supremacy much easier. Ibanga: How does such a liberal city have such
an active white supremacist movement? Downard: “That’s a good question. It’s formed … in Oregon, I think the biggest thing is Oregon
was founded a white state and back then Blacks were banned from Oregon.” He’s right. Oregon was established
as a white racist utopia. A former slave owner helped pass a law
in 1844 expelling Black people from the territory. This is 15 years before Oregon gained
statehood. And when it finally does become a state, it puts that exclusion of Black and
non-white people into its Constitution. And this made Oregon an incredibly fertile
place for the Ku Klux Klan. In the 1920s, it had the largest Klan membership
per capita among any state. So yes, Oregon has given all of its electoral
votes to the last eight democratic presidential candidates. But it’s also a place with a
long history of anti-Blackness, which neo-Nazis have used as part
of their recruitment process. Ibanga: So we’re down here on the Portland waterfront, and used to recruit people for the neo-Nazi movement here. How did you do that? Downard: “We come down here and
look for young kids, vulnerable kids are … we recruit them and see
if it’s even worth a shot.” Downard is a former neo-Nazi who first
got involved with the movement during his 2009 prison sentence for a drive-by
shooting involving the unlawful use of firearms. His body became a place
to enshrine extremism, a way to literally display his hatred. Ibanga: Do you have any tattoos
from your former life? Downard: “No. They’re all covered up. But you know you can still see
the ‘WP’ for the white power underneath.” Ibanga: Oh my God, yeah. Downard: “These little black lines right here is this the 14 …” Ibanga: the 1488. Of all the things Downard and I discussed, what resonated with
me most was just how covert far-right extremist tactics are. And it’s by design. Martinez: “There was a conscious shift away from
sort of this like street thug life gang-like culture. Dress nicer. Get your education and then
infiltrate jobs like law enforcement, military government policy, places where you could begin
to enact some real change.” Former neo-Nazi Shannon Foley Martinez
says she wasn’t recruited into violent hate-fueled life by members
who infiltrated her community. Instead, it was her insecurity as a
self-proclaimed out-of-place, teenager in search of an identity that
started her on the path to extremism. Martinez: “Interestingly, like I started off with like hippie sixties, anti-Vietnam culture. One of my very first favorite books was
actually “The Autobiography of Malcolm X.'” Martinez says she was
a person already susceptible
to influence, and then a horrendous violation pushed
her toward a life of hate. Martinez: “And I ended up being raped
by two men at that party. They were white men. Within about six months of
being sexually assaulted, I started hanging out with skinheads
who were always on the periphery of the punk culture that I was a part of.” Between the ages of 15 and 20, Martinez was a neo-Nazi and hoped it’d
be a place she’d finally be able to belong. She thought being with the neo-Nazis
could allow her to release the anger about her sexual assault. Martinez: “You know,my self-image and my self-worth just plummeted. In the wake of that rape, that I
just felt like a piece of trash. I felt worthless on a really
deep and inherent level. And you know, there’s that part of me that was like, okay, well like who is
worse than the Nazis? Like they’ve gotta take me in, right? Like it doesn’t matter that I’m, that I’m worthless.” The community Martinez searched
for and talks about is also a theme Downard echoed. It’s the sales pitch the hate
group makes to potential members. It’s all about this warped sense of unity. For Downard, the support was a group to belong to in
a radically racialized prison system. His story is a tale of recidivism and
getting deeply involved with the neo-Nazi movement with each subsequent conviction. Ibanga: Have there been violent crimes of which
you haven’t been associated with or convicted with when you
were part of the movement”? Downard: “That’s a trick question.” Ibanga: No, no.
It’s not a trick question. Downard: “Well, if I committed?” Ibanga: Yeah. Downard: “I don’t talk about those things. I mean, I’ve, I’ve done, I’ve done horrible things that
like I got to live with every day. You know, almost stabbed some people – might’ve stabbed – I won’t go into those details. You know what I mean? Just because it’s a, it’s a hard thing to live with.” Downard’s
and Martinez’s neo-Nazi paths are one type of far-right extremism, which generally falls into two categories. Political and antigovernment like
the alleged MAGA bomber Cesar Seyac, a Republican and huge Trump supporter
accused of targeting the president’s political enemies with mail bombs. And then there are those on the
far right who are hate based. Like the Neo Nazis with whom
Downard and Martinez were once affiliated. And though Downard says President
Trump’s rhetoric has played a role in reinvigorating far-right groups, Downard: “Donald Trump’s presidency has been a
victory for the movement. He’s saying all the right stuff. So you get these neo-Nazis, like, ‘We’ve got this president who’s pretty
much giving us the okay to do whatever the hell we want.'” Author David Neiwert says even when
Donald Trump leaves the Oval Office, this type of violent extremism will still be a problem. Neiwert: “This problem didn’t
start with Donald Trump. When he leaves office, we’re going to have
another generation before we can really sort of corral these
forces of hatred that he’s unleashed. What’s happened is that the whole new
generation of young people who have been radicalized into this belief system. Neiwert says President Trump’s favorite cable news
channel contributes to gassing up far -right extremism. Tucker Carlson: “We believe in free speech, even when it’s reprehensible, maybe especially when it is.” Neiwert: “You’ll see Tucker Carlson talking about
white nationalism or espousing white nationalist views on national TV, on Fox and getting away with it. And people just kind of go and shrugging
your shoulders.” Neiwert has followed the far right for 30 years, first as a journalist
and later as an author. He says there’s a reason far-right extremism movements are often unsuccessful. Typically right-wing extremists never get
enough momentum going because they’ve never been able to stay cohesive for
very long because of their very nature. So, a lot of the people drawn to right-wing
extremists are really kind of contentious and unpleasant people, they hardly ever get along. They’re constantly fighting.” Ibanga: “What do neo-Nazis think of Klansmen and people like that? Downard: “The neo-Nazis don’t like the Klansmen.” Ibanga: Why not? Downard: “They’re a bunch of drunk hillbillies like to me and they’re all, they’re just weird. I don’t know. I’ve never liked them from the get-go.” The birth of Downard’s biracial nephew is one thing that helped
spur him to reject his neo-Nazi beliefs. The other was a recovery facility
he entered after another jail stint. Ibanga: So these are the doors you
went into that changed your life. Downard: “I was facing another a year in jail, I was already in jail
and was facing two years. And so it’s kind of like getaway. I had the chance to go to treatment.” But leaving a life you’ve
recruited people into is dangerous. Downard: “It’s really hard because you’re dealing with a violent organization that’s not only in your city, but it’s a worldwide, nationwide, they consider as race
traitors and stuff like that. So …” Ibanga: Do you worry about that? Downard: “I did for a little bit, but I learned to get over it because
I feel like what I’m doing is now in bringing peace to myself. But if I can tell my story, it can help somebody else that’s maybe
struggling with like I was for a few years if I wanted to leave the movement or not.” Downard now spends his time helping
others escape a life of hate that consumed him until two years ago. He’s hoping his transition from a self-proclaimed “hooligan” to “patience,” like his tattoo, will inspire others. Downard: “I know there’s people that’s in the movement that wants to get out of the movement but it’s very violent thing to get out. And some of them, they don’t know how to. What I’m doing is not only
bringing peace to myself, but if I can tell my story, it can help somebody else that’s maybe
struggling like I was for a few years.” Like Downard, Martinez has dedicated her life to helping
others escape the neo-Nazi lifestyle. And her approach is informed by how
she felt when she left the movement. Martinez: I mean I was very, very lonely. You know, cause who do you go to?
Who do you say, ‘You know, I’m really struggling because
I was a Nazi.’ Like how do you, how, who do you say that to? I remember exactly what I
felt like during that time. How alone I felt, how confused I felt, how filled with
shame that I felt.” The mother of seven says even though she’s been out of
the movement more than a decade, the work she does on herself is never ending. Ibanga: A lot of people are going to
see this video and wonder, can you ever really be a
former white supremacist? Can you ever really be a former neo-Nazi? Martinez: “Until I started sharing my story very publicly, I had no idea that so many people believed
that fundamental transformation is not possible. Now, I can categorically say I do
not believe that ideology at all. I see how flawed and broken and just how
harmful and have built a life on really trying to, you know, make meaningful amends, do everything
that I can lending my voice to build a genuinely, just and equitable society for us to, to live in that my transformation
has indeed been an absolute one.” In the process of creating this series, I talked to people around the nation. One thing I heard from a couple of interviewees was a call for empathy for those participating in far-right hate. They say we shouldn’t shut them out
because it could push them further into a life of hate. Martinez: “Everyone is more than the worst
thing that they’ve ever done.” My question is and was, what about their victims like the people
of color and bystanders that their hate targets? Why should they bear the burden
of empathy or forgiveness? Martinez: “I absolutely understand that calls
for any sort of empathetic listening or compassion toward white
supremacists does not sit well with segments of the population, and I totally understand that. As a white person, it is my responsibility to dismantle
white supremacy. As a person of color, it is not your responsibility
to dismantle white supremacy.” Hey fam, thanks so much for watching. Don’t forget to like, share and subscribe. This is the third and
final part of our series. If you’ve missed any of
the previous episodes, please look them up. They’re linked in the description and
we’ll look forward to seeing you next time.


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