Extremism is a dark path. Some followers of white supremacist ideology forsake it when they realise it is full of lies and distortions designed to promote division and conflict.
Crikey recently spoke to two former extremists based in the United States who regret their past and hope others can learn from their mistakes.
The neo-Nazi who realised he was Jewish
Fred Cook only learnt he was Jewish earlier this year when he went down a genealogy rabbit hole hoping to discover his origins.
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That in itself would be unremarkable but for the fact that Cook had previously been a senior office bearer in the National Socialist Movement (NSM), which he joined after a period with skinhead groups. His life was spent campaigning for white nationalism and white supremacy.
He says he broke down and cried after discovering he was an Ashkenazi Jew, alongside his Irish ancestry. It turned upside-down the world of a man who was never given a clear idea of his origins or identity by his family.
“It first brought a lot of tears,” Cook said. “I was really broken because not only did I predominantly focus on anti-Semitism in my past, but it was now that I focused on anti-Semitism against my own people, the people that I could have known all this time.
“It was really earth-shattering because all of the anti-Semitic work that we did — from fliers that were, you know, ‘the Jews do this, the Jews control this industry and that’s why there’s an anti-white agenda there.’ All of that sort of hits you like a tonne of bricks.”
He then began to read extensively about Judaism and its food and culture, and is in the process of converting to Judaism.
The surprise discovery of his origins comes almost eight years after Cook pulled the plug on his membership of the NSM. He says the day his daughter was born eight years ago was the last day he was officially a member of the group. His exit was in part a reaction to hostility he was getting from people within the NSM because he was working with members of the online group Anonymous to track down paedophile websites, to expose members and have the sites shut down.
“On the day that my daughter was born I get a phone call from another high-ranking member,” he said. “He said: ‘I hear you’re working with the hacker group Anonymous. You’re working with the enemy. Does this mean you are an enemy now?’ That was basically it.”
Cook now writes prolifically on the dangers of extremism and is encourages people to disengage from the movements.
The white supremacist who said no
A conviction for murder saw Ed Schofield serve 12 and a half years in prison before his case was overturned on appeal. In that time he was immersed in a world of white supremacist ideology which he has now come to reject.
He attributes this exposure to friends who were in jail for crimes that involved supremacist activities.
“They had committed bank robberies and murders and various other crimes,” he said. “These two gentlemen started to feed me white supremacy propaganda, basically telling me that the only reason I got arrested, and the only reason I wasn’t given self-defence, was because I’m a white guy and I killed a cop’s kid who happens to be part-Jewish. It’s not that I did anything wrong, but it’s because I did something to the wrong person.”
Schofield was 19 at the time. “I’m almost 50 now and I look back on that and that just sounds ridiculous,” he said.
But it made sense to him at the time, he says. He was gradually introduced by friends to other far-right ideas such as Holocaust denial.
Schofield had made up his mind to fully turn his attention to white supremacy and form a prison gang. He had written to various leaders in the white supremacist movement for their blessing to form a group within the prison system, one which became known as State Prison Skinheads.
“We had gotten a sanction from Aryan Brotherhood. They told us that … ‘we will back you up,’ ” he said.
His reputation grew along with the gang’s size, and violence was never far away, but Schofield learnt over time that the propaganda, fake science and historical revisionism were “all lies”. He began trying to get recruits out of the movement he had helped create.
Some of those lies were spouted to Schofield by members of the “religious movement” and hate group The Creativity Movement, of which he was a member at one time. Its representatives were uncomfortable when Schofield began questioning their core beliefs.
He left the white supremacist movement in 2012, a move that has resulted in death threats and assassination attempts. Now he devotes time outside work and family to helping people leave extremist movements.
Tom Ravlic, former extremist Jeff Schoep and academic Lise Waldek will discuss the fight against right-wing extremism at a Crikey Talks event next Thursday. Register here for the free event.