In his 13 years deep within skinhead subculture, Brad Galloway brawled in dozens of street fights. He’d emerge bloodied from 75-person melees feeling like a good soldier, ideology unshaken, until one brutal encounter in his early twenties.
It was nighttime. Galloway and a fellow skinhead were walking down a street in the Parkdale neighborhood of Toronto, jackets opened to swastika-emblazoned shirts. They ran into two members of a rival Vietnamese neighborhood gang. When a fight broke out between the pairs, about 40 from the rival gang sprang from a nearby restaurant. The beatdown was so fierce, Galloway doesn’t remember much. Belts with knives slashed him. Boots pummeled his ribs. Blows from every direction. Then everything went black.
When he came to, he saw bright hospital lights, his swastika shirt stained with blood, and an Orthodox Jewish doctor walking through the door.
“He was a Hasidic Jew,” Galloway recalls in an interview with Playboy. “Beard. Hat. Sideburns. I couldn’t believe this was happening.” At the sight of Galloway’s skinhead uniform, “I thought he would leave the room.” But he didn’t.
“He said, ‘I’m here to help you,’” Galloway remembers. “He didn’t have a sick look on his face. He just saw a person in distress who needed help.” As the doctor stitched him up, he explained that Galloway had lost so much blood, he was within six hours of dying, Galloway recalls. He left the hospital having been treated for a broken arm, a skull fracture and bruises and cuts all over his body. He also left with an indelible memory of his doctor’s compassion, which Galloway knew he did not deserve.
Though it would take years, this encounter marked a turning point in Galloway’s life and has played a critical role in his long journey toward deradicalizing from the white power skinhead movement that he had come to lead on an international scale.
White supremacist extremists have committed more violent attacks than any other domestic extremist movement in the past 16 years.
Amid the accelerated activity and coverage of white supremacy groups, Galloway is part of a subset of this movement that is often overlooked: those who have grown disillusioned and now seek to deradicalize themselves. They call themselves “formers.”
Experts say the deradicalization process can take years or decades and only works when formers initiate the process, take responsibility for their actions and do the long, hard work it takes to dismantle the violent ideology that has come to define them. The good news: change is possible and there are tools and methods to make that happen. The bad news: these efforts are under-resourced, underfunded and often dismissed as unnecessary.
That’s because warnings against domestic white extremist groups have long been disregarded as inconsequential by those who wish to swing the spotlight back to the threat of Muslim extremism. In 2009, a Department of Homeland Security report warned of homegrown antigovernment extremism rising after the election of President Barack Obama and received such backlash from conservatives that the department retracted the document and issued an apology. In 2017, news spread that the Trump administration wanted to rebrand the government’s Countering Violent Extremism program to focus solely on Islamic extremism and halt efforts to curb violence by white supremacists. The administration kept a number of the program’s grants that targeted Islamic groups, but rescinded a $400,000 grant to Life After Hate, a group focused on helping people exit white power groups.
White supremacist extremists have committed more violent attacks than any other domestic extremist movement in the past 16 years, according to a joint report by the Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Hate groups have exploded in size, scale and platform since the turn of the millennium, fueled in part by figures from the United States Census Bureau that predict whites will be a minority by 2040. In addition, animosity toward Latino immigration is growing as the debate over Dreamers intensifies, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, which monitors these movements. The Center reports that since Obama’s election, the number of hate groups have ebbed as they’ve taken their activities to the web. In the past two years, those numbers have bursted upward again amid a presidential campaign and administration that has bolstered white nationalism while refusing to condemn their violence and rhetoric.
With the memory of Charlottesville fresh in our minds, the work of deradicalization seems both elusive and urgently imperative all at once. But what drives someone to radicalize in the first place? The reasons vary widely. Those who join white supremacy groups are rural, urban, suburban, rich, poor, middle-class, highly educated or lacking high school diplomas. In other words, these movements draw all kinds. “There’s…no one-size-fits-all” explanation, says Peter Weinberger, senior researcher at the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START). But the data that Weinberger analyzes shows that, among those radicalized in the United States, “there’s a high prevalence of trauma in the life histories of these individuals”—though he is quick to clarify that trauma isn’t a predictor. “Each person’s resilience is different” and plenty of people overcome childhood trauma and build productive lives.
Galloway was untouched by trauma and raised in a cocoon of loving comfort: his parents never split, he was served dinner at six every night, he played hockey with his dad and vacationed at Disney World. With his solidly middle-class life in suburban Toronto, Galloway admits, “there was no struggle.”
But Galloway grew angsty in middle school when, as a middle-class white kid, he felt he didn’t fit among his mostly rich, mostly Jewish peers. Add to that the occasional bullying and “that enraged me further.”
Galloway began hanging around skinheads and going to white power concerts. He experimented with risky behavior like breaking into cars, graffiti and selling pot. “This is cool,” he thought.
He doesn’t recall indulging any active, violent racist thoughts early on but, he explains, he grew up around what he calls “passive racism,” the kind of offhand remarks at the expense of minorities that no one questioned. Then, an older skinhead took Galloway under his wing and began saying things like, “Look how different the Orthodox Jewish community is. They’ve taken over this neighborhood. We’ve got to take it back.” Galloway thought, “I can see what this guy is saying” and soon found himself in a world where people raved about “saving” the white race, fighting the “marginalization” of white people and killing Jewish people. “Whether [his ideology] was right or wrong didn’t matter to me,” says Galloway. “I chose to side with him because he had invited me into this circle of tough guys. I was kind of a blank slate.”
The group offered to Galloway what so many people long for: a framework of understanding and a place of belonging. “People are often drawn to movements that offer a simple explanation in a time of complexity and change,” says Weinberger. “With white supremacists, there’s often a common profile: casual racism at home, if not gratuitous racism. It’s not explicitly taught that it’s wrong. And then stressors come in.”
As a teenager, Tony McAleer felt drawn to violent extremism at a time of instability when he sought to regain control. “What the movement gave me was power when I felt powerless,” says McAleer, a former organizer for the neo-Nazi group White Aryan Resistance and former skinhead recruiter. Today, McAleer works to help people leave extremist movements through Life After Hate, which he co-founded. He has also worked to make amends with the communities he violently harmed in his previous life. He understands firsthand why people turn to violent extremism: “It’s that dark part of human nature that wants to take the bad things that happened to us and put it on another human being.”
McAleer has seen that pattern repeated in so many, from teenagers with social anxiety who find acceptance online to people who are just looking for something bigger than themselves to be a part of. And now, powered by the internet, these hateful ideologies are rapidly proliferating, allowing leaders to recruit and groom minds at a scale unseen in the recent past.
“Extremism burns people out when they’re young. It takes a lot of emotional energy to be so hateful.”
Combatting that tidal wave may seem insurmountable, but groups like Life After Hate continue to work at plucking people away from extremism one by one. For a small non-profit with two only full-time staff members, Life After Hate recognizes scaling up is necessary. After all, deradicalization is labor intensive. The virtual organization, which relies on volunteers, must field messages from those looking to leave extremism, engage in multiple online and phone conversations, bring newcomers into the fold, help build them a support system and then connect them with local therapists and specialists familiar with their particular challenges.
“Since Charlottesville, we’ve had an amazing [number] of volunteers from all over the country, many of whom are social workers and psychologists,” says McAleer, adding that some $600,000 in donations from 10,000 donors came through.
Those donations have allowed McAleer to pursue an initiative they believe will expand their outreach. Life After Hate is partnering with a tech company that’s developing an algorithm to mine social media for profiles of someone either dabbling in or aligned with extremist groups. The goal is that a bot will be able to sow seeds of doubt through targeted advertisements and “disillusionment-themed videos” on their social media feeds and eventually draw them into conversations with a person who can help put them on the path to deradicalizing. “People who we’ve helped want to give back,” he says. So even though the workload exceeds the capacity of the organization’s cofounders, McAleer remains hopeful. As the technology becomes available and more volunteers offer help, he says, their efforts to deradicalize a wider population will become scalable.
One of the most important factors in deradicalizing “is distance from the group they were a part of,” says Pete Simi, a professor of sociology at Chapman University. Simi, who studies extremism, says distance “doesn’t necessarily get rid of the beliefs but is important for allowing the person to breathe and get some perspective.”
From there, experts advise those exiting extremism to educate themselves about the groups they hate. Learning the truth about these communities and their histories helps dismantle hateful ideologies. Resources for this kind of education abound, from reading books and articles to taking classes and going to museums that explain the Holocaust, African American history, LGBTQ history and more.
Because deradicalization cuts at the core of one’s identity, experts also recommend working with a professional therapist throughout the process. With psychological guidance, formers can safely explore their motivations for joining extremism, the harm they caused while in the movement and strategies for deprogramming, such as making amends and confronting related issues like substance abuse or social isolation.
Weinberger recommends pairing that with a support system comprising other formers. Given the magnitude of domestic extremism, he believes the Alcoholics Anonymous framework could be a model for scaling up deradicalization. Those leaving need the help of a fellow former, who acts as a sponsor, to navigate the path to recovery. Sponsors can provide support as they navigate relationships, avoid triggers and search for jobs.
Formers need so many reinforcements because extremism holds a grip on both mind and body. The process of extracting from hateful ideologies can be so intractable that researchers compare it to addiction recovery. The extreme conditions of radicalization “may generate neurophysiological changes that over time mimic addiction,” write the authors of “Addicted to Hate: Identity Residual among Former White Supremacists,” a report published in the American Sociological Review last year. The study cites examples of formers who, even after deradicalizing, feel involuntary mental and physical responses triggered by things like white power music. For some, they remember racial hate or feel a thrill return in the form of goosebumps. For others, the triggers unleash even more alarming behavior.
Even after deradicalizing, formers, particularly those who haven’t replaced extremism with something positive, can easily regress, launch into racist diatribes or feel violent or racist thoughts surge back, research shows. Extremism is so consuming that it produces a “deep physical embodiment” that can easily reactivate even after recovery, says Simi, who coauthored “Addicted to Hate.“
In addition to distance, education, psychological intervention and support groups, research shows that mind-body interventions like yoga can help quell hateful thoughts and impulses. Formers who have successfully deradicalized rely on self-soothing techniques to avoid spiraling back to old habits. Simi said even simple self-talk mantras can go a long way. If a racist thought rises to the surface, verbalizing something like, “I don’t believe that anymore” reminds a former that they’ve changed.
The work of deradicalizing is hard, complicated and filled with pitfalls and failures. Experts say the most successful formers recognize they’re in it for the long haul and work hard to replace the extremist lifestyle with something positive and substantial, like spirituality or an altruistic cause.
Critics argue that violent extremists are criminals. Why should the public fund their recovery?
An obstacle to widespread deradicalization programming is the lack of a comprehensive, public-health-minded approach toward countering violent extremism. Collective action from those in medicine, criminology, psychology, education and other disciplines could go a long way in stemming the tide of extremism. “If you recognize that public health officials, mental health officials, educators and others have the capacity, then it’s just an education and knowledge-reframing issue,” says Weinberger. “Then you have capacity that can be easily scaled up.”
Simi agrees that we need a comprehensive, public-health model, but noted that this approach “is at odds with what our country has done in the last 30 years. We’ve disinvested in things that could help counter violent extremism [by] disinvesting from mental health, public education…”
In addition to structural obstacles, some critics argue that violent extremists are criminals, harmful to society and undeserving of public resources. Why should the public fund their recovery? While Simi understands this critique, he insists that intervention and treatment of white supremacists is in the public interest. “If helping individuals come out of these groups reduces the potential number of victims they reach, that means less victimization,” he says.
To anyone considering joining the white power movement, former hate group members and experts alike warn that early feelings of acceptance are quickly overshadowed by an all-consuming, self-destructive lifestyle. “If someone is flirting with white supremacy, it’s best to get them out early,” says Weinberger. “It’s not a phase or acting out. It’s very serious. It’s terrorism.”
McAleer gained fame and power in the skinhead movement, but “the rest of my life was going backwards.” That’s the skinhead culture package deal: a daily churn of combative rhetoric that fuels combative behavior. He fought in hundreds of brawls, expected to die in one by his twenties and secretly knew his own peers wouldn’t care when he did.
And of course, most significantly, extremist ideologies inflict violence upon innocent people from already disenfranchised communities. That’s exactly what McAleer’s involvement brought about. At age 17, when he and his buddies saw a gay man walk by, they screamed slurs and chased him into the crawl space of a construction site. They proceeded to pick up stones and whip them into the darkness, eagerly listening for the man’s cries. He called it “the most shameful thing” he has ever done. But beyond the stones he threw, McAleer’s massive recruiting efforts and white supremacist phone line (a pre-internet propaganda tool) hurled countless other stones that maimed innocent people. “Guys who were recruited by the guys I recruited murdered a Sikh,” he says. “Can I say that the propaganda I put out had 0.00 percent to do with the murder? I can’t say that.”
“The end result of this ideology is always murder,” he says. “That’s the first thing to remember about this ideology. Charlottesville is an example of this. Nazi Germany was an example of this. Lynching in the South. History is littered with this ideology leading to murder.” Nothing positive comes from white supremacy, McAleer insists.
Former violent extremists call their years in the movement the “lost decade,” he says. “People who stay in this end up bitter. It destroys their lives. Yes, it’s exciting. You’re living out fantasies of Vikings. But it’s not fantasy. It’s facade.”
For Brad Galloway, the facade began to crumble when he realized that he lived in constant fear. The nonstop anticipation of a street fight—and the street fights themselves—took a toll on him physically and psychologically. He experienced “continuous migraines” and could not overcome the trauma of the violence. “That violence doesn’t go away,” even years after the fact, he says. But the violence had become central to his identity, his community, his entire way of life. He wondered if he could ever break free. Then he met the Orthodox Jewish doctor.
Some version of Galloway’s story is echoed in the stories of many formers, according to deradicalization research. Their long, difficult process of deprogramming from hate was triggered by reconnecting with the humanity of another.
For McAleer, that moment came when his daughter was born. As he held her for the first time, he felt something the movement never gave him, a genuine “connection to another human being.” McAleer’s son was born 15 months later and together, his children’s love ignited a “thawing process.” “My identity became not Tony, white supremacist, but Tony, single father of two.”
The birth of a child is a common turning point among many who leave these movements, according to researchers. Also pivotal is a human connection with those they hate, even briefly. After all, extremists rage against caricatures of groups without understanding the real people. Galloway’s encounter with his Orthodox Jewish doctor and later, with colleagues from other minority groups, destabilized his ideology so much that he had no choice but to reject it completely.
Weinberger has seen this play out in his research, but the burden of deradicalization should not be placed upon victims of hate. “It would be false to say that there’s equal responsibility on the victims,” he says. The person leaving extremism “has to do the work and own what they’ve done.”
Galloway didn’t know of any formal deradicalization resources in his early years of exiting the movement. His wife had urged him to do whatever it took. So he moved his family to a different neighborhood. When that didn’t work, they moved to a different city just to get him away from the triggers and social backlash that threatened to derail his recovery. Galloway focused on reintegrating into mainstream society by returning to school to pursue a criminology degree. He spent three years trying to change on his own, and then a friend told him about Life After Hate.
At Life After Hate, Galloway found a community of people just like himself. He met McAleer, who became a mentor, and found the support he needed in his path toward healing, atoning for his past and building a better life. The impact on Galloway was so positive that he is now a regional coordinator for the Against Violent Extremism Network, which partners with Life After Hate in helping people exit extremist groups, addressing the needs of victims of extremism and educating teachers, law enforcement and other community groups about the risk factors.
Despite the challenges of leaving extremism, formers and experts agree: people can change, and a better life outside of white supremacy awaits them. McAleer has felt the weight of hate lift away. Each day he experiences the love of his children and the rewards of ushering people out of hate and toward healing. Galloway no longer lives in constant fear. He no longer wakes up filled with rage and dread for his day. Instead he wakes up happy, full of purpose and prepared to actually enjoy his life.
“If people knew they could leave on their own, imagine how many more we could help,” Simi says. He hopes extremists understand that “just because you got involved in this group doesn’t mean you have to join for life. People do change.”