|Some former skinheads and gang members are changing their minds, and opting to be more accepting of others [GALLO/GETTY]|
“You want to belong to something so badly, you will go to any extreme to be part of it.”
These are the words of Eric Gibson, a former South Central Los Angles gang member, and just one of many who attended the Summit Against Violent Extremism (SAVE) in Dublin on June 26-7.
Gibson’s feelings are echoed by many “formers” – a term coined by those who were once leaders or members of radical organisations or gangs, but have now decided to leave that life behind.
The conference saw an eclectic group of people involved in a friendly exchange of ideas who would, a few years ago, have attacked each other with extreme prejudice.
A common desire
These former neo-Nazi skinheads and affiliates of Al Shabab, the IRA and Hizb ut-Tahrir may have been very different ideologically, but they once shared a common desire: the inculcation of hatred and the propagation of fear.
Susan Cruz, who once belonged to a transnational gang, laughs when she remembers how she responded when approached about SAVE.
“I was like, ‘Are you kidding me?’ To wrap my head around the idea that we were going to be working together with folk who were trained as suicide bombers…I thought it was crazy.”
Cruz was a child immigrant in the United States, facing exclusion and discrimination. The gang which recruited her when she was 11 gave her protection and a sense of identity. “I eventually came to the conclusion that gangs fill society’s voids – at a high price” she admits. “I wasn’t alone any more.” She expected to feel very different to the other summit participants, but she accepts they have common ground.
Maajid Nawaz joined Hizb ut-Tahrir in the UK at age 16, following numerous unprovoked knifings and attacks on his muslim friends. Isolated and lacking identity, he wanted to feel safe, so he enlisted. As with the other “formers”, he felt violence was the answer.
Christian Picciolini also became mired in violence at a young age: he was 14 when he joined the Chicago Area Skinheads, which he describes as “the first neo-Nazi organisation in the states”. It was the CAS that, in 1987, broke into the apartment of a 20-year-old female former gang member suspected of having black friends. They proceeded to pistol-whip her, spray mace in her eyes and paint a swastika and the words “race traitor” on her wall with her blood. After the older members either became imprisoned or were killed in violent confrontations on the streets of Chicago, Picciolini inherited the organisation and became the leader. He went on to become the director of the the Northern Hammer Skinheads. He was involved for seven years. His credo: white separatism and supremacy.
Changing their thinking
“Every kid has something they want to belong to,” he says. “It could have been radical leftism. For me It happened to be right wing extremism. We were violent to people… Any time someone came into our territory we pushed them out. There was no rationale for it. It was simply because they were a different race. They didn’t fit our sexual preference. It was a very small mould.”
And yet Picciolini found the will to change. This involved a lengthy process rather than a sudden epiphany. The births of his sons were key events, as was his introduction to people of different races and creeds.
“I began to realise that these were nice people and that there was no basis for my hate,” he says. “I started to meet Jewish people and gay people. And they were all great. Not only that, but I realised we had a lot in common.”
TJ Leydon, another member of Hammer Skin Nation, also felt the impact of fatherhood: his stance changed when his children started adopting his angry, bigoted views. He had no choice: “I didn’t want my son to grow up to be like me.”
Maajid Nawaz found his views slowly but surely altering in prison. A founder member of Hizb-ut Tahir in Denmark and Pakistan, he served four years in Egypt as an Amnesty International “prisoner of conscience”.
“I was in prison when the July 7 London bombings happened,” he recalls. “There was a professional bomb-maker in prison who was sentenced to 27 years. We had a lot of time to discuss and learn and we talked each other into change.”
Rebuilding their lives
Henry Robinson, an erstwhile member of the Irish Republican Army, was another hate campaigner who changed in prison. More than anything, it was the gradual realisation that he no longer wanted to live a violent life. He recalls a particular moment in jail that proved decisive: he was watching coverage of the annual Wimbledon tennis tournament on television and was struck by “the normality of it”. He craved a regular existence.
But is there life after hate? Can such “formers” rebuild their lives following years of violent extremism? The fact is, many of them have managed to channel their passionate loathing towards the establishment of organisations to combat the very violence they once inflicted.
Eric Gibson is now a violence prevention specialist propagating peace at schools, community centres and gang summits. Susan Cruz is the Director of Sin Fronteras, which offers rehabilitation to young gang members in the US and Central America. “Young people,” she decides, “have kept me alive.”
Maajid Nawaz is the Executive Director of the Quilliam Foundation, a counter-extremism think tank. He is also the founder of Khudi, a Pakistani youth movement involved in counter-extremism. TJ Leyden is the co-founder and Executive Director of Hate2Hope and worked as a consultant at the Simon Wiesenthal Centre. He draws the distinction between the respect which he used to get in his “previous life”, which was “because they feared me”, and what he gets now, which he describes as “true respect”.
Creating their own space
Henry Robinson traded weapons for words, becoming the founder member of Families Against Intimidation and Terror. As for Chris Picciolini, he is the co-founder of Life After Hate as well as an executive producer of JBTV, a music television show featuring up-and-coming artists. It is a far cry from his former existence.
So there is opportunity to change for the perpetrators of hate crimes. But what about the victims of terror? How do they live in a world with these “formers”?
Gill Hicks, the founder of Making a Difference for Peace, is a survivor of London’s 7/7 bombings. Her injuries were so severe that she wasn’t expected to live. She recalls waking up in hospital and seeing her wristband, which simply said: “One unknown, estimated female”, so unrecognisable was she from her horrific injuries. She was sitting next to one of the bombers on the tube train on that fateful day. She lived; he died, but she has found it difficult to forgive regardless.
Her conviction is strong, and her determination to offer counsel to victims is unwavering. But she is realistic: she knows there will always be hate groups, and she doesn’t expect universal harmonious co-existence. Her wish is plain: to be able to go about her business, without fear of reprisal or brutal violence.
“We should be able to have our own space,” she says. “You don’t have to agree. It’s not about a state of peace or hugging each other. I just don’t want to be attacked.”