As a former far-right extremist, Shannon Martinez has first-hand knowledge and experience of the dynamics of radicalization leading to violence. Today, she is program manager at the Free Radical Project, a global disengagement platform that aids individuals and their families or communities in exiting hateful and violence-based extremism. In addition to her role with the Free Radicals Project, Martinez is also the U.S. regional coordinator for AVE (the Against Violence and Extremism Network), the largest network of former violence-based extremists and survivors of extremist violence in the world.
Martinez recently traveled from Georgia to DC for Unite the Right 2, with the goal of leveraging her past as a former neo-Nazi white supremacist skinhead to initiate conversations with white supremacists in attendance as well as people who might not understand how white supremacists come to their belief systems in the first place. Kol HaBirah Editor in Chief Rachel Kohn spoke with Martinez on Aug. 12 as they made their way on foot from Foggy Bottom to Lafayette Park in Washington, D.C.
How would you define a white supremacist?
A white supremacist is someone who sees the inherent differentness between races and identifies with their white ethnicity as the most positive way a human being can be.
Do you think all of the people coming on behalf of Unite the Right are white supremacists? What other reasons might be bringing them out?
I think they probably don’t all self-identify as white supremacists, but they are all white supremacists. Most of them probably do genuinely feel as though they as white men are being marginalized, as we talk more and more about the inherent white supremacy and toxicity of masculinity in our culture. There are some ways in which they legitimately feel under threat, but instead of responding to that with understanding that we can all work together to build something better, more equitable, and more just in its place, they respond to that in fear.
Some people are coming because they genuinely are in a place where they hate people of color and they hate Jewish people and hold anti-Semitic beliefs. There’s even division there — I heard a rumor that neo-Nazis were actually protesting Unite the Right 2 because they feel its not far-right enough and they were sort of uninvited from participating.
What do you see as the role of women within the white supremacist movement?
They are historically a very, very small minority of extreme far-right movements, so to appear more representative I think the plan is to have more women involved ... Historically, it’s [been] hyper-traditional gender roles, and that women are allowed to lead, but they’re not allowed to lead men, they can lead other women; sometimes they can be in the public space.
I think women will be used as leverage to soften the image of the movement and used to try to entice more people so it doesn’t look like a hate movement — like it’s kinder and gentler when women are struggling through their own trauma and their own past. Looking at individual stories, you find a whole legacy of violence and hurt begetting more violence and hurt.
In the lead-up to Unite the Right 2, some have argued that people should ignore their presence rather than protest — that it’s just giving them the attention they want.
I think that white supremacists love two things: They love silence, and they love violence. When people remain silent in the face of them, white supremacists see that as a victory: the spread of their ideology and maintenance of the status quo. Violence reinforces the victim narrative they have playing in their mind, where it makes them the victim of the culture wars and also gives them the excuse to respond violently.
To me, it’s very important as a culture to collectively come together and say we do not accept this ideology and there is no place for white supremacy in our culture in this nation.
What would you say to people who opt out of protesting when groups like Antifa are participating because, like on the far right, there are also far left groups that espouse violence?
I totally get that fear. Violence only begets more violence, no matter what side it comes from. Those of us who are committed to non-violence as an action rather than inaction, we need to counter the forces of violence. There is immense strength in peaceful demonstration.
Do you see any differences between last year’s rally in Charlottesville and this year’s in DC?
In a lot of ways, the countermovement feels like white supremacy is gaining traction over the past year in America, so the counterprotest is even bigger than last year. One of the other big differences is that the law enforcement presence is hyperprevelant and mostly benign, whereas in Charlottesville they didn’t want to intervene ahead of time.
What do you think about the openly white-supremacist candidates running for political office this year — is that a sign these views are becoming more mainstream or are they still a fringe phenomenon?
My biggest worry is that all of the attention to the far right, to Unite the Right, is scapegoating. It’s very easy to look at those people and be like, “They’re the racists,” and not address the fundamental underlying white supremacy and anti-Semitism that our entire nation is built upon. If white supremacy looks like “that,” then it doesn’t look like me complaining about my property values when people of color move in.
That’s my biggest fear about the attention and the media surrounding things like this. It’s easy to look at those guys like, “They’re the bad guys,” rather than looking at myself and saying “How am I priveleged as a white person? How do I use that to help dismantle white supremacy wherever I find it in my life?”
By Rachel Kohn
Rachel Kohn is editor in chief of Kol HaBirah.