Jeff Schoep led America's largest neo-Nazi group for two decades. He now says he wants to help destroy it.
It was a panel discussion on a college campus about the importance of rejecting extremism. And one of the supposed experts on tolerance participating was Jeff Schoep, a man who once called the deadly white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, "a glorious day for white solidarity in America."
At California State University, San Bernardino, in the fall, Schoep, who led America's largest neo-Nazi organization for 2 1/2 decades, shared that he had only recently renounced his racist views. The event was his first public appearance in the US since making the announcement, and some members of the audience were sceptical.
"It makes it unsatisfying to know that eight months to a year ago, you would have hated us," Nicholas Flowers, a 22-year-old biracial student, told Schoep after the talk.
Schoep is not the first racist in recent memory to renounce his former ways. Derek Black was a child star in the white power movement until he turned to speaking publicly against it. Joshua Bates posted a video of himself online burning his old neo-Nazi paraphernalia. Caleb Cain disavowed the self-described "alt-right" movement on YouTube, the same medium that brought him in.
And just this month, Matthew Heimbach, who worked alongside Schoep, announced publicly that he was leaving white nationalism — conveniently, sceptics say, while both he and Schoep face legal consequences for their roles in violence that broke out during the Charlottesville rally.
Schoep, a former commander of the National Socialist Movement, may well have the highest profile among them. His announcement has generated heated discussion about the best way to defeat the resurgence of open bigotry tearing at the country's social fabric.
Some civil rights experts have said reformed neo-Nazis should use their outsize influence to draw others away from white nationalism. That is what Schoep says he wants to do, but what should the process of moving beyond his past look like?
'America's poster boy for Nazism'
Schoep (pronounced "scoop") and Heimbach are among more than two dozen defendants accused in a lawsuit of planning and carrying out the violence at the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville in 2017 that resulted in the murder of a counterprotester. A ruling against them could lead to significant financial penalties, among other consequences.
"No matter if you reform after the fact, we live in a country of laws," said Amy Spitalnick, director of Integrity First for America, a nonprofit group underwriting the lawsuit. "Those who break those laws, those who violate people's civil rights must be held accountable for it."
The plaintiffs filed a motion last month that raises questions about Schoep's continued ties to the organization he said he has left. In a deposition, Burt Colucci, the new National Socialist Movement leader, said he still exchanged regular text messages with Schoep. In one exchange in October, Schoep warned Colucci that someone making threats against him may have been a federal informant trying to entrap him, according to the motion.
Schoep said in an interview that Colucci had asked him if he knew anything about the threats, and he was simply assuring his former comrade that he had nothing to do with them.
Critics say Schoep is simply trying escape legal liability, but he contends his new life has nothing to do with the lawsuits, and that he has put himself in danger by renouncing his former ways.
Still, "when you're America's poster boy for Nazism for over two decades, that sticks," said Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino.
Some who have witnessed the racism that Schoep has promoted over the years wonder why he should be shown mercy and forgiveness when they have been made to suffer.
"Why do black people have to go through so much to redeem themselves?" asked Tanesha Hudson, a social justice activist and filmmaker from Charlottesville who was protesting against the rally. "And yet, here he is, a white nationalist. It's OK for him to do what he did then say he's a changed man, and we're supposed to be OK with that."
Schoep, 46, recruited an untold number of people, including teenagers, into his organization. The National Socialist Movement, or NSM, grew to 61 chapters in 35 states under Schoep, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, a legal advocacy group.
He told Flowers, the college student, that he knew for years that what he was doing was wrong. "It's a process," he said of his departure. "For about three years now, I knew better, but I was going through the motions. That's what I did. Should I have kept going? No."
Heidi Beirich, the former director of the Intelligence Project at the Southern Poverty Law Center, said his decision to publicly renounce the NSM was important, even if it is impossible to determine his sincerity.
"I hope to God it's sincere," she said, "but it doesn't hurt to have someone of his stature to say, 'This movement is not for me, it's bad.'"
Those who doubt Schoep point to his past stunts. They say he tried to escape legal responsibility in the Charlottesville case by signing over control of the NSM to a black man. The move backfired and upset his members so much that some have said he had little choice but to step down.
Mike Schloar, who runs security for the NSM, said he believed that Schoep left because of the Charlottesville lawsuit. "He led the largest white nationalist organization in the country and he just turns his back on it and tries to renounce it," Schloar said. "To me, that's a traitor."
'You have to tear the house down'
At his red brick home just outside of Detroit, Schoep said that he was out of the NSM for good and that his new goal was to persuade those he successfully lured into the white nationalist movement to follow him out.
"I have that skill set where I brought all these people to the movement," he said. "That skill set was put to the wrong use. I feel a sense of responsibility to do something meaningful to fix that." He is also now a member of Parallel Networks, an anti-extremism organization co-founded by Jesse Morton, a former propagandist for al-Qaida.
And yet Schoep can be defensive about the extent of his own wrongdoing. Although he says he is a reformed man, symbols of hate surround him. He has an iron cross and an eagle tattooed to his forearms, two recognised hate symbols that he hesitates to acknowledge as such.
He is also hesitant to get rid of a trove of old white nationalist albums and apparel that he owns. "One part of me wants to say, 'Let's do a big bonfire,'" he said, but that would feel like setting money ablaze.
Molly Conger, an anti-fascist researcher and citizen journalist, said that Schoep should be working with law enforcement and activists to undermine the organization he helped grow, and not just speaking out against it.
"You have to name names, you have to share intelligence, you have to disrupt what you've built," said Conger, who lives in Charlottesville. "You have to tear the house down behind you on your way out."
Trying to outrun the past
Morton of Parallel Networks says that Schoep needs time. He has a years long journey ahead of him that requires transforming his worldview through intense self-examination. "He's on his way to making those realisations," Morton said.
Schoep said he joined the National Socialist American Workers Freedom Movement, a neo-Nazi group founded in Minnesota by two former officials of the American Nazi Party, when he was 18 years old. By 21, he became the group's commander and rebranded it as the NSM, its original name.
There was no grand epiphany that led him to what he is doing now, Schoep said. Rather, it was small things here and there — a black man who helped him fix his car, a Jewish woman who invited him into her home.
"Imagine waking up every day and being pissed off at the world. 'Oh, the Jews are holding us down,' or 'the blacks are holding us down,'" he said. "You just become distrusting of everything. It's a really negative way to live."
Deeyah Khan, a London-based filmmaker who is Muslim, said Schoep's veneer appeared to be cracking the first time she interviewed him in 2017 for "White Right: Meeting the Enemy," her documentary about the rise of white nationalism.
Khan ended up going to Charlottesville with Schoep for the rally. To her surprise, she said, he was protective of her and made sure his followers treated her with respect. After spending many hours with him, she said, she came away believing he was "utterly misguided" but would eventually break with his hateful allies.
Christian Picciolini, a former white extremist who has been working to disengage people from the movement for two decades, counselled Schoep before he publicly left the NSM. Schoep appeared on Picciolini's television series "Breaking Hate" on MSNBC last year.
The two have since had a falling out.
Picciolini said he believed that Schoep was diving too quickly into intervention work without taking the proper steps to understand his own issues — that he needed to see a therapist and go into the communities he targeted, listen to the people he hurt and ask for forgiveness.
"I've seen people trying to disengage who haven't done the work and try to outrun their past, fall into something else," Picciolini said. "I think he's not interested in paying the price for having been in the movement."
Written by: John Eligon
Photographs by: Allison Farrand
© 2020 THE NEW YORK TIMES