SAN DIEGO—Tim Zaal was a scary guy.
At 17, in boots studded with razors, he brutally beat a gay teenage runaway on the streets of Hollywood. By his 20s, he was a full-fledged acolyte of the white supremacist movement.
He had a reputation to live up to. And he did.
Throughout Southern California, he used violence to prove his devotion to saving the white race. In Normal Heights, he and fellow skinheads would target gay men. In Belmont Park in Mission Beach, they’d look for minorities to harass.
He did jail time for assaulting an Iranian couple whom he mistook for Jews.
An ocean away, TM Garret was another kind of menace.
He spread white power propaganda in his native Germany through neo-Nazi bands with names like Wolfpack and Hounds of Hell. He started his own chapter of the Ku Klux Klan.
His allegiance to the cause was spelled out in tattoos —the word “skinhead,” a Celtic cross.
To them, it was a raucous good time, built on a community, a cause, and an identity.
Can hate that deep be reversed?
“Unequivocally, yes,” said Pete Simi, an associate professor of sociology at Chapman University in Orange County who researches extremist movements.
While the in-your-face skinhead movement that Zaal and Garret came up in is somewhat fading, it is being replaced with a new force that presents the same, hateful ideologies in softer tones and harnesses the power of social media to radicalize a new generation.
“It’s old hate in new wrapping,” said Rabbi Abraham Cooper, founder of the Digital Terrorism and Hate Project at the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles.
The stakes have also gotten deadlier, with the shooting at a Poway synagogue last month the latest example of mass violence in the name of protecting the white race.
But Zaal and Garret are testaments of something else —hope.
“Sometimes there’s this tendency to think once you go down that road it’s a permanent deal, there’s no hope for redemption,” Simi said. “That’s an inaccurate and dangerous way of looking at it. It guarantees it will be much more difficult for people to change if it is viewed as a beyond-all-hope kind of thing.”
But, Simi cautioned, “It’s not a clean or easy process.”
Extremists leave their groups for a variety of reasons. But it’s not usually because they’ve suddenly realized that what they are involved in is morally reprehensible.
The impetus is usually more mundane — dissatisfaction with the direction of the group, infighting, personal drama or even parenthood.
In many ways it’s like they’ve just burned out from the whole thing, Simi said.
Even if they still cling to their old beliefs, disengagement from the group — either online or offline — is the first, most important step, Simi said. That alone typically makes for less violence.
“What this can teach us is that trying to push counter-narratives meant to show them their beliefs are misguided, that’s not at all that effective,” Simi said.
Instead, it’s more beneficial at this early stage to plant seeds. Things aren’t really what you think they are. This is not what you expected.
The inner transformation comes later, and can take a long time.
“For me, it was three- to five-year process,” said Zaal, 55.
But in some ways, it’s never over.
According to Simi’s research, which includes interviews with 90 former white supremacists, hate can be like an addiction, bringing with it unwelcome, involuntary thoughts and feelings that can resurface year later.
One woman in recovery recounted to Simi an episode in which she got into an argument with a Latina fast-food worker, accusing her of messing up the order. Without realizing it, the former white supremacist reverted back to her old ways.
“The next thing she knew she was hurtling slurs, did the Nazi salute and stormed out with a ‘Sieg Hiel!’” Simi recalled. “By the time she got in the car she kind of came to, was completely ashamed and crying. It was this weird momentary relapse.”
Zaal grew up in the San Gabriel Valley, east of Los Angeles. When he was about 11, his older brother was shot and wounded by a black man.
“It was kind of a traumatic event, something that stuck with me many, many years,” Zaal said. “Ironically, my brother was able to forgive the person who shot him two or three years later. For me it was a different situation. I had the belief they were out to get me, so if they’re out to get me, I’m out to get them.”
“I based my beliefs on something that was not even a personal thing. It was a lot of hearsay.”
As a young adult in the early 1980s, he immersed himself in the hardcore punk music scene, which introduced him to skinheads.
He approached a few groups, interested in joining, but they were “very standoffish,” Zaal said. “I was looking for community.”
He tried to join the military but when he was rejected there, he was more determined than ever to pursue his skinhead dreams.
In San Diego on a job one day, Zaal decided to reach out to Tom Metzger, a rising figure in the U.S. white nationalist movement who happened to run his operations from his Fallbrook home. He looked up Metzger’s number in the phone book, dialed and Metzger picked up.
“I told him I was interested in the movement, wanted to do something for my race. I ended up in his back room talking about politics and he gave me a card for a group in Orange County. I contacted them, and the rest is history.”
Zaal joined the Western Hammerskins, an arm of one of the more organized neo-Nazi groups that operate across the country.
“I had to prove myself. I was involved with a lot of violence,” Zaal admitted. He added, “I sought to live up to what was expected of me, I guess.”
The skinhead community was fulfilling for a decade or so, then he began to question what he was doing with his life.
When his young son called a black man the N-word in a supermarket one day, it was a wake-up call.
“It was like being in a cult,” he said.
He eventually decided to leave. He moved to the Ozarks — which happen to be heavy Ku Klux Klan territory.
At one point, his job in the petrol chemical industry forced him to go on a road trip through the Deep South.
“I had a preconceived notion of what it was going to be like. In Houston it would be a bunch of illegal aliens. In Lake Charles or New Orleans or Mobile, it would be a bunch podunk black folks with corncob pipes,” Zaal said. “It was the complete opposite.”
“I was treated with compassion and respect by different people of ethnic backgrounds,” he recalled. “I got back home to Klan land and the contrast between the two was so great. It was so apparent that the real world was not the world I’d been living in for years and years and years.”
It’s an experience he wants to give other recovering white supremacists — when they are ready. Because much of the white nationalist ideology is based on fear, and second-hand knowledge.
“So let’s get first-hand knowledge … get them out of their comfort zone,” Zaal said. “That’s how most of us got out of that mindset.”
What doesn’t get white supremacists out of that mindset: yelling at them.
“Yelling at someone never in history changes someone’s mind,” said Garret, 43. Instead, it circles the wagons and strengthens a bigot’s resolve: This society hates us for what we believe, therefore we must be right.
Non-combative conversations searching for common ground can be hard to come by, especially in these polarizing political times and with the often eviscerating tone of social media.
“The person who says ‘Eff Trump, all Trump supporters are racist,’ how is that any better?” Garret asked. “I’m not saying tolerate the ideology but we need to tolerate them as human beings.”
An empathetic approach can also be an especially big ask for religious and ethnic groups who have been the target of such hate, including violence. But there are some who are passionate about having those uncomfortable encounters.
Garret points to his friend, Memphis entertainer Daryl Davis, who is black and has befriended scores of Klansmen who subsequently left the group.
“He’s like, ‘I want to know how those people tick. Why do you hate me if you don’t know me?’” Garret said.
Zaal was forced to face his past in an uncomfortable encounter of his own —in a chance meeting with the gay victim he’d attacked as a teen. Their journey to healing is documented in a film, Facing Fear.
Mere acknowledgment of one another’s fears can be a big step toward breaking down barriers, Garret said.
Reflecting on his own time as a skinhead, he said: “My enemies felt real to me, even if it was stupid.”
Garret’s dad died when he was 8, and his mom was “fighting her own demons.”
In his small German town, he was the weird kid who finally got the attention he’d craved with racist jokes. So he ran with it.
“At that point I was known as the Nazi kid. I didn’t like it because I didn’t feel like it,” he recalled. But the label had a self-fulfilling prophecy to it.
“All of the sudden I’m not a nobody … It was better than the kid you could push around. I thought it was respect, but it was probably more like fear. I stuck with it.”
Like many during the ’80s and ’90s, Garret was radicalized through the hardcore punk music scene, becoming a band leader himself.
His German nationalist pride morphed into all-out white power. He joined the KKK — first brought to Germany by Americans post-World War I — but struggled with the contrast between the “Christian Identity” doctrine favoured by Americans and the more pagan basis for European white nationalism.
Asked to translate a booklet for a radical Scandinavian group into German, Garret was at first honoured, then troubled by the violence and terror it called for.
“Everybody has doubts,” Garret said of those in the movement.
“You put them on the side, put the next doubt on the side, and that stack of doubts becomes a bump, then a little mountain, then a big mountain, until you can’t deal with it anymore.
“But if you want to leave, you see society hates you back. Who wants a Nazi back?”
When Garret could no longer bury the existential questions that had been mounting inside him, he fled. He and his family ended up in a small German town, on Christmas Eve, broke. The only apartment available to rent was owned by a Turkish Muslim man who lived in the unit downstairs.
Garret had a history with Turkish Muslims.
One night, Garret and his crew pulled a prank on a Turkish Muslim teen. The teen retaliated with his own crew in tow, and Garret ended up with a gunshot wound to his hip in a cornfield.
But now, his family was desperate, and the man took them in.
The landlord started to offer Garret money to fix computers, and a relationship began to form.
When the landlord invited Garret to dinner one night, he uneasily accepted the invitation. He panicked when he saw what the landlord’s wife was serving — fish soup. “I didn’t like fish soup,” Garret said.
He was afraid what would happen next. “I thought this is when he’s going to rip off his mask and show his horrible Muslim terrorist face,” Garret said. He finally got the guts to speak up, announcing he didn’t like fish soup.
“What happened? Nothing. His wife brought over some chicken.”
He added: “What racist hate was left there, he broke it down and he laid it down in front of me, crumbled.”
Garret, who moved to the Memphis area and started businesses in the entertainment industry, is now an outspoken advocate against hate, giving presentations across the country. He works with other “formers” to transition people out of the hate movement and partners with tattoo shops so recovering extremists can cover up the markings of a past life.
He was pained when a gunman killed 11 people in the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh in October. After that, he began working with the Jewish community and the Simon Wiesenthal Center fighting anti-Semitism. Zaal works with the centre, too.
“I celebrated more Jewish holidays in the last 12 months than Christian holidays,” Garret said.
When a gunman —identified by authorities as 19-year-old John T. Earnest —killed one person and wounded three others inside the Chabad of Poway, it hit him even harder. “It didn’t feel that far away anymore. I felt so much more hurt than I was after Pittsburgh,” Garret said. “I felt more numb and helpless.”
Researchers have learned a lot about treating former skinheads from Zaal’s and Garret’s day.
But experts admit little is known about the new generation, or if old tricks will have the same effect.
“I think as far as the generation now, we need to start figuring out what is driving some of these white adolescents moving in that direction,” said Simi, who says he has worked with some, but not many, of the younger members of the contemporary white nationalist movement. “Maybe there are still a lot of similarities.”
At the most basic level, part of the solution calls for getting kids offline and into the real world — not just troubled youth, but all youth.
“Young people have to have actual relationships outside virtual friendships,” Rabbi Cooper said.
But anti-hate messaging also has to reach youth where they are.
In March, Life After Hate, a non-profit founded by “formers” that helps people leave hate groups, began partnering with Facebook to provide outreach to users searching for hate material. The pop-up messages provide a listening ear and way out.
“Radicalization doesn’t begin with violence. It often begins with vulnerabilities and grievances,” the non-profit’s announcement said. “And we want people to know that we are here to listen to them. That simple gesture can create change.”
But it’s not yet clear how effective that effort is.
People who work with extremists say it would be Pollyanna-ish to expect dramatic turnarounds. But if it reaches one person, they say.
“If there are going to be any changes made, it’s not going to be from the top down,” Zaal said. “It’s going to be from the bottom up on a human level. It has to be.”