Radical involvement in the alt-right was all wrong for Shannon Martinez, who now works to help others leave the dead-end road she was on 30 years ago.
Sexually assaulted by two men at age 14, Martinez says she “took all the unprocessed trauma and shoved it down,” looking for acceptance in the neo-Nazi, skinhead subculture — and looking to inflict her pain on others.
“They’re Nazis, they have to take me in,” she says she reasoned at the time. The price of admission was to overtly espouse an ideology of hatred, and she willingly paid it for nearly five years.
“I was consumed with rage and self-hatred,” said Martinez, now program manager for the Free Radicals Project and using the hard lessons she learned to redirect those who have turned to violence-based extremism.
“Because I’ve been there, I can listen to the stories behind the stories without judgment,” she says.
Martinez, 44, a mother of seven who lives in Athens, is scheduled to participate in a panel discussion following screenings of “Alt-Right: Age of Rage,” a documentary film that is part of this year’s Atlanta Jewish Film Festival. A local showing of “Alt-Right” is scheduled for Feb. 18 at Regal Perimeter Pointe in Sandy Springs; it also screens Feb. 7 at the Regal Atlantic Station.
The 106-minute film tells the story of the alt-right through two of its most prominent provocateurs, Richard Spencer and Jared Taylor. It also includes the perspectives of anti-fascist militant Daryle Lamont Jenkins and scholar Mark Potok.
Potok, who is scheduled to be part of the panel discussion, says the term “alt-right” represents “a rebranding of white supremacy for public relations purposes.” He says social media have revolutionized how such groups come to light and are covered.
When traditional print and TV media ignored such groups 50 years ago, Potok says, the strategy was largely effective. But that doesn’t work in the Facebook and Twitter age, he says.
“There are thousands of outlets that will pay attention,” said Potok, 63, who lives in Montgomery, Ala., and is a senior fellow at the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right. He was with the Southern Poverty Law Center, a prominent civil rights advocacy organization, for 20 years.
“Educating people about these groups is the real inoculation,” Potok said. “The idea is to expose the truth and tell facts about their leaders that they don’t want known. You give them some coverage, but you point out what these groups really are.”
Martinez, who has spoken at the United Nations on extremism, says that individuals who become intensely involved in the subculture usually have things in common.
“These are people who really struggle with belonging and identity,” she said. “They want to feel that their life has meaning. About 90 percent have some sort of trauma piece to it, whether that is parental conflict, drug abuse or physical abuse. We need to do a better job of looking at undesirable behavior and approaching it from a trauma-informed perspective.”
She says her turnaround began when, while on the outs with her parents, she was taken in by the mother of an Army serviceman she was dating. The woman encouraged her to see beyond self-destruction.
“She extended sympathy and compassion and took a chance on me when I did not feel deserving,” Martinez said. “She dreamed dreams for me. She never argued with me, but she would ask, ‘Don’t you just want more than this?’ For me, there was only the present, and she connected me to the resources to put other things in play.”
The process of disconnecting from the subculture, Martinez said, was a “slow undoing” that included college studies in New Mexico and still involves making amends to those she hurt.
“This lifestyle is like an abusive relationship and the feeling that you can’t leave,” Martinez said. “There’s a doubling down, because you have the feeling that no one will want you after this.”
Potok says he sees similarities between the current rise of the alt-right with the social and cultural environment of the 1920s.
“That was a time of huge change,” he says, “and it was challenging to those who weren’t comfortable with things changing so fast. It was a battle between a new and old America, and it was a time when the country flirted with fascism. The Ku Klux Klan had its largest membership in 1925 with 4 million members.
“We’re living in a similar time now, with big changes related to globalization. There are lots of changes, and lots of people who resent them.”
David Lewis, a former CNN reporter who has covered stories pertaining to the alt-right, is scheduled to moderate the panel discussion. He agrees with Potok that changes in the media landscape have contributed to the rise of such movements.
“With the bullhorn of the internet, ideas can build a following through the digital world,” Lewis says. “This used to be very covert and hidden, and that’s different now. There was no Richard Spencer figure 20 years ago.”
Potok notes that Dylann Roof, who carried out the church massacre in Charleston, S.C., in 2015 that claimed the lives of nine African American attendees at a Bible study, never had any contact with white-supremacy groups — even though he claimed the ideology as his own.
“He took it all from the internet,” Potok says.
“Alt-Right: Age of Rage”
Feb. 18, 7 p.m.
Regal Perimeter Pointe
1155 Mount Vernon Highway, Sandy Springs
Part of the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival, Feb. 6-26
Tickets and info: ajff.org