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Friday, December 3, 2021

‘I could have been a racist killer’


In his late teens, Mike became a Nazi. Now, only six years later, he is a supporter of Black Lives Matter – and it worries him deeply to think how close he came, at the angriest stage of his life, to going out with his gun and shooting people.

Mike could tell the man who had just fallen to the ground was going to die when they locked eyes for a brief moment. It was a tense night in downtown Oakland, and the wind was stinging with tear gas, whipping palm trees into a frenzy.

Protests in support of Black Lives Matter erupted across the United States three days after the murder of George Floyd.

Mike and his girlfriend had been protesting, but as night fell and the police began firing rubber bullets and tear gas, they decided to leave. They were walking back to their car through streets filled with the black smoke of burning garbage cans when they noticed a white van pull up. They then heard gunshots.

As the van pulled away, a uniformed man slumped to the ground. Mike approached him, trying to recall the first aid training he had received in the military. When a police car arrived, a jittery officer with a gun jumped out and ordered Mike to leave.

Later, he learned that Dave Patrick Underwood, a federal officer who had been stationed outside the courthouse, had died at the scene. More than a year later, Mike is still haunted by the fact that he could not do more to save him.

Mike had a connection to Underwood by chance; he had marched that day with members of his family.

He was, however, linked to the man who was later charged with his murder. Steven Carillo was a sergeant at the California Air Force base where Mike had enlisted only a few years before.

That wasn’t the end of it.

Mike was hiding something. At home, he had a uniform made of grey-green khaki fabric, with a Nazi symbol on the collar, in his wardrobe.

Mike left it hanging to remind himself of the person he once was, someone who wanted to go out and kill people.

Mike, like Carillo, had fallen down the rabbit hole of extremism, becoming a supporter of America’s violent far-right.

Mike watched as the first wave of Black Lives Matter protests swept across the United States in the summer before his senior year of high school, but taking part was the furthest thing from his mind. “I mistook them for Satan incarnate,” he says.

He’d just made a new friend through an online messaging group. Mike was invited to Paul’s (not his real name) home, where he lived with his parents. It was a typical house on a quiet cul-de-sac in an affluent suburb of a major American city. They were getting together to “shoot some propaganda videos.”

Paul, dressed in full Nazi uniform, pushed open the door. He drove Mike directly to his garage. “It was like a Nazi clothing store,” Mike says. The walls were strewn with weapons, including ammunition, cartridges, and a slew of guns.”

Paul had enlisted the help of a few other young men for the shoot. They piled guns and ammunition into a truck and drove to the nearby hills.

“We were in a state park firing semi-automatic and automatic weapons while filming and running around in Nazi uniforms,” Mike explains. The park rangers then appeared. Paul was irritated.

“He was just standing there, and he wasn’t having any of it.” He’s not going to listen to this government official telling him that he can’t do what he thinks he’s entitled to do: make videos and pretend to be the Wehrmacht [Nazi Germany’s armed forces].”

The rangers confiscated all the guns they saw, but the boys had hidden some of them and simply loaded them back into the truck when they were alone again. They then returned to Paul’s house and hung out with his parents while still dressed in Nazi uniforms.

Mike was 17 at the time, and he claims he had become the ideal vessel for toxic extremism.

He had grown up in a small, rural, mostly white town. Days were spent kayaking on the lake or cycling around town with his close friends. Adults and children would socialise together, and dinner parties and barbecues were impromptu. It was a place where everyone knew everyone else.

Mike’s stepfather, on the other hand, was an alcoholic who could lash out violently, and when Mike was 12, his mother divorced and moved the children to another part of the country.

Mike found himself in a sweltering, multi-racial urban neighbourhood, which he despised. “There were people there who looked nothing like anyone I’d ever seen before, the food was different, the water tasted different, everything was completely different.”

They were also much poorer now, and Mike’s close friend, despite his violent outbursts, never followed through on a promise to visit the children.

All of this enraged Mike, and he found an outlet for his rage in the alt-right.

Mike began listening to right-wing talk show host Sean Hannity after being encouraged by a friend’s father, and when he searched for similar content online, he discovered alt-right videos and podcasts on Facebook and YouTube. Social media algorithms were already causing what is known as the rabbit-hole effect, which led him to increasingly extreme content.

He was told here, for example, that divorce was a Jewish plot to destroy the ideal white family. “For whatever reason, it was easier for me to believe that than that my stepfather was a degenerate alcoholic,” he says.

Mike eventually migrated to the internet’s darkest corners, to white nationalist message boards on 4chan and 8chan. According to Mike, these sites were similar to a social club for racists, Nazis, and white nationalists, where people could say the N-word while getting to know one another. He began exchanging messages with a group of neo-Nazis in the San Francisco Bay area, which led him to Paul’s doorstep that summer afternoon.

“I was just looking for a place to vent my rage,” Mike explains. “And it found the ideal home.”

Short presentational grey line

Mike graduated from high school a year later. When he was denied admission to his preferred universities, he stated that he would join the Navy instead, but his mother was opposed to the idea. They decided on a completely different course of action: Mike would attend a business school in London.

Mike expected bowler hats and gentlemen in the UK; his image of London was something out of a Victorian novel. The reality, however, was quite different. His school was in Whitechapel, which had a thriving Muslim community.

“I was an 18-year-old radical white nationalist who was deeply fearful and Islamophobic, and I arrived in Whitechapel in a flat sandwiched between the Royal London Hospital and the East London Mosque,” he says. “I didn’t see the diversity there as a positive thing; I saw it as an example of everything wrong with the world.”

Mike sank deeper and deeper into white nationalism during his time in London. He spent most of his time online, stalking and harassing American left-wing celebrities with a group of other extremists for months, but he also walked up to a mosque and left a packet of bacon on the doorstep one day.

He stopped attending classes, and after a few months, he received notice from the Home Office that his student visa would be revoked.

He was on his way to meet some friends at a pub on Parliament Square one afternoon in April 2017. Passengers on the train were informed that Westminster station had been closed due to a police operation and that they needed to get off at the station before.

At 70 mph, a vehicle mounted the footpath on Westminster Bridge and mowed down pedestrians. The driver then exited the vehicle and stabbed a police officer, killing six people and injuring 50 others. Mike emerged from the Tube station to a frenzy. The image of two children wrapped in foil blankets handed out by emergency personnel is seared into his mind.

IS was still a potent force in the Middle East at this point. It claimed responsibility for the attack, one of several carried out across Europe while it was at its most powerful.

The next day, Mike attempted to enlist in the military. Some of the white nationalists he had been communicating with online were military men, and he took their lead. He was turned down by the RAF because of his nationality, but he was back in California within weeks, enlisting with the USAF.

“I had been supercharged, like seriously supercharged. I mean, there was no question in my mind that I wanted to go to someone else’s country, whether it was Iraq or Afghanistan, put on a uniform, pick up a gun, and murder them.”

In the weeks leading up to his military training, he spent hours in his garage, full of rage, drinking and chain-smoking cigarettes.

“I almost always carried a gun,” he says. “And I was at the point where if you told me to do something, I’d do it.”

He now fears that he could have become a Steven Carillo during that time period, though there was another incident later in 2020 when this feeling hit him with particular ferocity.

A few months after the Oakland protests, rioting erupted in Kenosha, Wisconsin, after a black man was shot by police.

Kyle Rittenhouse, a 17-year-old boy, travelled to the city armed with an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle to join a vigilante group formed to defend the city from what an organiser referred to as “evil thugs.” He shot three people and is now on trial for intentional homicide and endangering safety recklessly.

Mike found it difficult to read about.

“When I look at that young teenager, I think, ‘Wow, that was really close to being me,'” he says.

In February of this year, the Pentagon issued a “stand down” order against extremism, directing military leaders to address extremism in their troops. Simultaneously, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin established a working group to identify “insider threats” and announced that prospective recruits would now be screened for extremist affiliations.

Early analyses of those arrested in the Capitol Hill riots on January 6 suggested a troubling proportion were acting or former servicemen and women, including Ashli Babbitt, an Air Force veteran who was killed by a police officer as she attempted to break through a barricaded door.

A 2020 Military Times online poll of 1,108 readers on active duty, found that just under a third had seen signs of racist or white supremacist behaviour within the military.

Apart from Steve Carillo, those charged with crimes in 2020 included US Army private Ethan Melzer, accused of preparing the ground for a deadly ambush on his unit by sending information to a neo-Nazi group, and three extremist veterans accused of carrying Molotov cocktails to throw at police during a Black Lives Matter protest in Las Vegas.

But, perhaps surprisingly, Mike’s journey out of far-right extremism would begin in the military.

He was in the second month of his training in late 2017, stationed deep in the Missouri woods.

“I was just stuck in the middle of nowhere with people from all over the country – including black guys, Jewish guys, and a guy from Guam who taught me how to spear fish,” he explains. “I was making friends with people I would never have thought of as friends before.”

Military boot camp was difficult for him. The hours were long, and the lack of autonomy – the control his superiors had over his every move – was difficult to bear.

“It’s one thing to be some kid chain-smoking and reading 4chan and getting riled up in your garage,” he explains. “And then you find yourself in the middle of nowhere, on an Air Force base you can’t leave, with people screaming at you.”

He was unhappy and attempted to leave basic training six times in eight weeks. His mother wasn’t speaking to him, and he suspects she was aware he had joined the military for the wrong reasons.

Letters were a lifeline for recruits, but Mike received none in the first five weeks. Mike sat alone, wallowing in his misery, when the other trainees had time each week to read their letters.

Another recruit, who was black, noticed this one day. “Hey man,” he said as he picked up a Bible. “Let us all pray together.”

It was one of many small gestures that helped Mike get through basic training and, eventually, changed his outlook on life.

“Why are you assisting me?” Mike pondered. “I assumed you intended to destroy me.”

Over the next few weeks, this recruit and another young Jewish man would comfort Mike in his darkest hours, with a friendly pat on the back or a quiet, “Hey man, you can do this.”

He was also removed from the echo chamber that had been reinforcing his racist beliefs during training. He didn’t have time to go online, and without the toxic propaganda that had filled his days, hate began to loosen its grip on him.

Mike knew he didn’t want to be in the military by the time he finished basic training. He worked at an Air Force base for several months, but he was deeply depressed.

He was at his lowest point just before being sent to Afghanistan.

“I was aware that I was going to be deployed. I was under a lot of pressure, [there was] just too much alcohol one night, and I had access to a firearm.”

He came dangerously close to committing suicide and was placed on unpaid medical leave. It’s a difficult episode for him to talk about.

Although basic training helped Mike break away from extremism, Mike believes it is not a coincidence that many of those involved in far-right violence in recent years have served in the military.

He believes that some extremists, like himself, may join the military in search of an opportunity to kill people of a different race.

Max’s USAF uniform and Nazi uniform handing side by side in his room

Others, he claims, join because they believe the training will help them overthrow the government, while a third group becomes disillusioned and radicalised as a result of their time in the ranks.

“They feel exploited, misunderstood, and lied to,” he says.

One of these is a friend Mike saw on social media supporting an anti-government militia group. “He served for 16 to 20 years and he’s been to two wars – two wars about a lie,” Mike says, referring to the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Last month, the Institute for Strategic Dialogue published a report on far-right extremists’ use of the messaging app Telegram to discuss the military.They found a small number of extremists claimed to be veterans, but they also saw that the military was generally discussed in a negative light. “This is largely due to the perception that the US’s interventions abroad serve Israeli interests rather than those of the white race,” the report says.

Mike also started to believe that America’s wars were pointless, but he accepted his racism was pointless too.

“I started kind of realising, about 70 years later than everybody else, that Hitler was clearly wrong,” he says.

Short presentational grey line

As Mike’s ideas on race started to change he got in touch with Christian Picciolini, a former neo-Nazi who now channels his energies into deradicalisation.

“He told me to practise empathy, non-judgment, honesty, and to always be self-reflective – essentially, to find a way to make good happen,” Mike says.

He began working at a music venue and fell in love with the punk rock scene. It was the outlet he needed for the anger he’d accumulated as a result of his turbulent childhood. Punk ended up being his saviour.

“One of the most important factors in getting me out was my punk rock community. I believe it is critical to have an outlet and a group where you feel like you belong. However, a constructive group, “he claims.

Mike did not return to the military after his medical leave expired and was classified as Awol. Then, to his surprise, he was honourably discharged last December.

He worries that extremism still has a hold on him. Mike was working in a deli when it was robbed by two young black men and an older woman was assaulted; when he tried to stop them, they pulled out a gun. Later that night, Mike recognised the same ugly, dehumanising, racist thoughts crowding his mind, but he fought them off.

“I’ve worked hard to be anti-racist, to be actively anti-racist. But it’s difficult, and I’m not going to pretend it isn’t.”

He saw some Americans fall deeper into the extremist rabbit hole as he clawed his way out. The Black Lives Matters protesters were not only injured in Oakland and Kenosha, and Mike was horrified by the attack on Capitol Hill.

He describes the United States as a loosely knit “union of otherwise warring clans.” “And when you decide to drop a match on it, it can quickly become extremely dangerous. I’ve already witnessed a great deal of violence.”

Mike wants people to understand how easy it is for extremist ideology to take over someone’s life in America today.

“I was a teenager in suburban California with basic internet access when I became radicalised enough to want to commit acts of violence against people because of the colour of their skin or their religion,” he says.

“The fact that I was a Nazi is something I want people to know. Not in Bavaria in 1939, but in modern-day America.”

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