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What it takes to exit a hate group

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Posted at 10:56 AM, Sep 09, 2022
and last updated 2022-09-13 12:33:33-04

TM Garret doesn't enjoy looking at pictures of his past.

"That's me," he says as he flips through his iPad, "that was me."

They are pictures from more than 20 years ago when he was a hate group leader in Germany.

Garret was born in Germany. He says he was raised in a dysfunctional family, without a father. His mother struggled with alcoholism, and he was bullied in school.

Today, he acknowledges he could have taken a different path that didn’t involve hate.

“It started with racist jokes in a schoolyard, just very unintentional, I don’t want to play it down, I know these jokes were racist very antisemitic, but it wasn’t for the sake of hating people, it was for the sake of attention," Garret said.

The jokes turned into more, and his hate grew.

“By the end, I was a Holocaust denier, I was an antisemite. I was the leader of a KKK group in Europe. Neo-Nazi skinhead musician I toured all over Europe and the U.S.,” Garret said.

Garret said was involved in hate groups from his early teens to mid-twenties. He says by the time he moved to the United States in 2002, he had been out of hate groups for a decade.

Today, he says he sees hate groups recruiting young people who are troubled like he was. 

“All of a sudden, they have these people there, they seem understanding and they're like, 'Oh, we know how you feel, I’ve been there,'” Garret said.

There are 1,221 hate groups operating across the country, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC).

The number of hate groups has declined over the past three years, but the SPLC says individual hate groups are growing in size, and extremist ideas have become more mainstream. 

"It took me years to become a full-blown antisemite and believe in conspiracy theories," Garret said. "If you walk ten miles into the forest, guess what— it takes ten miles to walk out.”

Garret works to help people leave extremist groups through his Memphis-based nonprofit C.H.A.N.G.E.

Romey Muns, a former white supremacist prison gang member, began receiving help from Garret in 2019. He wanted to change after getting out of prison.

“Not only is my past embarrassing, it’s not who I am anymore, and when you walk around with that, and people look at you, it’s like shame. It’s shameful," Muns said.

Garret has helped Muns get most of the racist tattoos covered. Part of Garret's work is a program to identify artists who will do the work for free.

Covering tattoos is just one part of de-radicalizing people, according to Garret. He adds that changing viewpoints can take months or years.

"Just leaving a hate group doesn’t make you an anti-racist all of sudden. Not only do you have to get your head out of the hate, you have to get the hate out of your head," Garret said.

Garret's business partner is someone who, at first, people may not expect.

Ray Johnson, who is Black, is a former street gang member. He's now a pastor.

“We have the same similarities of wanting to see change and get out of the former life. Me, former gang. He, former Klansman,” Johnson said.

Johnson admits some people are surprised when they see Garret and him working together.

“I try to look at figure out that person. Is it something that they really want to do?” Ray said. “Seeing people who have the opportunity to see the truth and whether they stay that way is their choice."

The pair believes the most effective tool in fighting against hate is meeting it with humanity.

“Open the box and see the human being have a conversation without blaming, without shaming, without guilt. Make it clear, 'I don’t like your ideology, but you’re a human being. I have no problem with you as a human being,'" Garret said.