Decades ago in a small town in Germany, a young Achim Schmid wondered who he was – what was his identity? With divorced parents, which was unheard of at the time, an alcoholic mother and siblings more than 10 years older than him, he felt alone.
He started acting out for attention, and eventually earned the label “Nazi kid” as his school – a name he wasn’t fond of, but was better than being bullied.
“Nobody likes to be bullied. I didn’t. And I would’ve done anything to make it stop. Literally anything.” Achim Schmid became a white nationalist and Ku Klux Klan leader in Germany.
On Tuesday, T.M. Garret, as he is now known, told an audience at the National Museum of American Jewish Military History, how he cut all ties with white supremacy and became an anti-racist activist, working with others who want to leave extremism behind.
Love and understanding are the most helpful tools in achieving de-radicalization, he said.
“I know it’s a lot to ask the Jewish community to show compassion to a kid who draws a swastika on the floor,” Garret said.
But that’s what it took to help draw the poison from him.
“Show compassion to extremists,” Garret said, pointing out that it’s the last thing extremists expect to receive from someone in a group they are taught is the enemy. “People don’t talk to each other anymore. You need to find common ground.”
Receiving compassion puzzles extremists, he said, and makes them see that maybe people from those groups —Jews, African-Americans, Muslims —are just like everyone else.
This is what happened for Garret when he moved 100 miles away from his hometown to gain distance from the white nationalist groups. He and his then-wife and children moved into a small house whose landlord was a Turkish Muslim.
His mind began to open slowly, as he got to know his landlord — and eventually he realized that this Turkish Muslim was just a nice person, no violent reactions, no hateful speech. Just nice.
“I felt so wrong, I felt so small, I felt so ashamed. I thought he was the bad guy, but I was the bad guy,” Garret said. “For the first time I saw one of my former enemies as a human being. I didn’t see the Muslim anymore. I didn’t see the Turk anymore. I just saw my landlord.”
In his anti-extremism work, Garret started a partnership with tattoo parlors in six states to help rework and cover up extremist and gang tattoos for free. On top of that, he introduces transitioning white nationalists to minorities to help them understand the people they once hated.
Justin O’Shea attended the talk and said Americans don’t normally think of the KKK being at work in Germany. But Garret’s experience is similar to others’ O’Shea works with at Parents for Peace, an organization that helps families of people who turn to extremism.
“The ideology tends to be fluid. Like there are certain people that are extreme in everything they do, no matter what it is,” O’Shea said. “So if they’re gonna be an extreme white supremacist, that’s what they’re gonna do. But if they scrap that and become an extreme Communist, on the other side of the spectrum, that’s what they’re gonna do.”
Even now, 15 years after cutting all ties with white supremacy, Garret said he is still learning and feels like he hasn’t done enough. Garret said he only began to develop relationships with the Jewish community about a year ago, after the synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh.
After an audience member pointed out the ease of hating on social media, Garret said it’s hard on social media.
“Sometimes I want to pull people through the screen and punch them in the face,” he said.
But trying to help these individuals — and understand that their fears feel valid to them —rather than shut them out is important, Garret said.
“We can dislike what they’re standing for, but we should never hate a human being, because then we’re not better than them.”