by Beth Dolinar, contributing writer
In the last fifteen months, men espousing white supremacist and racist ideology have murdered dozens of people, both near and far—in El Paso, Texas, Christchurch, New Zealand and, closest to home, at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood.
Each of those attacks has brought questions about why a person could hate enough to murder strangers. What happens to a man that would make him walk into a place of worship on a peaceful morning, with the goal of killing as many people as possible?
It’s a question that continues to reverberate through our communities in the wake of these senseless acts of violence. What turns a person to hate?
Shannon Foley Martinez says it’s probably not what you think. And she speaks from personal experience.
Foley Martinez, a 45-year-old mother of seven from Georgia, was in Pittsburgh last November, to speak to students at the Jewish Community Center. Her trip was sponsored by Classrooms Without Borders, a provider of experiential professional development for teachers. Her message offered a personal perspective on why some young people are drawn to extremist hate groups.
“For the vast majority of these people, it’s not about ideology,” said Foley Martinez. In her explanation, she revealed who she was a lifetime ago.
From the age of 15 until she was almost 20, Foley Martinez was a neo-Nazi white supremacist skinhead. She traces her life’s dark trajectory to the night when, at age 14, she was raped at a party.
“I knew I couldn’t tell my parents,” she said. “And I knew I couldn’t bear the burden of being blamed for what happened to me.”
Rather than address the trauma, Foley Martinez turned it inward.
“After about six months I was so filled with anger and self-loathing.”
Alienated from her family and friends, Foley Martinez found community among the racist skinheads she met at punk rock concerts.
“I so desperately wanted to belong somewhere,” she said, “And I felt there was finally a place for me in all that hate.”
“Nobody is worse than Nazis, so they had to take me.”
Photos from that time show her with a shaved head, giving the stiff-armed Nazi salute. Her association with the group led her to commit what she calls “deeply hurtful” acts, including tagging swastikas in African American neighborhoods, harassing people on streets and, in one case, tossing tear gas into a gay nightclub.
“I hated everyone,” she said.
Foley Martinez says after five years in the group, she was headed for “prison or death.” It was then that her salvation came. The single mother of a friend welcomed her into her family.
Instead of seeing a hateful, angry person, “she saw a vulnerable and hurting young woman who needed a place to be,” she said.
With that help, Foley Martinez was able to abandon the hate group and its racist ideology. She went to college, married, and is raising a big family. She is the program manager for the Free Radicals Project, a non-profit that works to end extremism and hate; she’s told her story at the United Nations, and at many schools and community groups, and has helped others leave white-power hate groups.
“Trauma that is unaddressed will fester,” she said, “leading to terrible choices. Young people will be less likely to choose hatred if they feel heard and feel seen, so they won’t have to go to dark places.”
During her visit to Pittsburgh, Foley Martinez visited the Tree of Life Synagogue, where 11 people were shot and killed in October, 2018. She walked along the sidewalk, stopping to look at the murals, to read the names of the victims and the messages of support.
“If someone hadn’t reached out to help me,” she said, “that could have been me. It could have been me who murdered all those people.”
About the author: Beth Dolinar is a writer, Emmy-award winning producer, and public speaker. She writes a popular column for the Washington “Observer-Reporter.” She is a contributing producer of documentary length programming for WQED-TV on a wide range of topics. Beth has a son and a daughter. She is an avid yoga devotee, cyclist and reader. Beth says she types like lightning but reads slowly — because she likes a really good sentence.