[S|A|V|E] Summit Against Violent Extremism Recap – June 27-29, 2011 (Dublin, Ireland)
When, several months ago, I was approached about attending the Summit Against Violent Extremism (S|A|V|E) in Dublin, Ireland, I cannot honestly say that I did not feel apprehensive or that I did not have a certain amount of trepidation in relation to what, if anything, would actually take place at said event. Who in their right mind would bring together such a diverse, and quite possibly, problematic group of individuals? The individuals having been pulled from some of the most violent extremist groups the world has ever seen: former jihadists; former inner-city gang members; former right-wing extremists; former nationalist extremists; former members of other religious extremist groups, just to name a few examples. Did they not realize the possible ramifications and dangers that could be involved? Would the denizens of Ireland not only allow this type of gathering to take place, but would they even allow us passage into their country without some degree of protest? That is to say that, while I have had a drastic turn around in my own life I am still a convicted criminal. Not just a criminal, but a convicted violent criminal, as were many of the other former extremists that had been invited to attend this summit. This reason alone begged the question; would I be turned around at immigration?
For months following the initial, not quite official, invitation to attend this event, I heard very little else about it. At times I figured it must have been a joke, or perhaps even, that the sponsors of said event, namely Google Ideas, the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), along with the Tribeca Film Festival, might have realized that a gathering of this sort may not work. As even the best of us cannot help doing at different times in our lives and in relation to different things, I had formed this preconceived notion of what to expect from such a gathering, if it even took place. I was slightly unnerved about having received such a small amount of information about it and figured I would just continue with my daily affairs and wait for it to fall apart.
Quite surprised, I began receiving small increments of information; A vague web site to look over, a request to register myself for the event. Upon registration I started hearing from this small army of Google employees, so much so that from week to week I had to keep notes for myself as a reminder of who I had spoken to and about what aspect of the conference. I began to tell a few close friends and family members about the event. An event that was seemingly pulling itself together in, what seemed to me, just a matter of weeks. As the date approached there was suddenly a veritable flood of information from several different directions. There were press releases, news articles, biographies of the other individuals who would be attending, and just when I least expected it, an invitation to sit on a panel in front of everyone else at this conference. It was also at this time that I began to realize that there were also going to be survivors attending this summit. Survivors being, men and women who were victims of extremist violence, a direct result of the type(s) of extremist groups that many formers attending the summit had once been involved. It was at that point that I truly hit my “oh shit” moment. Things began getting extremely tense for me about 3 days before my departure for Dublin when I truly began to realize the magnitude of what was being attempted at S|A|V|E.
Truth be told, even once I realized that this was to be a real event and that it was far from being a joke, I still clung to my irrational thoughts, fears and apprehensions. Although these feelings did begin to reform themselves and take on differing implications, I would not be true to myself, nor would I be honoring all of the remarkable individuals that I met, were I not honest about these fears and worries. One of my biggest concerns was that we would not get along with one another; that we were from such diverse backgrounds and belief systems that we would not agree on particular issues. Another unfounded fear was that the above mentioned differences would prove to be what kept us separate; that we really did not have much in common. In line with these fears was another that I had a truly hard time even wrapping my head around: How were the survivors of extremist violence going to accept those of us who were at one time perpetrators of extremist violence? Having at one time been a perpetrator of extremist violence myself, I could only imagine the worst. Was I ever wrong!
I also clung to a certain amount of fear when I thought of the formers that had defected from the same groups and lifestyle that I was once a part of. Would it be some kind of ‘I was a better skinhead than you’ competition? Would there be a sense of antagonism in that we all do, relatively, the same type of work. And more so than any of my other fears, I worried that I would not fit in with them because, well obviously, they are all men and I am not. There are varying degrees of sexism involved in the racist underground, from the most developed ideas commonly found in contemporary society to the smaller arguments taking place in homes and over dinner tables. Would these former, hardcore racist skinheads direct me back to my little corner of the world with a laugh and a shake of the head? None of my fears came to fruition in this regard. In fact, I gained a whole new branch of family in meeting T.J. Leyden, Christian Picciolini, Frankie Meeink, Arno Michaels, Tony McAleer, Tim Zaal and Sammy Rangel. They extended the hand of friendship and opened themselves up to me in a way that I never expected. Happily, I embrace them in friendship and with a renewed drive to continue reaching out to the world, carrying forth a message of peace and harmony.
To be quite honest, I was proven incorrect on just about every count and not only admit, but also accept that I succumbed to unfounded fears. In actuality, I found the antithesis of what I expected to find. Not only were we all able to get along, quite well I might add, despite our many differences, but beyond that we stumbled upon so many commonalities among us; so many of the same motivating factors for the kinds of violence in which we found ourselves respectively engaged at one time. Amazingly, whether nationalist extremist, religious extremist, guerrilla fighter, racist extremist or a former member of an inner city gang, we are all human and seeking many of the same things: identity, belonging, love. It has never in my life been clearer to me that we are, indeed, all part of the same human family.
Arriving at this realization was not the difficult task that one may assume. In fact, it was something palpable that could be felt by everyone in attendance. One need only observe the conversations taking place during S|A|V|E, witness the beginning of the multiple friendships that were coming into existence or listen to one of the many, truly moving panel discussions. It was noticeable that each panel discussion took aim at the core questions and elucidated the key concepts that drove this Summit into being. Some of the key aspects of this summit are recognizable in the panel titles alone: Finding Common Ground Among Different Extremes. Patterns of Radicalization: Common Origins but Different Extremes. Crossing the Threshold: Justifying and Renouncing Violence. Fostering De-Radicalization: Countering Risks and Increasing Rewards. Understanding Ideology and Identity as Part of the Radicalization Process. Colombia: Leveraging Formers and Turning the Tide Against Violent Extremism. Deformed Social Network. Changing Directions: Countering Violent Extremism with Positive Activism.
These moving panel discussions were supplemented with even more poignant personal testimonials. For instance, one personal testimonial materialized as part of a performance. A young man used poetry and magic to explicate his defection from a gang. In another instance, the over 200 attendees heard from a woman whose son is incarcerated for his alleged participation in a terrorist organization and plot. As I looked around me during many of these panels and discussions it was obvious that survivors and formers alike were moved to tears by this sharing of information and maybe even more so by the fact that we were all able to join one another in the spirit of forgiveness. The once corporeal lines in the sand, if you will, that once separated us one from the other, melted away with the dawning comprehension that we were granted the power to truly effect positive change in this world.
So, what did I learn at the Summit Against Violent Extremism? I learned that with this profound collection of experiences, coupled with this network of extraordinary individuals, in conjunction with a positive deployment of technology, we can bridge the gap in terms of distance, language, religion and divergent belief systems. As mentioned above, I (re-) learned a lesson that I assumed was now beyond me – do not enter into relationships or situations that take one out of his/her own comfort zone with preconceived notions, it is not only a disservice to oneself but also to those one may meet along the way. I now realize that we have so much to learn from one another, both on a personal as well as academic level. Much time and effort has been spent identifying the differences between extremist groups. Perhaps that is not the answer. Instead, we should approach the issue of violent extremism through a new lens, one that identifies and explores the commonalities between us. Finally, I realized that similarly to many other social networks and identities, women’s voices and experiences are more commonly than not overlooked. The role of women involved in extremist groups is multifaceted, from the idea that we are to be strong and oftentimes violent activists to the thought that we are to simultaneously embrace a woman’s place in the larger world. It is with these thoughts (and many others) that I have decided to change my own direction on this path. If nothing else, the Summit Against Violent Extremism has emphasized the fact that the world of academia, and really, the world in general, would find much benefit in a departure from the rigid world where quantitative applications are utilized to explicate human experience.
Beyond what I learned during the course of the Summit Against Violent Extremism, I am coming away from this a truly wealthy woman. While I can only speak for myself, I am confident that my fellow attendees would agree with me when I say that we came away from S|A|V|E enriched beyond anything any one of us may have imagined going in to this experience. Not only did we make history, we are coming away from this experience as a network of individuals the likes of which the world has never seen, dedicated to ending violence, and armed not with guns or bombs, but with knowledge, respect and love for humankind.
Growing up in South Florida, Angela King struggled with her identity. She became confused about the messages she received from her church and family on issues like sexual identity and racial stereotypes. Disenfranchised, Angela began acting out and felt welcomed for the first time by a group of racist Skinheads: "They were angry and hated everyone. They made me feel like part of a family." Entrenched in the racist underground, crime became an increasingly important part of Angela's life. Though the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing made Angela reconsider her beliefs, she knew that abandoning her Skinhead affiliates would result in retaliation. Angela was arrested in 1998 and sentenced to six years in prison for her part in an armed robbery of a Jewish-owned store. Angela was released from prison three years early, in 2001, for good behavior and cooperation with the authorities. She has since graduated from the University of Central Florida with an M.A. in Interdisciplinary Studies. Angela routinely works as a keynote speaker, consultant, correspondent, and character educator in schools, communities, religious centers and elsewhere. She has been interviewed by the Southern Poverty Law Center, National Public Radio, and the National Resource Center for Racial Healing, among others, and has received several recognitions and awards for her dedication and support of Prejudice Reduction, Building Communities of Justice, as well as Holocaust education. Some of Angela's recent activities and work include: delegate and panelist at the Google Summit Against Violent Extremism, held in Dublin, Ireland, in June 2011; panelist at a 9/11 related commemoration event sponsored by the Department of Homeland Securities' Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism program, held in Washington D.C. in September 2011; Editor In Chief and Character Educator at LifeAfterHate.org; and is currently writing a memoir vis-á-vis her time inside and out of the racist underground.