After leading a neo-Nazi group for 25 years, Jeff Schoep has spent the past few years spreading the exact opposite message, one of tolerance and deradicalization, working not only to prove that his transformation is genuine but that his message is necessary.
This week, Schoep spoke at several venues in Illinois on behalf of the Simon Wiesenthal Center – Schoep is a consultant for the group, as well as the director of Beyond Barriers USA – discussing how communities can work on peace-building and reducing the threat of extremism.
“Different parts of the country have different issues,” Schoep said, “but in Chicago, there’s anti-semitism, racism, things of that nature, so the work we’re doing very relevant here.”
Polarization in America is something that more broadly has helped engender a climate ripe for joining radical groups, Schoep said, adding that everyone has a friend or family susceptible to radical beliefs.
“We see people drifting away from the center,” Schoep said. “There is this sense you have to pick sides, you have to tribe up. That is where the work gets really challenging for us. This is not a fringe issue. It’s not just about me or my story. This is about getting America off this path of dehumanizing one another.”
While many of the radical beliefs within these groups are sincere, a lot of the appeal of white supremacist or alt-right groups is their community dynamic, and that in turn can make it a challenge to draw people away, as they can see themselves as being traitors or losing valuable friendships, Schoep said.
“There’s a lot of complexities,” Schoep said. “But it’s not right to stay in that life.”
While Schoep said his parents were very much against his work with the National Socialist Movement, he had a grandfather and great-uncles in the Third Reich, and he eventually became fascinated with that aspect of family history.
“For a lot of people, it can be past trauma or that sense of belonging,” Schoep said of joining such groups. “For some, it’s political. Maybe they were attacked by a minority at some point. Each individual has different reasons why they join. I wasn’t taught to hate growing up, but I became ideologically committed. It becomes all encompassing, like a cult.”
Schoep said he chaffed at the word cult when people told him at the time, that was what he was part of, adding that it is difficult from the inside to see what everyone else sees as being obviously radical ideology.
One of his most recent skeptics-turned-believers is former McHenry County Board Chairman Jack Franks, who met Schoep earlier this month.
“I really wanted to see and learn about the ‘face of hate,’ ” said Franks, who is Jewish. “I had a lot of preconceived notions about Jeff, which were 100% wrong. I lost family in the Holocaust, so for me, this is intensely personal.”
Schoep’s story of how he left the National Socialist Movement behind and renounced it is a story of “love beating hate,” the Marengo Democrat and former state representative said.
McHenry County itself is not bereft of prejudice, Franks said, adding he’d like to invite Schoep back at some point to speak.
“Racism is a live and well here,” Franks said. “It’s reared its ugly head the past few years. The polarization in politics has been getting worse. People are emboldened by hate speech and ignorance. Nobody is immune.”
For Schoep, the key to reducing extremism is fostering dialogue and for individuals, it’s better to have one-on-one conversations, hearing what someone else has to say. That is how Schoep said he himself felt he really turned around his views.
Two people who Schoep said particularly helped him question his former life were speaker and activist Daryl Davis and filmmaker Deeyah Khan, who spent a lot of time talking with Schoep while working on the 2017 film “White Right: Meeting the Enemy.”
One reason some have expressed skepticism about Schoep’s change is the timing of his renouncement: Schoep publicly denounced the National Socialist Movement around the same time he was named in a lawsuit, seeking damages from white supremacist groups that instigated violence in 2017 in Charlottesville.
Schoep confirmed that he was in Charlottesville, but like the rest of his earlier life with the NSM, he regretted having been part of it.
A jury in U.S. District Court awarded the plaintiffs with $26 million in punitive damages in 2021, but earlier this month, Virginia District Court Judge Norman K. Moon trimmed that down to $350,000 plus $2 million on compensatory awards, court records show.
Schoep, who individually was ordered to pay just under $7,300 in punitive damages, said he did not spend much time thinking about the civil suit, and instead he was “focused on the positive work that I have chosen to do for humanity.”
Schoep was adamant that his new peace-building mission was not “temporary” and that the way he saw it, he was taking his organization-building skills and knowledge and putting them towards a positive, meaningful use.
“The best way to answer [skeptics] is through actions and deeds,” Schoep said. “If I wasn’t sincere, I wouldn’t be doing this work. And once you leave that life behind, there’s no going back. I’m just trying to repair some of the damage done for the life I once led.”