Charlottesville Revisited – Unity after Tragedy
“Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.” Martin Luther King, Jr.
Violence erupted in Charlottesville on Aug. 12, 2017, after hundreds of white nationalists and their supporters clashed with counter-protesters. At one point in the afternoon, a vehicle drove into a crowd of counter-protesters before speeding away, resulting in the death of Heather Heyer, and leaving more than a dozen others injured.
Diving out of the way of the deadly vehicle was peace activist Ken Nwadike, Jr., known online as the Free Hugs Guy. On the other side, the leader of the largest neo-Nazi organization in America, Jeff Schoep, marched for white supremacy. Since that time, Ken has lectured across the nation and worked to bring humans together for conversations of love and change. Jeff Schoep has renounced the organization he once led, and now works tirelessly to fight hate and create understanding as a consultant for the Simon Wiesenthal Organization.
In this important lecture and conversation, Ken and Jeff come together to discuss the events of that day, what led them to that moment, and the paths we can all take to End Hate and prevent future tragedies.
Ken E. Nwadike, Jr., is a peace activist, motivational speaker, and video journalist known as the Free Hugs Guy online. Nwadike Jr is the founder of the Free Hugs Project, which produces motivational videos to spread love, inspire change, and raise awareness of social issues. His ‘Free Hugs’ videos have reached hundreds of millions of views on Facebook and YouTube.
Once a homeless athlete himself, Ken is a leader who exemplifies resiliency and the power to pivot, creating a PPE company during the pandemic to protect his loved ones and those at risk who could not find them. He began the Black and Blue Podcast in 2020 with Sherriff Chris Swanson to make Unity cool and engage students in the civil discourse necessary for us all to move forward. With so many feeling alone due to the impact of COVID-19, Ken has the power to create truly important connections and positive human interaction .
In 2014, Nwadike launched the Free Hugs Project to spread love in response to the bombing of the Boston Marathon. The Free Hugs Project gained popularity in 2016, as Nwadike made major news headlines for his peace-keeping efforts and de-escalating violence during protests, riots, and political rallies. Nwadike was featured in Google’s 2016 Year in Search video as a highlight of some of the year’s most defining moments. Nwadike has made many appearances on news programs and radio broadcasts worldwide, including CNN, USA Today, Good Morning Britain, and BBC News. Ken has spoken at hundreds of Colleges and Universities and is a favorite at high-schools and corporations.
Jeff Schoep is known to many as if he were several different people: a native Minnesotan from a stable, caring family, a business owner, the former National Leader of the largest neo-Nazi organization in America, and a man who sat down with two victims of hate groups and racism, both assaulted and injured in childhood – and walked away from extremism forever, as a result. Indisputably, in 2021, extremism is the #1 issue in the US (and in many other countries). Articles and reports and studies on extremism and terrorism have been churned out in mainstream media and academic publications since 9/11, with few to no discernible outcomes or progress. Reasons? Extremist leaders don’t talk – except when they are promoting propaganda, giving ultimatums or taking credit for attacks. It is incredibly rare for an extremist leader to exit and be willing to take up the task of counter-extremism, much less a leader of 25 years. In short, there is no such leader available to tell the public what is actually going on in these groups, how they are founded, structured and maintained, and how they disintegrate – except for Jeff Schoep.
There have been notable and highly respected former jihadists or inspirational speakers who were involved directly or deeply with extremist or terrorist groups. They are backed by law enforcement, or the lucky academic researcher whose emails they answered, and endorsed on stages world-wide, but were not the main actors responsible for the totality of damage their respective groups have done. Most were the crew, initiates, foot-soldiers, or lone wolf actors, but because they are more accessible, the narrative they carry are all that the public ever hears. Jeff Schoep changes that. His lived experience challenges long-standing assumptions in research and in public opinion. He was an enigma. Federal agencies were baffled by him. After leaving the National Socialist Movement in 2019, he publicly denounced his former ideology and went through the grueling process of recovering his humanity, his compassion and himself. His message, insights and warnings about misjudging or ignoring extremism are vital, and he is one of the only former leaders willing to deliver them.
Jeff Schoep transitioned from mastering propaganda that promoted hatred and fear to total dedication to the truth. He knows that only those who were leading and those who were at the core of these groups know the truth – the reality behind all the speculation on why people join, why they stay and why they leave. To combat alarming escalations in extremism globally, we need truth. Jeff Schoep emerges into the public eye not as a sensationalized celebrity, not as a re-radicalized “convert,” not as a “story,” but as someone who can expose the inner workings of notorious extremist groups and reveal what it’s like to be in, what it’s like to be out, and what it’s like to help formers reclaim empathy and open-mindedness and come to terms with their own personal truths.
Currently, his organization, Beyond Barriers USA, is conducting in-house research and launching a unique intervention program that is the subject of a two-year study in counter-extremism. Beyond Barriers USA is the first of its kind to be directed and managed exclusively by former extremists and militant activists from diverse cultures, countries, social status and eras. Now a counter-extremism trainer, advisor, and presenter, Jeff Schoep tirelessly holds talks, lectures and workshops from his unique vantage point. He once was infamous – today, he is deadly serious about combating extremism. “For every former I help exit, there are potentially thousands of people who won’t become their victims.” – Jeff Schoep