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She went from a liberal non-voter to burning books with white supremacists. Here’s why she finally left the movement

In May 2017, Samantha went to a book burning in upstate New York. She had entered the inner circle of the modern white power movement called the alt-right, and it was the moment its activists see in retrospect as the peak of its power.

The home was classically suburban, with a picnic table and a fire pit in the backyard. The atmosphere was like a family barbecue, but she felt an air of intensity. They stood around the fire and cheered as books were tossed into the flames. Some gave Nazi salutes. Samantha did, too.

“It’s all so surreal,” Samantha says now. “You’re literally standing there, going, ‘I’m at a book burning at someone’s house. Like, there are families that live next door. There’s probably a nice person who lives across the street, and I’m burning books about Jewish people.’ … It doesn’t even feel like it’s wrong or right. It just feels unreal.”

At the time, she texted a friend that it was the best weekend of her life.

It had taken Samantha six months to go from a vaguely liberal non-voter to what she calls “a productive racist.” She is one of very few women who joined the alt-right, and an even smaller number who left and are willing to talk about it. Her story helps explain what draws people into this movement, and the misogyny that drives it.

In the fall of 2016, Samantha’s indie-rock-loving boyfriend changed. He started lifting weights and making jokes she didn’t understand. When she finally Googled them, she discovered they were based on an elaborate, violent, white supremacist fantasy called the “Day of the Rope,” in which people of color, Jews, gays and the “race traitors” who helped them, are murdered.

“I couldn’t believe it,” Samantha said. “We both knew so many people that fit that description.” Her boyfriend reassured her they were just jokes. But then, she says, he looked her in the eye and said that he was a fascist, and that he couldn’t be with anyone who wasn’t.

She started researching the alt-right — a movement that shaped old white supremacist ideas into ironic memes that spread online to a very young audience. The grotesque jokes on imageboards such as 4chan and 8chan were not her scene.

But she found something appealing in the white power activists who presented themselves as intellectuals, like Richard Spencer and Jared Taylor. Just a few weeks after her first online search, she became a dues-paying member of a white power fraternity called Identity Evropa.

That took her into the organization’s chatrooms on Discord, where some members spread similar messages to the ones that had shocked her not long before. “Like it starts as a joke where you laugh nervously. Then you kind of stop laughing, ’cause you’re used to it,” she said. “And then you start to post it yourself, because you want to be a part of that. And it’s this really quick, quick descension into that.”

Samantha, now 29, was open about her past in her interviews with CNN, but asked that her last name not be used to protect her and her family from possible violence or retribution. She now rejects white supremacy, and has joined Life After Hate, an organization that helps people leave hate groups.

CNN knows the identities of the men Samantha and other women we spoke to had close relationships with. We have verified their real names, locations and, in one case, criminal records through contemporaneous messages and public records. The women asked us not to use their names, because they’re afraid of those men and their followers.

Samantha has spoken out before. In 2018, she contacted Andrew Marantz, who was working on a book about social media and extremism that published this fall as “Anti-Social.” Marantz later reached out to me, and suggested I talk to Samantha. He gave me the iPhone she’d used during her time in the alt right. The screen was shattered. I had it fixed and began looking through it.

Samantha’s iPhone opens up the hidden world inside the white power movement, frozen in time in 2017.

And once Samantha was in, she was all the way in. She became an interviewer for Identity Evropa, testing whether new applicants were fluent in white power ideology and screening out Jews and people of color. She told herself that she wasn’t racist, just “pro-white.” She rose in the organization past her boyfriend, and they broke up. She was named women’s coordinator for IE, and ran a women’s chatroom, an essential organizing tool in a movement that’s almost entirely online.

Samantha changed her look and her demeanor. She bought dresses with full skirts and nipped-in waists, clothes with which she wanted to project an “all-American, delicate sexuality.” Samantha said, “I wanted to be more feminine, I wanted to be more desirable, I wanted to be more appreciated, I wanted to feel smart. So I just played into these roles. And the standards for how women are treated in there are pretty low, so I was able to lean into that and make that work for me.”

A photo from that time shows Samantha smiling demurely in a white dress, flanked by five white men, four of them wearing white polos with the Identity Evropa logo.

It was mid-May 2017, and Samantha had helped plan a protest now known within the white power movement as “Charlottesville 1.0.” During the day, a few dozen protesters gave speeches by the Robert E Lee memorial in the Virginia city. At night, they stood and chanted with tiki torches.

Samantha had picked the rural rental where she and other IE members stayed. It was a cabin on a winery, with two bedrooms and a deck with an extra dining area. “I thought it would be funny if [anti-fascist activists] wanted to chase us out of town… you know like, ‘Oh these big scary Nazis retreated to a vineyard.’ I thought it would be profoundly ironic.”

There wasn’t much interest from the mainstream media, or violence at the rally. But the images the rallygoers posted on social media were dramatic, and they inspired the Unite the Right rally now often referred to as “Charlottesville” three months later, where a counterprotester was killed and two state troopers patrolling near the site of clashes died in a helicopter crash.

“After that I was in,” she says. “I was in the movement. It felt so good to be an activist, to be in the movement.”

A couple weeks after the gathering in May, she was taken to the book-burning by a rising leader within Identity Evropa who was trying to impress her by introducing her to white supremacist “celebrities.”

The party was hosted by men associated with The Right Stuff, a group that makes podcasts that are something like drive-time radio shows obsessed with race science. It was attended by Richard Spencer, who gained national notoriety when he declared “Hail Trump” to a crowd doing Nazi salutes shortly after the 2016 election. There was an array of other men most people have never heard of but who are famous in the racist podcasting world. Samantha filmed one of them throwing a book into the fire.

Spencer told CNN: “I don’t remember the event.” He added: “I’ve been to lots of parties and seen plenty of wild stuff.” When CNN talked to The Right Stuff’s Mike “Enoch” Peinovich, he declined to comment on the book burning.

“The people that you hear on the podcasts, and people that you see making the speeches, and going on different news shows, are showing up at these parties. So you feel like you’re meeting a rock star,” Samantha said. “It also encourages you to stay, incentivizes you to stick around. You could be the next big name in the movement if you meet the right person.”

Even as Samantha thought she was rising through the ranks, she was aware of a meme known as white sharia, a misogynistic twist on Muslim religious code. The “joke” is that white women are ruining Western civilization through promiscuity and voting for liberals, so the only way to save it is to impose Sharia law on women and, in the supremacists’ twisted view of Sharia, treat them like property.

A flyer at the book-burning said “WHITE SHARIA ZONE. THOTS MUST WEAR HIJAB AT ALL TIMES.” (A “thot” is slang racists have enthusiastically ripped from hip-hop; it means “that ho over there,” or a woman who seeks attention through her sexuality.) Samantha took a picture of it. She is holding it with French-manicured fingernails.

Shortly after the party, one of several that summer, Samantha’s new boyfriend was doxxed. His personal information was published online and he was afraid anti-fascist activists would come to his house, so Samantha offered to let him crash at her place. He never left.

She worked long hours to support him, and the relationship soured. They broke up privately, but she agreed to pretend to be his girlfriend publicly. And she was still working for IE, growing women’s membership from a handful to about 50, as the overall ranks swelled to 1,000, she said.

In the chat rooms, her protégées signaled they were happy.

One wrote, “I finally got over the whole woman issue. Cause I was real sensitive guys come across kind of mean on podcasts or twitter … But IRL all super nice. So there is a social media bravado I don’t get but learned to accept.” Another said, “Yeah, initially it was the whole white sharia, women are property, women aren’t people, etc. that really got to me. I’ve met a few men that are hardcore white sharia/women shouldn’t be intellectual, but they are the minority of men I know.”

In private, they texted her about the men who harassed or abused them.

Samantha was getting frustrated and bored. She vented to an IE leader that she was doing the work a male interviewer was getting credit for.

“I know that I’ll never be in leadership like that because I’m a woman. So if I do it behind the scenes with someone else’s voice, that’s fine,” she told him.

As others prepared to head back to Charlottesville, Samantha’s commitment was cracking. She watched as an older woman, who was established in the movement, posed a hypothetical during a conversation with a white man who didn’t know they were white supremacists.

She asked him to imagine a house was on fire and 10 people were inside, five of them black and five white. He could only save five. Wouldn’t he save the white people first? The man said he would save whomever he could reach. Samantha thought, ‘That’s what I would do, too.’ But she didn’t say anything. “I felt like most of the time I was in there, I was waiting for someone else to say, ‘We know this is all bullsh*t, right?'”

Other women who had spent time with Identity Evropa told CNN the violence at Charlottesville horrified them and drove them away, but Samantha’s breaking point came that October, when her grandmother died.

She felt ashamed that her grandmother could not be proud of her. She quit IE a few weeks later. She says her ex threatened her — saying in the good ole days she would have left the movement “in a body bag.” She says she was reminded she could hold “a lot of Nazi semen” and make many Nazi babies. Despite those threats, she left.

Identity Evropa has since rebranded as the American Identity Movement, to distance itself from the alt-right. When asked for comment about the claims about IE members, AIM president Patrick Casey said he is “unaware of anyone being coerced to stay in the organization.”

The group promotes itself as “identitarian,” that white people should preserve their racial and cultural identity. It is responsible for more than a third of white supremacist propaganda posted on college campuses in the 2018-19 academic year, according to a tally from the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), which tracks and campaigns against hate.

The American Identity Movement says it prohibits violence and illegal activity.

By December 2017, Samantha says she quit all the chat rooms. She lived in a cabin in the woods for some time, and slowly came to terms with what she’d done. She eventually stopped making excuses and realized she had actively promoted racism. She says, “I was definitely a bad person, for a while.”

CNN spoke to two other women who, like Samantha, spent about a year in the alt-right before quitting, unable to take the abuse anymore and fearing for their safety. They now reject their old beliefs. One had become interested in the movement after watching a speech Spencer gave at Texas A&M in late 2016.

“I wasn’t even a racist yet. I thought he made a really good argument for families,” she told CNN, requesting anonymity because she fears violence. “He’s good at making it sound legitimate.” She liked “the family security, the promise of… whatever they’re promising. Safety. It’s very appealing.”

This woman also joined IE and began dating a man she met in the movement. Her boyfriend’s view, she says, was, “‘Women deserve to be subjugated. Women deserve to be humiliated. Women deserve to be raped. Women deserve to be impregnated.’ It wasn’t a joke. … I can’t believe I supported that stuff.”

She explains, “I thought I was trash, so I didn’t mind when they talked about women being dogs, worthless. Even though I was the one driving them around, paying for stuff.”

She says that she and Samantha fit a familiar pattern within the alt-right. “Like 70 percent of the time, the women earn the money and the men do podcasts. And they do podcasts about how women shouldn’t have jobs.”

She broke away only after the relationship ended. “I was so wrong,” she said. “I would talk to younger women about how this was a great way to be family-oriented, and joke about white sharia. I thought we were there to serve men. I thought we were stupid. I didn’t look in the mirror to see what was real.”

A third woman, who was interviewed for Identity Evropa by Samantha, took on some of the counseling roles Samantha left behind when she quit. It was then that she saw the harm being done to the psyche of other women. “There was one particular girl that would call me at all hours of the day when she had panic attacks from all the verbal abuse in her relationship. She hadn’t eaten in days,” she told CNN, asking for anonymity to avoid any reprisals.

Eventually, she said she sent a resignation letter to IE. “It was unconscionable for me to justify creating manipulative content to draw young women into an organization where they were going to alienate themselves from friends and family and open themselves up to predatory men,” she said.

The alt-right is far more hostile to women than previous iterations of the white supremacy movement, Jessica Reaves, a researcher for the ADL, told CNN.

The alt-right emerged from the same parts of the internet as violently misogynist groups like incels, or involuntarily celibate men. She says, “I don’t think it’s even possible to have an alt-right movement without the underlying misogyny.”

Women recruiters in these movements are caught in a “really toxic stew of misogyny and self-loathing,” Reaves says. But at the same time, they’re morally implicated.

“They are bringing women into a movement that is at its heart, fundamentally misogynistic, which is dangerous in and of itself, but they’re also bringing women in who are supporting a movement that is, you know, geared toward the annihilation of non-white people, or the very least the segregation of white people from non-white people,” Reaves said. “I think that’s something that they’re going to have to reckon with.”

Samantha and her former IE friend both say the alt-right was like a cult, in that it separated people from their families and friends and demanded total ideological adherence.

“Like any cult, they want to expose you to as much as they can, but not so much you just turn away,” the woman said. The one difference is that there’s no single leader who dictates the culture and doctrine. Instead that’s created and enforced by largely anonymous people on message boards and in chat rooms, each one trying to one-up the others by posting more cleverly racist and cruel jokes.

“It never was past me that this stuff was dark,” Samantha says. “You become so numb to it… I don’t know if I ever thought it was funny. I don’t know if I ever explicitly said it wasn’t funny.”

She scrolled through her old phone, looking at the pictures and text messages and Nazi memes that had been sent to her, evidence of her past life

“It’s one thing to move past it and be like, ‘I was trash. I had ideas that I absolutely no longer agree with.’ It’s another thing entirely to confront the actual information and, like, proof. … And then to know that in some way it might never go away.”

CNN