T.M. Garret

T.M. Garret speaks to a crowd at Legends in Boone.

BOONE — Compassion and understanding when he felt he least deserved it was how a former white supremacist and now civil rights activist speaker said he turned his life around.

T.M. Garret was born in Germany, where he was a part of a “far right Nazi skin head” organization as well as started a German chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. After deciding to leave these extremist groups, he has since founded a nonprofit that aims to heal wounds created by racism and hate.

In the last two years, Garret has started speaking to groups about his life-changing experiences and what he feels will ultimately bridge the gap between extremists and minorities.

Garret served as a speaker on Nov. 8 during an event called “Two Days Against Hate” at Legends in Boone. To put on the event, Appalachian State University organizations — such as Alpha Epsilon Pi, the office of Multicultural Student Development, The Center for Judaic, Holocaust, and Peace Studies and App professor Rosemary Horowitz — partnered together with national organizations such as the Anti-Defamation League, Hillel and The Simon Wiesenthal Center.

The event featured a community introduction event on Nov. 7 and a “dialogue about differences” the next night. Before Garret spoke on the second night, attendees were invited to participate in roundtable discussions about the impacts of bias and hate in their lives.

Those in attendance then listened to Garret speak about how he got started in these extremist groups. Growing up, Garret said his father wasn’t around, he didn’t have the greatest of home lives and was made fun of at school for being an outsider.

“Nobody is born full of hate,” Garret said. “It comes from somewhere. It’s taught by parents, picked up from somewhere or some get recruited. The reason people get into those groups is similar to mine — looking for a purpose or identity. They’re missing something; looking for simple answers for complicated questions.”

A comic book sketch poking fun at Nazis and the Holocaust he made at school led to his classmates calling him the “Nazi kid,” even though he didn’t believe in these views. While he felt misunderstood, he said he was no longer bullied, but rather feared with his new title.

“I wasn’t pushed around anymore,” Garret said. “Anything was better than being bullied.”

The longer people believed this notion about him, the more Garret said he assumed the role to shock people. Still yet, he said no one asked him why he acted this way. What started as a way of acting to get people to stop bullying him later became his way of life.

He became attracted to the radical groups at the age of 13, joined a far right group at the age of 17 and played his first concert as a singer and songwriter of a Neo Nazi band at 19 years old. Beginning to disagree with the message of this group, Garret cut ties with this group and began a chapter of the KKK at 23.

During his time in the KKK, Garret said things the group stated it believed “didn’t add up” in his mind. After two years as its leader, he resigned. Even though he had left the group, he said he still had a racist mentality — until his Turkish landlord changed the way he thought.

Garret was taught in his extremist groups to hate those who were Turkish. His landlord needed some IT help, and Garret was there to do the job. He said he was waiting for his landlord to prove all of the stereotypes about Turkish people he was taught; however, he said the man was nice and not at all like he thought.

Garret said he felt small and ashamed.

“I swept it under the carpet for 10 years and pretended it never happened,” Garret said. “I tried to live a normal life, partly because I was ashamed of myself but also I was afraid of the judgment of society. Who wants to talk to a former Nazi or former KKK member?”

The German media caught wind of a scandal of two police officers being involved in the KKK group Garret started. The media ousted Garret for his involvement, forcing him to come to grips with his decisions. From this, he said his experiences were easier to talk about as the media had already exposed him.

“I realized that once people saw the person behind the former racist and not only saw the label, it was easier for them to show compassion towards me and understanding,” Garret said. Getting compassion when I didn’t deserve it, that was the final turning point for me.”

He explained that he understands that it would be hard for a Jewish person to show compassion to a Nazi or an anti-Semite. However, he said these extremists may not have ever known a Jewish person and simply fear the unknown or believe what they have been told. Garret asked those who feel discriminated against to not reciprocate the hatred, but rather try to communicate with these people and understand their views.

“The way to diffuse hate is not to hate,” Garret said. “The opposite of hate is unconditional love. I don’t have to like that person with those views, but it’s a human being that I have to show unconditional love no matter what.”

In the case of the spray-painted Nazi symbol found on App’s campus in October, Garret said it was unfortunate that the subject was not found. If the person had been identified, he said officials could have figured out the motives and reasons behind the act.

Garett moved to Memphis, Tenn., in 2012, started work with Exit Deutschland in 2015 and created his nonprofit CHANGE in 2016.

Exit Deutschland is a German anti-Nazi organization that helps combat the far-right and assists people in leaving hate groups. Garret became the organization’s ambassador in America and the Exit USA chapter.

CHANGE — standing for Care, Hope, Awareness, Need, Give and Education — engages in food drives in poverty stricken communities, outreach programs and anti-racism/anti-violence campaigns. With this organization, Garret offers the “erase the hate campaign,” which partners with tattoo shops to allow free cover-up work over racist tattoos.

For more information on CHANGE, visit www.changememphis.org.

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