How Was James Alex Fields, Jr. Radicalized?

Posted on Posted in Rise to Peace blog

On Friday, August 12 at around 1:45 p.m., James Alex Fields, Jr., a 20-year-old man from Ohio, drove a Dodge Challenger into a crowd of anti-protesters at the white supremacist “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, injuring 20 people including a woman who was later pronounced dead at the hospital.

What led James to commit this act of violence? His radicalization began at least four years earlier. According to Derek Weimer, James’s high school history teacher, James began showing a fascination with and idolization of Hitler and Nazi Germany, especially in a paper about the Nazi military that he wrote for an “America’s Modern Wars” class.[1]

According to an aunt of James, his father died before he was born. She remembered James as “a quiet little boy”.[2] A friend and former neighbor of James’s mother also called James quiet, and said he “kept to himself a lot” and “had some trouble in school making friends”.[3] James’s mother said that five or six months ago, he moved into an apartment by himself.[4]

Years earlier, James’s mother had called 911 out of fear on more than one occasion. In separate incidents between 2010 and 2011 (age 13-14), James had hit his mother in the head and covered her mouth with his hand, spit in her face, and brandished a knife toward her.[5]

These clues from James’s background are indicators of how he was susceptible to radicalization:

  • Fixation with a violent ideology
  • Lack of an adult male role model in the home
  • Social isolation
  • Demonstrated propensity for violence

While James was not rich or highly educated, Peter Simi, an expert on far-right extremism from Chapman University, says that the notion that white supremacist and neo-Nazi recruits mainly come from low socioeconomic backgrounds and are uneducated is wrong.[6] Recruitment happens at every educational and socioeconomic level of society. However, one commonality is that “individuals often have backgrounds where they’ve experienced substantial trauma before they ever come in contact with white supremacist groups.” The white supremacist group gives the individual “an outlet for their feelings of frustration and aggression that stems from this unresolved trauma.”[1]

It is not wise to jump to conclusions, but it seems like a reasonable assumption to make in this case that James suffered trauma through his social isolation and perhaps a feeling of loss of never knowing his father; these factors caused him to feel aggression, and in his encounter with Nazi ideology, he found the “outlet” that Simi discussed. If only someone had seen all of the warning signs together and taken notice, who knows what a different course James Alex Fields, Jr.’s life may have taken.

No matter how entrenched someone has become in an ideology, remaining open to have dialogue about differences with them – no matter how dangerous or poisonous their beliefs may be – is vital to counteract the ideology. In dialogue, the stronger and more reasonable position will be shown to be such. When the situation devolves to physical acts against the other, the outcome will simply be determined by which side has more physical force and reason is no longer a part of the equation.

Sources: [1] [2] [3] Ibid. [4] Ibid. [5] [6] [1] Ibid.

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