Matt Quinn recalls crossing the schoolyard quickly, glancing left and right with well-rehearsed defiance. He is almost at the lockers when three boys appear and he tightens his grip on a smooth, metal object poking above his waistband.
The others move aside, glaring. As he reaches his locker, he allows himself a moment of satisfaction. He slides the crowbar out of his pants and puts it in the locker.
Some 25 years down the track, he vividly recalls his thoughts in that moment: “Always so fucking scared when it’s something more than a fist.”
Growing up in Blacktown in Western Sydney, Quinn saw plenty of schoolyard fights. Then in year five he became the target of regular, vicious beatings. “The whole school just went for me,” he says, “sometimes there would be 10 or 15 blokes on me.”
By year 8 he was taking the crowbar to school every day. “Suddenly I had this power over the people that were hurting me, so I wanted more of it,” he says. “Because then no one would ever touch me, you know.”
Two years later, Quinn was the leader of a white supremacist gang.
These days he runs Exit Australia, an organisation dedicated to preventing violent extremism. In their work with Exit, Quinn and his staff offer some of the most potentially dangerous and reviled individuals in society support, counselling, and recognition of their own destructive histories of trauma.
With right wing violent extremism “a real and growing threat”, as ASIO director general Mike Burgess recently warned, enlisting public support for this sympathetic approach to managing the risk might be a pretty hard sell. But Quinn argues it is strategically imperative.
“People ask me why we can’t get on top of extremism, stamp it out,” says Quinn. “It’s because we don’t have positive support networks. These people are looking for support and finding it in the wrong places.”
Quinn’s own journey from the dark side took enormous willpower, and two bizarre interventions of fate (See breakout story below). But it was the unexpected support of just a handful of people that kept him from relapsing, he says. This is what Exit, which also has branches in the US, UK and Northern Europe, tries to replicate.
Over the past decade, Quinn has worked with men who have been on the verge of terrible violence, trying to bring them back from the edge. One of the men he has worked with for close to five years is convicted neo-Nazi, Michael Holt.
When he was arrested on the New South Wales Central Coast in September 2015 Holt, then 25 and unemployed, had been planning a mass shooting and had accumulated dozens of guns, many of them home made. In 2017 he was sentenced to a minimum of four and a half years in jail.
Quinn began meeting Holt in Sydney’s Long Bay Prison soon after Holt’s arrest in September 2015, visiting two or three times a week. He found a young man consumed by his own rage.
“For months it was the same whenever I walked in. He would just be saying ‘I’m gonna kill the government, I’m gonna kill the police’ over and over,” says Quinn.
It took six months and hundreds of hours of one-to-one counselling to rouse Holt from his fury. Only then could Quinn start to address the root of Holt’s anger.
Before his arrest, Holt would spend much of his spare time on white supremacist and right-wing conspiracy websites. He had a large collection of Nazi memorabilia, including German World War II service revolvers. But during his meetings with Holt, Quinn was always careful to avoid discussing ideology.
“You have to work on the emotional side, find his personal story,” Quinn says of this strategy.
“This is a kid who’d been told over and over that he’s no good, that he’ll never amount to anything. So he moved away from his family, to just try to live, find a life, but he was still getting targeted.”
This trauma, and the anger that builds alongside it, was Michael Holt’s real story, Quinn argues.
“At a certain point, when you’re just constantly pushed into a corner, you just don’t have any more options. It’s either suicide, or ‘I’m going to fight back and show you’.”
Recalling when he first started his own gang all those years ago at school, Quinn says his ambition then was honourable – protecting other vulnerable kids.
“I was actually a really caring person, as messed up as that is going to sound, but the way I started the group was just sticking up for people like me.”
But he had come to see violence as the solution to his own vulnerability, so it became the currency in which the group dealt.
“One of the guys’ dads was bashing him up, you know, so we went and bashed the dad.”
As the group grew, the violence spiralled. It also developed a racist element. For Quinn, sticking up for people like himself meant channelling his anger towards people who looked different.
When Quinn was young, his grandfather recounted to him graphic stories of his time as a prisoner of war under the Japanese. At the same time he was listening to these stories, Sydney’s Asian population was growing rapidly. For Quinn, they were a convenient target.
“I didn’t even know there were all these countries in Asia,” he says, “I just knew I was against Asians.”
Before long, Quinn and his gang were cruising the streets each night armed with sledgehammers, poles, and a bat with nails sticking out of it, bashing Asians.
As the violence became routine, some of the gang members became more vicious. “It started getting out of control,” says Quinn, “there were guys in there who wanted to cut girls’ throats”.
But attacking children was a step he says he couldn’t take. “I was a child myself, you know, I’d been through all that crap, so I never wanted to bring that on another innocent child.”
Rather than talk his gang down, Quinn changed the group’s objective. They would plan a large-scale attack. “The plan was to go into the city and kill all the Asians … as many as we could get.”
He breaks eye contact as he recalls the details of the attack. Today Quinn is tall, broad and wiry, with a shaved head and long, grey beard. Given his history he should be threatening, but he has a gruff diffidence that jars with his violent past. It is plain that he doesn’t enjoy remembering his former life.
“It was just survival … I was just trying to survive every day.”
By then, Quinn says the gang was gaining notoriety and power. But Quinn still felt like the boy in the schoolyard with a crowbar up his sleeve. He recognises that boy in almost every violent extremist with whom he has worked. Most are isolated and alienated; all the normal attachments have broken down. Quinn started Exit Australia in 2015 because he was frustrated at the lack of support for people grappling with violent extremist views.
“If they can’t find another attachment of support in the community, they’ll grab onto anything.”
In this world, Quinn describes survival as a choice between power and vulnerability; once you have the faintest grip on power you don’t let go. But this doesn’t solve the problem, it perpetuates it, because everything depends on maintaining that power.
“These people don’t have healthy minds,” says Quinn, “they don’t know the healthy responses to these problems.”
At Exit Australia, the first goal is to find out the kind of support a “client” needs most. Sometimes it is counselling, some might need community support if their connections with family and friends have collapsed. Quinn talks with all new clients for at least a couple of hours. Once he has established trust, he can begin to turn them from the idea that violence is the only answer.
“Violence becomes who they are, so it takes time.”
During Michael Holt’s four and a half years in prison, Quinn says he has been the only person providing him with regular psychological support. “He wants to get better,” says Quinn. “He has been asking the prison for a psychologist for a year and a half, but he hasn’t been given it. They say it’s too expensive.”
Holt became eligible for release on parole last month, but inquiries by The Citizen reveal that the NSW State Parole Authority held a meeting in January at which it decided to refuse his release citing the “need for psychological assessment”, the “need for structured post release plans and/or accommodation”, and concluding that Holt “presents an unacceptable risk to public safety”.
Quinn hasn’t seen Holt since last October, and says access to him over the past two years has been increasingly difficult, sometimes denied with no explanation.
In November, he wrote to Corrective Services to say that Exit Australia had an approved re-housing service organised for Holt, but required confirmation three months before the inmate’s earliest release date. Corrective Services didn’t reply until after parole had been denied. Holt will not now be reconsidered for parole until March, 2021.
NSW Corrective Services declined to answer questions about his case and condition.
Quinn says he isn’t fishing for sympathy for either himself – he says he has forgiven himself for the terrible things he did when he was 16 – or for Holt. Rather he argues that it’s in everyone’s interest to break the cycle of violence, trauma and alienation with networks of support and intervention.
“Once we’ve got that, we will have a better chance.”
FLASHPOINTS: PORT ARTHUR AND A RANDOM ACT OF KINDNESS
It was April 1996, and Quinn and his gang were plotting their big strike.
They had figured out how many guns they would need and how many rounds of ammunition to execute their attack, he says. They had a accumulated a cache of mortars and explosives.
Quinn says he had organised a place to bury everything before the attack, in case the police came knocking. In late April, they were trying to buy the guns when Martin Bryant murdered 35 people in Port Arthur, Tasmania. It was the worst massacre in modern Australian history.
“That took all the guns off the street,” says Quinn, “it made it a lot harder and a lot more expensive.”
Quinn’s gang was not dissuaded, but did put its plan on hold. The group considered buying replica weapons, which were readily available in the 1990s, and replacing the trigger systems to make them functional. They explored ways of getting the cash they needed for real guns.
“We were talking about driving out into the middle of nowhere and taking out post offices. Getting the money that way,” says Quinn.
Then something happened that forced him to rethink everything.
Waiting at a bus stop one evening, Quinn dozed off. The next thing he remembers is his head being kicked into a wall. Quinn was struggling to defend himself when a passer-by stepped in to fight the attackers off.
“He’d beat two or three, and then come back and be like ‘Are you all right mate? Are you OK?’,” recalls Quinn. “Then he’d go and fight a little bit more.”
The man was Asian.
“We wanted to kill them all, but this guy pretty much saved my life.”
Quinn knew he had to change course. “It wasn’t just like flicking a switch, you know. It took me months, reflecting about it.”
He left his gang and tried to reconnect with old friends. He got a job – his first – but still struggled to manage the fear and anger that had ruled his life for so long.
“I remember telling my boss that I was going to go down the road and kill these people. He could have fired me on the spot, but he was calm about it, like ‘Nah, mate, settle down. Why are you thinking like that?’”
This was the brake – people who challenged him without condemning him. It’s the same technique Quinn now uses in his work with violent extremists.
Without the support of healthy connections it is impossible to extricate yourself from that anger, let alone reflect on it, Quinn argues. Most violent extremists harbour anger that comes from years of trauma, and it often takes just as long to overcome.
Quinn has flashbacks. He calls it “being re-triggered”. He will be talking, firing words out in a mumbling, staccato baritone, and suddenly stop. “Uh, yeah, sorry man, you just took me back to a place … Sorry, what was the question?”
Social media is loaded with triggering content, he observes. “Back in my day, I’d have to randomly bump into someone to get them involved in my group,” says Quinn, “nowadays, there can be 20 leaders trying to recruit that one person on the internet.”
An angry or vulnerable person gets on a sympathetic site and starts venting; a leader engages and invites them in, and the match is lit. Quinn likens it to grooming by sexual predators. “The leaders are looking for the right person that they can condition for themselves.”
Yet he is adamant that the internet isn’t the source of the problem. It always comes back to a lack of support and connection, he argues.
“These people need somewhere to go. They’re not going to go down to the local tennis club; they can’t make a connection with those people. We need to build those kinds of networks ourselves.”