“It’s Like a Cult”: Breaking Free from the Far Right

A Toronto man’s journey from hate group “rally boy” to anti-fascism

A group of protestors amid tall city buildings. One holds a sign that reads "make canada great again"
Far-right and ultra-nationalist groups at a protest in Toronto (Christopher Katsarov / The Canadian Press)

Beyond his job as a freelance process server in Toronto, thirty-five-year-old Josh Chernofsky didn’t have much going on in the spring of 2019. But over time, he’d developed a rapport with one of the security guards at the University Avenue courthouses. They’d chat about this and that, often about security work; Chernofsky had once been in the industry himself. One day in May, the guard said there were going to be some protests in the neighbourhood on the weekend. Of what nature, he didn’t know. Chernofsky decided to take a look.

As he made his way to the protest on the Saturday, Chernofsky cut down a side street. The first thing he noticed as he drew near: there were a lot of police vehicles. He then saw people wearing matching black and yellow Fred Perry polo shirts. He vaguely recognized it as the Proud Boys uniform. I thought that was just an American thing, he said to himself. Beyond the group’s US origins and some sense that it was ideologically conservative, he didn’t know much about it. He just thought it was a “men’s group.”

At the rallying point, two crowds were facing off across the street from one another. “On one side, there were all these people in black, covered up, masked, yelling, shouting, swearing—just sounding very obnoxious,” he remembers. On the other, he saw people with Canadian flags and no masks. “They all seemed very happy,” he says. “I guess that’s what attracted me to that side.”

Chernofsky approached the metal barriers keeping this happier and smaller crowd in place. One protester nodded and flashed him a thumbs-up. Chernofsky flashed one back. He leaned against their pen and watched them. Eventually, he asked some people what they were protesting about. A member of PEGIDA Canada—Patriotic Europeans against the Islamization of the West, a group that originated in Germany—told him they were demonstrating because immigration from Muslim-majority nations was changing the country’s “Christian character”; before long, “they” would impose Sharia law, she said. Chernofsky struck up another conversation, further along the barrier, with someone called Tim Kelly, who he learned was a senior figure in the Canadian offshoot of the US group Proud Boys.

Proud Boys is a far-right group which focuses on ethnonationalism—supposedly protecting white identity and Western culture against the forces of multiculturalism. In February 2021, the Canadian government listed the organization as a terrorist entity; among other things, the listing asserted that it espoused “white supremacist ideologies.” Proud Boys Canada announced it was disbanding in May 2021, claiming to have never been “terrorists or a white supremacy group.” Around this time, the group had a dozen chapters across the country, including in major cities such as Toronto and Calgary.

After talking to Kelly for a few minutes, Chernofsky said he was interested in joining his organization.

The plan was to march along University to Queen’s Park. Chernofsky was told he could come. As they set off, the anti-fascist counter protesters from across the street intercepted them. The police swooped in, separating and kettling the two groups. Chernofsky had to wait two hours before he could leave the kettle. To pass the time, he talked to various anti-Muslim YouTubers, whom he’d noticed livestreaming. He made a note of their channels.

“Hey, that was amazing,” he commented on one of their videos when he got home. “Let me know when the next one is.”

At the start of our first interview, over Zoom, it took Chernofsky around ten minutes to walk me through his first encounter with the far-right hate movement. He spoke matter-of-factly, if a bit haltingly, deliberating over certain details. As our conversation moved to what he actually did during his time in the far right, I steeled myself. What was I getting myself into? I wondered. What horror stories might he tell me?

After that first protest, Chernofsky began to join as many hate groups as he could in Toronto and its environs. He became a second-degree Proud Boy; to achieve that status, he had to name five breakfast cereals whilst enduring a beating from his entire chapter. Additionally, he joined Canadian Combat Coalition and Wolves of Odin and started associating with PEGIDA Canada, all of whom were Islamophobic and largely dedicated to opposing Muslim immigration to Canada. Among members without leadership ambitions, it was not uncommon to belong to several hate groups. And they often joined forces for protests; their events would have been embarrassingly small otherwise. Chernofsky assiduously attended all their rallies, counter protests, and informal social meet-ups. He even travelled all the way to the Quebec–US border to protest the arrival of asylum seekers via the Roxham Road crossing. People called him “rally boy”: he never missed one.

The members of the far right Chernofsky encountered were welcoming and accepting; he felt safe around them. He even made some close friends, people with whom he shared interests outside of the movement. But there was something Chernofsky’s “comrades,” as he called them, didn’t know: his family is Jewish.
Chernofsky says he didn’t conceal this; it just didn’t occur to him to mention it. Shortly before joining the movement, he’d become a Christian. He’d been attending a fundamentalist church, where he practised with the zeal of a convert. The Toronto-area hate movement’s attitude to Jewish people seemed ambiguous to him. On the one hand, antisemitism was rife; conspiracy theories about wealthy Jewish people, like George Soros, controlling the world were common currency. On the other hand, the movement also included a Jewish anti-Muslim group: the Jewish Defense League. But Chernofsky felt no connection at all to his Jewish roots. So he says that although he didn’t participate in any antisemitism, neither did it bother him.

People called him “rally boy”: he never missed one.

Chernofsky did conceal his hate-movement activities from his parents and even his wife. Whenever he went out with his comrades, he’d just say he was meeting friends. “She never asked,” he says. “She wasn’t suspicious. She wasn’t like, ‘You’re spending too much time with them and not with me.’”

Why did these groups appeal to him? “The Canadian way of life was changing,” he says. What’s more, much of the groups’ membership was devoutly Christian. “It was still a novelty,” he says. “Coming across another Christian, it was like, ‘Wow! This is an example of how to be a good Christian.’”

The advent of the pandemic had an energizing effect on the Toronto area’s far right. Much of the hate movement, Chernofsky included, latched on to the issue of COVID-19 restrictions. Anti-lockdown rallies were a regular fixture in Queen’s Park in the spring of 2020. Chernofsky and a number of his far-right peers attended them religiously.

Toward the end of one such event in June, another demonstration entered the park—an anti-racism one protesting the murder of George Floyd. In the incoming crowd, Chernofsky recognized the organizer of a similar march he’d opposed the previous day. He’d been struck by how civil and respectful the attendees had been toward him and his peers. Normally, in the face of far-right counter demonstrators, they would be hostile and aggressive. But on this occasion, they refused to engage; they were completely focused on delivering their message.

Chernofsky approached the organizer. His name, he found out, was Christopher Bowen.

“You’re planning on disrupting this too?” Bowen said wearily.

“Oh, no,” Chernofsky said. “I just wanted to thank you for yesterday—for how polite and well behaved you were.”

“OK,” said Bowen. “Thanks?”

After some further awkward small talk, Bowen began asking Chernofsky pointed questions: Why had he joined the far right? What did patriotism mean to him? Chernofsky, taken aback, struggled to respond. He turned the tables: Why was Bowen an anti-fascist? What actually was anti-fascism? Why did they have to look and behave the way they did at protests—the black face masks, brawling, and property damage?

“There’s more to it than that,” Bowen said. “That’s a very small section of anti-fascism.”

As they spoke, Chernofsky removed his body armour. (Toronto-area far rightists commonly wore it at protests, primarily to intimidate opponents; more often, they just sported the tactical vest component without the expensive protective plates inserted. Chernofsky was one of the few who had a full body armour set—a holdover from his security work.) He also rolled up his flag and dismantled the pole. The pair sat on the ground together. They continued talking in this vein for a while, sharing their beliefs, each asking questions about the other’s movement.

Eventually, a pair from Chernofsky’s anti-lockdown rally came over. “Is everything OK?” one of them asked.

“Yeah, it’s OK,” Chernofsky insisted. “Everything’s good.” They then retreated, keeping a watchful eye on him and Bowen.

And then came the backlash from the rest of the hate movement. “For days, everyone went at it online about me talking to this guy,” Chernofsky says. Grasping for a response, he posted a quote from Daryl Davis—the Black blues musician famous for befriending, and extricating, members of the KKK—in the group chat: “When two enemies are talking, they aren’t fighting.” After meeting him, Chernofsky didn’t consider Bowen his enemy. Secretly, he messaged him on Facebook. He wanted to know more about anti-fascism.

According to John Horgan, a Georgia State University psychology professor, there’s a near-universal theme that drives people to leave hate groups: disillusionment. “It’s everything—disillusionment with the ideology, strategy, tactics, personnel,” he says. But the path back to mainstream society is long and littered with what can seem like insurmountable obstacles. To successfully detach yourself from the hate movement, you need to achieve two things: you have to disengage and physically separate from your group, and you must shed its hateful worldview—what’s called “deradicalization.”

Disengagement may sound straightforward, but it isn’t. “Some groups don’t allow people to leave,” Horgan says. “Or if they do, it comes at an enormous cost.” Lauren Manning is a former extremist (or “former”) who now works at both the US-based nonprofit Life after Hate (LAH) and its Canadian equivalent, the Organization for the Prevention of Violence (OPV). During her involvement in the Canadian hate movement, she abruptly left one group for another. For this, her old crew savagely beat her. When she eventually left the movement entirely, certain peers inundated her with messages, trying to arrange in-person meetings to claw her back.

Disengagement also “requires massive support from friends and family not in the movement,” says Steven Windisch, assistant professor of sociology and criminology at the University of Arkansas. Support that many extremists don’t have to fall back on, he adds. Their joining the movement in the first place likely damaged those relationships irreparably. Formers call this the “void.” “It’s a place of isolation, a place of unknowing,” says Brad Galloway, a former and LAH and OPV staffer. “They’re detached from the movement, but they’re not really attached to society.”

“I can’t say, even up to this day, that when I walk down the street, I’m not still looking around.”

This combination of pressures, from both within and without the movement, is a powerful counterbalance to the desire to disengage: “Many people remain stuck in these groups,” says Horgan. “They feel they don’t have a viable exit pathway.”

The next step in leaving a hate group—deradicalization—takes time; most people aren’t deradicalized as soon as they disengage. By Windisch’s estimation, ideological commitment while inside is normally “totalizing.” “It’s everything they eat, breathe, sleep, drink, do,” he says. The process of undoing their hate, therefore, is a messy one: “One step forward, two steps back,” says Windisch. “Three steps forward, one step back.”

For life outside the hate movement to be sustainable, formers must overcome the social stigma of the past and reintegrate into mainstream society. They need to forge a new self completely separate from the group and find other activities to identify with. “In short,” writes Australian clinical and forensic psychologist Kate Barrelle in a 2015 study, “disengagement is actually about engagement somewhere else.”
For formers to achieve all of this on their own, according to Daniel Koehler, director of the German Institute on Radicalization and De-radicalization Studies, is a tall order. They usually require professional counselling, and it’s “a very laborious, very resource-intensive process,” he says. An international network of initiatives, such as LAH’s ExitUSA and OPV’s Evolve, provide such services. The pair offer a multidisciplinary package of support administered by teams of social workers, psychologists, and peer mentors. These services are often referred to as “exit counselling.”

Exit counselling, however, is still a small sector compared to the scale of the problem it deals with, Horgan says; there’s a dearth of funding. (OPV lists Public Safety Canada and the City of Edmonton as funders; LAH receives funds from a combination of government grants and private donations.) “I know of so many programs whose day-to-day reality is just trying to keep the lights on,” says Horgan.

Many trying to leave the far right, therefore, can’t access exit counselling. Consequently, they often “remain in a type of mid-stage disengagement process,” says Koehler, leaving them vulnerable to re-engagement. And it does happen: either they don’t deradicalize fully and something re-triggers them—say, reading a news article about immigration—or “they fail to find that new identity.”

Throughout the summer of 2020, Chernofsky arranged regular meet-ups with Bowen in a park. Bowen walked him through such concepts as structural racism and white privilege and suggested books and podcasts like Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. He also tried to dispel Chernofsky’s view that anti-fascists were bloodthirsty, communist street thugs. Most were non-violent, he explained, and viewed confronting the hate movement as an unwelcome but necessary disruption of their lives. And anti-fascism was actually a broad church of different left-wing ideologies. Besides communists and socialists, there were also anarchists (such as Bowen himself) as well as more moderate NDP-supporting liberals.

Initially, Chernofsky found some ideas hard to grasp—particularly the idea of white privilege. “I had a rough time growing up,” he says. “I didn’t feel privileged.” But after a couple weeks of talking to Bowen, Chernofsky’s worldview was shattered. Most anti-fascists were principled activists, he realized, not violent goons. No one was attacking Canada; immigrants were just looking for a better life. And the far right wasn’t so much defending Canada as trying to return it to a racially homogeneous past. “Looking at things differently,” he says, “I realized just how disgusting these groups were.”

Chernofsky knew he had to leave—and that it wouldn’t be easy. “After a while, your whole life revolves around these groups,” he says. “It’s like a cult.” The hate movement had consumed his social circle entirely. “If I were to suddenly cut them all off, there would be a very, very big void in my life,” he says. “I didn’t know how to deal with that.” He decided to reach out to an organization that was completely taboo amongst the far right. Setting up an anonymous Twitter account—under the pseudonym CaptCanuck—he direct-messaged an anti-fascist group called Yellow Vests Canada Exposed that bared hate groups online. He omitted his name, afraid that they would out him. He told them he was done with the far right and needed help leaving. He didn’t know for certain that they’d be able to assist him, but he figured that if anyone could, it would be them. To his relief, they were receptive and referred him to an organization he hadn’t heard of: Life after Hate.

Many of LAH and OPV’s clients present mental health conditions, unresolved trauma, suicide ideation, and addiction. Following all the onboarding procedures, the organizations’ in-house social workers and psychologists assess and begin addressing these issues or refer clients to external services. “We have to deal with the real-life elephants in the room,” says Brad Galloway, whose work at LAH and OPV includes peer mentorship, “before we start saying, ‘What about your ideology?’”

Then the peer mentors are brought in. Lauren Manning, also an LAH and OPV peer mentor, devotes clients’ first sessions to rapport building. “You’re talking about people who learned not to trust,” she says. She also assesses their commitment to leaving. Occasionally, she gets half-hearted clients who want to remain in the movement but learn how to stay out of trouble whilst doing so. LAH and OPV even sometimes get scammers: active far rightists looking to spy on them. But it’s impossible to fake the anguish of wanting to disengage from extremism, especially to a former. They’re swiftly discharged.

If the client hasn’t already disengaged, this is the priority—before the process of deradicalization can begin. “We’re not trying to brainwash people to have a different political ideology,” Galloway says. “We’re trying to disengage them from violence, violent thought, violence-led extremist narratives.” The aim is not for them to approve of all of society but to tolerate, respect, and peacefully coexist with it. “If you’re against gay marriage,” Manning tells them, “don’t do it.”

When discussing their specific beliefs, clients sometimes adopt a combative prove-me-wrong attitude.

Instead of confronting them, Galloway first tries to reconstruct their path down the far-right rabbit hole. “I’m not going to argue about Jews running Hollywood,” he tells them. “I want to know why you believe in a conspiracy theory that says one type of person runs something. Are you feeling left out?” Once he thinks they’re ready, he presents clients with conflicting, reliable information, something they actively avoided previously.

Forming, or repairing, non-extremist relationships is no picnic.

In addition, Galloway tries to help clients empathize with the people they hate. “It almost sounds like how you would coach your child,” he says. “‘Treat others like you want to be treated.’” It can also be worthwhile to demonstrate the self-detriment of hatred. Galloway asks them: “Isn’t it exhausting for you to be sitting here going, ‘I hate Black people,’ every single day of your life?”

Whilst undergoing deradicalization, many clients periodically experience intrusive resurgences of old, hateful thought patterns. This can even include reflexively thinking of racial slurs on seeing a person of colour. The key, according to Manning, is to recognize this as “brainwashing from the past” and to stay positive. It’s also common for clients to seek out old extremist haunts on social media now and again, often in times of stress. Peer mentors help them find coping mechanisms as well as online courses on critical thinking and media literacy, which they sometimes work through together. They also talk with clients about the scientific method, as distrust of data is inherent to many extremist narratives. “Often, they’re just soaking this all in,” says Galloway, “because it’s like free education for them that they never got before.”

For Manning, the most time-consuming component of the process is helping her clients battle through the void. They’re often left with a deep sense of personal loss: of close friendships, brotherhood, and community. Forming, or repairing, non-extremist relationships is no picnic. “Learning to trust people outside of the movement,” Manning says, “that one can be hard.” Leavers also lose their sense of identity and purpose. Many are keen to replace their far-right affiliation with a new one. Manning emphasizes to her clients that to live a fulfilling life, they don’t need to be part of a movement; they can build their own belief structure.

Naturally, many people feel intense shame about having participated in hate groups. Manning says they have to learn to embrace it. “If you’re feeling guilt,” she tells clients, “it means that you’re actually a decent person, even though you may not think so right now.” But there’s a fine line to tread in holding yourself accountable. “That means not beating yourself up,” she adds, “but being able to say, ‘What am I going to do differently?’”

How long clients remain in the program largely depends on the stage they reached when they entered it. As already mentioned, some do so while they’re still engaged, others shortly after their disengagement. Sometimes they get in touch after they’ve been out of the movement for years. By this time, they may have even achieved a degree of deradicalization on their own. “They may be reaching out just to talk to somebody else that might have had similar experiences,” Galloway says. Those in the earlier stages generally require more work. Galloway estimates that they often stay with them for a couple of years; one client he worked with for six. And the door is always left open for them when they leave, should they ever require more services.

Clients often leave the program feeling compelled to give back to the community, Manning says. She reminds them that this isn’t required or expected of them, and it doesn’t need to be directly related to the anti-hate space. A few of her clients have followed her in becoming countering violent extremism (CVE) practitioners—formers who do such things as public speaking and media appearances, mentor disengaging far rightists, and even write memoirs. In an ideological about-turn, a few others have taken up anti-fascist street activism.

Koehler says it’s not uncommon for former far-right extremists to switch sides to anti-fascism. “When they realize what they have done to many other communities,” he says, “they want to correct their errors by fighting what they have built.” It’s not something that he would recommend; he believes it can prevent full deradicalization. To him, there are areas of ideological overlap between anti-fascism and the far right, including fascination with violence and rejection of both the rule of law and the security services’ monopoly on the use of force. “Any kind of self-righteous justice, however well meaning, however well grounded in moral principles, cannot stand in a Western democracy,” he says, adding: “We have to accept that there’s freedom of speech, freedom of association.”

Koehler also worries that their past involvement with the far right continues to define the side switchers’ lives. “Obviously, this will always be part of them,” he says, “but the way they see themselves, ideally, should have no connection to their extremist past.” Otherwise, there’s always the danger of re-traumatization and re-engagement.

Even as he continued meeting with Bowen and with counsellors from LAH, such was Chernofsky’s fear of losing his social circle that he kept meeting up with his far-right peers and attending their events. “I was just going through the motions,” he says. His disillusionment only grew. One particularly impactful moment from this period came in the summer, at a counter demonstration to a Black Lives Matter march. In the melee, a group of his comrades spotted the close friend of an anti-fascist who’d taken her own life the previous year. To his horror, they started taunting him about her death. “Looking back, I should have said something,” Chernofsky says. “But I didn’t because I was afraid.”

Chernofsky felt that until he left, he needed to do something constructive. Using his CaptCanuck Twitter account, he started to anonymously report on the anti-lockdown events he went to: the attendees, the speeches, the trouble making and arrests. In his posts, he meticulously, and surreptitiously, documented everything with pictures and videos. The account gradually gained traction in the anti-fascist community. When his far-right circle discovered it, they weren’t happy. There were many theories as to who was behind it. A leading one was that a well-known anti-fascist with the initials “CC” was responsible. But no one suspected Chernofsky, at least not outwardly.

Over time, Chernofsky cultivated a small anti-fascist social circle. Bowen introduced him to some people; others he met under his own steam. It wasn’t just Bowen’s endorsement that won their trust; it was also Chernofsky’s enthusiasm for learning about anti-fascism and his willingness to answer questions about the hate movement. Then in the new year, he started attending anti-fascist demonstrations, fully masked up. (Remember, this was during the height of the pandemic, so it wouldn’t have looked unusual.) Thanks to his hate-movement activities, much of the anti-fascist movement knew of him. Most of these people were unaware of his change of heart and still considered him a card-carrying member of the far right. He longed to attend these events without a mask but knew he had to publicly break with the hate movement first.

In July 2021, Chernofsky attended an anti-lockdown event in Chinatown. Lawyer and social media personality Caryma Sa’d was to debate anti-lockdown influencer and Holocaust denier Christopher Saccoccia—“Chris Sky.” The event was being held in the Chinatown Centre’s courtyard. Local residents and Toronto anti-fascists were concerned that it would give Sky a platform and endanger the Chinatown community.

Sky and his entourage arrived to find counter protesters blockading the courtyard’s entrance, holding a sign that read “Mask it or Casket.” When Sky and his followers attempted to barge through, all hell broke loose. There was pushing and shoving. Punches and glass bottles were thrown. When the cops eventually turned up, they ordered everyone to go home. What Chernofsky saw as he left he will never forget: “Scared, elderly Asian people in their shops, looking out,” he says. “It was awful.”

Over the following few days, Chernofsky and his exit counsellor decided he should announce his departure through a CaptCanuck Twitter thread. He would identify himself, acknowledge his former allegiance to organized hate, apologize wholeheartedly, and pledge his commitment to social justice. He now felt his small but solid circle of anti-fascist friends would cushion the resultant social blow.

It wasn’t just a matter of his far-right friends shunning him, though. Chernofsky knew he had to expect reprisals. He was relatively confident that no one in the far right knew where he lived; he’d never been one to have people over. But he couldn’t be certain. “I made sure I had somewhere to escape off to,” he says. He also came clean to his loved ones, and he had to warn them. “They go after people’s families,” he says.

At 9:31 p.m., July 16, 2021, Chernofsky uploaded his thread. “Due to recent events, it’s time to ‘rip off the band-aid,’” it began. “My name is Josh Chernofsky. I used to be part of the racist right and now I’m an anti-racist and an anti-fascist.” “It took so much to push that send button,” Chernofsky remembers. “I was so worried.” He didn’t see the point in leaving any of his group chats or blocking anyone. “If people really wanted to pass along a message to me,” he says, “they’d do it some other way.” He then went about his daily routine as best he could but made sure to be vigilant when travelling around. At his exit counsellor’s suggestion, he also stayed offline for a while.

People initially thought Chernofsky’s thread was a prank, but disbelief soon turned to anger. Group chat administrators ejected him. He received several threatening direct messages from unfamiliar accounts, warning him to watch his back. A little while later, his Jewish heritage got out, courtesy of the leader of his old Proud Boys chapter. In a social media post, he expressed revulsion at having allowed Chernofsky—a Jew—into his house. People also started posting about his defection on far-right social media, on “Antifa watchlists.” His story eventually came to the attention of an influential far-right livestreamer called Jeremy Mackenzie, the leader of a group called Diagolon; Chernofsky says he became the bête noir of Mackenzie’s vlogs for a while (some have since been taken down).

Nevertheless, Chernofsky had been expecting more of a reaction from his actual peers. In fact, as the months passed, his close friends in the far-right movement started messaging him, telling him they respected his decision and still considered him a friend. “I wouldn’t say they’re very obnoxious or violent people in general,” he says. “They just have these beliefs.” Although they haven’t stayed in contact, Chernofsky thinks he knows where he stands with them today. “I’m confident that if I came across them on the street,” he says, “I wouldn’t need to be concerned for my safety.”

It took several months for news and acceptance of Chernofsky’s defection to spread within the anti-fascist movement. The fact that he’d reported undercover on the far right for a while was an important trust builder. He started attending anti-fascist events more freely, generally asking organizers for their permission beforehand. There were some initial difficulties—people staring at, photographing, and verbally abusing him. When this happened, he would leave, not wanting to make anyone uncomfortable.

Based on his experiences of Toronto’s anti-fascist movement, Chernofsky doesn’t agree with Koehler’s characterization of anti-fascism as comparable to far-right extremism. Chernofsky says he and his anti-fascist peers did use a variety of forceful methods against hate groups: drowning out their protests with noise, pressuring venues to cancel their bookings, blockading event spaces. And a minority did use violence in self-defence. But, he says, it wasn’t by choice. As he and his fellow anti-fascists saw it, the state was failing to uphold the country’s anti-hate laws and protect marginalized groups; it was squandering its use-of-force monopoly. “There’s no one else,” Chernofsky says. “There’s literally no one else standing up for these communities.”

Chernofsky does concede that formers run the risk of re-traumatization and re-engagement by participating in anti-fascism. But he thinks this risk can be minimized if anti-fascist converts build the necessary resilience through long-term, professional exit counselling. He also considers it a risk worth running, as formers can be indispensable anti-fascists. For one, they act as disengagement exemplars to disillusioned opponents. Starting a little while after his departure, several far rightists actually reached out to him for help leaving; he explained how he did it and directed them to exit-counselling services.

Furthermore, Chernofsky argues that side switchers serve as an essential source of insider knowledge. After becoming an anti-fascist, Chernofsky started a number of dummy, or “sock,” social media accounts that he used to infiltrate the hate movement’s private online spaces and gather information. “I know where to look,” he says. “What to say to be let in the door.” He also frequently identified members of the far right for his anti-fascist peers, if they didn’t know them, and explained the movement’s labyrinthine dynamics to them.

Thankfully, Chernofsky didn’t come across his old comrades face to face at events too often. The far right often failed to muster counter demonstrations to anti-fascist marches. Even if they did, he felt relatively secure; the anti-fascist side always outnumbered them significantly. When he did face them down, all they did was trade insults.

But one night in December 2021, just after a pizza he’d ordered had arrived, Chernofsky’s phone buzzed: a Twitter direct message. It was from someone who was neither his follower nor a followee. There was no text. Just a video. Night-time footage of his home, shot from the sidewalk. His mind raced: Had it just been taken?

Chernofsky sent the account’s details to the Canadian Anti-Hate Network, a hate group monitoring organization. They told him it was based in BC and associated with Diagolon. The following spring, he noticed someone had tagged the hydro pole next to his house—“Hi Josh”—next to Diagolon’s emblem. Identical graffiti appeared on the sidewalk in August.

After the first incident, Chernofsky became hyper vigilant. He started carrying pepper spray, and at least for the first couple weeks, he wore his old body armour under his clothes when he went out. While riding the TTC, he carefully scanned his fellow passengers to see if anyone was looking at him the wrong way. Sometimes he’d think someone was following him in the street and do things like take a sudden turn or pretend to stop to tie his shoelaces. Following the third incident, he installed a domestic CCTV camera, having been advised to do so by his exit counsellor. “I can’t say, even up to this day,” he says, “that when I walk down the street, I’m not still looking around.”

By July 2023, Chernofsky and I had spoken over Zoom five times, on each occasion for well over an hour; one marathon session lasted for more than two. His was a long and complicated story. Since we’d spent so much time together virtually, I felt that an in-person meeting was long overdue. There were also a couple aspects of his story that had always puzzled me, that I found difficult to believe. I thought it best to ask him about these face to face.

Despite his cap and sunglasses, I spotted Chernofsky leaning against a shopfront. The heat was oppressive, but he was wearing black jeans. On seeing me, he hurriedly removed his beaten-up headphones and stowed his iPod. He was slim, pale, and roughly my height, around six feet. I was struggling to picture him in the rough and tumble of a protest.

Since April, Chernofsky had been taking a break from anti-fascism. He’d been “dealing with some personal things.” He’d also been exploring Judaism with a Jewish outreach organization (Christianity “stopped doing things” for him) and training in martial arts every day, even multiple times daily. Unfortunately, he was unemployed, and job hunting had been a real slog.

We set off down a side street toward University Avenue, the same way he had approached that very first demonstration in May 2019. Chernofsky explained that the far right chose the area as a rallying point because it’s near the US consulate—an important place for anti-fascists, and for the far right by extension.

At University, I noticed a woman standing on the central traffic island. Her back was to us, and she was brandishing a Russian flag and a placard in the direction of the consulate. Chernofsky soon noticed her too.

“I think I know who it is,” he said. “Yeah, it’s one of the people from this.” He gestured to where the “happier crowd” had stood on that fateful day over four years ago.

His motivation for showing up to take a look at that first protest—let’s just say I’d never been fully convinced by it. Was it really just boredom that had brought him here, I asked him.

“Yeah,” he said emphatically.

He hadn’t felt any prior urge to join a protest movement?

“I didn’t know what it was. Like I said, the security guard just told me that there was going to be a protest.”

If he’d gravitated toward the anti-fascist side, would he have joined their organization instead?

“For sure.”

So he was looking for something that day?

“I wasn’t really looking . . . I was just bored.”

We then wound our way along University to Queen’s Park. Chernofsky kept a close eye on his surroundings as we walked and talked. He led me along the path that bisects the Ontario Legislative Assembly’s front lawn. We stepped onto the grass and stopped under a tree. This was where he and Bowen had first met, he told me.
This story had also troubled me. I’d always found Chernofsky’s decision to start meeting up with Bowen far too instantaneous: one day he was a fully committed far rightist, the next he wanted to go for a stroll in the park with an anti-fascist. Human beings just couldn’t be that changeable, could they? When he first approached Bowen, did he really just want to thank him, I asked him. Or was there any part of him that wanted to leave the hate movement?

“Not at all,” Chernofsky said. “I was fully into it right up until I started talking with him.”

Timothy Cooke
Timothy Cooke is a graduate of Toronto Metropolitan University’s master of journalism program.