White supremacist hate groups are nothing new in America. They have been active and organized for over a century under the banner of the Ku Klux Klan, post-World War II neo-Nazism and racist skinheads who emerged in the 1960s.
But since 2015, hate groups targeting people of different races, religions, sexual orientations and more have been on the rise in the U.S. — a trend the Southern Poverty Law Center ties, in part, to the tenor of President Donald Trump’s campaign for office. And since he was elected in November 2016, white supremacists have been emboldened. Hundreds of incidents of hate-fueled violence have been reported since the election, and the number of active hate groups has jumped to 917 from 892 in 2016, according to the SPLC.
In this environment, the urgent questions have become: How does a free society stop such groups? And how do you lead people away from hate groups and help them start new lives?
Angela King, a former member of a violent hate group, is offering some answers. She is the co-founder and deputy director of Life After Hate, a Chicago-based nonprofit organization that hosts multiple anti-hate initiatives with national reach, chief among them an exit program that helps people disengage from hate groups and find positive ways to contribute to society.
“The best thing we can do is keep educating people — keep these things in the spotlight,” King says. What’s needed is “compassion and kindness, but also dedication to making sure people’s human rights and civil rights are respected.”
It’s vital work, says Lecia Brooks, SPLC’s director of outreach. “Being part of a hate group is so far outside the mainstream,” she adds. “Life After Hate affords a second chance.”
How Hate Grows
The value of second chances is something King understands all too well. She was born and raised in southern Florida, a state with its own troubled record — currently, it ranks second in the nation for hate groups, with 63 recorded.
Her parents often used racial and homophobic slurs around the house. So when she found herself attracted to fellow female classmates at her Catholic elementary school, the discovery caused her to feel “overwhelming disgust for myself,” she says.
In 6th grade, she moved to public school, where she was quickly targeted by bullies. In 7th grade, those altercations turned physical. Her parents divorced around that time, and the household tumult coupled with ongoing bullying led her to start drinking, taking drugs and having sex. When she was 13, she was arrested for the first time. It all piled up so that “by the time I got to high school, I was extremely violent.”
Yet King was also desperate to fit in. So when she found a group of skinheads who welcomed her aggressive tendencies, she thought she had found her people. “Even though I learned racism and homophobia at home, that’s not what drew me in — it was the acceptance.” Thus began 8 years of involvement in a hate group.
Extremist groups, including white supremacists, often recruit and indoctrinate new members by offering them a sense of belonging that they have long lacked, yet crave, says Brooks of the SPLC. “Young white men and women who have experienced disenfranchisement because of their economic conditions or chaotic family lives, who are not feeling ‘part of’ — for them, white supremacists become their family.”
This is particularly true for women, according to research by Kathleen M. Blee, a professor of sociology at the University of Pittsburgh. She told the SPLC in 2002 that “women become associated with these groups for reasons that are cultural and social — friends, music, clothing styles — rather than because a particular racial issue is troubling them.”
King was a committed racist skinhead for years — up until her first moment of doubt in April 1995, when she was 19. That was when Timothy McVeigh bombed a federal building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people and injuring hundreds more. “When I realized it was someone like me who had committed that violence, it was the first time that made me reconsider.”
She tried to exit the scene, ignoring calls from group members while on house arrest. But they would not let her go quietly — they shared her home address with other extremists, then showed up 30-strong to shoot live ammunition at her house. She also received thinly veiled threats of harm to her younger siblings. “I started answering the phone again,” she says.
But her decision to return was about more than fear, King admits. “I was really attached to belonging somewhere.” However, being welcomed back came with strings. “I had to re-prove myself by being a better racist, by recruiting more, by being more violent.”
Finding Life After Hate
Her actions escalated until 1998, when she and several other group members tried to rob a local convenience store owned by a Jewish person. That was how she found herself sitting in a federal detention center facing armed robbery charges at age 23.
In prison, she anticipated trouble, particularly because of her visible racist tattoos. But while some inmates made comments, “there were a lot of women who treated me kindly, with compassion, even knowing I was a racist skinhead.”
In fact, “my entire life started to change with one simple question: ‘Hey, do you know how to play cribbage?'” A group of Jamaican women invited her to play the game with them, and soon she met others. “It was my first introduction to real diversity.”
Getting to know these women forced King to confront her racist past and beliefs. And by the time she was released in 2001, she was committed to doing — and being — better. She earned a master’s degree in interdisciplinary studies from the University of Central Florida and began speaking about her past experiences at the request of her probation officer, who taught criminal justice at a nearby school.
In 2011, she attended a summit in Dublin for former extremists — a profound experience, she says, because it introduced her to “people who were directly impacted by the type of violence I used to leverage against others.” There, she and a few other American former hate group members gathered together to talk about how to make a difference at home.
One of them ran a blog called Life After Hate, and suggested they adopt the name and create a nonprofit. She and co-founders Christian Picciolini, Tony McAleer, Frank Meeink and Sammy Rangel did just that later that year.
Building a Movement
Life After Hate is a multi-pronged operation, but its main focus is the ExitUSA program. Inspired by similar campaigns in Sweden and Germany, it employs a mix of education, job training, community engagement and public awareness campaigns designed to facilitate the move away from life as a white supremacist.
Connecting people with the resources they need to disengage can be tough, the SPLC’s Brooks says. And so is controlling a narrative, she adds; while hate and extremism were widespread before the Trump administration took office, recent rhetoric from high-ranking officials “makes it harder for a group like Life After Hate or the SPLC to say, ‘They’re not right. They’re wrong. You need to get out.'”
The organization’s approach works, Brooks says. “I have known individuals who have been deeply involved in hate or extremist groups” who have “gone on to live different lives” thanks to exit programs that emphasize the “redemptive power of people to change,” she says. Groups like Life After Hate, and women like King, give her hope. “I think women are historically responsible for creating change — we’re always there.”
In addition to providing former extremists with resources, ExitUSA seeks to educate the public about the root drivers of hate group involvement, including abuse, trauma, bullying and the pursuit of acceptance.
Life After Hate also offers other programs, including Formers Anonymous, a support network for people who have exited hate groups; Strong Cities Network, a global cohort of mayors, policy makers and other officials launched at the United Nations in 2015; and Against Violent Extremism Network, which unites former extremists the world over in combating hate.
Where the Path Leads
Life After Hate faces its greatest challenges yet, as it fights to stem the growing ranks of hate groups amid surging nativism in the U.S. But its current troubles don’t end there. Back in January, the group had been awarded $400,000 by President Barack Obama’s administration through its Countering Violent Extremism Grant Program. However, the Trump administration froze and then rescinded that funding in June.
That decision put Life After Hate in the spotlight, even landing it on TBS’ “Full Frontal with Samantha Bee.” To King’s relief, donations have been pouring in, some through a crowdfunding effort. “The last several months, we’ve been overwhelmed with requests from all over the place. We’re starting to make up what we would have had with the grant,” she says.
Going forward, Life After Hate hopes to use this latest wave of social and financial support to improve its programs, in part by stepping up its digital efforts. It also aims to expand its outreach to policy makers and efforts to raise awareness about the problem of homegrown, right-wing extremism.
“We’re really working to not only help the individuals who have disengaged from groups, but for those who are willing to speak out publicly,” King says. “We are hoping to open up a platform for not just small team of us doing this, but for a large group … [that can] prevent young people from making the kinds of choices we made.”