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United States

She used to be a neo-Nazi; now she helps people leave hate groups

Angela King has a unique insight into the most effective ways to respond to incidences of hate and extremism, and why people are in the life in the first place.
26 Nov 2017 – 12:00 PM EST
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From incidents of bullying to assault, a woman who works to help people exit from hate groups says she’s concerned by what she sees as a rise in hate across the United States.

“We have seen so many examples of people being bullied because of the color of skin, their sexual identity, their religion,” says Angela King, the co-founder of Life After Hate. “And we have a president who refuses to denounce the violent far right.”

But King says there’s a better way. She herself is a former far right, violent extremist.

After struggling to fit in as a kid, she found solace in a group of punk rockers who were interested in neo-Nazism. By 23, she had been arrested for a hate crime, after she and her friends robbed an adult video store. She acted as a lookout as they beat up the clerk, who was Jewish.

In prison, King ended up becoming friends with a group of black women, who—to her shock and dismay—didn’t judge her for her actions. Behind bars, the guise of hate and extremism began to crumble as King reconciled parts of her past. She admitted a long-held secret and came out as a lesbian.

When she was released in 2001, King began to study sociology and psychology. In 2004, she sat down with a Holocaust survivor and they shared stories. In 2011, she helped found Life After Hate, which stages interventions and offers mentorship and other resources to those involved in extremism.

Now, she offers unique insight into the most effective ways to respond to incidences of hate and extremism, and why people find comfort in the life in the first place.

Those in hate groups often have troubled pasts

Individuals do not become involved in hate groups because they suddenly wake up and hate everyone that looks different than them, King said in an interview with Univision’s Rise Up team.

“We see children interact and they don’t have those ideas and beliefs instilled in them,” she says.

According to research and experience, King says those who gravitate to hate groups tend to share a common theme: they’ve usually experienced trauma and/or abuse, and are seeking to fill a void in their lives.

For King, it was the secret about her sexuality that first left her angry and resentful in childhood. She learned from her parents that being gay was wrong. She was raped, and struggled with her weight. When she met a group of skinheads as a kid, they accepted her anger, and encouraged it.

“I never had to explain why I was angry—they were angry, too,” she says.

Extremists view any attention, whether positive or negative, as good attention

When we get angry at extremists, whether we’re screaming at them or not, they view it as a victory.

“Part of the reason for that is that it gives them the ability to turn around and say ‘we’re here peacefully expressing opinions. We’re the ones being persecuted,’” King says. “They’re very smart when it comes to manipulating words, and making it seem like there’s nothing behind the rumors that they’re a hate group. Those are skills they’ve been honing for years.”

King says modern hate movements, which are often online, function the same way as offline groups do. Media attention and online rage are seen as victories. Furthermore, she says, “they’ve learned to turn it--to use fear and anger to drive misinformation.”

If possible, respond with kindness instead of violence

It’s certainly easy to respond to hate with aggression, King says.

“It takes so much more strength to respond with kindness and compassion than to respond with the same,” King says. “But punching a Nazi is counterproductive. It doesn’t help.”

King says no one decides to suddenly rethink their hateful beliefs after being assaulted, whether physically or verbally. In most cases, it has the “exact opposite effect.”

Someone punched in the face is given ammunition and the ability to excuse their actions by rationalizing that the person who punched them is “actually the violent one,” King says.

Positive messaging can plant a seed of hope

King says she and her fellow Life After Hate members like to send a simple message to those involved in hate groups: “That when they become disillusioned we’ll be here to help them disengage.”

During a “free speech rally” and counter-protest in Boston in August, King and one of her colleagues held up a poster that read “There is life after hate,” with the organization’s website listed below.

“I pointed it at the individuals there for free speech,” she says. “I didn’t say anything to them. I did not go to chant, to scream, to call people names.”

“If an individual sees our message, they can never go back and not see it again,” she says. “Say there’s a person there who eventually becomes disillusioned. They’re going to know there are other people who became disillusioned. That it’s possible to make change.”

Most importantly, protect human life

Of course, no one should try to use kindness towards a neo-Nazi when in the face of physical danger. “There’s a difference between using violence because we’re angry and using it during those times when we need to protect human life,” she says.

King says it’s important not to be a bystander if we see something happening.

“We have seen so many examples of people being bullied because of the color of skin, their sexual identity, their religion… it’s up to us to speak up when we see things happening. We can’t just abandon our fellow human beings.”

“I know it’s hard for others to do,” she says. “But literally imagine walking in another person’s shoes.”