Life After Hate is a Chicago-based nonprofit that does path-breaking work. Founded by former white supremacist leaders in 2011, it studies the forces that draw people to hate and helps those who are willing to disengage from radical extremist movements.
In June, the Department of Homeland Security revoked a grant to the nonprofit, telling The Huffington Post that it wants to focus on funding groups that work with law enforcement.
This comes at a time when government agencies have warned about rising membership in far-right organizations, and the nation reels from the tragic events in Charlottesville, Virginia.
The Intercept interviewed Life After Hate executive director Sammy Rangel about his organization’s work and the approach they take that has successfully convinced dozens of white nationalists to leave the movement.
He was disappointed that the Trump administration revoked the $455,000 grant that was promised by the Obama administration, and told us the organization has received no explanation. “We didn’t hear anything for many months, and finally toward the end of June, we were notified that the award would be rescinded,” he said. “All the inquiries that we’ve put in or that we put in on behalf of the Freedom of Information Act have not been answered at all.”
Following the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, his organization has been deluged by interest from the media. Many Americans are wondering: What draws people to white nationalism, and what do we do about it?
Life After Hate’s approach focuses on compassion, counseling, and redemption. The idea of redeeming a white nationalist or neo-Nazi is understandably shocking to many Americans — and for many, it recalls the “Southern redeemers” who led a terrorist campaign after the Civil War to reinstate white supremacy. Life After Hate has a different type of redemption in mind.
Imagery of young men clad in armor, carrying weapons, and chanting anti-Semitic slogans is naturally terrifying, and the idea that these people could one day leave extremism and embrace tolerance can seem far-fetched.
But history is full of examples of people who’ve shed their hatred and repented later in life. Rangel is a believer. He himself comes from a life of redemption. A former member of the Maniac Latin Disciples gang, he spent time in a maximum security prison; later in his life he co-founded Life After Hate to help people of all backgrounds step away from extremism and violence. He rejects the idea that people drawn to extremism can’t be redeemed based on his own experience.
“How do we know people are redeemable? Life After Hate is completely made up of Formers,” he said, invoking a phrase the organization uses to describe people who have successfully departed hate groups. “The rest of the team were all members of white supremacist groups and were in leadership roles. They were the core of those groups.”
“I myself was an extremist,” he said, pointing to his former gang leadership. “I had a lot of mental health diagnoses that said I was incorrigible, I was anti-social … basically that I couldn’t change, and yet here I am.”
Rangel said there was one thing that he and the other former extremist leaders who work at Life After Hate share. “What we all have in common, for the most part, is that compassion and empathy are common themes in what helped turn us around,” he said. “What finally got through.”
He cited one of the organization’s co-founders, former skinhead Frankie Meeink, as an example. “No matter how many beer bottles flew past his head in these fights, he never walked away once re-thinking his life,” he explained. “The negative things that we think to do to challenge the other side only help us dig in. It’s only through kindness, it’s only through understanding, it’s only through compassion and peace that people were able to get past all of our armor. It was never aggression, it was never shaming.”
Rangel said that white nationalist organizations promote a sense of belonging to individuals who join, something that is hyper-charged by the internet — where extremist groups can confirm and exacerbate people’s fears and vulnerabilities.
“We get online and then we follow a rabbit hole of algorithms that takes us down a deep but narrower path … that helps validate our concerns, helps validate what we’re afraid about, and then we realize we’re not alone,” he said. “Where it turns into extremism is when they promote this sense of social obligation as a sense of activism, and that the only way to be activist is to be violent. That’s where it goes into extremism.”
Life After Hate has worked with hundreds of white nationalists and the social networks close to them: their families, counselors, and case workers. Its program ExitUSA uses a number of different tactics, ranging from individualized education to support groups to job training to guide people away from extremist groups and help them get their lives back on track. Currently, it has nearly 100 active members in its support groups.
We asked Rangel what he would say to a white nationalist activist who demonstrated in Charlottesville last weekend. “Let’s say there was somebody there who was at least interested in hearing what I have to say,” he said. “I would say is what we would offer would come from a place of being nonjudgmental. Whatever we would talk about would definitely stay between us. And that we would like to share our own experience as Formers and share what has been helpful to us in turning around the way we participate in life … whenever they’re ready our door would be open to them.”
Critics may accuse Life After Hate of naïveté, and argue that the only way to deal with such elements of our society is with shame, not compassion. If the goal, though, is not immediate moral satisfaction but actually reducing the strength of white supremacist movements, the more effective path may lie in empathy. For Rangel, the dozens of white nationalists the organization has convinced to give up their past ways are proof enough to him of his approach. “I would say show me the evidence,” he replied. “Tell me not what you can think or feel but what you can prove. If you can show me someone you have shamed into changing, beaten into changing, by all means I want to see that. But I don’t think that’s the way for anyone.”