Very little has felt as satisfying to watch as the famed white supremacist/founder of the "alt-right" movement, Richard Spencer, getting clocked in the face during an interview last month. The clip spurned a fervent argument online about whether or not it's OK to punch a neo-Nazi—but it goes without saying that as cathartic as punching white supremacists in the face might be, it won't get us much closer to figuring out how to reckon with them.
Talking with ex neo-Nazis themselves might, so we asked Angela King, Tony McAleer, and Frank Meeink to explain what's driving the rise of hate groups, what inspired them to leave theirs, and the threats they see in politics today. All are former neo-Nazis who are now directors of Life After Hate, a nonprofit that works to rehabilitate former hate-group members. Though their experiences span different eras and locales—McAleer was a Canadian skinhead recruiter, King a white supremacist in South Florida, and Meeink a young skinhead leader in Illinois—they all share one thing in common: an intimate knowledge of the conditions in one's life that can foster a turn to hate-based belief systems.
Interviews have been condensed and edited for clarity.
VICE: What was the appeal of joining the neo-Nazi movement?
Frank Meeink: Just the belonging. Feeling like I was part of something.
Tony McAleer: It offers power, notoriety, acceptance, and approval. You know how when you go to the grocery store, and you're really hungry, so you end up buying a bunch of junk food? That was the ideology. I went out into the world emotionally hungry.
When did you stop identifying with the movement, and what led to that?
Frank Meeink: In 1993—I was 19 years old, and it just wasn't what I expected it to be. [After four years], I didn't expect that I'd be in and out of prison already. And there were people who were starting to show me that no matter what color they were, they were going through the same things as me. I would talk with a young black inmate about our girlfriends on the outside, and it was like we had the same exact feelings and emotions, and we were both worried if they were cheating on us and stuff like that. But it was a slow process.
Angela King: I went to prison in a highly publicized hate-crime case. I expected that I would get my ass kicked all the time because of who I was. There were women there who I would have been very ugly to, possibly even violent, had we met under different circumstances. But even knowing who I was, they treated me with kindness and compassion. I honestly had no idea what to do with that. My whole life was anger, aggression, hatred, and fighting.
They were not easy on me. They asked me questions that I didn't want to answer for myself, because that would mean admitting what a shitty person I had been. A big part of the group I started to hang out with were Jamaican women. One asked me if I would have called her the N-word. She said, "Would you have tried to hurt me? What if my daughter was there, would you have tried to kill us?" Prison isn't the kind of place where you can just leave if you're uncomfortable.
Do you feel like if that hadn't have happened, your old self could have identified with the alt-right?
Frank Meeink: Oh, absolutely. It's the same movement. It's just cleaned up; it's well-spoken. They preach exactly the same stuff that I used to preach. Exactly the same stuff.
Angela King: The alt-right does not exist. It's nothing more than white supremacists who have repackaged the hate and served it up in a more palatable form for human consumption.
When I was 23 and on my way out of the neo-Nazi movement, what they were pushing at that time was that we were being too blatant. We started hearing, "Quit shaving your heads, quit getting tattoos, quit being so easy to identify, quit committing crimes that are going to bring bad or negative attention to us." That's what they were telling us to do. Go undercover. Go out and become a police officer, a lawyer, a doctor. Get into different aspects of society, and when the time is right, there was one goal: a race war.
Not to be alarmist, but seeing what's happening today with the people who call themselves the "alt-right," seeing the sheer joy that comes out of the violent far-right, that's more horrifying to me than neo-Nazis, because I know what it means.
Tony McAleer: [What I was known for] when I was part of the movement was to make the unreasonable sound reasonable. So you could take the Nazi ideology and use a different language to make it sound very reasonable. If you put on a shirt and a tie with a suit, and tell people to go to college, don't get tattoos, and go mainstream, it makes white supremacy appear reasonable. I did that during my time in the movement. And it's funny to see it 20 years later, and that's exactly what the whole movement looks like now.
Is there a serious threat that this extreme, violent, far-right white nationalism could gain more control?
Frank Meeink: They've gained power. They're there. Their main people are in power. Bannon just got put on the National Security Council. Spencer will be running somewhere, and he's going to win, wherever he runs this next election, because he's going to pick the right spot to run.
Tony McAleer: If you look at ISIS's recruiting techniques for kids in Europe, it's not like they sell it on the idea of becoming an Islamic scholar. They find these kids who are almost delinquents, and they sell them on the sense of purpose and a sense of meaning that they can find through the group. It's like they're selling a fantasy where you get to be a hero. You see in a lot of the far-right stuff, where there's a lot of viking warrior imagery. It's a hyper-masculine, twisted hero's journey that's a great thing to feel like you're part of when you don't have a lot going on in your life.
What do you think is emboldening the alt-right to speak out?
Angela King: I think it's all the misinformation out there. We have pockets of people in our country who aren't inherently racist or hateful, but whose lives haven't gone great. They're not out there getting rich—they're barely getting by. They can't take care of their families, and it's apparent that those calling themselves "alt-right" have thought critically about how to hook them. The language being used creates an "us versus them" narrative. They're saying that refugees and immigrants are our greatest enemies—not that they're fleeing for their lives, but that they want to come here and destroy America.
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