At 14 years old I was standing one day in an alley, smoking a joint — already starting to become this delinquent looking for attention. But this guy walked up to me. He pulled that joint out of my mouth. He looked me in the eyes, and he said, “That’s what the Communists and the Jews want you to do to keep you docile.” I didn’t want to tell him I didn’t know what a Jew was or a Communist or even what the word “docile” meant. I didn’t want to seem stupid. Because it was the first time in my life somebody paid attention to me. I was this Italian American kid growing up on the South Side of Chicago. My parents weren’t around very much. They had to work really hard. They kind of had no choice. But I felt abandoned. I felt invisible. I didn’t know if I had a purpose. I felt like I didn’t belong. I was searching for family.
So I listened. And I tried to act cool. He saw me as prey. He reeled me in, and he offered me that sense of identity, community and purpose, and instantly I didn’t have any confusion about who I was. I was a White man. This was my new family. And my purpose was something of great importance, and that was saving the White race from destruction. Now, to somebody who felt invisible, it’s pretty intoxicating to suddenly go from nobody to somebody — and not just somebody, but somebody respected and told they were great and a warrior. It was like a drug. I questioned it, of course. I wasn’t raised that way. But I got reward from it, and I kept chasing that reward.
Much of the work you do these days is with people who have joined hate groups and are now trying to get out. What’s the key to helping people disengage, as you did?
I wish there were a simple answer to it, but I think the most important insight is understanding that hatred of other people often comes from hatred of one’s self being projected. You can scream and use facts against somebody who’s not thinking rationally, and you’ll never change their mind, no matter what you say. We have to understand the motivation for why people hate, and that’s typically because they hate themselves. So it’s about repairing [people’s] potholes, right? About making sure they find the help that they need to get stable ground so that they can move forward instead of backward or sideways. Finding therapists or psychologists, or a job trainer or a life coach or a mentor. Or, in some cases, immersion, where, once they’re far enough along, putting them in touch with the people that they think that they hate so that they can understand that that was unfounded. For me, receiving the compassion from the people I thought I hated was a really, really powerful thing to get me to that place where I could understand how wrong it was.
So for you, what was your turning point?
I lost everything. It was late 1995. I was 22 — I had married at 19 and had two children at that point. I had opened a record store to sell racist music. I was in a racist band. My wife was not a sympathizer of what I was involved in. And I was really torn with the fact that I didn’t want my family involved in the movement. But I also didn’t want to leave it because until that point, it was the only thing I found any kind of respect in.
My wife left me when I didn’t leave fast enough, and I became ashamed of selling the white-power music. I had started to meet people who challenged how I believed: people of color, gay people, Jewish people who came in the store. And I started to have real doubts. And that’s when I pulled the racist music. Sales tanked, and I closed the store. Over the next five years, from January 1996 to November of 1999, I ran from who I was. I left the movement. I moved. I tried to find a new job. I tried to make new friends. I basically ran from my old group. I used the excuse that I was just trying to repair my family. But I never wanted to go back. And I ran.
I didn’t talk about who I was until 1999. A friend of mine — one of the few friends that I had made after the movement, who didn’t know anything about me — encouraged me to apply for a job at IBM where she had started to work. I was, like, You’re f-----’ crazy. I got kicked out of five high schools. I didn’t go to college, didn’t even have a computer. Like, why would IBM even consider me? But it was an entry-level job installing computers, and I got the job.
The first place they put me was at my old high school, the place I’d been kicked out of twice for my racism. So on my first day of work I was slinking around the hallways, terrified somebody was going to recognize me and I was going to lose my job — the first bit of hope I had had after leaving the movement, the first glimpse at a normal life. Of course, in the first 15 minutes, who sees me but the Black security guard whose life I had made hell while I had gone there eight years prior. He didn’t really recognize me at first. But I looked him in the eye and said, “Hi, Mr. Holmes.” And I put out my hand and I said, “I’m sorry.” When it clicked, he took a step back. I was still, in his eyes, that same guy. Right? I said, “I’m so sorry.” I didn’t know what else to say — I get choked up talking about it now — but he put his hand out and shook mine. Eventually, I found the words to tell him that I wasn’t that person anymore. That I had a family and I felt so ashamed of what I had done. It was the first time that those words had ever left my lips. I was so scared. He listened. And he embraced me. He said, “Hey, it’s okay, we’ll figure it out.” And he’s been there for me ever since.
What did that do to you?
I felt like the clouds opened up, like I had shed a million pounds. It just gave me the courage to figure it out and self-reflect. So that’s when I started on this mission of talking about who I was, before anybody cared. Before people thought white supremacy was a problem. Before Charlottesville, before Charleston, before the Sikh temple shooting in Wisconsin. I put a target on my back, saying, ‘Hey, I’m a former white supremacist, you should hear my story.’ Nobody wanted to hear it. Until we were in the position we’re in now. And I’m so glad people are finally, finally starting to have this conversation.
Do you think that had we had the conversation earlier, we might have rooted out some of today’s hate?
It’s hard to say. I mean, we still don’t [admit] we have a problem, so I don’t know that we would have seen it then. But I think we could at least have been saying: This is not over. They’re just hiding; they just changed their M.O. They’re going to come back. Watch law enforcement, watch the military. Now we’re starting to see reports of all that.
I was going to ask you about white supremacy in law enforcement and military and politics. How true have you found that to be?
There were people in my crew who became cops. Some became prison guards. Others ran for office. So yeah, I hate to say it, and I certainly don’t have any statistics or figures, but from firsthand accounts, I can tell you that there were people who were not very good people who ended up entrusted with everybody’s safety. And I don’t think that they were capable of that.
The white-supremacist neo-Nazi group you led, Hammerskin Nation, dressed to intimidate. Maybe the Proud Boys are like that, but generally there seems to be a more buttoned-up, sanitized version of white supremacy today.
Absolutely. The Proud Boys are, in my opinion, Hammerskins 2.0. They’re the closest thing to a white power gang. But you’re absolutely right. Most people in the movement these days are not interested in being called a white supremacist. There was a strategy in the ’80s and ’90s to really move away from that visible stuff. That’s how they were able to infiltrate the mainstream then: Republicans, law enforcement, the military and all those things. Because they were able to hide it. Boots to suits, I call it. We used to wear boots, and now they wear suits. It was all a ploy to attract more White, racist people. Because we were too extreme. Like, even now, White racist people don’t like the Proud Boys. They’re too out there. They’re too easily identified. They’re denouncing the Proud Boys, but they won’t denounce white supremacy. And it was the same for us. But now it’s gotten to the point where the Proud Boys feel like their guy is in the White House, and they can kind of let their hair down a little bit. They’re not afraid to hide that they’re part of that.
Never in our history have we had political leaders with the ear of the whole world mimic the things that we used to say when I was part of a hate group. To use the words. To even embolden the groups by name.
To me, it seems very intentional. I mean, it hasn’t just happened once or twice. And if he’s not doing it intentionally, it doesn’t matter, because it’s still having the same effect. It’s still activating them. It is still emboldening and empowering them to commit acts of violence.
When he called out the Proud Boys, they heard him loud and clear. And not just the Proud Boys. Not just a couple of hundred idiots who, you know, wear Fred Perry. Every white supremacist heard him and knew, at that point, that they had a friendly person in the White House. We should be very scared of that. Because there are a lot of really unstable people who are hearing these messages who are not able to really logically think them through and are acting on them. I used to know those people. And that terrifies me.
I mean, that little world that I was in from 14 to 22 years old, we’re all living in that now. It’s everywhere. It’s on the news. It’s on regular TV. You know: Democrats being pedophiles and secret conspiracies — it’s insane. As somebody who came from my world, to see the mainstream having these same conversations that I had in dark rooms with neo-Nazis is surreal.
You’ve talked about “toxic propaganda that you’re still unable to scrub from the Internet,” including lyrics from your previous band that you learned Dylann Roof had listened to prior to his deadly attack on the parishioners in Charleston.
Four months before he walked into the church and murdered those nine people, he had posted my band’s lyrics on a message board. He had seen my band, had heard the song in a documentary about skinheads. I certainly don’t know if I was responsible, but I contributed. And if I contributed even one little bit, I hold myself responsible for that.
There are still things that I put out into the world — ideas, music I recorded — that despite my attempts to get removed, taken down, find their way online. I’m still pulling out all the weeds from the seeds I planted 30 years ago. So my job is not over; I don’t want it to be over. I was a part of this nightmare, and it’s my job, knowing that I helped build that monster, to destroy it now. I work with people at various stages of disengagement to disengage [from hate]. And I hope that at some point I will put more good into the world than bad.
KK Ottesen is a regular contributor to the magazine. Follow her on Twitter: @kkOttesen. This interview has been edited and condensed.