Since I can remember, I’ve been fascinated with the idea of being a warrior. I learned to read early and would sit in the library poring over books of Greek and Norse myths, gravitating to the parts about monsters and violence. In middle school, I played Dungeons & Dragons, fancying myself as an unstoppable fighter who made his own rules. Art was equally as fascinating as violence, and the two combined in my drawings of battle scenes from ancient Vikings cracking skulls to spaceships blowing each other to bits.
I grew up in an alcoholic family and developed an adrenaline habit that drove me to lash out at the world in increasingly drastic ways. By the time I turned 16, I was an alcoholic and very comfortable with hate and violence. I hated the town I lived in. I hated my school and most of the teachers and other kids. I hated the police. I discovered racist skinhead music through the punk scene and learned that the swastika is an effective way of angering others — the hostility I radiated was reflected by the people around me, validating the paranoid ideology that had become my identity. Eventually I became a founding member of the Northern Hammerskins, which went on to become part of Hammerskin Nation.
I spent seven years as a leader of hate groups, perpetrating wanton violence against innocent people and twisting the minds of other hurt white kids to do even worse. We would comb the city, looking for the “anti-racist skinheads” and beating up whoever we could find. Though we did attack people because of skin color or suspected sexual orientation, we most often attacked random white people, claiming after the fact that they were race-traitors. Aside from trips to Chicago and Minneapolis to brawl with their anti-racists, the bulk of the violence we committed was relatively spontaneous. We had a tendency to start assaulting each other if we didn’t go on a manhunt.
At our most organized point, the group had weekly meetings at which the many threats we faced were lamented and our dedication to eliminating our enemies was sworn. By enemies, I mean everyone except violent, racist white people. Jews were seen as the masterminds of an ongoing genocide against the white race. “Non-white” people were seen as lazy, stupid savages that the Jews kept integrating into white society to destroy it. White people who weren’t violent racists were seen as the greatest enemies of all: race-traitors complicit in our destruction.
This sick mindset was constantly reinforced with racist music and literature. Any sort of media that didn’t support white supremacist ideology was forbidden. The resulting intellectual and spiritual isolation made fertile ground for hate and violence.
We recruited other angry white people by littering areas of racial tension with fliers bearing swastikas and slogans telling black people, in the crudest slur possible, to “beware,” along with our post office box. Luckily for us, Milwaukee was a hotbed of racial strife during the late 1980s, thanks to a severely depressed inner city and a black alderman who let his righteous anger drive him to threaten violence against whites. You could pretty much throw a rock and find a disgruntled white person. We also recruited through word of mouth with white co-workers, family and friends. Though nine out of 10 people would be repulsed by what we had to say, there were always those who liked to hear it.
When everything is going wrong in your life, it’s much easier to blame Jews/Muslims/blacks/Mexicans/gays/anyone-but-yourself than it is to face your flaws and begin the hard work to account for them. The teenage outcast kid is told that it’s the Jews’ fault he doesn’t have a girlfriend — the media they control tells white girls to be attracted to black boys. The middle-aged guy who lost his job has “illegal” immigrants to blame, and take a wild guess who the racist narrative says brings them into our country.
The recruitment process is sophisticated beyond the understanding of the recruiters. There are very complex human frailties that are preyed upon and manipulated without either the prospect or recruiter really understanding the psychological dynamics. Recruiters fail to understand the spiritual mechanics behind a person’s need for love, but they know well enough to look for people who are hurting. Simply put, it feels good for a person to feel a sense of belonging, purpose and value, especially if they lack love in their lives.
There are all sorts of healthy ways to meet these needs, the Serve 2 Unite program I work with today being one of them. But if such needs are not answered with love and humanity, they can very easily be answered with fear, ignorance, and hate.
People like Dylann Roof, the suspect in last week’s church shooting in Charleston, S.C., typically seek some means of solace when things in life seem to go wrong. In this age of ubiquitous media and information access, a quick Google search in a direction guided by pain can lead to someone to blame. Once a culprit is identified, a host of propaganda emerges. All the hate groups have to do is wait for the hurting to come. Raising their profile with any sort of stunt that gets media attention is a great recruitment asset. A savvy white supremacist recruiter will make calculated moves here and there to raise the profile of their group, letting prospective members come to them. Had the massacre at Emanuel AME Church occurred 20 years ago while I was active, we would have cited it as evidence of the failure of integration and multiculturalism.
I’ve been beat up as often as I’ve beaten others, and in no case did being on the receiving end of violence make me any less violent. It was actually the kindness of brave people who refused to lower themselves to my level that changed the course of my life, to put me in a position to follow their example and promote the practice of loving-kindness myself. We cannot hate violent extremism out of existence.
Love is the most effective means to draw people from hate. Kumbayas aside, there are dynamics as sound as any law of physics to back this up. Hate and violence are cyclical things. More of either can only fuel the cycle. This is not a problem that we can punish our way out of. As righteous as the anger we feel may be when facing horror like the murder of nine wonderful people in their place of worship, it can never bring us toward a more peaceful world if we let it poison our hearts.
This doesn’t mean we throw Dylann Roof a parade, and it doesn’t mean that we don’t need to put him somewhere where he can’t hurt anyone else. This does mean that if we seek to see him suffer, we are perpetuating the harm he has done and diminishing our own ability to bring love to the world.
Within 36 hours of the Emanuel AME Church community losing their precious sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, and mothers and fathers, I was on the way to Charleston with Amardeep and Pardeep Kaleka, two brothers whose father was killed in the 2012 Sikh temple shooting in Wisconsin. Arriving at the church after a 20-hour car ride, we joined what we were not surprised to see was a celebration outside. People of all ethnicities, from across the nation, had gathered to combine broken hearts in the spirit of human oneness. The experience was overwhelming in its beauty and defiance of hate. I broke down sobbing.
Before my tears could hit the ground, black members of the Emanuel AME congregation embraced me and held me. I had come to comfort them, but it was their love that comforted me, sending an immensely powerful and indisputable message: When we rebel against the construct of race and love each other as a great human family, hate cannot win.