by Sarah Freeman-Woolpert
Life After Hate Executive Director Sammy Rangel at a TEDx conference in 2015. (Youtube/TEDx Talks)
It’s been a roller coaster year for Sammy Rangel, the executive director of Life After Hate — a non-profit organization that encourages people to leave violent extremist groups by offering them support and a community of other “formers.” From losing its government funding when the Trump administration took office to experiencing a surge in media attention after Charlottesville, Rangel’s organization has become a go-to source for its unique perspective on the motivations compelling people to join extremist groups — and how to get them out.
As former members of extremist groups themselves, Rangel and his colleagues at Life After Hate bring an insider’s understanding to their work. They know why people embrace hate and understand the pain and vulnerability fueling their violence. As a child, Rangel was abused, raped and tortured by family members. He ran away from home at age 11, and began using hard drugs and having sex, leading to more traumatic experiences when his young girlfriend gave birth to a stillborn baby. Rangel’s sense of fear and abandonment turned to anger, leading him to join the Maniac Latin Disciples gang and spend years engaged in violent crime and cycling through prison.
Over time, Rangel’s life slowly began to change for the better. After undergoing drug abuse rehabilitation, he started doing community outreach to reduce violence, earned a master’s degree in social work, and began training law enforcement agencies on reducing violent extremism. When I spoke to Rangel, he discussed his belief in peoples’ potential to change — even those engaged in violent extremism. He challenged the way such people are condemned and dehumanized by the very people who claim to stand against hate. For Rangel, nonviolence requires the recognition of each person’s humanity, and countering violent extremism must begin with trying to understand what leads a person into a life of hate in the first place.
A recent New York Times story profiling a neo-Nazi sympathizer in Ohio sparked a heated debate about the line between giving extremists a platform to spread their beliefs and trying to understand them as people. Could you tell me how you see that distinction in your own work?
For us, it’s not a fine line. We’re not conceding anything, nor are we relinquishing anything in our position. We just know how to develop a dialogue with the person who needs the help. One of the things we have to be mindful of is whether we are adopting the same narrative about the people we say we are protesting against. If I were to look in the mirror, do I look and sound fundamentally like the person I’m challenging, in how much I hate and condemn that person and want to cause harm to that person? That’s what the other side is trying to do. They think, “That person is so different from me that I could never relate to them.” But whether you dehumanize someone because of their race or ideology, it’s still the same process. It leads to the same thing: violence and extremism. You can be against a behavior and still see value in a person.
The New York Times article minimized and glamorized. It went too far in how it depicted this person. But underneath the story is the truth: This person eats and sleeps like everybody else does. He has feelings and relationships. We’re not dealing with Nazis, we’re dealing with people who embrace the propaganda of white supremacists and the alt-right. They’re still a person, not an animal, not a sub-human. We’re dealing with people, and there’s nothing wrong with keeping that in the forefront of your mind.
How do you think we can try to understand where someone’s coming from without condoning their beliefs and ultimately resembling the same dehumanizing narrative we’re trying to oppose?
Both sides have two things in common: They have grievances, and they want to be validated. They like to talk and be heard and feel they are important. By saying “We understand,” [some left-wing groups] think we’re conceding our position. We haven’t. What we’re saying is: “I see how you got to that point in your life. I can see your process and start to dismantle that process through a lens of understanding, which is only focused through compassion and empathy. I see the suffering. I don’t agree with how you’re managing your suffering, but I see it.”
Is a white supremacist wrong when he says the middle class is shrinking? No, but where it gets radical is who they blame and how they carry that out. They blame the government and then take it out on minorities. They should take it out on the government, but not with bombs and tiki torches. What’s amazing is that when you listen, they actually calm down and listen in return.
What sorts of things can people do to build better understanding with members of extremist groups, particularly those of us coming from left-leaning activist circles and who aren’t in a position to reach out from personal experience?
We see a lot of counter-protests, and while protests serve a purpose, they shouldn’t be equated with the idea of dialogue. You’re not going to a protest to listen to anyone — you’re preaching to the choir. In many ways a silent protest would be more powerful in my mind, because we’re there to hold our position and show the nation that this won’t go unnoticed — not to challenge their ideology. We’re not trying to win anything, but we are trying to maintain and restore balance.
A lot of left-wing groups have been celebrating the “punch a Nazi” meme since the violence at Charlottesville. What are some ways groups can oppose ideology that’s not going to alienate people even further and lead to more violence?
We don’t need to oppose ideology. It’s not the ideology itself [that’s the problem], it’s the radicalization and ultimately the extremism. It’s not unconstitutional or illegal to be a radical in your thinking. [It only becomes those things] when you take those thoughts and act out on them violently. What we want to be promoting or ensuring is a place where people can have their differences of views without feeling that they can impose those on other people. You can only oppose a person’s ideology when you have mutual respect in the relationship, and that mutual respect normally comes when you are willing to listen. Listening is often mistaken for conceding something, but it’s not conceding.
The second thing a person can do is to get behind organizations that are doing a good job on this. We’ve raised $700,000 this year, but we’ll run through that in a couple of years doing the work we’re doing — it’s not sustainable. We need people to get behind it. Other people have been innovative in helping to raise funds [by donating to groups like ours when white supremacists come to their town]. These [white supremacists] know every minute they’re out there, they’re funding programs like ours. They hate that shit. There are innovative ways to do this — it’s not difficult. We have to spend more time learning from others about what’s working in the nonviolence world.
We also need to let people know that nonviolent doesn’t mean non-dangerous. It’s one of the most dangerous paths that a person can walk. It’s actually probably more dangerous [than using violence] because we’re walking into dangerous situations where people are willing to be violent, and we’re putting our lives on the line to hold a position as it relates to humanity. If you’re going to represent your humanity and your values, you can’t do it by diminishing someone else’s — that’s not how that works.
How might future white supremacist rallies be countered without leading to the kind of violence we saw in Charlottesville?
We’ve talked about the value of holding a protest, but not holding it where these guys show up. Let them talk to themselves while we hold our rally over here at another place. What if no one was there to pay attention? For their movement, any press is good press. We’re lending our light to their light, and that’s not what we intend to do. I’m not saying we shouldn’t protest at the same time, I just don’t think we need to engage with them directly. I think that’s counter-productive on every level. What you’re trying to do is to intimidate them, but you’re actually going to embolden them.
In an interview with [former Life After Hate co-founder] Christian Picciolini, he said it’s identity, community and purpose that drives radicalism — not ideology. What are some of the ways that we, as a society, can work on addressing the underlying issues of identity, community and purpose, in order to create more space for people who feel rejected or are looking for validation?
Let me ask you this: If we’re protesting the way we protest, where is the safe place for someone who is second-guessing their membership? What are we doing in our community to create a space for those people? Right now, Life After Hate is the only place to go, which is a shame because we can’t be everywhere all the time. But if the community took that stance, they might actually win some of those people right there on the spot, who say, “You know what, I want more of what you have.” When they look out their window beyond their group, they see a raging, angry crowd with nowhere to exit.
As for identity, when we won’t allow them to have a voice or a grievance, we also rob them of their identity. What’s more, we don’t let them change their identity. Once a Nazi, always a Nazi [is so often the mentality], which is why people shame, isolate, fire and remove them from their homes. We’re not even allowing them to try and create a new identity. [Nor are we allowing them to find new purpose.] What purpose can they serve in this community when all their opportunities are being squandered because of who they used to be?
This movement has forgotten that there are things like reconciliation and redemption. I think we’re so violent because we’ve lost faith in our own ability to be effective in this fight. If you’re skilled at what you do, you don’t burn out like this. You don’t become violent and adversarial. You only do this shit when you get so frustrated that you abandon ship, you abandon your own moral high ground. We have to do better at being strong in our position without having to condemn people. Do not concede, but do not condemn. You can do that without sympathizing with anybody who is willing to act out on hate.