Former skinhead now helps others leave hate groups

It's not so much changing their minds, it's their hearts, says Tony McAleer, director of Life After Hate, a US non-profit group. Al Donato

If you ask former white supremacist Tony McAleer how he lost his humanity, he’ll say he didn’t.

McAleer’s radicalization was a process, where he slowly lost the ability to connect and feel compassion to those different from him.

“I traded it for acceptance until I had nothing left,” McAleer says.

McAleer knows first-hand what it’s like to be a hatemonger. He was once a far-right organizer and spent years recruiting skinheads. Now, he serves as the executive director of Life After Hate, a U.S. non-profit that helps far-right extremists make amends with those they’ve hurt and leave their violent lives behind.

How It Starts

McAleer says there’s no individual reason why someone might become a skinhead. Like Brad, whose story is featured in the CBC documentary, Skinhead, it was a sense of belonging and community within the subculture that drew him in.

As a youth growing up in British Columbia and England, it started with friends he made at a punk show. Although the original skinhead movement was about British class disenfranchisement and wasn’t explicitly linked to racism, White Power ideas and Nazi imagery wormed their way into the scene.

What once was driven by a love for music eventually spiralled into bigotry. McAleer rose to prominence within extremist circles in the late 1980s and early 1990s. He took on leadership roles in white supremacist activities, including organizing for far-right group White Aryan Resistance. McAleer’s radicalization was a process, where he slowly lost the ability to connect and feel compassion for those different from him.

SCENE FROM THE FILM: "People are always fearing something that isn't their own culture."
What Hate Looks Like

Nowadays, a white nationalist might skip the Doc Martens and swastika tattoo.

McAleer remembers he once witnessed a man kick another who had a shaved head, under the belief the man was a skinhead. It turned out, the man wasn’t.

Polo shirts have begun to emerge as a millennial neo-Nazi aesthetic at U.S. white nationalist rallies. In July, members of the alt-right Proud Boys wore Fred Perry shirts when they disrupted an Indigenous rally in Halifax. (The manufacturer directly renounced them, in a statement sent to As It Happens.)

Whatever a skinhead may wear, what’s more telling is the attitude. McAleer points to black-and-white thinking, dehumanizing marginalized communities, or excessive anger as a sign that someone may be involved with a hate group.

Can You “Deprogram” A Skinhead?

Concerned friends and family won’t have any luck getting their loved one to reject white supremacy overnight. Research scientist Peter Weinburger tells Huff Post that intervening should be a community effort. Involving mentorship groups and organizations will prevent the individual from feeling personally attacked.

With Life After Hate, McAleer emphasizes that they can’t help anyone who doesn’t want to change themselves. In fact, he urges against trying to “deprogram” a skinhead.

“At that point, ideology and identity have become the same. When you challenge ideology, you’re challenging [their sense of self],” he says. “It's not so much changing their minds, it's their hearts.” He especially urges parents to talk to at-risk kids without hostility. “I know it’s hard, but whatever you do, don’t tell the child ‘don’t do that.’ Since the dawn of time, it’s never worked,” McAleer says. “If you have no conversations, you won’t pick it up the second it starts up.”

That doesn’t mean excusing a skinhead’s views. McAleer recommends holding people accountable while validating their humanity and emotions.

For instance, Life After Hate may take a Holocaust denier to meet a Holocaust survivor, in order to see the real toll of the genocide they refute. But abandoning those views doesn’t come without challenges.

When McAleer left the movement, he had to excommunicate himself from family, friends, and his own life. With no social circle to support him while reforming, he names loneliness as the hardest challenge for those seeking a way out.  “You have to have the courage to let go and be alone,” he says.