White supremacist demonstrators gathered for a "Unite the Right" rally have cleared out of Charlottesville, Virginia after a weekend of violent clashes with counter protesters. The racist gathering quickly spun out of control, three people were killed and state officials were prompted to declare a state of emergency. Demonstrators were evacuated before the main event had even begun.
But two former white supremacists told me that what happened in Charlottesville is just the beginning.
"It's absolutely going to get worse," said Frank Meeink.
Meeink became a skinhead at the age of 13, and by the age of 17 he was one of the most prominent and well recognized leader of the skinheads, hosting a cable-access TV show called "The Reich" to recruit more young people to the neo-Nazi movement. Meeink was later sentenced to three years in prison in Illinois for his involvement in a hate crime. While he was in prison, Meeink got to know people of color and began to question his white supremacists ideologies. Now, he travels the country giving lectures against racism and bigotry.
"More than two decades ago when I was involved in the violent far-right, what is happening today in contemporary society, is what I was trying to make happen then. They’re starting to make some headway," said Angela King, who also spent time in prison for her role in a hate crime.
King is now the deputy director and one of the co-founders of Life After Hate, a nonprofit dedicated to help guide and counsel members of far-right extremist groups.
Both Meeink and King blame a lack of leadership from the White House for the rise in far-right extremism. President Trump was criticized over the weekend for failing to directly condemn white supremacists, neo-Nazis and the KKK after the violence in Charlottesville. On Monday, Trump finally spoke out against the hate groups, but King worries it's too little too late.
"It shouldn't take a few days to denounce violent white supremacists," she said.
Meeink argued that far-right extremists had tried and failed to re-brand themselves as the political alt-right, and worried they would be encouraged by having people they see as allies in the White House.
"They’re trying to re-brand themselves and its not working and its not going to work," he said. "Anger and hatred are always going to come out in the same way in the end. That’s violence, and fear and this feeling that we have to separate each other to be at peace and that’s obviously not true.
Already white supremacist groups are planning more rallies in Texas and Richmond, Va. So what should we as Americans do to confront violent racism when we see it? Here's a step-by-step guide based on advice from two former neo-Nazis:
Step 1: Don't ignore it.
White supremacists have held plenty of rallies before and they haven't all turned violent. Some argue that if we ignore far-right extremists, then they will simply go away. But Meeink and King say that's not the case.
"If you leave them alone then their next rally gets bigger and their next rally gets bigger because they’re baiting us. They’re baiting us in to this," Meeink said.
"If we ignore this type of hatred, if we ignore this type of behavior, if we ignore the words and the acts that dehumanize other human beings, the ugliness goes in to a dark corner and it doesn’t disappear, it doesn’t go away. What it does is it continues to manifest and it continues to grow," King said.
Step 2: Make sure you're in a safe space.
Hundreds of far-right rally-goers in Charlottesville were heavily armed, and King says it's important when confronting extremists to make sure you do it in a safe environment.
"If you heard someone tossing around racial slurs or bullying someone, are there other people around? Can you safely say, that’s not acceptable this needs to stop? Do you have someone that you can go to to say hey this is happening right here, can we do something to stop it?" she said.
3: Resist the urge to engage in a fight.
The main goal for far-right extremist is to get as much attention as possible and to bait onlookers to react violently, according to both Meeink and King.
"We would go out and do things specifically to make other people angry with us," King said. "We would incite them with horrific racial slurs or saying very inappropriate things because when we got them engaged and very angry it made us look like we were the ones being persecuted. We were able to turn around and say, 'Oh, well we’re just proud because we’re white. We’re proud of our race but look how we’re treated for it.'”
And when protesters do engage violently with white supremacists, Meeink says it rarely helps to change their ideology.
"I used to be a part of Klan rallies and Klan marches and I would march with them in West Chester, Pennsylvania and I would march with them in Spokane, Washington. I would march with them in other states and other cities and there’s always these groups there that were counter-protesters and they come and the throw bottles at us," He said. " I never once ducked a bottle in a protest and thought, ‘Woah, I better rethink my beliefs here.’ Never once. I always was more dedicated to what I was doing."
When it comes to engaging with far-right extremists, Meeink and Angela said it's all about making them feel human again.
"Maybe, a simple kind word, a simple act of compassion, and that is not an easy thing to do," King said, adding that her own transformation came after a Jamaican woman in prison asked her to play a game of cribbage.
The best way to talk to far-right extremists is to level with them, even if it's on the smallest level, Meeink said.
"We have to figure out what else those people are in to," he said. "There has to be something that we can meet at on a common level. It could be video games, it could be anything."
5. If you have a similar experience, share it.
Both Meeink and King say that a rough childhood and feelings of isolation and emptiness led them to seek solace with white power groups, but they say people who have had similar experiences can help show those who are currently struggling that they don't have to turn to hatred to find purpose.
"Formers like myself, we are just the anti-venom to what’s going on right now. You can only get the anti-venom from the same snake that bit you and right now we’re being bit by racism and hatred again," Meeink said.
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