PORTLAND, Ore. -- On Friday afternoon, roughly a dozen “formers” gathered near Portland, ready to make their way up to Mount Hood.
Some flew in from across the country. One traveled from Australia. Others drove less than an hour, from their homes in Oregon and Washington.
“Former” is short for a former white supremacist or extremist.
All of them were headed to a private weekend retreat up on Mount Hood to talk about what drove them to hate so many people for so long and how they can help others walk away from hate.
“There were several groups that I was taught or learned to hate,” said Angela King. “Initially as a child, black people and gay people.”
The 42-year-old south Florida native grew up hating.
Her family made bigoted jokes and used racial slurs at the breakfast table since before she can remember.
At school, she was bullied and teased.
By 15, she was angry and a prime target for the growing contingent of “punk rock kids” turned Neo-Nazis.
“It gave me a sense of purpose and belonging,” she said. “We believed there was a Jewish-run conspiracy against the white race and, you know, this large conspiracy was orchestrating things and manipulating situations and people.”
At the age of 23, her hatred landed her in federal prison.
“I went out with a group of skinheads one night and robbed a Jewish-owned store,” she said.
In a similar vein, Chicago native Sammy Rangel also grew up hating.
“It started with whites,” he said. “I saw my family go through extremely racist encounters in growing up in Texas as a child. My mom was Native American, and my dad was born in Texas but a Mexican man, and they were always under attack, like physical attack from people. I remember my dad running backwards as a man was swinging a hatchet. I was just a child.”
As a teenager, Rangel went to prison for stealing a car and became leader of the Maniac Latin Disciples, a gang that hated white people, as well as agencies they felt favored white people.
“Police officers, for sure definitely became a major issue with us,” he recalled. “And then extensions of that were like child protective services.”
In short, hate for others consumed both for years.
King stopped when she befriended black women in prison.
Rangel stopped, in part, when he had kids.
They were stunned to learn that hate is addictive.
“It's all you do day in day out week after week month after month year after year,” said Rangel. “In fact, I think you go a step further. You probably develop new neural pathways, ones that are abnormal.”
So, now, they help others quit.
Their group is called “Life After Hate."
Founded in 2011 in Chicago, the nonprofit’s profile skyrocketed this year after Neo-Nazis and Klansman marched through Charlottesville.
Since then, members have made appearances on the Sunday morning political scene and the late night comedy stage.
Last year, around this time, the group received a few calls or emails a day from people looking to leave organizations like the Ku Klux Klan, the Skinheads and others.
Now Life After Hate gets roughly half a dozen calls and emails a day from people looking to leave extremist groups, including calls from the Pacific Northwest.
Leaders estimate, so far, they’ve helped hundreds separate themselves from violent extremist groups.
Chairman of the Oregon Coalition Against Hate Crime, Dr. Randy Blazak, isn’t surprised Life After Hate’s tactics are working.
“It’s sort of like the best people to talk to young people about not becoming a gang member are former gang members,” he said. “From the decades of research we have on white supremacist groups, the membership is relatively transitory. Most of the people who join are only in it for three or four years at the most, and then they come out the other end and often they have a hard time leaving because they don’t have anything to go to.”
Dr. Blazak said the benefits of such a group extend far beyond the initial impulse to leave an extremist group.
In short, he said, the brain needs to be rewired to stop thinking hateful thoughts, and that takes time.
“It’s an addictive ideology, and it’s a way of seeing the world and making everything in your world make sense. [They think] ‘It’s all part of a big Jewish conspiracy’ and ‘You have the good people and the evil people and there’s no shades of gray’ and so you really need help with the thinking errors,” he said. “So you really want to help people think about the world differently, understand how stereotypes work, understand the thinking errors of racism and bigotry and also that there is a community that’s waiting to welcome you the way the world of hate welcomed you.”
King and Rangel say a big part of leaving hate behind is taking responsibility for the pain you caused and realizing others hate what you believed.
“Life After Hate is just kind of saying, ‘When you’re done, we have a safe place for you. When you’re done, there are people who understand your dilemma, who have been in your dilemma, who are ready to receive you as you are,'” said Rangel.