RICHMOND, B.C. – It’s unusual to host white supremacists in a synagogue, but Beth Tikvah Congregation in Richmond, B.C., did precisely that on Sept. 8, when Tony McAleer and Brad Galloway took the podium to speak to the community about their experiences joining and leaving extremist groups.
McAleer is the co-founder of Life After Hate, a Chicago-based organization that helps white supremacists leave hate groups. “One of the weapons we use is compassion,” he explained. “While we condemn the activities and ideology, we don’t condemn the human being. The hardest thing in the world is to have compassion for someone who has none for themselves.”
McAleer, 52, the child of a psychiatrist who attended private schools in Vancouver, described how his life began derailing at age nine, when he became aware of his father’s infidelity. It broke his trust in authority figures and he went from a straight-A student to an angry, confused youth who gladly entered the punk scene and later became a skinhead.
“Here I found an outlet for my anger and rage, a youth subculture that glorified and encouraged violence and alcohol consumption,” he said. “The ideology gave me an intellectual framework to express the violence. As a skinhead, I got a sense of power, purpose and meaning. I got attention when I felt invisible and brotherhood when I felt lonely. But it’s a false seduction, because as Martin Luther King Jr. said, ‘Hate destroys the hater.’ ”
Anti-Semitism was part of the ethos of his group, but, McAleer said, “It wasn’t about Jews – I was just projecting my crap onto the Jews.” He assumed a leadership role in groups including Aryan Nations, White Aryan Resistance and the Heritage Front, and encouraged other members to prepare for what the group felt was an inevitable race war.
“I was in the Canadian Army reserves for two years to get tactical weapons training, and we stockpiled assault weapons,” he recalled. “My group believed, and still believes, that there’s a concerted plan to disempower and remove white people, and that Jews operate a hive mind orchestrating the plan, because the Aryan race was viewed as an existential threat to Judaism.
When you’ve hated a certain people for 15 years and they come up to you, offer to give you a hug, shake your hand and thank you for what you’re sharing, there’s a part of me that feels I don’t deserve that compassion.
– Tony McAleer
“We opposed open-door immigration and we believed Jews were behind that. And we believed there was an attempt to promote homosexuality and interracial relationships, which was done by Hollywood and the media, which were deemed to be in Jewish control.”
Fifteen years after he first became involved in white supremacy, McAleer’s transformation began with the birth of his first child, prior to which “I was completely cut off from my heart and dehumanized,” he said. “The more I connected to my humanity, the more I could connect to the rest of humanity.”
He worked with a counsellor to help understand what had made the ideology attractive to him, and later learned the counsellor, Dov Baron, was Jewish. “There was deep shame, but it was also confusing to me why he’d even want to help me,” McAleer recalled. “Because of the conspiracy theories white supremacists learn, overcoming anti-Semitism is the most difficult part to overcome.”
Life After Hate has had some 300 members of extremist groups reach out to it since the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va., in 2017, so McAleer is busy these days. “It’s tough work looking for the humanity, even in someone whose heart is filled with hate and who is behaving inhumanly,” he admitted. “But we need to be more compassionate in our daily lives and spread that compassion around – accompanied by healthy boundaries and accountability, of course.”
The organization works in 35 states and Canada, and in March, was chosen by Facebook to handle the redirection of white supremacy content online. Search “white supremacy” on Facebook and you are redirected to Life After Hate.
Galloway volunteers for the organization. Back in 2015, he was trying to leave a hate group and reached out to Life After Hate. He grew up in a middle- to upper-class home and veered off course after losing a friend in a car accident. “I started being self-destructive, abusing drugs, engaging in minor criminality and having my first police contact,” he said.
By age 14, he was in youth custody and by 2015, he’d spent 13 years as an active member of far-right movements, including VolksFront, where he was the leader of the Canadian chapter. “It gave me a group of friends, an identity and empowerment, but in these movements, it’s pretty much all negative,” he said.
Becoming a parent was a turning point for Galloway. “Some guys from the movement came to my home when my daughter was a baby, and they wanted to play a gang game with me. I realized I was putting my wife, child and our whole life at risk,” he recalled. “My wife gave me an ultimatum – the gang or us, and I chose my family.”
By that point, he had been troubled by an ideology that didn’t seem to add up for a while. “In Toronto, I got into a fight with a Vietnamese gang and was lying in hospital bleeding in my swastika shirt while an Orthodox Jewish doctor attended me. I thought he should not have to help me – but he did, and he didn’t say a word. As I started thinking about minority group members I knew that had been good to me, it forced me to challenge myself and figure out ways I could give back to these communities after I left the movements.”
Galloway moved away from the groups, reached out to McAleer and tried to build back family bonds he had previously abandoned. He also went back to school to study criminology. “There’s no one way to get away from these movements,” he admitted. “You have to try (to) build back the positive relationships you once had, to create a network of strength and clarity in your life so you won’t live in fear, but it’s not a linear process.”
It’s not process that’s particularly safe, either, both men agreed. McAleer described the assassination attempt one of his Life After Hate volunteers survived after leaving the Aryan Brotherhood recently. “He was driving down the highway in Mississippi, when he was shot in the face,” McAleer said. “To this day, those who leave the groups receive threats, and it’s something we all have to take seriously.”
White supremacists excommunicate themselves from friends, family and society when they join an extremist group, McAleer explained. When they choose to return, they find that their original friends and family aren’t waiting with open arms.
As I started thinking about minority group members I knew that had been good to me, it forced me to challenge myself.
– Brad Galloway
“The trust has been broken and it has to be rebuilt slowly, but in the interim, you don’t have a social circle. The pain and loneliness makes you very vulnerable to returning to an extremist group,” he said. Life After Hate has a peer support group to help individuals traverse through this void and get safely to the other side.
McAleer said he was terrified about speaking to members of the Vancouver Jewish community, because it was “a community I’d harmed the most. When you’ve hated a certain people for 15 years and they come up to you, offer to give you a hug, shake your hand and thank you for what you’re sharing, there’s a part of me that feels I don’t deserve that compassion, and that is deeply ashamed for what I did and what I said,” he confessed.
Previously an articulate Holocaust denier in the 1980s and ’90s, he visited Auschwitz for the first time last summer, “to pay my respects and confront it myself. To absorb the reality of what happened, and to feel it was quite overwhelming,” he said. McAleer is planning to turn his time there into a documentary that will serve as an educational resource.