Former hate group members share messages of love, empathy and understanding
Nonprofit's guest speakers took the stage at McFarland High School on Jan. 6 to speak with high school students about combating domestic terrorism and hate.
You may have heard the phrase, “It’s OK to punch a Nazi,” but according to former Neo-Nazi Ryan Lo’Ree, that is one of the worst ways to combat hate.
Lo’Ree, former KKK leader TM Garret and others took the stage at McFarland High School Thursday for an event with We Are Many – United Against Hate — a nonprofit with high school student-led chapters dedicated to changing culture and instilling respect inside schools.
The statewide, non-partisan movement was founded in 2018 by Masood Akhtar, who says it was fittingly scheduled on the anniversary of the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.
“If there are three words I want everyone to take away from this, they are love, empathy and understanding — compassion is all you need to show to a person,” Lo’Ree said at the event. “If you punch a Nazi, chances are they’ll use that video of you punching them to recruit 20 more people.”
Lo’Ree was once a rightwing extremist with the Rollingwood Skins, a Michigan-based offshoot of the largest Nazi movement in the United States. He quickly moved up the ranks to become vice president, but found himself incarcerated after the group was caught stealing boat motors to fund their hate.
After going through a long healing and transformation process, he is now an interventionist and program specialist, and he is involved in producing counter-narrative content on social media.
“First, you have to understand that diversity is our strength, not our weakness,” Lo’Ree said. “What is a canvas if it just stays white?”
However, Lo’Ree and Garret both said their journey through de-radicalization took many years. Both voluntarily stepped away from their hate groups because it had gotten too dangerous, but those views still influenced their perceptions of society.
“I got my head out of the hate, but the hate was still in my head,” Garret said. “I still wanted to hate anyone who didn’t look like me, and have them hate me back.”
Garret said hate groups thrive off the back and forth from counter-protesters, using their perceived hate of one another to fuel negativity. However, when Garret and his family moved into a house with a Turkish immigrant landlord who lived downstairs, his views started to change.
The landlord was nothing but nice to Garret, showing unconditional love toward a man that hated him for being an immigrant with a different skin color from his own. The landlord eventually invited Garret and his family to a dinner, where Garret expected to reject a traditional Turkish Muslim dinner of fish soup.
“I sat down and this guy serves me chicken and fries instead of some nasty fish soup,” Garret says. “I thought, how could I hate someone who serves me a meal I love? How could I hate someone who loves his family and seems so similar to me?”
That compassion is exactly what leads people out of hate groups according to Garret. In order to combat hate and bigotry, he says you have to sit down with the people you don’t understand and listen to what they say. You won’t change their mind over one conversation, but the healing process begins when a hateful person sees that the other person isn’t as different as they might think.
“It’s never too little and never too late,” Garret says. “I wouldn’t be standing here today if that wasn’t the case.”
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