Several hundred people packed the Congregation Sha’are Shalom Synagogue in Leesburg last night to hear a former white supremacist’s take on the Ku Klux Klan recruitment fliers that have been left in Loudoun driveways in recent months.
Tony McAleer, a former leader of the Aryan Nation, said he used to create similar leaflets and hand them out on street corners.
“I was that guy,” he said.
The group’s goal was to not only recruit but to inject fear into the community. And the reaction they sought was media attention because it multiplied their message.
“We thrived on conflict and attention,” he said. “I was a complete narcissist, and I would do anything to get that media attention, because without it I felt invisible.”
McAleer encouraged those who gathered to take the distribution of the fliers seriously, but to be careful to not overreact. He mentioned a black father in Leesburg who was so afraid after having one of the fliers tossed in his driveway that he slept in his living room with a gun to protect his family.
“That is real fear right there,” he said, and urged everyone there to come around those who have been targeted so they know they are not alone. “Then the sting of those leaflets disappears.”
McAleer is now a leader in the not-for-profit group Life After Hate, which helps people leave extremist groups.
He was joined on stage by Sammy Rangel, a former gang member who is also involved in Life After Hate. He said in his home state, which he did not disclose, he is still known as one of the most violent offenders to come through the Department of Corrections. Today, that same state has given him a state employee ID so he can go into any prison to meet and work with staff and inmates.
“Formers are showing that change is possible,” Rangel said.
The question he hears the most is what should be said to loved ones who appear to be headed down a path of extremism. It’s not about “some magical words,” he added, “it’s about strategic listening.”
“These relationships are really healed when we do something different than the rest of the world, and that is listen,” Rangel said. “These men and women are suffering from something and requiring help. … No one is ever so far gone or so hateful that we as a community should be willing to ever give up on someone.”
In response to a question from the audience, McAleer said people are drawn to extreme groups when they feel “a toxic shame” and feel “less than.” In his own life, he was initially lured to the white supremacists because he was angry at how he was treated as a child. It was experiencing the positive accolades that came with being a single father that led him away from the group.
“When we replace a negative identity with a positive identity, it can bring change in a person’s life,” McAleer said.
McAleer and Rangel were invited to speak at the inner-faith event, called Love Your Neighbor: Love Not Hate, by Rizwan Jaka, chairman of the ADAMS Interfaith/Government Relations and Board Member of the ADAMS Center mosque in Sterling.
He said he was drawn to their work to provide exit ramps for people caught up in extremist organizations. “We must counter every type of hate,” Jaka said. “We must continue to counter the bad with the good.”
Suzanne Buchanan, with the U.S. Department of Justice’s Community Relations Service, was taken aback by the size of the crowd. The sanctuary filled up with about 500 people well before the event started, and another few hundred people were directed to watch the event live in an overflow room.
“This is powerful, really powerful. Thank you so much for caring and for showing up,” she said.
Buchanan commended Loudoun residents for holding prayer services, vigils, and other events to deliver an opposite message to the hateful fliers. She was working in Charlottesville the day of the violent rally and she continued working there to help heal that community months afterward.
“No one thought it would happen there,” she said. The best way to push back the dark message is to bring community leaders together to come up with action steps. “You’re all here. Talk about how do we multiple this and make it viral? Let’s go.”
Virginia Attorney Mark R. Herring told the audience that progress is only made when people stand up against injustice that they see in their own time.
“Change doesn’t just happen. Justice requires courage. Courage is needed today,” Herring said. “As dark forces of intolerance, hate and even racism present themselves, this is our opportunity in our own time to stand up against them.”
About 30 protestors stood outside of the synagogue. Most waved signs opposing U.S. Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-VA-10), who also spoke at the event.