Healing from Hate: A Conversation with Peter Hutchison
Once upon a time, American Nazis had to keep it on the down-low. You couldn’t go around with a swastika tattooed on your neck, or wearing a t-shirt reading “Hitler died for your sins,” or openly proclaiming “Jews will not replace us!” and expect to be taken seriously in mainstream political dialogue in the United States.
It’s still the sort of thing that raises eyebrows in a job interview.
But ever since the rise of a certain failed real estate mogul-turned-game show host, the inveterate racism, White supremacism, and homegrown domestic terrorism that we fooled ourselves to think was a thing of the past has come bursting forth, newly normalized by one of our two major political parties, one that decided to weaponize and embolden that movement for its own gain.
Of course, that party had long cultivated that audience, somewhat discreetly, from the Southern Strategy to Willie Horton to Brian Kemp…. but beginning in 2015 it seemed to realize that there was no need to dog whistle when a bullhorn worked even better.
I would like to say that the United States is currently grappling with how to reckon with that aftermath of that neo-Nazi renaissance. I would like to say that, but it’s premature, because we are still very much in the midst of that battle. The forced retirement to Florida of the aforementioned game show host has not ended that racist resurgence, only marked a new phase in its ongoing poisoning of American society.
The filmmaker Peter Hutchison’s new feature documentary Healing From Hate: Battle for the Soul of a Nationexamines the root causes of that sort of violent extremism through the bold work of Life After Hate, a remarkable organization founded by former skinheads and neo-Nazis now engaged in helping other refugees from the self-styled “alt-right.” In the film, we see members of Life After Hate — “formers,” as they are known — working one-on-one with current members of White supremacist groups who are in the midst of the difficult and dangerous process of de-radicalizing and disengaging from those organizations. The film premiered at DOCNYC in 2019, and with uncanny timing, was released theatrically on January 22 in the wake of the Capitol insurrection. (It is now streaming on all platforms.)
This chilling, nuanced, and ultimately hopeful film offers a bracing view into how individual members of hate groups can make their way back to sanity, and in the process, hints at a roadmap for our country at large.
The Paradox of Belonging
THE KING’S NECKTIE: Peter, I don’t need to tell you, your film could not be more timely.
PETER HUTCHISON: It’s a really weird thing, because I started this before Trump took office, at a time when people were talking about the rise of the alt-right and what that meant, and how that tied in with economic dislocation and disenfranchisement, and just starting to talk seriously about White entitlement and things like that. Then everything exploded once Trump got into office, and eight months later Charlottesville happened, which just blew everything up in the air.
I was convinced that I was going to lose access to everybody that I’d been working with for three-quarters of a year at that point, because all of a sudden these guys became hot. Every major news outlet wanted to talk to them. They were getting swamped with media requests and documentary film requests and offers for book deals and television series. Everyone wanted to commodify them.
TKN: You’re talking about the guys who had left the movement.
PH: Correct. But these guys said to me, “Listen, we’ve had people come to us before wanting to make documentaries and TV series and stuff. But we’ve spent the last eight months really getting to know one another. We’re signing an exclusive agreement with you because we trust you and we want you to tell the story.”
So that was a great lesson.
And every couple of months there would be another high profile incident, and my team and I would be like, “Oh, we missed our window to get this film out while it’s topical! If only we were further along!” Because Vice will swoop in with their resources and film for two days and crank out a doc feature that ends up on TV the next week about the exact topic you’ve been working on for a year.
But I think the patience paid off. Every few months there was another incident, and the film only became more relevant and timely — sadly. Then of course the whole insurgency in DC dovetailed with the release of the film; we literally rolled out digitally two weeks later. Who knows what’s going to happen next?
TKN: I’m afraid to ask.
PH: Me too. I don’t want the film to be timely! I certainly want my film to be seen and to make some kind of impact, but by the same token, we have to ask why is this ramping up instead of ebbing away?
TKN: How did you begin to earn that trust from the beginning, when you first approached these guys? I presume they were wary.
PH: Yeah. They had gone down the path with other filmmakers or production companies, and let’s face it, there’s a lot of exploitive doc filmmaking out there. A lot of these outfits didn’t care about these formers’ psychological well-being, they didn’t care about their evolution as people, they didn’t care about their fragility. I’m lucky that I have a clinical background, which helped because we could really talk about the psychological vulnerabilities that these guys go through when they’re leaving the movement and how tenuous that process is, and how raw they are, and how you have to keep your ethics at the forefront when you’re working with those kinds of subjects.
The head of Life After Hate, Sammy Rangel, is a really, really amazing guy. He has a really solid clinical background, which is why he’s running the organization. We had so many long talks about what made sense and what didn’t in terms of formers’ development as they move out of those groups, and I think I may be the only filmmaker who even bothered to have those sorts of conversations with him. That’s gradually how the trust began to build. I also spent time with all of these guys individually before I really started filming them. I traveled with them and would maybe shoot a presentation that they were giving, and we got to know one another. A couple of these guys are very close friends of mine to this day.
TKN: What sort of vulnerabilities are we talking about in particular?
PH: The reality is that when you walk away from a hate group like these guys did, you walk away from everything. You’re walking away from your community, your family, your friends, oftentimes your livelihood, and you’re wandering in the wilderness.
And there’s an even bigger piece of it, which is that the very thing that brings a lot of these guys into the movement, the thing that makes them so vulnerable and set up for recruitment, is needing some sort of identity, needing a sense of belonging, and a sense of empowerment, and community, and meaning in their lives.
Redemption Writ Large
TKN: To back up a little, I should have said right at the beginning that I really loved the film. I thought it was super well done and powerful, and these guys were so moving. The characters that you chose are all so smart and articulate and introspective. In a way, I guess it’s a self-selecting group: that’s the kind of person who would eventually withdraw from a hate group in the first place, and you’ve got to be like that to survive everything you just described. But it was still really striking. They’re a remarkable group of guys.
PH: I couldn’t agree more. But the piece of that I think people probably miss, or don’t pause to consider, is that yes, they’re all resilient and evolved guys, but you’re also seeing them at the end of this evolutionary process. They’re grownups now. They spent that decade trying to figure out who they were in relation to their hate group affiliation and it wasn’t easy for any of them. So I think what’s easy to miss is that it’s not a smooth path: it’s years and years in the making. And like you say, there’s a degree of self-selection. These are the guys who made it to that point. There are guys who do not.
A prime example is the gentleman in the film named Thomas Engelman, the big bald guy with the eyepatch whose old comrades took a hit out on him that went sideways. Unfortunately he took his own life this past August. It was absolutely horrible.
TKN: I was struck by the willingness of these guys to speak at all. It’s one thing for the leaders of the group like Sammy or Frankie Meeink (the inspiration for the Edward Norton character in American History X) to be open to it, but it’s another thing for guys like Thomas and Randy who are still in the process of getting out. I mean, it’s hard enough do what they’re doing in leaving a hate group, but then also to be in a film about it at the same time, was really incredible.
PH: Yeah. And we had long conversations around, “Hey, are these guys ready to be on film?” And Life After Hate felt that of all the people who were going through this process at the time, these two guys would be good subjects. We all thought they were in a good enough spot that they could participate in this, and were two unique individuals who really have important stories that shed light on what’s happening.
Thomas was someone that Life After Hate saw as a potential leader — kind of the next generation of formers to come up through this process. And nobody knows why he took his life; it was a surprise to everybody. He seemed like he really had his act together, he was doing a lot of outreach for the organization, he was an incredibly articulate guy, very, very open and in touch with his emotions and his evolution. It just underscores what these formers go through during that initial period in leaving a hate group, even the ones who seem to have the most resolve or be the most resilient. No one’s ever going to know what he’s struggled with, what shame or self-doubt or loss of hope. But whenever I watch the film now, that’s one of the things I think about the most: what was he going through? That’s why it’s so important that these guys have this support group. Without it, this transition doesn’t happen.
Sammy’s story is absolutely remarkable, too — even the sliver of his upbringing that you glean from the film is really only the tip of the iceberg of what he’s been through. The time that he spent in prison is so tragic and scarring that we couldn’t fit it all in the doc and keep the story balanced. I mean, this guy never even finished high school, and over the past 12 years not only does he go on to college, he got his master’s degree and his clinical certifications. He’s just an incredibly insightful and adept and introspective guy. He’s one of these people who’s been able to take his pain and his tragedy and use it as a tool. He really understands human nature and what these guys are going through on a fundamental, emotional level.
TKN: That’s apparent in the movie. Just a snippet of what he talks about regarding his background was devastating; I was reeling. And then you see how good he is at doing this. Those experiences would destroy most people. They would never get up from that.
PH: Yeah, and I think that’s one of the really important lessons in this, as Michael Kimmel (the sociologist whose book inspired the film) points out. There’s this notion that no one is irredeemable. These guys prove that, and that’s a lesson to everybody. It doesn’t even necessarily have to do with hate groups. This is a much larger philosophical lesson.
TKN: It’s almost religious, redemption-wise. I felt it. And it made me think about my own lack of empathy toward not just these guys, but even far less violent people on the other side of the political divide, people who I’ve been so angry at for four years. When the guys in Life After Hate talk about using compassion and empathy to reach out and save people, it made me maybe think about myself and how I can’t do that.
PH: And the corollary here is that if no person is irredeemable, then no nation is irredeemable. And it gives me hope that there is a redemptive capacity in our story as a nation.
TKN: Well, I wanted to ask you about that. We see in the film how difficult it is to get an individual out of that movement. First they have to want to come out, and even then they’re up against all the challenges that you outlined. So how do we apply that, writ large, to the whole country?
PH: I think there are some fundamentals, and I think the place where we start is precisely what I just mentioned. No one’s irredeemable. Everyone has the capacity to change and evolve, and there are fundamental lessons in the film around how that happens. I’m not saying that the 74 million people who voted for Trump are hate group members — that’s not where I’m going with this. But when these formers talk about the most transformative experience for them, it’s when someone extended compassion to them and empathy when they least expected it. And it was extended by someone from whom they least deserved it, whether it was Frankie’s experience with the Jewish antique dealer in Philly, or Randy’s experience in Gainesville.
(In the film, we see a White nationalist named Randy Furniss get separated from his neo-Nazi comrades at an alt-right rally and set upon by a group of Black counterprotestors who appear set to brutalize him. But a Black DJ named Julius Long protects him, marking the beginning of an unlikely friendship.)
Julius and Randy’s relationship is the perfect example. Julius saves Randy from this crowd that’s beating the shit out of him and spitting on him and punching him in the face and stuff, and takes him aside and has an open conversation with him. Julius genuinely has curiosity and compassion and courage. He wants to know, “Why do you believe this shit? I really want to understand it.” And I think that that’s a big piece of what we’re missing. We don’t want to understand one another anymore. There’s this side and that side and you’re wrong and I’m right and you’re fucking crazy and I’m the sane one.
I think it’s driven by these media filters where we get our news and information. We hear the term “civil war” thrown around all the time, and I think people believe that the people on the other side of the political aisle are their enemies. We’ve lost the capacity to even have curiosity for why the other person believes what they believe. But that genuine curiosity has the innate capacity to transform relationships and the way people view and think about themselves and the world. I know it sounds maybe “new agey” or airy fairy or whatever. But I think that’s really where it has to start.
Take The Skinheads Bowling
PH: I don’t know if you’re familiar with Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone. It’s a fantastic book he wrote 20 years ago. He talks about how just a generation ago, we hadn’t self-siloed where we live, where we get our news, what we do for entertainment. He talks about how, after church, he and his whole community used to go bowling together. People of all different political affiliations and ways of thinking about the world. And in that simple act of bowling every Sunday, you would get to understand why someone who was on the other side of the political aisle believed what they believed.
You also learned to respect them because you spent time with them. It’s very rare anymore that people spend time with people who have a different set of beliefs than they do. And I’ve seen some really excruciating fallout from that this past four years, I’ve seen families break up, I’ve seen families go into therapy to try and wrestle with this idea of, “How could you be a Trump supporter? You’re a heinous, evil, demented person.” Or vice versa. And Putnam talks about this phenomenon that if we’re not gonna spend time doing things with people who don’t share our precise viewpoint, of course we’re never going to understand how they think or what they believe.
And to bring it back to the film, I see it mirrored in these stories of these hate group affiliations. Who do you hate? You hate people you’re not exposed to. You can’t “other” someone who lives next door, who you work with, who you go to school with, who you go to church with. You “other” a race or a culture that you don’t understand: the immigrants coming from Somalia or south of the border to take your job and destroy your way of life, or the Jews who are behind a global conspiracy to take over the planet.
I think about it a lot. In the community where I grew up, I didn’t know what a Jew looked like till I went to college.
TKN: Me too. I never met a Jewish person until I was eighteen and moved north.
PH: Yeah. And we both ended up marrying women who are Jewish. (laughs) I joke about it with my wife. We had a whole repertoire of Jewish jokes when we were kids, but we didn’t know any Jews. It’s just really easy to hang your troubles and anxiety and your fears on people that you don’t know or understand. And I think that’s a very, very, very dangerous set-up.
TKN: That was one of the lessons of the film that I thought was so valuable, because as a country we’re trying to reckon with that. How do we heal? How do we have unity without normalizing racism, without appeasing Trumpism or QAnon, but having the empathy and compassion that you just talked about, the capacity to try and figure out, “Why do you believe this stuff? How did you go down that path that led you to storm the Capitol?” Not to say, “Oh, we both have a legitimate viewpoint, even though you want to lynch people,” but so that we can prevent it from happening again.
January 6th felt like the beginning of an insurgency or a counterinsurgency or even a civil war, but you don’t win those by force, at least not solely by force. You win them through soft power. Anne Applebaum has a big piece about that in The Atlantic right now. And these guys in Life After Hate are doing that on a one-by-one level and it was remarkable to watch.
PH: I do think there are a lot of lessons there that can be scaled up, and that we can all try and take with us out into the world and our daily interactions with people. You don’t know when it’s going to have an impact. You just don’t know.
TKN: I was also very interested in the discussion in the film about how the White nationalist movement morphed from being skinheads in Doc Maartens to being guys in suits who are savvier — and scarier in many ways. Some of these guys seem to have a foot in both those worlds.
PH: It’s fascinating to see some of the early footage of them on some of these talk shows, like Jerry Springer. One of these guys — I think it might have been Frankie — was actually on that famous episode that ended up in a real brawl: not a World Wrestling Federation type brawl, but a real brawl, where the chairs got thrown and the White supremacists got in a fistfight with the audience and the other people on stage.
And then you see their evolution — which I think mirrors the political evolution — of putting on the suit and tie, getting rid of the Doc Maartens. You’re right: it’s scary. But it is a political evolution, and when you see some of the actions of our representatives on the floor of the House and Senate, there are some very clear examples of men who are dressed up in a nice suit and tie who are representing these same ideas.
TKN: At one point in the film, Tony McAleer talks about how tech has accelerated this White power movement, because you can consume the indoctrination faster — as fast as you want, in fact. Conversely, he also says you can tiptoe into it now, you don’t have to take the big risk of, say, going to a skinhead rally.
PH: And all of that has accelerated since the film was finished. In this COVID reality that we’ve dealt with the last year, the only way we’ve had to communicate and engage with one another is through technology, and I think that has accelerated a lot of this, as well as these alternative platforms for messaging and communicating, so that these conversations don’t have to take place on Facebook or Twitter anymore. There are dedicated platforms where these ideas can move really fast, which a lot of people feel was responsible for the offense at the Capitol on January 6th.
Identity Politics for People Who Claim to Hate Identity Politics
TKN: At one point in the movie, somebody — it might be Sammy — talks about how some of the people that they’ve reached out to, people who are in the midst of trying to disengage from hate groups, have actually like called them up and said, “I’m thinking of going into a synagogue and shooting people up.” And they’ve talked them down. They’re like a suicide hotline — or a homicide hotline, I should say. And it’s amazing that somebody who’s on the edge of doing that is also on the edge of reaching out for help. These guys in Life After Hate are literally saving lives…..not just the lives of the formers, but would-be victims as well.
PH: That’s right. But it also sheds a really important light on the emotional state of the person who’s considering going and doing something violent like that. I keep coming back to this time and time again. The reality is that there’s so much more at play here than the ideology. There are some very, very fundamental psychic issues around power and meaning and I think it applies not only to the members of these organizations but also to these guys who are leaders and in a position of power.
I don’t know if Richard Spencer believes what he says. But I do feel very strongly that he has a deep need for power and for being seen. I think you see that on different levels within these organizations. For the person who’s going into blow up a synagogue or shoot up a Baptist church: is it really the ideology? Does it have to do with some tragic, fragile sense of self? Most of these guys, ideology is not why they enter these groups to begin. Ideology is secondary.
And on a more subtle level, I think there are parallels to be drawn for the 70 million plus people who voted for Trump. He’s tapping into something that’s very, very crucial for people in terms of feeling empowered and that who they are as American people is valued. Obviously his policies aren’t helping those people. It’s something else — a very emotional, a very emotional response.
TKN: Someone else in the film talks about how it can even start as a pose, for whatever reason, but then you play it for so long that it becomes real. Years ago when I was in film school I made a student film about a guy who worked at Rocketdyne in the early ’60s, who started writing about the moon landing conspiracy as a joke. In fact, he initiated the idea. His name was Bill Kaysing. He’s passed away now, but he admitted to me very openly that he started it as a gag, but he got so much attention that slowly he began to believe it. He convinced himself of this batshit theory and that became his whole persona. It’s like what we were saying at the very the beginning of this conversation. That became his whole world, and he couldn’t give that up.
PH: Right. That’s his identity now.
TKN: Richard Spencer, when I watch him, I feel the same way you do. And Spencer and Stephen Miller went to Duke together, where Miller was involved in shit-stirring around the Duke lacrosse rape case.
In high school Miller was known as a provocateur: he was like a shock jock trying to get a rise about of people. Probably he has internalized it now and really believes it, because it works for him. But it could have been something else he latched onto.
PH: Right. I’ve been doing a deep dig into Hitler and the rise of the Third Reich this past couple months as part of a different project, but you see a lot of similarities in Hitler’s political development. When he started out there was very little indication that anti-Semitism would play a significant role in the way he thought about politics and the world. But like you say, it was working for him. And the more it worked, the more he believed it. That’s what it becomes, but that’s not where it started. The drive for power is where it starts.
HEALING FROM HATE is available to stream, rent, and buy everywhere, including iTunes, Amazon, YouTube Movies, Google Play, and cable providers including Spectrum, Verizon, and others. Watch the trailer here.
Peter Hutchison is a critically acclaimed filmmaker, activist, NYU faculty member, and New York Times bestselling author. The companion pieces in trilogy with Healing From Hate are Angry White Men: American Masculinity in the Age of Trump, based upon the groundbreaking work of sociologist Michael Kimmel, and Auschwitz: Journey into Reconciliation, which follows former neo-Nazi and Holocaust denier Tony McAleer (also featured in Healing from Hate) on a personal journey of atonement through the Polish death camps.
Peter’s previous documentaries include Requiem for the American Dream: Noam Chomsky and the Principles of Concentration of Wealth and Power (Netflix), which was a New York Times Critics Pick and the #1 top-selling doc on iTunes. The companion book (Seven Stories Press) debuted at #6 on the Times Bestseller list. Among his other films are What Would Jesus Buy? (Sundance Channel) with producing partner Morgan Spurlock; the award-winning SPLIT: A Divided America (IFC Choice Indie); its follow-up SPLIT: A Deeper Divide (Documentary Channel); and Awake Zion (Film Buff), which was the closing night film at the Jerusalem International Film Festival.
Hutchison holds an MS in counseling psychology.
PHOTO: A “probate” wishing to become a citizen of the KKK’s Invisible Empire is blindfolded prior to a “naturalization” ritual. Credit: Anthony Karen.