Angela King is proof that incarceration changes a person. In her case, a sentence of six years behind bars for her role in a racially motivated robbery made her a better person. It also saved her life.
“During those years, I got to think a lot about my life, and what I wanted to do with the rest of my life,” she says. “The most valuable lessons I’ve ever learned, I learned there. … If I hadn’t gone to jail, I would have ended up dead or involved in something worse than a robbery.”
She’s different now—a so-called “defector,” following a life of acceptance and, in some ways, atonement. From her years affiliated with violent groups whose uniting principles were white supremacy and the hatred of nonwhites, all that remains are the memories and the remnants of swastikas and other white-power symbols that tattooed her body for most of her teens and early 20s. The racist tattoos are gone now, along with the hatred of people unlike her.
Her story is at once tragic and inspiring, and parts of it—the bad parts—are chilling reminders of the heavy price of intolerance. Though rarely in the local news, at least not overtly, crimes committed by so-called “hate groups” such as the Ku Klux Klan or the Aryan Nations are often misreported or simply not recorded; only 10 percent of hate crimes go reported, according to FBI estimates. But sources suggest crimes of intolerance based on one’s race, religion and national origin, as well as sexual orientation and even physical or mental impairment, are on the rise.
“People in the Klan are a mirror to the rest of us; that type of hate sniffs out and feeds on the fears of mainstream Americans,” says Ann Van Dyke, investigator and trainer for the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission in Harrisburg. “In Pennsylvania and nationwide we’ve seen a rapid increase in groups like the Klan for the past three years.
“Whenever the economy goes down in the nation’s history, groups like the Klan, their membership increases,” she adds. “You also have tension around immigration issues, plus people of color are proportionately increasing rapidly. Lastly, our president has brown skin. These are common fears of a lot of Americans, because things are changing.”
“Throw a dart at the map and you’ll find the influence there via the Internet, and you’re going to find some rumblings,” she says. “And they’re not just white supremacists; there are similar groups for people of color. No matter what kind of groups they are, they are dangerous and divisive for that community. Some groups just want to be separate, and others, like the white supremacists, want to be separate but they also say, ‘We hate everybody else, and we’ll harm them when we get the chance.’”
A hate crime—in short, a crime motivated by hatred of a victim’s race, color, national origin, etc.—is generally committed by one of three kinds of people:
• Groups of teenage boys who tend not to have a criminal record, with no affiliation to gangs or groups such as the Ku Klux Klan: These are “crimes of opportunity” committed against vulnerable targets, primarily for bragging rights among peers or for the social thrill. These offenders tend to act out of fear, which ultimately turns to hatred.
• So-called “reactive offenders,” who are usually older men with no past criminal history or group affiliation: Their crime is often vandalizing the home or property of unfamiliar people moving into a neighborhood—say, Arabs in the immediate aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Reactive offenders tend to have a strong sense of entitlement and perceive their victims as having the potential to destroy their way of life. Hate crimes committed by members of this group generally occur when white neighborhoods start to become more diverse.
• “Mission offenders,” the rarest yet most virulent perpetrators of hate crimes: Generally these are people who were schooled within a racial supremacist movement, and also sometimes have severe mental-health problems, according to Van Dyke. They tend to perceive their targets as evil or even subhuman; Timothy McVeigh, the since-executed perpetrator of the Oklahoma City, Okla., bombing, is a classic example. Unlike the first two kinds of people who commit hate crimes, mission offenders are proficient in their crimes and rarely get caught.
Of course, not all hate crimes are committed by organized groups, nor are they committed solely by whites. A report from The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), a nonprofit civil-rights organization based in Montgomery, Ala., counts as many as 1,002 active “hate groups” in the United States, with recent years spawning the largest increase in hate-group activity since the SPLC began tracking such statistics in the 1980s. The spike was accompanied by a 60-percent increase in so-called “patriot” groups, including militias, which oppose the federal government and, specifically, President Obama.
In terms of location, Pennsylvania (36 groups, including neo-Nazi groups in Philadelphia and black-separatist groups in Coatesville) and New Jersey (47) had the greatest concentration of hate groups in the Northeast, according to the SPLC. Other states with a significant number of such organizations: California (68), Texas (59), Florida (49), Mississippi (40) and Georgia (39). Among the recent incidents cited by the SPLC as an outgrowth of extremist activity were the arrest of a neo-Nazi with 12 homemade explosive devices in Arizona; an attempt to bomb a Martin Luther King Jr. Day parade in Spokane, Wash.; the arrest of a man wielding explosives outside a Dearborn, Mich., mosque; and the recent mass murder in an Arizona supermarket parking lot made more public by the near-assassination of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.
“The defectors I’ve talked to all left for the same reason: Love came into their lives and fed them more than hate ever could,” she adds. “Those people have been able to become new people and turn their lives around. People do change.”
King, now 35, is a perfect example. She grew up in South Florida, born to religious parents who were also “extremely prejudiced” toward black people. Her parents split in a bitter divorce when she was just entering her teen years; her mother gained custody of King and her sister, and her father got custody of her brother. In addition to family troubles, she also wrestled with poor self-esteem, complicated by the struggle to control her weight.
Feeling disenfranchised, she ultimately fell into what most people would consider “the wrong crowd”: skinheads, first those at her high school and then an older set, in their early 20s. The “brainwashing” started soon after, with information she absorbed—voraciously, she admits—through racist books and literature implying the superiority of the white race, the Holocaust as myth, etc.
“Once I became heavily involved with them, I was kicked out of my home, so by the time I was 17 I was living wherever I could with older skinheads,” she says. “Then I moved to Iowa and started looking for other skinheads, other groups. … It wasn’t difficult [finding them]; there’s a network.”
She led a somewhat nomadic life from then on, consumed by hatred and committing violent acts against nonwhites. But in the aftermath of the April 1995 bombing in Oklahoma City, and learning about the bomber McVeigh’s radical antigovernment motivations for the terrorist attack, she began having second thoughts about the path she’d taken.
“I thought, If I do have a family, is this the environment I want my children to grow up in?” she says. “So I made a very half-hearted decision to distance myself from the people I was connected to. I was on house arrest at the time, because I had gotten into trouble quite a bit, mostly for fighting. … But the culture is very gang-like, so you don’t wake up one day and decide, I’m not going to do this anymore.
“When people saw me withdrawing—people I thought were my friends—I found some bullet holes in the building I was living in, had some threats to my family,” she adds. “I didn’t have what it took to get out of it. Instead of walking away, I decided I would become a better racist and a better skinhead,” and she began recruiting others.
The day ultimately came when she was able to “get out,” aided by her incarceration in a Florida detention center. She’d been arrested and charged for her role in a crime in which her then-boyfriend robbed an adult video store operated by “someone who wasn’t white.” Her sentence: six years for armed robbery, conspiracy, etc.—a felon at 23.
“From that point on, my life changed considerably,” she says. “I had quite a bit of time to sit and think. I learned a lot about myself. No one was to blame but me for the choices I made.”
She served almost three years of her sentence and was released in May 2001. Within a few months she had enrolled in a community college and was working three jobs to support herself. Fast-forward to 2011: Today she holds a master’s degree in interdisciplinary studies, focusing in areas of social concern, and an undergraduate degree in interdisciplinary social science. In the 10 years she’s been out of prison, she has spoken publicly “to thousands and thousands of people” about her darkest years and subsequent reinvention to help others learn from her mistakes.
She’s been living in Pennsylvania for nearly two years, though she can’t say exactly where because “being tracked down is a danger.” Her racist tattoos have been either altered or removed entirely, courtesy of numerous appointments with a gifted dermatologist. She has mended once-strained relations with her parents, though she admits some of the issues between her and her father remain “not cleared up.” And, she says, she has found love to replace the vacuum that first let hatred possess her life.
“In some form or fashion we all have prejudices,” she says. “We can overcome them by being open minded, and acknowledging and addressing them.”
Van Dyke agrees. And as America’s demographics continue to shift to a more diverse melting pot of citizenry, she believes, individual communities—and the nation as a whole—need to redefine what the term “we” means: “We are in a time in this nation’s and state’s history, when we are becoming more diverse in every conceivable way.
“Sometimes people oppose others just because they’re different,” she adds. “We need to get to know them, and we need to get to know their perspective; that’s where we find the common ground. After all, we can’t build enough moats in this country to keep each other separate from those who appear to be different.”