Life After Hate
Fall 2019 | By Laura J. Cole
Angela King ’07 ’09MA was 19 and deeply entrenched in a white supremacist organization when Timothy McVeigh bombed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people and injuring more than 700 others.
The year was 1995, and King recalls watching the aftermath on TV. At first, she felt disconnected — it was only something on television. The smoking building with all nine floors of its messy insides exposed looked like a scene from a movie. Then she saw the children who were being pulled from the rubble of what was once the building’s nursery school.
“That was the first time that I ever considered [that what I was doing wasn’t] just a game,” King says. “This was a whole other level of violence and destruction.”
King could see something of herself in McVeigh, and the reflection scared her. They shared the same ideology. The anger that drove McVeigh to blow up a building came from the same ideas that shaped her belief system. They even ran in the same social circles and attended the same house party once.
Untwining herself from that world would not be easy. Leaving behind the people she called her friends would prove challenging, but not as challenging as moving past the ideology that had become a part of who she was.
It would take more than four years, a prison sentence, some unexpected kindness from a Jamaican inmate, and nearly two decades of sharing her story — with all its shame and violence — to replace hatred with forgiveness.
Today, nearly 25 years after the Oklahoma City bombing, King is a co-founder of and programs director for Life After Hate, a nonprofit that helps people leave extremist groups.
Her story is one of destruction as much as it is of constructing something new from the rubble.
For most of her childhood, King’s world was small, sheltered and safe.
She grew up in a rural town in South Florida, where she attended a private Baptist elementary school during the week and Catholic services on Sundays. Her mom, who King describes as overprotective, stayed home with her and her siblings while her dad worked. That’s not to say her family was perfect.
“I was raised in a family where racism and homophobia were the norm,” King says.
King didn’t have a lot of friends. She struggled with her weight. She was insecure and lonely.
It didn’t help that as a preteen, King’s world was upended. Her family moved several times before her parents eventually divorced. She went from a private school where she had grown up with most of the kids to a public school where she knew no one.
And that’s when the bullying began. At first, kids called her names. Then it escalated.
“I was essentially this dorky little chubby girl with glasses and braces,” King says. “In seventh grade, the school bully started a fight with me and ripped my shirt open in front of the entire class. Even today, all these years later, I can’t verbally describe the level of humiliation.”
While some children might have shut down, King became filled with an intense rage. All the discomfort and anger bubbled up until there was nowhere else for it to go. She fought back.
“I took [the bully’s] place,” King says. “Literally overnight, I came to the conclusion that if I was doing what she was doing, then nothing like that could ever happen to me again.”
King became violent. She struggled with self-hate and self-harm. By high school, she was experimenting with drugs, sex and drinking. She had been in trouble with the law.
“By the time I met skinheads in high school, I had already been arrested a few times,” King says. “And once I fell into the far right, it was just pretty much over from there. It was free rein just to be angry and violent and to act out against anybody and everybody.”
King spent eight years involved in what she calls “some of the most violent far-right organizations,” including what was then called the World Church of the Creator, which has been classified as a neo-Nazi hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
The organizations embraced her anger and provided community, but they were more Band-Aid than salve.
“In some aspects, [the groups] made me feel like I had a place in the world and something important to do,” King says. “But on the other hand, [they] did nothing for the issues I was already struggling with — with confusion, with my self-esteem, with self-hate.”
After the Oklahoma City bombing, she attempted to step back. When she stopped going out and answering the phone for a few weeks, her so-called friends showed up at her house. One threatened that he saw her younger brother playing outside “all by himself.” She got the message. She didn’t have the money to pack up and leave everything behind. Even if she did, she was covered in racist tattoos — constant reminders for herself and others that this is who she was. Plus, she still really wanted to belong somewhere, anywhere.
“I ended up going right back in, and it wasn’t until I went to prison that the final break actually happened,” King says
On March 29, 1998, King was drinking alcohol in South Florida with her boyfriend and two friends. They were talking about how they could best contribute to the white supremacist movement. They landed on robbing a nonwhite-run business and sending the money to their organization.
“We discussed the book that inspired Timothy McVeigh, and decided we were going to go along with some of what the book said,” King says. “Essentially, that it was OK to hurt and steal from people who we didn’t consider to be white.”
They ended up at Exotic Video in Hollywood, Florida, where King’s boyfriend demanded money from the Jewish owner and pistol-whipped him while King and her two friends waited in the car.
At 24, King was charged with robbery and committing a felony with a firearm. She would go to federal prison for her role in the crime.
With her arrest came a very public case that garnered substantial media coverage. In prison, that put a target on King’s back. As did the swastikas and other white supremacist symbols tattooed on her hands, wrists, chest, legs and back. She couldn’t easily cover up her past or the ideology she had spent eight years espousing.
Anxious, scared and admittedly naïve, King spent her time smoking in the prison’s small outdoor rec area with her back against the concrete wall “just trying not to be noticed.”
It was there that an unexpected act of kindness began to open up King’s world. A Jamaican inmate asked if she knew how to play cribbage.“I literally was like, ‘What the f— is cribbage?’ ” King says. “I had no idea what it was, and this woman who doesn’t know me at all picks up a cribbage board and cards, comes over and sits down next to me and teaches me how to play.”
According to King, this woman, who we’ll call “Jamaica” to preserve her anonymity, had to have known why King was in prison and that she was a skinhead.
“I had no idea how to process that,” King says. “I was so used to anger and aggression and confrontation and violence. That’s what I was expecting. That’s what I was prepared for. I was not prepared for kindness. It literally disarmed me.”
Sammy Rangel, who co-founded Life After Hate with King and now serves as its executive director, says it’s usually these seemingly insignificant interactions from someone unexpected that transform people.
“All of us [at Life After Hate] had an experience with a person who broke the mold of our global narrative about people,” Rangel says. “That genuine compassion cut through our defenses like butter. Don’t get me wrong; that doesn’t mean it happens overnight. What it means is that something got through. For me, a guy came to my cell and showed kindness in a place where there shouldn’t have been any.”
Like King, Rangel grew up around instability and violence. He too found himself a part of what is considered a hate group — the Maniac Latin Disciples, one of the largest Latino street gangs in Chicago. Unlike King, he is of Mexican and Native American descent. He says his hatred for white people didn’t happen until he was 17, when he witnessed white prison guards do nothing while his black friend died during a prison riot.
For Rangel, a prison guard knocking on his cell door and asking to talk was the starting point he needed. “That simple gesture of respect opened the door for me to be vulnerable, but I was still very defensive.”
Being asked to play a game of cards may seem insignificant, but it likewise opened up a door for King. Her subsequent friendship with Jamaica and other women of color allowed King to cross beyond the threshold of the ideology that had held her captive.
Jamaica and King would spend the next two years in prison as friends, having difficult conversations — ones that held King accountable and made her question the type of person she wanted to be.
“I remember [when Jamaica] asked me what I would have done to her and her young daughter had I encountered them before I went to prison,” King says. “Would I have called them racial slurs? Would I have been violent? Would I have wanted to kill her and her baby? Those were things that I didn’t even want to think about myself, but they really made me start to engage and critically think about who I was and what led me to that point in my life.”
While being released from prison is usually cause for celebration, for King it was scarier than entering prison. She knew she wanted to change, but there were years of ingrained racist thoughts that didn’t go away just because she wanted them to. She worried that she was permanently hard-wired to see the world through a lens of hatred.
“I couldn’t seem to reconcile who I was, the person that I was becoming, with the old me,” she says.
There were former relationships that weren’t so easy to end. She feared confrontations with her former friends and her family. And she was 26 years old, with a GED degree but no work skills, no savings and no real career goals.
Moving on would not be as simple as stepping outside the prison doors, but she was determined. In some ways, the universe aligned for her. Nearly everyone she previously associated with was in prison, on probation or under house arrest. She found several jobs and saved up enough money to move out of her mother’s house and enrolled at nearby Broward College.
She began telling her story publicly.
King had begun to see a future for herself — a way forward — but she would face more setbacks. She applied to three universities in South Florida; all denied her because of her criminal record. “I felt defeated. My associate degree wasn’t as far as I wanted to go.”
After moving to Lake Mary, Florida, she decided to write an essay about her past as part of her application to UCF. She received a simple letter from an admissions officer asking to meet with her in person. It was another breakthrough for King.
“It never fails. No matter how much time has passed, that letter from UCF always makes me cry,” King says. “It meant so much to me to actually be treated like a human being, like I had potential and could accomplish something with my life. UCF absolutely changed my life. I found individuals who believed in me.”
That’s not to say it was easy. She had to agree to be on probation during her time at UCF. She worried about being able to get internships and eventually a clinical license. She had to fight to design an interdisciplinary degree that she thought would offer her what she craved — the opportunity to learn about American history, our social systems and about other people’s circumstances. But she went on to earn her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in interdisciplinary studies.
King slowly started coming out of her shell. She did outreach work and joined civil and human rights organizations, such as the Anti-Defamation League and the SPLC. She began the process of having her tattoos removed. And she continued telling her story.
She has spent nearly two decades “rehashing all my worst mistakes, all my bad decisions, all of my most humiliating situations,” she says. But opening up led the girl from small-town Florida all the way to Dublin, Ireland, and the start of her career helping other individuals find a way out of hate groups.
In 2011, she was invited to speak at the Summit Against Violent Extremism, a three-day conference in Dublin sponsored by Google Ideas. She joined other former extremists from around the world — from white supremacists to Al-Qaeda members — as well as survivors of extreme violence. It was there that she met the five other individuals who co-founded Life After Hate with her, including Rangel.
“I was just amazed by her strength, her transparency, the courage to get on a stage and tell her story in front of a bunch of strangers,” says Rangel. “A lot of these women from white supremacist groups will not speak about their experiences. Angela was the first in our country to do it, and I think she’s the model we all should be following.”
What started out as a blog has evolved into what Life After Hate is today. Driven by its ExitUSA program, Life After Hate, according to its website, is “dedicated to helping individuals leave the white power movement and start building a more fulfilling and positive life, just like we did.”
And there’s plenty of work to do. According to the ADL’s annual report on murder and extremism in the United States, 2018 was the deadliest year for right-wing extremism since the Oklahoma City bombing. Last year also saw hate groups rise to an all-time high with the number of white nationalist groups increasing by 50 percent, according to the SPLC.
King shares her story not because it’s easy. But she and other members of Life After Hate do it in the hope that others going through something similar will hear their stories, see someone they can reach out to for help, and envision a way out — and forward — for themselves.
“My sense is that Angela has suffered a lot in her life,” says Rangel. “But today, when you see how much she loves, who she loves, how she loves, it communicates to everyone else that our experiences don’t have to make us unloving or unlovable.”
“Once, I would’ve described myself as a warrior — a proud white woman willing to do anything necessary to ‘save’ her people,” King said in an article in O, The Oprah Magazine. “I’ll be apologizing for the rest of my life for that. But this work no longer feels like penance. I own my mistakes but have compassion for myself — I’ve stepped into the human being I am today. I’m more than I ever could have given myself credit for.”