The death of Heather Heyer in Charlottesville changed my life
by Lauren Manning
Globe and Mail Opinion, August 12, 2021
Lauren Manning joined a white power crew at 17 and now works as an exit specialist with Life After Hate. A memoir she co-authored with her mother, Walking Away from Hate: Our Journey through Extremism, was published in May.
I was working on a Toronto construction site in August of 2017 when one of my co-workers said something about the Unite the Right riot in Charlottesville, Va., that had just happened – something that changed my life.
“A skinhead killed one of the female protesters.”
I paused for a second, my head and neck prickling, recalling the lifestyle I knew all too well and had walked away from two years before. During my eight years within the white power movement, I’d sported hate-themed tattoos and Doc Marten boots. I’d lived on the streets and in youth shelters, spouting racist rhetoric and spoiling for a fight. Most crews are highly misogynistic: Women are relegated to secondary roles, encouraged to serve the men, have babies and perpetuate the white race. But I wasn’t okay with this kind of subservience. I was proud to be an enforcer.
Beneath that posturing, however, I was miserable. But it wasn’t until a close friend was stabbed to death in 2012 that I began to question my beliefs. It took another three years for me to disengage safely. While the process of deradicalization was lonely and difficult, I am grateful today to have left it all behind.
When my coworker told me of the death of Heather Heyer, who was killed when a white nationalist deliberately rammed his car into a crowd of counter-protesters in Charlottesville, I was upset, but not shocked. I knew too well that violence and an “all means necessary” attitude were inherent parts of white power culture. And I knew this wouldn’t be some one-off incident, nor a uniquely American phenomenon.
Several Canadian crews participated in that riot; one group even tried to stage an event called Charlottesville North. They paraded through Toronto’s Eaton Centre mall, looking to be heard and seen, to create more tension, to recruit new members and to incite violence. Every hate group has the same goal – winning the coming race war – and there has long been open communication between Canadians and Americans, because we wanted to know who’d be fighting beside us when the time came.
The illusion of power and the need for violence attracts many white supremacists, and so a lot of brutality takes place within crews as members jockey for position in the hierarchy. That hasn’t changed, nor will it. But what has changed is the number of what we called “suit Nazis”: extremists with well-paying jobs and families of their own who have penetrated the underground movement and normalized it. They are white supremacy’s new poster children.
That extremist subculture is thriving. Roughly 300 far-right, white supremacist or neo-Nazi groups are operating in Canada, according to Dr. Barbara Perry, a researcher with the University of Ontario Institute of Technology. That means, per capita, we’re on par with the United States. Social media has made white power more accessible, and these digital interactions don’t make the perpetrators less violent or dangerous than those who staged the event in Charlottesville.
The deliberate targeting of the Afzaal family in London, Ont., was not an aberration. Hate crimes are on the rise in Canada. And since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, there have been more than 600 hate incidents against Asians in Canada, with one in three involving assaults.
Specific incidents are attributed to “lone wolves,” but they are supported and encouraged by a culture of hate that transcends borders.
Ms. Heyer’s death sparked in me a desire to give back and create change. I turned to Life After Hate, a non-profit organization with a mission is to inspire, educate and reform those wishing to disconnect from extreme ideology and become peaceful members of society.
My list of new clients grows each week, and to me, that’s a sign of hope. These people want to leave the movement behind. Some want to rebuild their lives, others need to mentally detach from hate, and some want to work through their shame or atone for their poor decisions. No one is turned away.
There will be more tragedies as white power groups continue to look for violence. But other Canadians, including me, will continue to actively oppose them. I’ve finally found my passion: helping others recreate their lives without extremism. And so, this Aug. 12, I will be thinking of Heather Heyer with both sorrow and gratitude.