Ken pulled his truck into the grassy clearing and put it in park. In front of him, several men gathered and spoke to one another. Some dawned tattoos, while others had clean skin. All of them were white.
He emerged from his car with the family he had given a ride to. A large gentleman, his wife, and their small children stumbled out of his backseat. It had been a long ride, with the kids leaking their diapers all over his back seat and the wife chatting away about selling Native American trinkets online.
I thought this was supposed to be a “pearl white” group, Ken had thought.
Ken introduced himself and met the men gathered in the clearing, hearing names he would likely forget within the next few minutes. It was still daylight, which allowed them plenty of time to get to work. A large cross, wrapped in cloth, rested a few feet away, accompanied by a backhoe.
Ken looked at the items. The air wreaked of kerosene, which had already been doused on the cross in preparation for the lighting. “Klan Cologne,” someone had called it.
“Alright,” someone said, “What we’ve got to do is use this backhoe here to lift the cross and guide it into the ground. After that, we’ll get you robed up.”
As they set to work, Ken thought back to the weeks leading up to this moment. In his home in Georgia, he had turned on Gangland in an attempt to entertain his wife and himself. One episode featured skinheads and Klansmen. Ken had always been intrigued by the Klan, even as a child, but had never given it much thought.
His wife turned to look at him before uttering the words, “That looks right up your alley.”
A quick internet search brought him to their website, where he read that they were not a hate group. They did, however, hate drugs, homosexuality, abortion and race-mixing. They claimed to want to give white people the credit they deserve for all that is right in the world today and they were calling white Christians to join them in their fight to take their nation back.
Ken felt a stirring reading that message. He made a call and dove right in.
His wife would’ve joined too, until she found out they opposed the use of drugs.
Now, he stood before these fellow Klansmen and didn’t feel out of place. He didn’t feel the rejection that had become familiar to him as he applied for job after job. He felt like a brother, possibly for the first time since he had left the Navy.
He stood in his robe and looked out at the faces before him. Some had eye holes in their robes, so all you could make out were their irises. Others proudly showed their faces, as they shouted decrees of “white power” with clenched fists.
He looked down at his robes, remembering how he didn’t want to attend his high school graduation, because he didn’t want to wear a dress.
This robe didn’t bother him so much. He had found a cause. He had found a purpose. Best of all, he had found a family.
He didn’t even mind that it took weeks for the smell of kerosene to leave his car.
After three years with the Klan, Ken had risen through the ranks. After he moved to Florida, he was named the Grand Dragon of the Florida “realm.” Ken was pleased to make the long drives to attend rallies and marches. He had made some good friends from other states that he could only see at such events.
One such friend was JT, who walked beside him to the hotel where they’d be staying before the rally.
They were disappointed to find that you couldn’t buy alcohol in Troy, North Carolina at 2 a.m. They walked up to the room together and found a small space, packed with men drinking beer.
“What kind of beer do you want?” The slurred words slipped from the skinhead’s mouth like a chubby child shooting down a slide. He gestured to the stacks of boxes on the desk against the far wall. “We got Bud Light, Miller, Natty Lite…”
They made their choices and drank away the night, only leaving the room when they went outside to smoke. When they did, it was always as a group.
While lighting up their cigarettes outside, Ken looked at a four-door sedan and remembered a rally in Harrisburg, PA.
“Look at that ANTIFA car,” one man had said, spitting out the words. He nodded to a parked sedan with a COEXIST sticker on its bumper. He handed a fellow Klansmen his beer and lumbered over to the car. With his back turned to the group, he leaned a hand on the back of the car. They heard the trickle of liquid as he relieved himself at the expense of the car’s back bumper.
The group unsuccessfully tried to stifle their laughter. It was thirty degrees in Pennsylvania. When the owner of the car would go to leave the next day, the urine would be frozen.
Later in the night, JT crashed. He laid on the floor, passed out beneath a nightstand. One man showed the crowded room some handcuffs he had brought, laughing as he attached one to JT’s wrist, and the other to the nightstand.
“I don’t know about that,” Ken spoke up. “He’s got a glock right there on the nightstand. I wouldn’t mess with him.”
The young man protested, saying it was only a joke. But Ken knew JT better than he did. He knew he wouldn’t like it if he woke up.
Finally, the young man removed the handcuffs. JT woke up a little while later, looking for a place to piss. He settled on a cushion someone had been using as a pillow and went back to sleep.
Little did Ken know that same man, his friend, would later be arrested for the murder of his uncle. Ken always wondered if he had used the same Glock.
Ken worked with the Klan for three years. Members of the brotherhood had confronted him after he became involved romantically with a woman they didn’t approve of. Not one to be told who he can and can’t see, he left the Klan for the National Socialist Movement.
He had quickly risen through the ranks with the NSM and now served as one of their media personnel.
It was during this time he attended a rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. This was going to be a rally to remember. The members of the NSM were joined with Klansmen, neo-Nazis, neo-Confederates, and other alt-right protestors. The streets of Charlottesville were flooded with Nazi swastikas, confederate flags, Deus Vult crosses, and various other symbols of white empowerment. To Ken, it was a beautiful sight.
The NSM marched down the streets, carrying shields emblazoned with their newest logo. They had recently made the decision to remove the swastika from their logo to increase awareness of their brand, making it more appealing to the masses.
Ken marched amongst them, proudly wearing his black militia-esque attire and toting his shield. The hot sun beat down on them as they marched, the August heat sweltering against their skin.
As they marched, they shouted profanities at the counter-protestors lined up on either side. Liberal snowflakes thrusted signs into the air, proclaiming the importance of black lives. While they stood up for their race, Ken stood up for his own. He knew these people wouldn’t change their minds, but to stand by would be to watch the very existence of his race fall to the wayside.
Before long, fights began to break out. A few feet away, a protestor shoved one of their members. He returned the favor with a fist in the face. They fell to the ground as some joined to assist, others jumping in to pull them off of one another. They knew this day would get violent. Ken had been prepared for it.
“The state of Virginia has declared a state of emergency,” a police officer announced through a megaphone. “This is no longer a peaceful assembly. Clear the area or be arrested.”
Officers began blowing whistles and dispersing the crowd. Some yelled profanities back.
Fellow members called for the crowd to head back to the parking garage to re-group. Counter-protestors followed them as they moved along.
One man with dark skin walked along them, yelling threats.
“I wish you would! I’ll knock your ass out!”
Shit-skin, Ken thought.
Someone ahead of him flicked the man off.
“Get a heart attack, n*****!” another yelled.
Back at the parking garage, the intense heat had started to get to Ken. His black uniform clung to his body, made heavier by the layers of sweat that poured from him. Feeling woozy, he laid on the cool cement beneath him. One of the members poured a bottle of water over him.
“Is he okay?” someone asked. It was a female voice with an English accent.
He opened his eyes and saw a young woman with brown skin in a black helmet standing nearby. She held a camera mounted with a fuzzy microphone on top. She looked like she belonged with the counter-protestors.
“I’ll be alright,” he said, waving his hand dismissively.
The kindness took Ken back a bit. She wasn’t the color of people who normally offer kindness to him, especially when he’s sporting neo-Nazi symbols.
Ken would later discover the woman who had shown concern for him at the rally was Deeyah Khan, who was filming for a documentary she was in the process of making. She reached out, asking if he’d be okay with her meeting up for an interview. Ken was never one to hide what he stood for and agreed.
She met him in his apartment in Jacksonville, which he shared with his fiancée, Crystal.
He removed his shirt, which read “F*** YOUR SAFE SPACE,” to reveal his swastika and Klan tattoos. He sat down with her while she asked him some questions, like if he thought he was racist.
“I guess in that sense, since I absolutely despise Jews, yes, I’m a racist. Jews and homosexuals, I think they should be exterminated. Every single one of them.”
He kind of chuckled. This was a woman he had spent years protesting against. Her skin wasn’t the same color as his. She didn’t worship the same god, as a Muslim woman. She was everything he had stood against, and yet, she looked at him without judgement or hate. He wasn’t used to that.
During the night, Ken made antisemitic flyers to leave in Jewish neighborhoods. It was Yom Kippur, so the timing seemed appropriate.
He laughed as he read one of the flyers to Deeyah. The flyer declared the importance of taking America back from the Jews.
She asked if he thought what he was doing was wrong.
“No,” he said.
“You don’t think it’s hateful?” she asked.
“Hateful? Yes,” he admitted. “But I wouldn’t lose any sleep over it.”
As the night progressed, Deeyah was nothing but respectful to Ken and Crystal. She accompanied them as they drove through the Jewish neighborhoods, throwing the flyers from their car.
“That’s the synagogue,” Ken said, pointing out the window. He tossed a couple flyers outside.
“Does it matter to you that I think what you’re doing is wrong?” she asked, quietly.
“Hmm, no,” he admitted, rubbing his chin.
“Do you know why I think it’s wrong?”
“Yeah,” he cracked his knuckles.
“Can you tell me?”
“’Cause I’m gonna hurt the feelings of thin-skinned individuals that can’t realize the fact that it’s just a piece of paper. There was a lot of people that thought us going to Charlottesville was evil too, but that didn’t stop us.”
When they got back to the apartment, Ken sat down with Deeyah and showed her some pictures from his scrapbook. He pointed at pictures of him as a child, smiling and happy.
She shared some of her life with him, too. She showed him a video of her talking about her experiences as a child and read him threatening emails she had received. People talked about wanting to bend knives in her.
He shook his head. He had marched with men who would’ve said things like that. Now, he couldn’t imagine wishing harm on this woman, who has shown him nothing but kindness.
After she read him the emails, she looked up and asked, “Would you call me these words?”
“Maybe if I’m drunk,” he admitted.
“What if I told you these words hurt my heart?”
“I’ll do my very best not to use them.”
“Because I respect you and I don’t want to hurt your feelings.”
It was a few months later when Ken and Crystal found themselves at the pool by their apartment complex. An African American man was having a cookout nearby. It was a man they’d seen before and they knew him to be the pastor of a local African American church.
Ken approached the man, with Crystal right behind.
“We’ve been wanting to talk to you,” he said.
The man, Pastor William, walked them over to a picnic table where they took a seat.
“I’ve got a couple questions for you,” Ken said.
Pastor William sat and listened to his questions. Over the years, Ken had become somewhat of an expert when it came to confronting those who claimed to know the Bible. He would twist verses, evoking the anger in his opponent.
But here, he saw no anger in Pastor William. The man simply admitted when he didn’t have an answer. He didn’t try to argue or fight for every point Ken was making.
“I just try to live my life like Jesus lived,” he said.
Ken was amazed. He could tell this man didn’t have all the answers yet seemed satisfied with what he had. He talked about looking at the entire picture, about looking at the life of Jesus as a model for our own. It was a way of thinking Ken had never considered before. But he had to admit, it seemed freeing.
Ken left the conversation and decided to reexamine his life. He called himself a Christian, but is that how he’d been living?
He decided the best way to examine himself would be to read the four gospels in the Bible, which described the life of Jesus. He absorbed every word that spoke about Jesus spreading the message of love.
He thought back to how he used to scream out verses in Leviticus, shouting for the stoning of people who lived differently than he did.
As he read, he approached John chapter 8, which told the story of an adulterous woman who was brought before Jesus. The law would have her stoned to death for her crimes.
Jesus had looked at the crowd and simply said, “He without sin cast the first stone.”
It was at that moment that Ken realized everything he had been doing was absolutely stupid.
He began to attend Pastor Will’s church. It was a mostly black congregation and Ken and Crystal stuck out like sore thumbs, but nonetheless, he found himself growing closer to the church.
He was reluctant to leave the movement and the purpose he had devoted so many years of his life to. As Ken made plans to attend a rally in Tennessee, he was open and informed Pastor Will of his plans.
He had expected him to tell him not to go, that if he were really a Christian, he would renounce the movement.
“Just pray about it.”
That was the only advice he had to offer. No words of hate or anger.
That night, Ken sent in his letter of resignation. And with that, his time with the movement was finished.
He left behind his old ways of thinking and laid down his former life. He deleted all his pictures, threw out his robes, and removed his tattoos. It was only a month later when he testified in front of the church.
When he told them he had been a Klan member and former Nazi, their jaws about hit the floor.
Afterwards, he waited for them to come to him with negative words and condemnation. Instead, he got hugs and support. Not a single person had any unkind words to offer him.
On July 21, 2018, less than a year after he had left the movement, he stood before the congregation in a long white robe and openly declared his new life. Pastor Will hugged him tight before dunking him beneath the water to baptize him.
Ken had spent six years as a white supremacist. He had lived as a Klan member and chanted their slogan, “Non Silba Sed Anthar,” or “Not self, but others.”
Today, he finally understands what it means to live with others in mind.