Can a nation forgive a reformed neo-Nazi?
You may have seen Nick Cooper on social media last year when a photo he posted on Twitter went viral. Nick had just painted over a swastika and the accompanying racist rant that someone had scrawled on a bridge in Chilliwack, Canada.
“Goodbye racist graffiti not in my town thank you,” he tweeted back on Aug. 3. Within days, the post garnered more than 300,000 likes and was retweeted tens of thousands of times.
You may also have seen Nick a few months later when a petition made its way online seeking to stall his deportation from Canada, where he’d lived with his family for the last 13 years.
As it turned out, no amount of civil rights activism could erase the fact that Nick was once a member of Combat 18, a neo-Nazi hate group — at least not for Canadian immigration officials. Just before Christmas last year, Nick was deported back to the UK, underscoring a sobering reality that sometimes reformed members of hate groups can never completely atone for their past.
"No one goes through life without making mistakes. Some mistakes are small. Some mistakes are large,” Nick said in a recent interview. “But I believe it's about how you work those mistakes out that counts.”
Nick was was 15 when he joined The National Front, a far-right, fascist political party in the UK.
“On the surface of it all it looked, you know, like normal guys; they come around and introduced themselves in suits. It didn’t seem to have a thuggish element,” he said. “But once I got involved I found out that underneath there was a lot of violence.”
In the early 1980s, the UK was besieged with race riots, and much like it is today, the country was grappling with extreme wealth inequality, poverty and anti-immigration fervor. By the early 1990s, Nick was at the center of the notorious neo-Nazi offshoot, Combat 18.
“There was lots of immigration in London and a lot of people had lost their job, including my father,” Nick said. “I felt like where I lived in the East End of London [in public housing] when refugees were coming over they went in front of the people who were living there for a long time. It made me really angry.”
But Nick sensed something just wasn’t right. The violence — which at that point still targeted anti-fascist groups — was becoming too much.
“In Britain we had Searchlight magazine, an anti-fascist magazine, and they would pick out right-wing people and they would put in their address, telephone numbers, and you would get attacked,” Nick said. “And Combat 18 started to do the same thing back to the Left, picking out left-wingers, and it got to the stage where we were going to people’s houses and attacking them, and that’s one of the reason’s why I drew away from them, because I don’t agree with that at all.
“To me it was a mob-on-mob mentality.”
Nick began taking himself out of the planned attacks, showing up only for beers at the local pub. This went on for several years.
A way out
Finally, and like many other “formers,” Nick was inspired to a complete about-face when a person he least expected to show him compassion did just that. This was during the birth of his first child by emergency C-section. As it turned out, a Pakistani doctor saved the lives of Nick’s wife and newborn daughter.
"When I walked out of that room, I felt like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders,” Nick said. “I was a changed person. It was that quick for me. I realized that without these people, who I hated for no other reason than the color of their skin, they just saved my wife and daughter’s life.
“And it made me realize that everyone, no matter the color of their skin, has got a value in the world.”
Nick and his wife had two more children and they eventually settled in British Columbia. While very few people knew of Nick’s past, it wasn’t long before he became involved with a local human rights group, Inclusion Chilliwack, which focused on LGBTQ rights group and anti-bullying in schools.
He also became an active member for Cycling4Diversity. And when he began opening up about his past, his friends urged him to speak publicly about his reformation.
The challenge of reforming
Breaking away from a hate group often exposes the underlying trauma that made the person more vulnerable to joining the group in the first place. While data is hard to compile due to the extreme sensitivity of the issues, experts believe that racist ideology is often not a precursor to membership.
Similar to other gangs, white supremacy groups offer its members inclusion and power. That sense of community, however misguided, is why people leaving far-right extremist groups need ample support to reintegrate economically and socially into a society that they once attacked; and the roadblocks can often feel insurmountable.
By 2017, Nick met Tony McAleer of Life After Hate. And suddenly, Nick no longer felt like a rogue former.
“It helped me realize I wasn’t alone with these feelings of guilt and anxiety,” he said. “Talking to Tony and listening to his story and how it impacts other people in the community was really good for me.”
According to a recent study conducted by RTI International — which Life After Hate contributed to — a large percentage of formers are grappling with childhood abuse. And among the experiences they shared were “adolescent maladjustment, childhood abuse, and family instability.”
This makes Life After Hate’s support group, ExitUSA, increasingly vital.
Nick is hopeful he’ll be reunited with his wife and two daughters (his 13-year-old son is currently living with him in England). But he knows the odds aren’t good.
And it could be years before his case is even heard. While he’s a long way from that moment captured underneath that bridge in Chilliwack, paint can in hand, Nick would ask that we consider one more thought.
“Some people can only see the person who was involved in the hate group,” he said. “They can’t see the changed person.”