When Nick Cooper painted over racist graffiti under a bridge in Chilliwack last week, he never imagined his simple action would be shared in a viral Tweet that would go around the world.
Then there is the irony that 20 years ago, Cooper thought and said some of the very words expressed in that racist graffiti.
Cooper responded to a social media post by a Progress reporter who stumbled across the carefully drawn counter-clockwise swastika under a Eagle Landing Parkway bridge over a creek. The image was surrounded by a rant about white pride, a confusing rant rife with spelling errors and grammar mistakes.
Cooper saw that post and said to himself, “someone should cover that up.”
“Then I said, hang on a minute, I’m preaching to myself. I’ve got a tin of paint and a paintbrush and I’m not doing anything.”
So off he went in search of the offending work. After a phone call to narrow down the location he found it. He covered it up and, by request, took a photo of himself with the tin of paint.
Then he posted the original image of the graffiti and the two photos he took on Twitter, all with the simple message: “Goodbye racist graffiti not in my town thank you”
Goodbye racist graffiti not in my town thank you pic.twitter.com/mypHDcdI4G
— nick (@allmodcons70) August 4, 2018
Active on Twitter, Cooper didn’t think much more about it going to bed Friday night. He woke up Saturday morning for his weekly ritual of watching English football, only to think his phone had been hacked.
“I had 33,000 notifications,” he said. “It just blew up. I couldn’t believe it.”
Then 33,000 became 50,000 then 100,000 then 200,000 then 300,000. By Tuesday at 3 p.m., his Tweet had 352,000 likes, it had been retweeted 78,000 times and there were 1,700 comments.
Comments such as: “Whitewashed” and “You’re doing great sweetie” and “Nice one, Nick,” were left along side dozens of other supportive messages, invites to barbecues, many notes with memes and gifs, even some in German and French and other languages.
He said there were a handful of negative comments, some from extremists and some from those thinking he was trying to promote himself, but “99 per cent” were positive.
Painting over some ignorant words is one thing, but part of what sparked Cooper to act was the number 88 written in the swastika. That’s code for “Heil Hitler,” the eights referencing the letter H, the eighth letter of the alphabet.
“The white power movement uses 88,” he said. “That to me said it was more than someone who scrawled some racist graffiti. It was someone knowledgeable, it had taken some time to do that.”
And Cooper should know. In the 1990s growing up in east London, he started joining hate groups fully on board with the same white power message represented in the Chilliwack graffiti.
Then, in the year 2000, his wife was in labour and they went to the hospital. He was his regular, angry self looking to ensure only white doctors and staff took care of them. But then his wife’s labour went wrong, his unborn baby was in distress, and his wife was sent for an emergency C-section.
And there he was, a racist extremist holding his wife’s hand while a doctor of Indian descent and an Afro-Caribbean nurse delivered his daughter.
“They saved their lives,” he said. “And that just blew me away. Then when they took my wife and baby away and I was alone and the nurse, who I had been very rude to, brought me a cup of tea.”
He apologized and she told him to think nothing of it.
“That little bit of compassion that she showed me when I least deserved it, it just changed my entire life,” Cooper said.
He began the not-simple process of disentangling his life from hate groups. He managed to break away and then they moved to Canada, to Yarrow, where he found himself on the other side of the coin, an “other,” an outsider arriving here to be treated so very well by the Chilliwack community.
Then he found a group called Life After Hate. Founded by former violent extremists they focus on countering hate and discrimination and helping people leave these groups. Cooper said others in the movement have similar revelatory moments such as Brad Galloway, a former skinhead from Toronto whose life was saved by a Jewish doctor.
In addition to Life After Hate, Cooper is involved with Inclusion Chilliwack, a Facebook group focused on increasing diversity and acceptance in Chilliwack, particularly focused on the LGBTQ community that has been a target in recent months. Specifically, Inclusion Chilliwack members have been vocal in response to the homophobic actions of those opposed to SOGI 123, which is a provincial education resource designed to help young people and limit bullying of LGBTQ youth in schools.
Cooper was there with a sign and T-shirt supporting inclusion in November 2017 to counter those at a rally hosted by the alt-right group Culture Guard to support Trustee Barry Neufeld who has expressed his opposition to what he calls the “radical cultural nihilists” looking to take over the school system.
Once involved in the very hate-filled movements he is now opposing, Cooper had a change of heart and now wants to spread the message of diversity.
“Now I’m trying me best to bring light out of darkness,” he said in his thick English accent. “Because that was a very dark time in my life. My message is, don’t do that because it it’s wrong. Everyone deserves to live a life in safety.”
— nick (@allmodcons70) August 6, 2018