Organization of former extremists gets $750,000 from DHS to counter threats from the far right

Life After Hate, a national nonprofit that works to help individuals leave violent extremist groups on the far right, has received a $750,000 grant from the Department of Homeland Security as part of a $10 million federal program that aims to curb targeted violence and domestic terrorism.

The group, which consists of former far-right extremists who are now fighting to counter such hateful ideologies, was previously expected to receive a $400,000 grant through the Obama administration’s Countering Violent Extremism program, but those funds were rescinded three years ago by the Department of Homeland Security.

Conversation about white supremacists

This grant follows on the heels of a DHS draft document describing white supremacists as the deadliest domestic terror threat facing the United States, listing it above the immediate danger from foreign terrorist groups.

The issue of danger from the far right has also been in the spotlight since President Donald Trump, at the presidential debate in Cleveland, appeared reticent when moderator Chris Wallace asked him if he would denounce white supremacists. The president instead gave a shout-out to the Proud Boys, a far-right violent extremist group, telling them to “stand down and stand by.”

Experts who study hate and extremism said Trump’s comments have energized not just the Proud Boys, but other white supremacist groups that have responded to his comment with great enthusiasm, including hawking T-shirts and merchandise with the president’s words emblazoned on them. However, Trump later came on Sean Hannity’s show on Fox saying he condemns all white supremacists, including the Ku Klux Klan and the Proud Boys, even though he acknowledged he didn’t know much, “almost nothing,” about the group.

A multipronged approach

The grant will allow Life After Hate to work with adherents of white supremacy to shun the ideology by offering them other forms of support and a sense of belonging, while recognizing that they may have been attracted to extremism in the first place precisely because they did not have a strong, supportive community around them.

Life After Hate will collaborate with London-based Moonshot CVE, which will offer support with online strategies, according to a statement released by the group.

The organization will continue to adopt a multipronged approach and offer a whole tool kit of solutions to support not just those who are thinking of leaving or have already left violent far-right extremist groups, but also their families, said Peter Simi, an associate professor of sociology at Chapman University in Orange. Simi, who has studied white supremacist groups for more than two decades, sits on the board of Life After Hate.

“The focus is to help individuals not just get out of these extremist groups, but to help them stay out as well,” he said. “Life After Hate is unique in that regard because they have the expertise of formers and adopt an approach of case management, offering mental health, job training, education and other forms of support. All of those things are important to get people away from physical and online communities that preach violence and hate.”

Former extremists have proven to be an effective tool when it comes to disengaging individuals from terrorism, Simi said.

“They can be very effective because they have this past set of experiences, a frame of reference where they can relate to individuals and build rapport with them,” he said. “That’s harder to do for someone who hasn’t had that experience. It can even be dangerous if someone doesn’t know what they’re doing. When that personal experience is coupled with the right training, it can be a powerful way to reach people.”

Acknowledging threat of extremism

The grant is an acknowledgment from the DHS and the federal government that far right groups are a driving force behind domestic terrorism, said Dimitrios Kalantzis, spokesman for Life After Hate.

“It’s an acknowledgment of a threat many have been identifying for years, but it also acknowledges that one of the solutions to this problem is the type of compassionate approach we are taking. Using former extremists to solve the problem of white supremacist hate groups is in itself an innovation.”

While many on the right, including the president, have repeatedly raised the issue of antifa and the damage it has done, especially since the Black Lives Matter protests began after the killing of George Floyd, experts still hold that white supremacists and extremists on the far right pose the dominant threat. That view has found support among DHS and FBI officials.

Rhetoric and violence

So far, one death in Washington has been attributed to an antifa supporter. But in 2019 alone, there were 29 deaths linked to white supremacists, though 22 of the killings were committed by a single gunman in El Paso, Texas, said Brian Levin, director of the nonpartisan Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at Cal State San Bernardino. The center has raised the threat level of violence after Trump’s comments during the debate because, Levin said, a line can be drawn between comments the president has made in the past both as president and candidate and incidents of hate, violence and extremism.

“The president’s tap dance around sincere condemnation as well as his murky language has been viewed as a victory by white supremacists and white nationalists,” Levin said.

The president’s comments during the debate essentially galvanized white supremacists nationwide, said Joanna Mendelson, a Los Angeles-based senior investigative researcher with the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism. “You could see from memes and social media posts that the Proud Boys were not only galvanized by the president’s rhetoric, but took them as a direct order from the commander in chief.”

The Proud Boys group has been involved in violence over the past year, Mendelson said.

“They’ve essentially carved out this niche as a right-wing fight club and a volunteer security force supporting the GOP,” she said. “They see themselves as vigilante soldiers helping to defend against those who they perceive are destroying America and American values. They glorify violence and use it as a way to lure others into this so-called noble fight. And their recruitment has been strong.”

While they like to create an image of being a harmless social club and a pro-Western fraternity dedicated to male bonding and drinking that celebrates Western culture, their actions have shown that they bear the hallmark of a street gang that engages in brutal violence and intimidation, Mendelson said.

“They represent this unconventional strand of American far-right extremism,” she said. “Although they have members who come from other racial backgrounds, they embrace violent, nationalistic, Islamophobic, transphobic and misogynistic views.”

Fighting violent extremism

Organizations such as Life After Hate could fulfill a critical role in an environment in the United States where these far-right groups have grown and thrived, said Vidhya Ramalingam, co-founder of London-based Moonshot CVE, which fights violent extremism by backing online counter-messaging campaigns.

“These groups tend to thrive in moments of crisis,” she said. “They turn fear and anxiety into an opportunity for them to grow. Since the spring of 2019 there have been a whole range of crisis moments they’ve capitalized. They take inspiration from one another. We’re also seeing spikes in online engagement.”

The grant given to Life After Hate is an acknowledgment that there is work to be done when it comes to pulling people out of these movements, said Ramalingam, who also is on Life After Hate’s board.

“But, it has to be done in collaboration with community-based groups, law enforcement, mental health professionals and many others,” she said. “The ultimate aim is to build nationwide resilience and respond to this serious threat.”




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