Sometimes miracles happen. There are people who, for whatever reason, join groups that promote racism, antisemitism, white supremacy, violence against our government, homophobia and other belief systems that most of us would condemn and disavow. Then, for whatever reason, some of those same people have an “aha moment” and realize that the group to which they were pledging allegiance was not for them after all.
A look at a few examples of converts is both instructive and inspirational. When the Department of Homeland Security warns Americans that domestic violent extremism is a top threat to national security, and when organizations like the Southern Poverty Law Center has been saying the same for decades, it is vital that the average American understands what makes such radicals join hate groups in the first place and how we all can help prevent the conditions that lead to radicalization.
Former members of white supremacist and other radical groups
Christian Picciolini. Christian Picciolini was, according to his own account, “an angry, rootless, fourteen-year-old boy who felt neglected by his hard-working immigrant parents.” By age 16, he had become the leader of the Chicago Area Skinheads. Picciolini lived the life of a neo-Nazi until he was 22, when he renounced his ties to that movement.
Now Picciolini “travels around the world, using intervention strategies and outreach work to help young, predominantly white men leave racist and violence-based groups — both in real life and on online chat boards.” As a “bridge builder” between these men and the resources they may need to deradicalize, Picciolini says he has “never met a happy white supremacist, … one with positive self-esteem.” He founded the Free Radicals Project in 2018, a nonprofit global extremism prevention and education network.
Christopher Buckley. Chris Buckley is an example of someone who had served in the US military then became radicalized. In 2014, after a stint in Afghanistan, Buckley joined the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. He explains that he had skills, such as a heightened level of mental and tactical awareness, that were very attractive to white supremacist and similar groups. He also links his attraction to the White Knights to his childhood history of molestation, which was in turn linked to homophobia. Then, he became a racist when he rode the school bus with students of other races and was subsequently bullied because he was one of the few white kids at his school.
What made things even worse was when his best friend died in his arms in Afghanistan following an attack by Muslims. Muslims and the religion of Islam then became, in his mind, the enemy. His situation was further exacerbated by drug addiction.
Through his wife, Buckley was helped tremendously by former neo-Nazi Arno Michaelis (see below) and others, and his life turned around. Now Buckley is involved with Parents for Peace, which “focuses on prevention and intervention to keep people from becoming extremists or committing extremist acts,” and he is developing two programs, Hate Anonymous and Trauma Anonymous (TraumAnon). Buckley’s mission is to “help people disengage from hate groups, return to their families, and live healthy and happy lives.”
Angela King. Angela King is a relatively rare example of a woman who became radicalized then left the movement. In her childhood home in a rural town in South Florida, “racism and homophobia were the norm” – in the context of her private Baptist elementary school and her Roman Catholic faith. She had a stay-at-home mother and a working father, but at the same time she had weight issues and felt insecure and lonely.
Her family moved several times, and she eventually ended up in a public school where she began to be bullied. King’s intense rage led to her becoming the bully. She became violent, experimented with drugs, sex and drinking, and she was arrested several times. She was ripe for radicalization when she met skinheads in high school and ended up spending eight years involved with the World Church of the Creator, a violent neo-Nazi hate group, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.
After the 1995 bombing in Oklahoma City by Timothy McVeigh, King started to have second thoughts about her life trajectory. After four years of self-examination, “a prison sentence, some unexpected kindness from a Jamaican inmate, and nearly two decades of sharing her story,” she finally began to replace hatred with forgiveness. She is now programs director for Life After Hate, which she co-founded; Life After Hate is a nonprofit that helps people leave extremist groups and whose vision “is a world that allows people to change and contribute to a society without violence.”
Arno Michaelis. Despite growing up in a well-to-do suburb of Milwaukee with two parents who doted on him, Arno Michaelis spent the years 1987 to 1994 in hate groups as an active organizer, leader, recruiter and street fighter. Alcoholism – his own and in his family – led to violence and “ever-escalating, anti-social behavior,” and he helped found the Hammerskin Nation movement, “one of the world’s largest neo-Nazi skinhead organisations.” Michaelis’ violent inclinations were enhanced by white power skinhead music.
His turnaround started at age 24 when he suddenly became a single parent raising a daughter. Following the murders of six people on August 5, 2012, at the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin, the survivors formed Serve 2 Unite, an organization with which Michaelis is now associated. Serve 2 Unite is a program that “makes the practice of peace an attractive and valuable way of life, transforming schools and communities via fearless creativity and compassion, in interdependent partnership with local & global peace efforts.” Michaelis has also written My Life After Hate, an examination of where his hate came from and how he emerged from his former life.
Advice to Average Americans to Combat the Problem
We in the US have only just recently been waking up to the threat to our society that is violent domestic extremism. While our First Amendment to the Constitution protects our right to free speech, when that speech veers into violence and threats of violence, we are no longer looking at rights but rather at criminal behavior that impacts everyone. Law enforcement agencies are somewhat hampered in combating violent domestic extremism – the laws against it are fewer than those against foreign terrorism and extremism – but the former members of extremist groups and those across the nation (and around the world) who study this threat have suggestions that we all can ponder and put into effect.
Educate ourselves and each other. The first step is to know the basics of the situation. We must admit that there is a problem – and that problem is us in many respects. We can no longer deny that there are people in our midst – most often espousing ultra-conservative beliefs and falling for debunked right-wing conspiracy theories – whose beliefs do not eschew violence. We Americans can no longer bury our heads in the sand thinking that the relatively small numbers of members of domestic terrorist groups do not constitute a threat to us all. Hate groups, as defined by the Southern Poverty Law Center and other legitimate organizations, are found in almost all 50 states; some of their members are our neighbors or people we see in the grocery store.
Fight racism at every turn. As long as racism exists in our society – as long as some people feel that they are superior to others based on skin color and racial background – there will be openings for white supremacy and other manifestations of violent domestic extremism. In the words of Arno Michaelis, “humankind must reconcile the ongoing fallout from five centuries of white supremacy.” While it is usually white men who are active members of the most violent groups and who espouse white supremacist ideologies, white women – generally those men’s girlfriends, partners and wives – are not immune from hateful philosophies. (Nor are other groups, but statistics show that the vast majority of domestic terrorist incidents are perpetrated by whites, not by people of color.) We citizens must do everything in our power – in our organizations, our churches, our neighborhoods, our companies, our communities – to stamp out all forms of racism. It is only when people who are inclined to feel superior realize that their neighbors of color are our true equals that we can make any progress against the seeds of violent domestic extremism.
View and confront violent domestic extremism from a public health perspective. According to former white supremacist Christopher Buckley, who is involved with Parents for Peace, “Treating the causes of hate requires youth resilience, community-based counternarratives and education and deradicalization programs. To be effective, the programs should be available to schools, first responders and community leaders.” In addition, former neo-Nazi Christian Picciolini advises, “There needs to be an infrastructure of psychologists, of job trainers, of life coaches, mental health professionals and mentors who can take over the aftercare with these people [after they leave radical groups].” While crimes committed by domestic extremists must be treated by the criminal justice system, it would be even better if crimes were prevented in the first place. Therefore, ensuring that all young people in our society are given firm foundations for success and that challenges are minimized is essential.
Rely on trusted news sources rather than outlandish conspiracy theories. In this age of constant and relatively unfettered social media influences, the proliferation of downright absurd pronouncements by people as influential and powerful as the (former) President of the United States absolutely must be challenged and defeated. Such false pronouncements are dangerous because they often put gasoline on simmering sparks; that is, they rile up people who may be vulnerable to violently acting out their negative thoughts and beliefs. Americans should always obtain their news from sources that are staffed by journalists and others that seek the truth and rely on facts and evidence; this does not usually include reposts of Facebook and Twitter by one’s friends! Some reliable sources, proven over decades of proven service, include National Public Radio, established news companies such as NBC, CBS and ABC and their affiliates, the Washington Post, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Reuters, the Associated Press, etc. While many of these outlets may appear to be “left-leaning,” they are required by law to be truthful and fact-based in their reporting.
Support efforts to regulate social media platforms. The corollary to the above point is this one. As we noted earlier, platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, Google, Instagram, Snapchat, Pinterest and Reddit are not regulated in the way that mainstream news sources are. This means that, unless they police themselves, misinformation, disinformation, conspiracy theories and outright lies are transmitted unhindered to millions of people around the world. When some of the posts incite violence, we are all potential victims. It has become clear, for instance, that the January 6, 2021, insurrection at the US Capitol was incited via social media – and five people died during or shortly after the riot.
Pay attention to local elections – and vote. White supremacists and other right-wing radicals have been finding their way onto school boards and into other “down ballot” elected positions lately and are thus able to influence people in their communities and wield a certain amount of power. Candidates holding to the QAnon cult (which has gone quiet in recent months) have been especially prominent. While holding a position at the local or state level may not seem very dangerous, such officials espouse unfounded theories like Trump’s Big Lie, the idea that the Covid-19 pandemic was somehow planned for nefarious purposes, and that there is a powerful pedophile network associated with Democratic leaders. In addition, since the 1980s, many candidates and officials who hold these radical, especially far-right opinions have strategically become more mainstream, therefore seeming legitimate to unwary voters. Obviously people have the right to run for office, but when they spread ideologies that undermine basic democratic ideals, they should not hold office – ours is a democratic republic that absolutely depends upon citizens and officials that believe in and enforce its laws and practices.
We can be grateful to the courageous people who have left groups that espouse violent domestic extremism. It is of course much better to find every way possible to make those groups unattractive to potential recruits in the first place. We can all, in our own ways, help to make that happen.