Former right-wing radicals are leading efforts to counter violent extremists. But do they work?
by Sergio Olmos
On the eve of a right-wing extremist rally on Aug. 17, 2019, in downtown Portland, Mayor Ted Wheeler released a video in which he said, “To those people planning to come and inflict violence in our city: We don’t want you here.”
Nevertheless, they came.
And while the protest was comparatively free from physical confrontations, it still came at a cost. Police, who were out in force, arrested 13 people. The Portland Business Alliance, a chamber of commerce for greater Portland, estimated that merchants, restaurants and other venues catering to summer crowds lost $3 million from shoppers avoiding the downtown area that Saturday.
From 2016 to 2018, according to an analysis by Willamette Week, the city of Portland spent more than $3 million to maintain a police presence at rallies by groups like Patriot Prayer, a far-right extremist group led by Joey Gibson, and the Proud Boys, designated as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
City and business leaders aren’t the only ones tracking this outlay of cash.
“We’ve wasted all their f—–ing resources to make this rally,” Proud Boys leader Enrique Tarrio said in a speech captured on video during the Aug 17, 2019, rally. “We want them [The city of Portland] to waste $2 million, and we’ll do it again in two months.”
Confronting hate at home
While local leaders have spent significant time and money reacting to groups like the Proud Boys and Patriot Prayer, less attention has been given to proactive measures to reduce their membership numbers in Oregon and Southwest Washington.
One effort is a grant program by the city of Portland aimed at building resilience against hate within vulnerable communities. Through the nonprofit Portland United Against Hate, the city funded more than $203,000 to nonprofits developing programs aimed at healing or deterring violence from extremist groups, especially from white supremacists.
Thirteen nonprofits received funding between $5,000 and $30,000 for programs to help communities — especially people of color and LGBTQ — respond to incidents of hate. (Details are linked to this story at portlandtribune.com.)
But aside from helping victims respond to violence, the question remains: What can a city do to prevent the violence in the first place.
Tony McAleer has some ideas.
McAleer believes his Chicago-based nonprofit has a way to reduce the number of violent extremists and has convinced a neighboring country to invest heavily in it.
“It’s the only solution that’s scalable,” says McAleer, co-founder of Life After Hate, a nonprofit with a staff spread out across North America and Europe.
He believes the work of “de-radicalizing” white supremacists can and should be done. “No one is irredeemable,” he says.
In the 1980s McAleer was involved with the neo-Nazi group White Aryan Resistance (WAR) that promoted street violence and bigotry in Vancouver, British Columbia.
The group is well-known in the Pacific Northwest. In 2000, a jury held WAR founder Tom Metzger civilly liable for inciting the 1988 murder of a 28-year-old Ethiopian immigrant named Mulugeta Seraw in Portland.
Now McAleer is a “former,” working from the virtual offices of Life After Hate to extricate people from extremist movements like the one he was a part of.
Life After Hate claims to have helped more than 350 people confront and exit violent extremist groups, a path that can be both lonely and dangerous.
“We don’t go in through the head, we go in through the heart,” McAleer says.
Groups adopt addiction recovery methods
Life After Hate uses a controversial method in which someone associated with an extremist is paired with a “former” extremist, akin to a sponsor in addiction recovery, who can relate and guide a person through the stages of recovery.
The program mirrors the work of Exit Sweden, which has been around since 1998. In fact, Life After Hate’s program director, Robert Örell, served as program director for the Swedish group, which is supported primarily by government funding, including grants from the European Commission.
McAleer credits his exit from radicalism not to a former white-power extremist but to a Jewish motivational speaker.
“No one is born a racist,” says Dov Baron, who met McAleer at a leadership training course at a time when the former racist was still hiding his past. The two reconnected after the conference and McAleer came clean about his history in hate groups. He now views Baron, who usually works with high-level corporate executives, as a mentor.
Sitting in his living room in Vancouver, British Columbia, Baron explains why the process of de-radicalization mirrors a kind of drug rehabilitation.
“Hate acts like a drug on the receptors,” Baron says. “You turn to hate, the same as drugs, when you’re trying to avoid something.”
Baron sees his job as working with an individual to uncover what he calls “root cause,” a term that describes an underlying trauma that leads to destructive behavior.
“In many ways, de-radicalization is actually a sobriety,” Baron says. Indeed, much of what McAleer and others talk about sounds similar to Alcoholics Anonymous programs.
“Hate is an addiction. What caused the addiction? All addiction is an avoidance of feeling something else,” Baron says. “We behave in an addictive manner toward something that makes us feel better, but stops us from feeling the thing we don’t want to feel.”
For Baron, the issue of a person turning to an extremist group stems from a lack of meaning in life and a need to belong. “There is a need to belong, and a desire to fit in,” Baron says. “It’s about having a purpose when you get out of bed in the morning.”
Baron thinks that with specialized training, others can help a person find meaning in their life and replace the void that extremism filled.
“I am absolutely confident that if the right training program is in place, and the people are trained well and they stick to that training, that the success rate would be at least in the high 80%,” Baron says. “And once more, the people who leave the program would go on and help de-radicalize others.”
In a 2012 interview with Vice, the head of EXIT Deutschland said that his group had worked with 443 former neo-Nazis in Germany in the previous 12 years and found that just nine of them had re-embraced their right-wing beliefs, a success rate of 98%.
Concerns of pseudo-science
Skeptics of programs like the ones McAleer and Baron propose argue that little science exists to back up those claims.
In fact, the U.S. Institute of Peace, in a 2018 report, warns there is still no way to test whether any of this works.
“There is no defined set of practices, methods or approaches used to evaluate the impact of programs that have the goal of preventing or countering violent extremism, reflecting the nascent and diverse nature of the field,” according to the report.
Michael German, who spent 16 years as an FBI agent infiltrating multiple white supremacist groups, doubts that people can be diagnosed, let alone de-radicalized.
“When a person receives a mental health evaluation, there is a strict and scientifically established diagnostic procedure,” German noted at a 2017 workshop for the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. “However, this is not the case when it comes to determining whether a person has become radicalized in a dangerous way.”
German argues against the notion that people with radical ideas are inherently dangerous and others are not.
“It is very difficult to predict who will engage in violence. And people with bad ideas are not the only ones who commit violence.” German said. “It is a flawed, unscientific premise.”
At the same workshop, Bob Griss the executive director for the Institute of Social Medicine and Community Health cautioned against “using the public health framework to address violence,”
warning that it could shift public funding for health care into law enforcement efforts.
Critics also note that the emerging field of de-radicalization is filled with former extremists who, for a fee (of up to $250 per hour) will help de-radicalize current extremists, even though they are not licensed therapists or social workers.
Focus on professionalism
Baron and McAleer are aware of the criticism, and acknowledge that some of it is valid, particularly when it comes to training.
“There’s a couple cowboys out there who don’t have any form of training,” McAleer says. “The work of Life After Hate is unique in its professionalism.”
He is working to enlist not just “formers” but existing social workers and other professionals.
“We’re not so arrogant as to think we [formers] are the only solution,” he says. “We’re putting the finishing touches on a training for law enforcement, for mental health professionals, for social workers, in different communities.”
He envisions Life After Hate using its staff of formers to train and assist local professionals in identifying and de-radicalizing violent extremists. “You use existing resources, using your social workers, your mental health professionals,” McAleer says. “You empower them.”
It’s part of an overall push to professionalize the work of de-radicalization.
“This isn’t some pie in the sky thing,” McAleer says. “Social workers and mental health professionals are using evidence-based techniques. They have track records. We want to impart our specialized knowledge to them, so they can carry out the work.”
Baron cautions against anyone who claims to offer a quick path to ending violent extremism.
“This is not a short-term program,” he says. “This is not something you’re going to run as a six-week program.”
Sergio Olmos reports for Underscore.news, a nonprofit news organization in Portland that specializes in collaborative in-depth journalism projects. For this series, Underscore.news partnered with the Portland Tribune and The Columbian. This story has been supported by Meyer Memorial Trust and the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to rigorous and compelling reporting about responses to social problems.
Trump administration changes tactics on countering violent extremism
In 2015, Canada made radicalization leading to violence a priority by establishing an office within the Ministry of Public Safety, called Canada Centre for Engagement and Prevention of Violence. The new public agency received a budget of $35 million over five years to research and reduce the number of Canadians attracted to violent extremist groups.
One program funded by the initiative is a polarization clinic in Montreal, Quebec, staffed by social workers, psychologists and psychiatrists, and child psychiatrists. Their stated goal is to “Provide specialized support to individuals and families suffering the consequences of radicalization.” Project ReSet, in Ottawa, works with families “impacted by hate-motivated violence.”
For a time, it looked like the United States was using the same playbook. In 2015 the Obama administration set up a 40-person interagency task force and allocated a budget of $24 million that would mirror the efforts in Canada.
But in May 2017, the Trump administration scaled back the operation, defunding most of the grants that focused on domestic radicalization. Among them was a $400,000 grant to Life After Hate.
What’s more, of the funding that’s left, little has been spent to de-radicalize members of violent far-right groups.
A 2018 analysis by the Brennan Center for Justice found that “at least 85%” of federal de-radicalization funding went to “explicitly target minority groups, including Muslims, LGBTQ Americans, Black Lives Matter activists, immigrants, and refugees.”
At the same time, the threat from domestic, violent, right-wing extremist groups, including white supremacists, has ballooned.
On July 23, 2019, FBI Director Christopher Wray testified before Congress that in the previous nine months his agency had arrested about an equal number of suspects connected to right-wing extremism as al-Qaida/ISIS-inspired terrorism suspects.
Critics of the current administration claim it is using the de-radicalization programs not to reduce violence, but rather to monitor marginalized communities.
Faiza Patel, fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice, writes that many federally funded de-radicalization programs are really “efforts to gather intelligence, identify individuals who are not suspected of wrongdoing for surveillance, recruit informants and co-opt community leaders to promote government messaging.”
Portland Tries to Combat Radical Right
To “protect communities from hate,” the city of Portland has allocated $225,000 in grants for projects up to $30,000. Here is a list of organizations receiving funds and details of their proposals, as reported by the city.
African Youth & Community Organization
$17,500 – Strengthening Communities and Intercultural Relationships: Standing Together Against HateStem the impact of hate and intolerance through workshops with East African community, many of whom are Muslim, about immigrant rights, information exchange between immigrants/refugees and public service providers, community healing workshops, Community Chai and Dialogue groups, and youth leadership development groups.
As the Spirit Moves Us
$9,966 – Interrupting Hate in Public Spaces: Training Active Bystanders: Trainings on Interrupting Hate, promotion of the tool to all who have been through program, faith leader gatherings.
Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon
$19,250 – Asian Pacific American Communities United Against Hate: Report and respond to hate incidents in the Asian Pacific Islander communities; promotion, usage, and evaluation of the hate incident tracking tool in the API community; organize with South Asian communities that have been at targeted by hate crimes to take action.
Coalition of Communities of Color
$19,838 – Data About Us By Us: Communities Track Hate Design and implement a data collection tool to track hate incidents in partnership with other PUAH grantees. Train organizations as points of contact for reporting hate incidents and using the tool.
Fair Housing Council of Oregon
$20,113 – Hate Has No Place in Housing Focus on hate and harassment in housing through education, outreach, and enforcement; conduct direct culturally appropriate outreach to impacted communities about their rights and to housing providers about their responsibilities under fair housing laws and other laws that address hate incidents; expand housing discrimination hotline and advocacy around hate incidents.
Immigrant Refugee Community Organization, Africa House
$10,208 – Portland United Against Hate Partner Will provide the African community consistent bilingual points of contact and community engagement; use PUAH Coalition tools to track and respond to hate incidents in the community; work with youth to understand and address hate; train staff on how to respond to hate incidents.
$17,753 – Portland United Against Hate Conduct culturally specific community outreach to the Latino communities, collect data as a point of contact for hate incidents, and respond to hate incidents as they occur.
Lewis & Clark Graduate School of Education and Counseling
$20,416 – Friend, Neighbor, Ally: Community Response and Supportive Engagement with those Targeted by Hate and Bias Trainings for campus and public audiences on topics of hate and bias to provide appropriate and sensitive services. Act as a point of contact for victims of hate activity, including culturally appropriate support services, referrals, and low/no cost counseling.
Lutheran Community Services Northwest
$20,416 – Culturally and Community Specific Hate Crime Victim Advocacy Services Point of contact to report and offer services to immigrant and refugee victims of hate; offer crisis intervention services and advocacy for those impacted by hateful incidents; do outreach and education to refugee communities about hate incidents and how to report.
OPAL Environmental Justice Oregon
$10,208 – Bus Riders Unite Against Hate: Trained Experts in De-escalation (TEDs) on Portland’s Transit System Build a safety system for targets of white supremacist violence outside of the transit police department by building a cohort of trained transit rider ambassadors (Trained Experts in De-escalation: TEDs).
Portland Opportunities Industrialization Center + Rosemary Anderson High School
$10,208 – Hate Crime Education and Response: Train staff to identify, report, respond to hate incidents, and to serve as first point of contact for those experiencing hate incidents. Conduct outreach to school communities around standards against hate, know your rights, and other tolerance practices.
$10,208 – Hate Crime Response and Supportive Services Training Initiative Point of contact and response coordinator for hate incidents directed at LGBTQ+ communities; expand the information and referral program for those affected by hate. Trainings for community and PUAH Coalition.
$17,500 – Hayaan Project: Hayaan Project embodies a strategy, led by immigrants and refugees, to train the Portland community on rapid response to hate incidents, provide direct legal assistance and community support to victims of hate, collect and report hate incident data, and mobilize impacted communities and allies to push back against policy attacks.