(NewsNation) — With hate-motivated shootings dominating headlines from Orange County, California, to Buffalo, New York, this week, many are left wondering how we can dissuade people from embracing violent extremism.
That’s the goal the Chicago-based nonprofit organization Life After Hate has been working on since 2011. It is dedicated to examining the forces that draw people to far-right violent extremism and implementing programs rooted in compassion and nonjudgmental communication to help people escape the allure of extremist and hate-based ideologies.
“It was only when somebody said to me, literally used the words, ‘I can see that you’ve been suffering,’ dude that broke me,” said Sammy Rangel, a former violent gang member who now works to help deradicalize people with extreme views. “That broke through the chain mail. … That man (a psychologist) undid every narrative I had about the world with that one example of what I felt was compassion.”
Founded by former extremists, Life After Hate has worked with hundreds of white supremacists and other adherents of far-right ideology, as well as their social networks. The organization’s marquee initiative, ExitUSA, is run by a clinical psychologist and a team of clinical social workers who work alongside former extremists — called “Formers” within the organization — who serve as mentors.
The group is currently helmed by interim director Peter Simi, a sociologist at Chapman University who has studied far-right extremism for decades and has personally interviewed more than 100 white nationalists as part of his academic work.
“The approach is really to, in part, recognize the person’s humanity in a nonjudgmental, empathetic way,” Simi said, explaining that many of the clients had been isolated from friends or family.
How it works
The ExitUSA process has two stages: disengagement and deradicalization.
“(The) disengagement piece is the first priority … that’s helping people distance themselves from the violent far-right,” Simi said, noting that clients are often enmeshed with far-right communities online, offline, or some combination of the two.
Life After Hate staff members assess each individual client so they can understand their background and interests. After building rapport, they steer clients toward healthier activities that separate them from far-right communities. If they find that a client is interested in sports, for instance, they might suggest they take part in a local recreational league.
“If you can get the disengagement even if a person doesn’t necessarily change their underlying kind of deep-seated feelings and beliefs that may still involve, you know, anti-Semitism, racism, and so forth, other forms of hatred, but if you can get those ties cut, and get them so they don’t identify with a broader movement, either on or offline, the violence is much less likely to occur,” Simi said.
His sentiment was echoed by Rangel, who helped co-found Life After Hate and worked with the group until last year. (He offered his thoughts in a private capacity, as he no longer speaks for the organization since his departure.)
“There was one guy who said, ‘I’m not giving up all my beliefs, I’m giving up some of them, the ones that lead to X, Y, Z, and violence being one of them.’ He says, ‘But I can commit to being nonviolent from now on,'” Rangel said. “That might not be good enough for general society, but when you’re talking to someone who’s saying, ‘I’m going to lay down my guns for this reason,’ it’s probably not a good time to question why he’s laying down his guns. Like, just lay them down then, brother, and walk away. Put ’em down. That’s a harm reduction.”
The range of services offered at Life After Hate includes individualized education, support groups and job training designed to steer people away from extremist groups. People who are open to transitioning away from extremist beliefs, or their concerned friends and families, can email, call or text to start a conversation with the program. All services are available virtually and are anonymous with HIPAA-protected software that enables clients to talk with counselors and mentors through text or video.
The second stage, deradicalization, involves using conversation to change the client’s thinking so they no longer embrace far-right beliefs. Simi emphasized that they only start discussing ideology with clients after a clear relationship has been established and that it can take months or years to fully transition someone out of extreme beliefs.
Because Life After Hate can’t force anyone to participate — its clients are self-referrals or have been encouraged by their social network to participate — it’s up to individuals to be open-minded enough to consider its services. The group currently works with around 55 people, some of whom represent intensive cases that involve daily meetings with peer mentors and social workers. In some cases, clients may be either homicidal or suicidal and may require years of services.
In order to smooth out the process, Life After Hate emphasizes compassion, not condemnation.
“And so trying to open them back up by using this empathetic, nonjudgmental kind of approach and recognition for them as a person is critical to at some point in the process getting to the ideology but first really addressing them as a person and looking at these underlying vulnerabilities that may have been the initial drivers in the first place,” Simi said.
From gang member to advocate for peace
While it may seem unbelievable that treating an extremist with compassion can lead them to change their ways, Life After Hate was founded by people who had themselves gone through that process.
Like the other co-founders of Life After Hate, Rangel is also a Former, but he wasn’t a white nationalist.
He was a member of the Maniac Latin Disciples gang and spent much of his early life in prison. Even before joining the gang and being incarcerated, he was surrounded by violence. At just 3 years old, he was raped by his maternal uncle. He was physically abused over and over again by his mother and stepfather. He came to embrace the brutal violence he was raised with, meting it out on others.
In prison, he experienced a race riot where he saw white guards, who were siding with a white nationalist gang, shoot an African American man. This helped radicalize him toward anti-white and anti-law-enforcement beliefs. When he got out of prison, he committed a series of crimes aimed at both groups and eventually was imprisoned again.
By many prison officials, he was seen as incorrigible because he was so angry and psychologically defensive. But one day, he met a psychologist who changed his life. The psychologist offered words of compassion that motivated Rangel to rethink his mindset.
Over the next few years, Rangel disavowed both violence and his former beliefs. He dedicated his life to helping people overcome similar radicalization, leading him to eventually co-found Life After Hate.
Rangel stressed that his experience proves that people are capable of changing.
“They would tell people like me, you’re beyond help, you’re beyond change. We’re now talking about these domestic terrorists in the same vein, you’re beyond help, you’re beyond change,” he said. “Once a racist, always a racist. Once a drug dealer, once a thief, once a rapist … and that’s a slippery slope because as soon as you write off an entire swath of a community, you have left yourself open and vulnerable to more of the same. If there’s not a safe place for me to land, I’m going back to where I came from and I’m going to level up my hatred and my anger.”