Trauma, abuse, and mental health problems can make people more vulnerable to violent extremism. Here’s how a movement founded in part by former white supremacists is helping extricate Americans from violent hate groups.
Update: Added the news about the May 4th conviction of members of the Proud Boys for seditious conspiracy.
On August 5, 2012, Pardeep Kaleka was just down the street from the Sikh Temple his family belonged to in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, when he heard sirens and rushed to find a police barricade around the building. Inside was a scene of horror: A member of a violent white power group known as the Hammerskins had gunned down seven members of the temple before turning the gun on himself. Among those killed was Satwant Singh Kaleka, the president of the temple and Kaleka’s father.
In the following weeks, support poured in from interfaith communities and television cameras flooded Oak Creek. Kaleka struggled with his grief and fury over the attack, but as the son of the temple’s leader, he felt responsible for representing the community – while also taking care of his widowed mother.
“I had to put on a brave face to the world and face cameras and the media,” he remembers. But as the media attention receded, his sense of loss deepened. “I was trying to be there for my mother, who was grieving her husband and crying herself to sleep every night; there was an entire community to take care of.”
Three months later, Kaleka set out to meet Arno Michaelis, who had co-founded the white power group chapter whose member carried out the massacre. Michaelis had left the group years earlier, renouncing white supremacist extremism, and Kaleka was desperate for answers. Maybe the former extremist would help him understand why his father and the others were targeted. Why the Sikh temple? Why now?
Kaleka arrived early at the Thai restaurant where the two had agreed to meet and waited in his car. Seeing Michaelis walking toward the entrance Kaleka – already in turmoil – was suddenly struck with apprehension: “He is this big guy, kind of walking a big-guy walk from side to side, wearing a hoodie,” he recalled. “I thought, ‘Maybe I’ll call him up and cancel, tell him my kids are sick.” But Kaleka pushed himself to enter the restaurant, forgetting that he had taped up his eyelid after a freak injury – a sight that led Michaelis to exclaim in sympathy when he spotted him. “All of a sudden, I see this big, intimidating, tattooed former racist feel empathy for me,” Kaleka recalls.
They spent the next three hours talking nonstop. They found they had several strange similarities – from their daughters’ quirky habits to how both their fathers had a penchant for taking lawn mowers apart, leaving the parts strewn across their respective living rooms for months.
But lurking in the back of Michaelis’ mind was the thought: “I had helped found the organization that produced the man who murdered his father.”
Helping extremists break away – and address their own trauma
At the time of his meeting with Kaleka, Michaelis had been out of the white power movement for 18 years. Today he, Kaleka and a handful of organizations are working together to help former extremists leave that life. Many suffer from depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, so the anti-hate groups provide referrals for mental health care as well as other support.
One such group is Parents for Peace, based in Tennessee. It was founded in 2015 by a father and sister of a Memphis man who had converted to Islamic extremism. He opened fire at a military recruitment center in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 2009, killing one person and injuring another. Parents for Peace, which both Kaleka and Michaelis work with, runs a helpline that links callers to clinicians and former extremists who educate families about extremism and “deradicalization,” and help them identify support in their communities.
Staffers also talk directly with those in extremist groups and those who are grappling with the idea of leaving them. “When someone calls, usually it’s because they feel like ‘if I don’t call, I’m afraid that the whole family is going to be on the front page of the newspaper,’” says Parents for Peace Executive Director Myrieme Churchill. The group also helps callers assess potential threats and is developing curriculum to train peers in how to work with violent extremists seeking to leave.
Life After Hate
Another group, the Chicago-based Life After Hate, which Michaelis helped found in 2009, works with families and violent extremists seeking to exit the movement. It helps guide them through the rough terrain of getting back to a stable life, in part by sponsoring family support groups.
Life After Hate’s social workers assess the extremists who reach out to the organization to determine their needs and challenges – and whether they need mental health support, or food or shelter. Those seeking to get out of extremism are paired with former extremists who serve as mentors.
“Some of our ‘formers’ have been out for more than a decade, and they will tell you that each and every day they have to take accountability,” says Life After Hate CEO Patrick Riccards. “They realize they’re constantly being judged, and they have to put in the work each day to demonstrate that they’ve earned redemption.”
This work is needed more than ever. In the isolation of the COVID-19 pandemic, teenagers and youth spent more time online, and many fell under the spell of extremist recruiters. Hate groups in the US numbered 733 in 2021, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, an Alabama-based racial justice organization. These include neo-Nazi, pro-Confederacy, racist skinhead organizations, and white nationalist organizations, including the Ku Klux Klan, the Patriot Front, Proud Boys, Stormfront and the National Justice Party. Many use flyers, banners and stickers to recruit members, as well as YouTube videos, Twitch, and video game-related activities.
The Anti-Defamation League documented 3,697 antisemitic incidents in the United States in 2022, a 36% jump from 2021 and the highest number on record since the organization began tracking such incidents in 1979. An analysis of FBI statistics by The Marshall Project, a nonprofit news service, found hate crimes increased 167% against Asians, 70% against LGBTQ people, 35% against Latinos, and 14% against Black people from 2020 to 2021.
Meanwhile, the FBI reported that white supremacists posed a “persistent threat of lethal violence” and produced more fatalities than any other kind of domestic terrorist since 2000, according to a new report from the National Urban League.
On May 4, four members of the extremist street gang Proud Boys, including leader Henry “Enrique” Tarrio, were convicted of seditious conspiracy for their involvement in the violent scheme to stop the peaceful transfer of power that culminated in the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol after the 2020 presidential election.
Extremist groups operate online in both open and encrypted sites. “Direct conversations with extremists on social media, online games, and in other online spaces can be a gateway to online radicalization,” warned researchers in a parents’ guide developed by the Southern Poverty Law Center and American University to help families recognize and counter radicalization in their kids.
Is there a common denominator that draws people to hate groups? While it’s not possible to predict who will be drawn into the vortex of violent extremism, unhealed past trauma and family problems, compounded by teenage identity crises and a search for belonging can set the stage, says Diana Hughes, the senior director of strategy and operations at Parents for Peace.
“Extremism provides a quick fix to their sense of pain,” she says.
A Rand Corporation research brief notes that people who feel marginalized, have financial problems, have been abused or bullied or are struggling with mental health challenges may be especially vulnerable to extremist propaganda; a search for love and acceptance and social connections to people involved in such groups can also be a draw. Still, says Sara Winegar Budge, PhD, a psychologist who serves as vice president and director of client services at Life After Hate, “There is no profile or single pathway into violent extremism.”
Consider Michaelis, who describes his own childhood as idyllic in many ways. He had loving parents, but his father’s descent into alcoholism and the suffering it caused his mother upended his world and led him to search for an outlet. “I responded by lashing out at other kids,” he recalled. That behavior escalated when he was exposed to white nationalism through white power music and started his own white nationalist band.
“I was a drunk thug and using the ideology to justify that,” he said. The draw for him of white nationalism, he said, was to “piss people off, and nothing does that better than a swastika.”
Then a brawl between white supremacists and anti-fascist (antifa) demonstrators in Detroit ratcheted things up. “There was like 50 white nationalists brawling about 500 antifa, and that was a huge turning point for the worse,” he said. “The violent opposition we got drove home how right we were and how noble we were and that’s really what made me go from just a drunken hooligan to a militant white nationalist.”
Michaelis threw himself into the white nationalist movement from 1987 to 1994, proudly sporting his shaved skinhead, black flight jacket decked out with swastikas, red-laced “shit-kicker” boots, and a landscape of bruises and cuts from street battles. When not fighting, he sang lyrics peppered with antisemitic and racist slurs in raucous concerts.
In many ways, Michaelis says, he was living a double life. “I was a big deal, and I was a rock star,” he says. “I was a reverend in a racial holy war and a founding member of the Northern Hammerskins. People told stories about fights I got into. In real life, I was an alcoholic high school dropout who had a tendency to drink until he passed out and piss all over himself.”
After seven years in the Hammerskins, exhaustion and entropy were setting in. Looking for an excuse to get out, Michaelis had several wake-up calls. In 1994, his girlfriend broke up with him, leaving him to parent his 18-month daughter by himself. A couple of months later, a second friend was murdered in a street fight after one of his concerts.
“By that time, I lost count of how many people had been incarcerated,” he says. “It finally hit me that if I didn’t change my ways, death or prison was gonna take me from my daughter.”
‘I didn’t want to lose my family’
The turning point – when an extremist realizes their life is hanging in the balance – is different for everyone. But loved ones do appear to play a significant role. One study of 50 people involved in hate groups found that for those who disengaged, pressure from a partner was a significant factor in 70% of cases.
Chris Buckley, an Army veteran who became a high-ranking member of the Ku Klux Klan in Georgia, now works for Parents for Peace – a change that began with an ultimatum from his wife. “I was really out there on the drugs. And I remember my wife told me that I had to choose between the drugs and the Klan – or her and the kids. I didn’t want to lose my family. So I started to do the work to get sober; I ended up going into treatment.” And because of his wife, he would soon receive a visit from Arno Michaelis.
For Lauren Manning, a former Canadian skinhead, the murder of a friend named Jan and the suicide of another friend, Tim, underscored her growing dissatisfaction with misogyny in the movement. “Between losing Tim and Jan, the false narratives of the subculture, and the hypocrisy of being a female submerged in hate, I felt I had no choice but to leave white power behind,” she wrote in Walking Away from Hate, a memoir she co-authored with her mother, Jeanette Manning. She now works as an exit specialist with Life After Hate.
Stepping away from hate is a messy journey and doesn’t happen overnight. The field of “deradicalizing” violent extremists is in its infancy, with “no standard model of how people turn away from or reject previously held extremist views,” according to a report by the Rand Corporation.
Threat assessment tools
One question anti-hate groups are investigating is how to measure a former extremist’s level of disengagement. Life After Hate is piloting a threat assessment and intervention tool known as T-SAM in collaboration with Children’s Hospital of Boston and the Harvard School of Medicine. Parents for Peace is piloting an assessment tool it developed based on an analysis of more than 1,000 interventions the group has conducted. Hughes says the group is gathering feedback from outside reviewers and will likely seek an evaluation from academic partners in the next year.
Jeanette Manning volunteers for Life After Hate, providing support to family members of people who are trying to step away or are still involved. One piece of advice she received from a friend proved crucial in retrospect: to “keep the door open” for her daughter, Lauren, and not cut off communication.
A parent’s love also helped Michaelis when he began to move away from extremism. Although his mother was disgusted by his beliefs, he said, she was always there for him. When his girlfriend left, he and his baby daughter moved back into his parents’ house with their support.
Michaelis himself took an unconventional route to freeing himself from hate. He spent years attending rave parties on Chicago’s South Side organized and attended by the very people he once vilified – members of the LGBTQ community and Black and brown people. Indeed, interviews conducted by Rand Corporation researchers with former extremists identified a striking theme: More than half said an encounter with someone they’d been taught to hate – someone who showed them kindness they did not deserve – inspired them to abandon hate.
During those Saturday night gatherings, Michaelis joined people of color and others in taking the “love drug” Ecstasy, which has been shown to have beneficial effects on people suffering from trauma and PTSD when used in a structured therapeutic environment.
Atonement and forgiveness
For him, the lesson was clear: “It’s natural to have a deep spiritual love for all your fellow human beings and for all of life.” After four years of raves, he began opening up about his past. He remembers one conversation he had with another participant:
“She had my forearm in her lap and was stroking my swastika and asked, ‘What’s this?’ I told her how I used to be a neo-Nazi skinhead and how horrible I felt. And she said, ‘Well you’re not that now, are you’? And I said, no, and she said, ‘OK.’”
He also apologized to the many African Americans who attended the raves. “Everyone there was super forgiving,” he marvels.
Still, Michaelis’s feeling of guilt and self-loathing persisted. To deal with it, he turned to meditation and writing, joining with others to create Life After Hate as an online magazine where former extremists and survivors could write their stories. The mission of the magazine – and the organization that grew out it – was to lead with compassion.
His stories morphed into a book entitled My Life After Hate, and he began fielding calls from people trying to get out of extremism – and from family members desperately seeking help for their loved ones in hate groups.
One such call came in 2016 from Chris Buckley’s wife. When Michaelis met up with Buckley, he was still under the spell of the Klan. “He was super hostile and I believe he was really trying to provoke violence from me. And he was pretty close to being successful,” Michaelis recalled.
He reminded himself to listen for the suffering underneath the hate, which, he says, allowed him to keep his temper. He told Buckley he was there because his wife was worried about him, and that he could show him how to appreciate life rather than be terrified by it.
Other than the caring from his wife, “it was the first time I experienced compassion from someone who wasn’t obligated to give it to me,” Buckley says in a documentary entitled Refuge, which recounts that meeting, their growing friendship, and Buckley’s transformation through a friendship with a Muslim refugee and physician.
Addicted to hate
Buckley told his fellow Klan members that he had decided to leave, which resulted in them beating him so badly that he landed in the hospital. However, he says, he still felt “addicted to hate.” Breaking away from his old way of thinking was challenging. He asked for guidance from Myrieme Churchill of Parents for Peace, whom he first met in 2017.
Buckley’s request was a familiar one, Churchill said. Extremism was “the drug of choice for numbing pain,” and, like drug addiction, there wasn’t a linear path out of it. But just as drug addiction is now tackled with a public health approach, she feels that addiction to hate and extremism should be as well.
In their team-managed interventions, Churchill explains that they ask family members for any support that can help provide solace and a way back to a stable life. “Coaches, clergy, favorite teachers, social workers – it takes a village,” she says.
Budge of Life After Hate says that while mental illness is not the cause of violent extremism, about half of violent extremists will eventually need mental health support. “Mental health issues may be the vulnerability that led a particular individual with other risk factors…toward violent extremism,” she says, and they can also be a barrier to getting out of violent extremism.
Buckley is a case in point. “As a kid, I was molested by a family member from the ages of 5 to 11 and had a home life filled with abuse from a racist, alcoholic father,” he says. Years later, when he served in Afghanistan, he saw a close friend killed in front of him. His addiction to opioids stemmed from a severe back injury he sustained while working with National Guard. All these experiences led to PTSD, anxiety, depression and a belly full of hate.
He eventually found help through talk therapy, which is ongoing. “Just to have somebody to listen while you kind of work some shit out, right?” he says.
Buckley also took a trauma studies course taught by the psychiatrist Bessel Van der Kolk, author of The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind and Body in the Healing of Trauma. It explained how the brain of someone who has previously experienced trauma can easily be triggered into acting out a full-blown threat response. “It was the most informative thing that I’ve ever experienced,” he says.
After the course, he says, “I would notice that my heart rate was elevated. And I would have to purposely tell myself, ‘Hey, listen to your eyes and ears. There’s no threat, you’re safe. Everything’s okay.’”
The course led him to yoga and mixed martial arts to “connect the body and mind.” Recognizing the vulnerabilities that can pull servicemen and women into extremist groups, Buckley developed a Trauma and Recovery Program for members of the military and police to help them develop positive coping skills. He is also building a global blueprint for deradicalization with John Horgan, PhD, an expert on terrorist behavior and a distinguished professor of psychology at Georgia State University.
A path of healing and forgiveness
Reflecting on his past life, Buckley says, “My wife has told me many times, ‘I always knew that you were in there, and I’m really glad to have you home.”
Eleven years after their first meeting, Kaleka and Michaelis have a very close friendship, even beyond the anti-hate work they’ve done together over the last decade. “We’re more like brothers,” Kaleka says. “We both just walk into each other’s houses. We don’t knock. My daughters call him Uncle Arno.”
“Pardeep has helped me find peace with myself,” Michealis says. “He’s helped me come to believe that I’m a good person and that I do good work and that I deserve to be happy and to be successful and to be loved.”
Even so, Michaelis still struggles to forgive himself. “It’s a process I’ll be going through my entire life. And I’m super grateful for that process, because it puts me in a better position to help other people who need to walk that same path,” he says. “I’m walking that path with them. And I’m farther along in self-forgiveness than I ever have been before.”
Sourcing & Methodology Statement:
The reporter, Laurie Udesky, got the idea for the story as she worked on an article for another outlet that examined philanthropic funding for organizations working to stop hate: She came across Life After Hate, one of the groups that was ultimately featured in her MindSite News story, "Breaking Away from Hate." That was the launch point for further inquiry and reaching out to dozens of people, doing hours of interviews with former white supremacists and others working inside anti-hate groups, uncovering pertinent research and reports, and interviewing experts in the field and other sources who were comfortable talking with her.
Citations & References:
WEIHUA LI and JAMILES LARTEY, New FBI Data Shows More Hate Crimes. These Groups Saw The Sharpest Rise, The Marshall Project's Closing Arguments Newsletter, March 25, 2023: https://www.themarshallproject.org/2023/03/25/asian-hate-crime-fbi-black-lgbtq
Type of work: