The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

After Capitol riot, desperate families turn to groups that ‘deprogram’ extremists

Chris Buckley, a war veteran and former Ku Klux Klan member, and Myrieme Churchill met in D.C. for the annual conference of Parents for Peace, a nonprofit group that seeks to help others leave extremist ideologies. (Courtesy of Parents for Peace)

Her brother couldn’t make it to the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, but she worried that he would join a new insurrection — that one day “he would be one of the people on TV.”

The woman in her 30s asked her family to make plans, she said, hoping to keep her brother busy. Then she contacted a nonprofit group called Parents for Peace that seeks to pull people back from extremism, hoping to “save” him, after years of dismay at his hatred of Muslims and Mexicans and now alarm at his anger over the presidential election.

Dissecting her brother’s life and their relationship in weekly sessions, she started to wonder whether she was part of the problem.

The woman, who did not want her name or location made public so as not to upset her brother, is part of a surge of desperate families and friends calling organizations that aim to deradicalize and “deprogram” extremists across the ideological spectrum. Such organizations say demand for their free services has never been higher.

Parents for Peace, a 10-person operation of mostly volunteers, says calls to its national helpline have tripled since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, with a growing number of younger people being groomed in white supremacist ideology. After supporters of then-President Donald Trump stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, the intervention groups have experienced a deluge of calls related to the attack as well as to conspiracy theories and QAnon.

The range of extremist ideas they encounter also has widened in the past year, driven by the 2020 election and the pandemic.

With the federal government sounding some of its strongest alarms yet about the threat of domestic extremism, these groups say they offer a way forward. Often staffed in part by the formerly radicalized, they are on the front lines of the fight against right-wing extremism, a growing threat that is in the spotlight but which experts argue has long been neglected.

The Post obtained hours of video footage, some exclusively, and placed it within a digital 3-D model of the building. (Video: The Washington Post)

The deradicalization groups preach guidance and reform, as experts call on the Biden administration to invest more in preventing and reversing the kind of radicalization that was on display in the attack on the Capitol, not just prosecuting individuals when the danger escalates to violence and destruction.

“These are people who have chosen hate and ideology as a drug of choice to numb the pain of underlying issues and grievances, and so we treat this the same way we treat addiction,” said Myrieme Churchill, the executive director of Parents for Peace. A father co-founded the group after his radicalized son fatally shot a U.S. soldier.

Experts say deradicalization can be a long and winding process, full of reversals, and emphasize that formal programs are just one tool in a sprawling fight against an overwhelming problem. Some say that hardened extremists are often beyond reach until a tectonic shift in their own lives forces self-reflection.

Brian Hughes breaks radicalization down into three stages: the people “circling the drain” and just considering extremist ideas; the “hard core” like those who stormed the U.S. Capitol; and the people between.

The best time to step in is the “circling the drain” stage, when there is an opportunity to focus on teaching basic media literacy, said Hughes, who co-founded American University’s Polarization and Extremism Research and Innovation Lab (PERIL). Far harder is breaking through to the “hard core” individual. Change might require a jolt to the extremist’s personal life — a conflict with other members of the person’s group, for instance.

“As a rule of thumb, the hard core don’t leave these movements until they’re ready to,” he said.

Groups that aim to “deprogram” extremists take a “highly personal” approach to deradicalization that seems to be effective, Hughes said, echoing others who study radicalization. But Hughes said it is difficult empirically to measure success in “such a personal and almost idiosyncratic process.”

Parents for Peace says it hopes a partnership with the School of Social Work at Boston College can help the group evaluate its work and eventually take on some of the workload.

We need help ASAP,” said Churchill, the executive director, adding that the small organization has no more capacity to help its many callers.

For now, the group can point only to individual stories.

The sister who reached out to Parents for Peace said she and her brother had always been ideological opposites. With political beliefs rooted in “compassion,” she said, she felt repelled by her sibling’s outlook.

In speaking with Parents for Peace, however, she began to think more about the origins of his views. He is a veteran who has learned to see violence as a solution, she said, a man who grew up feeling like an outsider. During her latest weekly session with Parents for Peace, the sister said, she focused in large part on what she loved about her brother.

She thought about how she could be more compassionate — less “self-righteous” — and stop pushing her brother away. Her goal now: Learn to approach her brother from a “place of love and true desire to connect,” using words he might be more inclined to hear.

Chris Buckley, a war veteran and former Ku Klux Klan member who works at Parents for Peace, rejects arguments that anyone is “too far gone” for help. Drawing on his experience with heavy drug addiction and post-traumatic stress after his service in Afghanistan, Buckley said he is able to connect with those like him “who have come out of the military with hatred in their heart and a lack of understanding for what they experienced.”

He has developed a 12-step program tailored to former military and law enforcement personnel — a group well represented at the Capitol riot, asserting that these communities are particularly vulnerable to radicalization. The program, “TraumAnon,” is being tested in a focus group with the Aurora Police department in Colorado.

Like him, Buckley said, extremists are worthy of redemption and capable of change.

Federal officials acknowledge the urgency of the problem Buckley’s group and others are trying to address. In a statement to The Washingon Post, the Department of Homeland Security called domestic extremism “the most persistent and lethal challenge” it faces in trying to prevent terrorism and “targeted violence.”

But as the private and public sectors search for ways to deal with the rising tide of right-wing extremism, experts and members of deradicalization groups argue that under the Trump administration, the issue either was exacerbated or, at best, disregarded.

“Trump rang the bell of nationalism and spoke to a lot of people who were not living by ideology but were frustrated for economic reasons and [had] other grievances,” said Sammy Rangel, a founder of Life After Hate, a group established in 2011 that helps people leave the violent far right.

In 2016, the federal government launched a $10 million grant program to fight violent extremism around the country, funding groups including county sheriffs’ offices and nonprofit organizations. Though DHS says most of the projects addressed “all forms of violent extremism,” critics argued that the grant program neglected the far right while focusing on Islamist extremism.

And the Trump administration revoked the Obama administration’s initial grant to Life After Hate, a move that for many showed that administration’s blindness to right-wing threats — although Life After Hate last year received funding from DHS in the next round of grants.

Life After Hate also has experienced a recent sharp increase in calls, Rangel said, with the group’s caseload doubling over the past three years. Almost half of its cases now involve family members, a shift from Life After Hate’s previous focus on those who seek help for themselves.

Groups and movements like the Proud Boys, QAnon and the subculture of incels — “involuntary celibates” who preach extreme violence and misogyny are part of the new wave of what Rangel called “pop-up” renditions of white supremacy. Members of all have sought help from Life After Hate, Rangel said, arguing that the growing eruption of far-right violence has made the need for intervention and rehabilitation more pressing than ever.

He pointed to not only the siege of the Capitol but also the 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, where a self-described neo-Nazi drove into a crowd of counterprotesters, killing one woman; and to the 2019 mass shooting in El Paso, where the person arrested in the attack allegedly had railed against a “Hispanic invasion” of the United States and dreamed of segregating Americans into different territories by race.

Rangel said those horrific events have left some people in far-right groups second-guessing their membership.

“They witness the full ugliness and how far people are willing to go,” he said, “and a lot of people want to separate from that.”

But those wake-up calls are often just the beginning of an arduous process that can take months or years. Groups like Life After Hate and Parents for Peace want to be there as a guide.

A high school student from New Hampshire said he was 11 when he first stumbled upon the concept of white nationalism through an online anime imageboard. Now 17, he says he found a haven and sense of community in online platforms and social media forums where people would trumpet their far-right views. He was hooked.

Last year, he said, he grew more outspoken about his adherence to far-right nationalist theories such as “the Great Replacement,” which warns that the White population of Europe is being replaced by non-White immigrants.

Shocked and concerned, his parents turned to Parents for Peace. Weekly meetings with coaches — sometimes by himself, sometimes with his parents — dug into the family’s history and analyzed his ideology.

“My goal was not to challenge his thought process or ideology but to get to a point where he could do it on his own,” said Buckley, who worked with the teenager. The process was an “emotional roller coaster with peaks and valleys, built on trust and compassion,” he said.

It took almost six months, but eventually, the teenager came to recognize the irrationality of his beliefs — as well as the psychological toll they took on him. “It’s the most exhausting and draining place you can imagine,” he said. “It is filled with frothing vitriol, sheer unadulterated anger.”

Away from the Internet now, the teen says he has more time to play the banjo and listen to folk music.

“When I took a break from it, it felt like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders,” he said. “I was free.”