Encore: How One Group Sees Extremism As A Public Health Emergency

Dec 15, 2019
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LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

The nonprofit Parents For Peace wants Americans to see extremism as a public health emergency that cuts across race, religion and politics. Members of the group include former extremists and their families. NPR's Hannah Allam was granted rare access to their annual gathering and has this report.

HANNAH ALLAM, BYLINE: It's a recent fall afternoon, day one of a conference at a hotel in Washington. There are name tags, a coffee station. But this isn't your usual D.C. meeting.

TANIA JOYA: Hi, everyone. You all know me by now. I'm Tania. I'm a former Islamic fundamentalist.

MELISSA BUCKLEY: OK, I am Melissa. I'm a wife of a former Klansman.

ALLAM: And then there's this guy.

MUBIN SHAIKH: I'm Mubin Shaikh. I'm a former neo-Nazi.

(LAUGHTER)

ALLAM: They're laughing because he isn't a former neo-Nazi. He's actually a former Islamist extremist. It might be the ultimate you-had-to-be-there joke. But that space to laugh, to heal, to find solidarity, that's what draws this group together. Tania Joya, Melissa Buckley, Mubin Shaikh - they're all members of a nonprofit, Parents For Peace. Almost everyone in the room is a former extremist or has a loved one who got involved with extremism.

MELVIN BLEDSOE: I'm on a mission. I want to help others. No one should have to go through the pain. No one.

ALLAM: Melvin Bledsoe and his daughter Monica Holley founded Parents For Peace in 2015. It emerged from their family's personal heartache. Melvin's son Carlos was radicalized soon after converting to Islam in college. Carlos traveled to Yemen, ostensibly to teach English. But the man who returned, Melvin says, wasn't the same.

BLEDSOE: When he came back to America, we had no idea that he had been fully loaded like a bomb.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: You are looking at the man police say opened fire on two soldiers at a military recruiting office in Little Rock this morning.

ALLAM: In 2009, Carlos Bledsoe, by then known as Abdulhakim Muhammad, killed one soldier and wounded another. Today, he's serving a life sentence. His sister Monica says Parents For Peace offers the help her family had wished for.

MONICA HOLLEY: This a no-judgment zone.

ALLAM: On the outside, the families are marked by the stigma of extremism. Here, there's an outlet for all the built-up grief and shame.

HOLLEY: And I think that's the most comforting thing - is to know that you can talk to someone and not be judged by what your loved one did. But to say, you know what? We hear you, and we're here for a listening ear. If you need a hug - you know? And that's what we're about. Like I said, we are a big family.

ALLAM: For years, they've worked behind the scenes with tech companies, academics, anybody trying to understand extremism. This year, though, they're getting louder, more visible. They're in Washington, pushing for bipartisan support to reframe extremism. It's more than a national security issue, they say. It's a public health crisis, one that affects ordinary families.

CHRIS BUCKLEY: We've all been neglected. We've all been hurt. We've all been manipulated.

ALLAM: That's Chris Buckley, a former Klansman. He's one of the newest members.

C BUCKLEY: Some of us went one way. Some of us lost. Some of us ended up a different direction. But we all ended up here for a reason.

ALLAM: Chris is here because his wife, Melissa, decided she wouldn't let hate swallow up her family. She could no longer watch her 4-year-old do the white power salute, trying to be like his dad. She'd had enough.

M BUCKLEY: It was actually, you know, just a spur-of-the-moment thing. I went into Google, and I typed in, how do you get your spouse or loved ones out of a hate group?

ALLAM: Melissa found an email address for an ex-skinhead named Arno Michaelis. He's well-known in the world of former extremists, and he works closely with Parents For Peace.

M BUCKLEY: Just a shot in the dark, you know? I can email him, tell him my story, see what he says. And next thing I know, he responded. And I was like, OK, I just opened a can of worms for myself.

ALLAM: Arno flew to the family's home in Georgia for an intervention. Chris was not happy. In fact, he was furious. But Melissa stood her ground. She gave her husband, the love of her life, an ultimatum.

M BUCKLEY: I looked at him while Arno was there. And I told him - I said, this is your choice. You stay in - me and the kids are gone.

ALLAM: It took about seven months, but Chris got out of the Klan. He doesn't want to gloss over how hard it was. Leaving was like kicking an addiction.

C BUCKLEY: When you're coming off of hate and extremism, it's the same process. Like, you've got to have a support group. You've got to have a network.

ALLAM: Through Parents For Peace, he's already doing intervention work of his own. He says it's small atonement for all the hate he's put into the world, the kind of hate that was on display in Charlottesville, Va., in 2017 - a white supremacist rammed his car into a crowd and killed 32-year-old Heather Heyer. Chris wasn't there for the rally, but he still takes personal responsibility for the death.

C BUCKLEY: I carry that burden every day. Whether I was in Charlottesville on that corner or not, that's my life that I carry because I might not have been driving the car, but I pushed the narrative. So I carry that, OK? So if I'm willing to sit here at this table, then I'm going to sit here in front of Congress tomorrow. And I'm going to tell them that. I ask them, what are they doing that's responsible?

ALLAM: The next morning, Parents For Peace members filed through security at the Capitol. They're all dressed up, gazing at the cavernous halls. They meet a Congress member, pose for group pictures.

ARNO MICHAELIS: We got everybody?

ALLAM: When they visit, it's in the early days of the impeachment inquiry. The Capitol is in a frenzy. But this little group still manages to pack a room for a talk about extremism. Even congressional staffers who come for the free food end up staying. In buttoned-up Washington, these stories are rare and riveting.

MICHAELIS: I've spent seven years involved in hate groups from 1987 to 1994. I was a leader of these groups. I was an organizer.

ALLAM: That's Arno, the guy who helped Chris leave the KKK. Arno is imposing, tall, blond, tattooed. But he's got an easygoing, surfer dude vibe. It's hard to imagine him in his racist days screaming into a mic as the lead singer in a white power metal band. He was all in. But then he got hooked on a popular TV show.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SEINFELD")

JERRY SEINFELD: (As himself) Hello, Newman.

WAYNE KNIGHT: (As Newman) Hello, Jerry.

MICHAELIS: The sitcom "Seinfeld" was instrumental in my turnaround.

ALLAM: It was the early '90s. Like much of America, Arno loved the show. But there's a problem. Jerry Seinfeld's Jewish, and Arno Michaelis was an anti-Semitic white nationalist.

MICHAELIS: In fact, my girlfriend worked on Thursday nights, so I had to tape it for her. And rather than write "Seinfeld" on the spine of the tape - because if I did and that was on the bookshelf and white power buddies came over, that would make me a race traitor. We put it on a tape that said Amber's second birthday party because we knew no one would ask to watch that.

ALLAM: Arno's on the other side of his battle with hate. He's relaxed, at ease talking about it now. For others, the pain is fresher. They look uncomfortable being gawked at by Hill staffers. The only time the Parents For Peace members seemed truly relaxed is back at the hotel when they're altogether - veterans of an invisible war.

SHAIKH: You know, I'm like normal, you know? I'm normal because everybody else has their own - there's something - right? - that's happening and now we just - we join each other now.

ALLAM: Again, Mubin Shaikh, the former Islamist extremist. It happens to be his birthday.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing) Happy birthday to you.

ALLAM: His face lights up when the others surprise him with a cake.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing) Happy birthday...

ALLAM: The former Klansman and his wife, the mothers whose sons were recruited by ISIS, the father whose son is in prison for life. They're all singing.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing) Happy birthday to you.

ALLAM: Hannah Allam, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.