By Matthew Kredell
Homegrown Violent Extremism is on the rise in the United States, posing a real and immediate threat.
The USC Safe Communities Institute, housed within the USC Price School of Public Policy, convened an interdisciplinary collection of counter-terrorism experts, academics, former extremists, public health practitioners, researchers and victims on Nov. 8 to discuss preventing attacks and enhancing public safety at the USC Homegrown Violent Extremism (HVE) Digital Summit.
Since HVE concerns every American, the Safe Communities Institute (SCI) partnered with the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism to stream the summit online and reach a wider audience, resulting in more than 1,500 virtual attendees. The entire video can be viewed on the SCI website (https://sci.usc.edu/) or here.
USC Price Dean Jack H. Knott pointed out that last year was the fourth-deadliest on record for domestic extremist-related killings since 1970. Hate crimes are increasing at unprecedented levels throughout the country. Anti-Semitic hate crimes in particularly increased by 21 percent.
“The most effective best practice for reducing the risk of these attacks is community engagement brought about by education, awareness and action,” Knott said. “… These informed conversations are more important than ever, and I believe that together we can make a difference for our communities and our society.”
Three panel discussions focused on the long-standing impacts to survivors of extremist violence, extremism and digital media, and the path out of extremism.
“Ideologically motivated violence continues to haunt every part of the American landscape, as does violence more generally,” said Erroll Southers, director of SCI and USC Price Professor of the Practice in National and Homeland Security. “As we respond to this issue, we’re always faced with two looming questions – why did this happen and what can we do to reduce the risks?”
Surviving extremist violence
USC Price Prof. LaVonna Lewis, director of Diversity and Inclusion Initiatives at the School, moderated the panel on how victims and communities struggle with the physical and psychological ramifications after an attack.
Josh Stepakoff spoke of his struggles coping as a survivor of the 1999 white supremacist attack on the North Valley Jewish Community Center in Los Angeles, when he was just 6 years old.
“I try to share my story in hopes that we can come together as a community to provide better support to people after they go through these types of hate crimes,” Stepakoff said.
Dr. Tony Beliz, a licensed clinical and forensic psychologist and USC Price instructor, stressed that the impact on victims is longstanding and more needs to be done to provide support after an attack leaves the news cycle.
“It’s newsworthy for a short period of time and resources come for a little bit, but then what happens?” Beliz said. “That’s a challenge. The other challenge is part of the reaction to a traumatic event is isolation and withdrawal. So you have the assistance waning and some individuals that are unable to avail themselves of what’s there.”
Cynthia Deitle, a former FBI special agent and the Programs and Operations Director for the Matthew Shepard Foundation started by the parents of a victim of hate crime, would like to see resources expanded more broadly so that anyone impacted by hate crimes can take advantage of services at any time.
“I think there has to be a way to devote more money and resources into these existing programs to really make them expansive and allow people who feel traumatized, feel scared and feel like they’ve been victimized too to get services they need to go forward with their lives.”
Stepakoff had therapy regarding what he went through but said it was the tightknit community that made the biggest impact on his recovery.
“They allowed every member of my family to heal in the ways we needed to heal,” Stepakoff said. “They took care of the things that we weren’t able to take care of so we could take the time to move forward and process what had gone on. Make sure that when the news cameras go away and these services start to dwindle and their focus is on the next major tragedy, that you be the support system that community desperately needs.”
Extremism and digital media
The second panel, moderated by Southers, addressed the nexus between digital media and extremism, particularly with regard to white supremacy and right-wing ideologies.
Taylor Dumpson knows firsthand the very real impacts that online hate attacks can have. She read a sampling of the hateful comments made about her online, one as recently as two days prior. They started when she became the first black, female student body president of American University and caused her to lose 20 pounds, 15% of her body weight.
“People talk about just get offline … but this is the world in which Millennials and young people are growing up in, so it’s not like you can remove yourself from the situation. This is where you get your news from.
“I’ve had to limit my online speech and expression because of neo-Nazis and white supremacists,” Dumpson said. “So these online platforms owe an obligation to their users irrespective of their race and gender and their identity to use their platforms in the same way any other person can.”
Dumpson, who is now pursuing a law degree, won an historic lawsuit against the publisher of a neo-Nazi website. It was the first time a court has deemed that racist online trolling can interfere with one’s equal access to public accommodation.
Rick Eaton from the Simon Wiesenthal Center noted that key internet companies are beginning to make changes to protect victims of hate speech.
“The good news in terms of landscape is that the major providers – Facebook, YouTube, Google and Twitter – have only mainly since Charlottesville gotten the message that they are part of the problem,” Eaton said. “While there is still a lot of work to do, they have taken this seriously and taken a lot of material offline, but that leads to other sites.”
Joanna Mendelson added that the Anti-Defamation League Center on Extremism for which she works has launched a nationwide initiative called Backspace Hate to address that laws don’t reflect what is occurring online.
“We need to change the legislative landscape to reflect the current times and help support and protect victims like you, Taylor, who find themselves in the crosshairs of these extremists,” Mendelson said. “The initiative aims to identify the laws every state has on the books and figure out the loopholes in which we can tighten to make the perpetuators responsible for their activity.”
The path out of extremism
Two former violent extremists who co-founded Life After Hate discussed their efforts to draw extremists away from hate and violence in the third panel, moderated by Chapman University associate professor Peter Simi.
Sammy Rangel countered the belief of some that violent extremists can’t change and are broken beyond repair, noting that this has also been thought about addictions, criminality in general and certain mental health problems.
“Life After Hate is full of evidence of people who have gone to great depths but are now going to great heights to work through these issues,” Rangel said.
He and Tony McAleer are two of those examples.
They presented the steps of leaving a hate group as disengagement and deradicalization. Often people are questioning whether they want to continue this way of life but they don’t feel they have another option they would be welcomed into.
Life After Hate has created an online social peer support group in which people don’t have to be alone as they go through that journey.
“When we go into violent extremist groups, we basically excommunicate ourselves from friends, family and society,” McAleer said. “When we got to leave that violent extremist group, we have to excommunicate ourselves again, and friends, family and society aren’t waiting with open arms to welcome us back. So we spend a time in the middle, what I call the void, where we don’t have a social circle.”
For each of them, leaving hate groups behind involved a single person who listened to their stories and showed them compassion.
“Almost everyone in Life After Hate has something in common, that we were approached at a moment when we were at our worst by someone who knew we were behaving at our worst but who still found a way to humanize us, which causes kind of like this crumbling of your global narrative,” Rangel said.
“Sometimes just the act of listening is enough compassion, enough empathy, enough of a foreign concept and experience for most people that you’re kind of stunned by the fact that someone heard your story and didn’t judge you. Most people want to be heard and that’s why they’re screaming.”
Professor of the Practice in National and Homeland Security
Director, Safe Communities Institute
Director of Homegrown Violent Extremism Studies