'We Were Blindsided': Families Of Extremists Form Group To Fight Hate
It was a busy fall morning at Reagan National Airport near Washington, D.C. Myrieme Churchill found a clearing in the arrivals hall and scanned the crowd.
One by one, her people showed up: a black father and daughter from Tennessee. A white couple from Georgia. A Somali immigrant. Two South Asians — one from Canada, one from Britain. Churchill greeted them in a blend of languages: Salaam! Bonjour! Welcome to D.C.!
The travelers embraced and began chatting about the weather, barbecue, kids. Anything but the unseen thread that brought them together in Washington: extremism. That would come later, in private, at the fourth annual summit of the nonprofit Parents For Peace. Nearly everyone in the group is a former extremist or the relative of one.
"They were each isolated by their own stories," said Churchill, the group's executive director. "They were suffering on their own."
Parents For Peace began in 2015 mainly as a support group. Now, in response to resurgent extremist violence, the focus is shifting to policy and prevention work. Members came to Washington to put human faces to a problem typically addressed as a national security issue. They want to reframe extremism as a public health emergency that cuts across race, religion, geography.
Churchill, a longtime psychotherapist, said she is inspired by the activists who swayed public perceptions of HIV in the 1980s and '90s. They took what was then a socially untouchable, poorly understood condition and chipped away at the stigma by humanizing HIV patients, showing Americans that the disease can affect anyone. Churchill said she hopes Parents For Peace can do the same with extremism.
That was the message she delivered to members from a podium later that evening, at the opening of the summit.
"We are all here, part of a movement, to help others be better responders to extremism," Churchill said. "We have a long journey ahead of us but we're doing it together."
The members introduced themselves, each packing years of anguish into a minute or two:
"I really am one of the lucky ones because everyone I know from 10 years ago is either in prison or dead," said Tania Joya, the ex-wife of a high-ranking ISIS propagandist.
"I'm here with a bunch of parents that know exactly what I've been through, so it makes me kind of feel at home," said Melissa Buckley, the wife of a former Klansman.
"I got involved in this because of my nephew. In 2008, when he went missing overnight, with six, seven other young men," said Abdirizak Bihi, a Minnesotan whose nephew died in Somalia.
Next up was a brown guy in his 40s with a neatly trimmed goatee: "I'm Mubin Shaikh. I'm a former neo-Nazi."
The members erupted in laughter. The joke is that Shaikh isn't a former neo-Nazi — he is a former Islamist extremist. It's the kind of dark humor they can indulge only here, with others who get it. Parents For Peace gives them that room to breathe, to commiserate, to be themselves.
"I know many of you are still grieving," Churchill told them. "But I would like to make sure that each of you sees the incredible source of strength that you have."
A no-judgment zone
Carlos Bledsoe grew up in a black, churchgoing Baptist family in Memphis, Tennessee. After getting into trouble with the law, he underwent a spiritual transformation and converted to Islam in college. No big deal, his family thought. They already had Muslim relatives.
Carlos changed his name and his lifestyle. Slowly, guided by newfound friends, he began drifting toward Islam's extremist fringe.
"We were blindsided," said Melvin Bledsoe, Carlos' father. "We had no idea that someone was lurking to do harm to our family."
Carlos traveled to Yemen, ostensibly to teach English. When he came back, his family welcomed him with a limo and a party. But the man who returned, Melvin said, wasn't the son he knew.
"When he came back to America," he said, "we had no idea that he was fully loaded. Like a bomb."
On June 1, 2009, Carlos Bledsoe, by then known as Abdulhakim Muhammad, opened fire on a military recruiting office in Arkansas. He killed one soldier and wounded another. Today, he is serving a life sentence. His father, Melvin, said he stays up at night envisioning his son in a cell, stuck there forever because he was brainwashed by "the hunters."
"They changed his name, his behavior, his thoughts," Melvin said. "He was no longer Carlos Bledsoe."
Melvin said he didn't want anyone else to feel what he calls the "everlasting pain" of losing a child to extremism. So he and his daughter, Monica Holley, founded Parents For Peace in 2015. Holley said the idea was to provide something her family had wished for during their ordeal: support through periods of intense grief and shame. One of the first priorities was creating a toll-free help line.
"This is a no-judgment zone," Holley said. "And I think that's the most comforting thing, to know that you can talk to someone and not be judged by what your loved one did."
Parents For Peace now has about 20 members across the country, plus a few in Canada and Europe. For years, they have quietly worked with tech companies, terrorism researchers and politicians who seek a better understanding of extremist movements. This year, though, the group is raising its profile.
Through funding from Twitter, Parents For Peace obtained ad space on the New York City subway last fall. It was unprecedented exposure for a tiny group based out of Churchill's home near Boston. The families' busy Washington schedule included an event at the Embassy of Belgium and a panel discussion introduced by Rep. Bill Keating, D-Mass.
"I'm on a mission," Melvin said. "I want to help others. No one should have to go through the pain. No one."
The stories behind the Parents For Peace members are compelling. As the group becomes more visible, Churchill, the executive director, fights to keep it independent. She accepts no government money — the organization runs on a shoestring budget through grants and donations. She cajoled her husband, a filmmaker, into doing the promotional videos.
Churchill recalls feeling physically ill after turning down a big government grant at a time when the organization was broke. She says it was the right decision — the work's credibility hinges on its independence — even though private donors aren't exactly lining up.
"It's incredibly difficult when we are not attractive," Churchill said. "It's a complicated issue; it's too politicized."
She is also careful about partnerships. She tries to protect families from partisan and anti-Muslim groups that seek to exploit the stories for their own agendas. On top of all that, Churchill also faces hostility in some Muslim quarters, where Parents For Peace is seen as a vehicle for the controversial practice of CVE, or countering violent extremism. That's a catchall term for terrorism prevention strategies that critics say stigmatize Muslims and yield few or no measurable results.
Churchill said the diversity of Parents For Peace members is the best defense against the criticism. No one kind of radicalism is singled out. The members come from all different backgrounds. At the summit, a Somali Muslim with henna patterns on her hands sat next to an ex-skinhead with tattoos across his knuckles. They have political and religious differences; sometimes they squabble like family members.
"These are all individuals who've come face to face with extremism and paid the price," Churchill said.
On the eve of the group's trip to the U.S. Capitol, Churchill gently reminded them to set aside partisan differences and present a unified front against extremism.
"We know that we vote differently from one another," Churchill said. "I love all of you members that are conservative and that are liberal and independent or you don't care. We are on the same page."
A voice interrupted from the back of the room.
"I'm a felon, so I don't vote at all!" said Chris Buckley, a former member of the Ku Klux Klan.
The others laughed. Buckley is one of the newest members. He is here because his wife, Melissa, decided in 2016 that she was tired of the toxic world of the KKK. She could no longer watch her 4-year-old son do the "white power" salute to be like his dad.
"I went into Google and I typed in: 'How do you get your spouse or loved one out of a hate group?' " Melissa said.
She found an email address for an ex-skinhead named Arno Michaelis. He is well-known in the world of "formers," a term for former extremists who sometimes help rehabilitate others. Michaelis works closely with Parents For Peace.
"It's a shot in the dark, you know," Melissa said of her thinking at the time. "I could 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."
Arno flew to the family's home in Georgia for an intervention. Buckley was furious. But Melissa stood her ground. She gave her husband, the love of her life, an ultimatum.
"I said: 'This is your choice. You stay in, me and the kids are gone.' "
It took about seven months, but Buckley finally left the Klan. He doesn't want to gloss over how hard it was. Leaving was like kicking an addiction.
"When you're coming off of hate and extremism, it's the same process," he said. "You've got to have a support group. You've got to have a network."
Through Parents For Peace, he is already doing intervention work of his own. He says it is small atonement for all the hate he has 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. Buckley wasn't there for the rally, but he still takes personal responsibility for the death.
"I might not have been driving the car, but I pushed the narrative. So I carry that," he said. "So if I'm willing to sit here at this table and I'm willing 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?"
A trip to the Capitol
The next day, the Parents For Peace members filed through security at the Capitol. They were all dressed up, gazing at the ornate architecture.
"The dream is coming true," Melvin Bledsoe said.
The visit was in the early days of the impeachment proceedings. The Capitol was in a frenzy. But the Parents For Peace members still managed to pack a meeting room for a panel on extremism.
Even congressional staffers who popped in for the free food ended up staying to hear the testimonials. Michaelis, the ex-skinhead who helped get Buckley out of the Klan, riveted the audience with the story of how his exit from the white-power movement started with a TV show.
"The sitcom Seinfeld was instrumental in my turnaround," Michaelis said.
Michaelis is tall, blond, tattooed, but with the easygoing demeanor of a surfer dude. It's hard to imagine him in his racist days, screaming into a mic as the lead singer in a white-power metal band. That was in the early '90s, when Seinfeld was a hit. Like much of the country, Michaelis was hooked. But there was a problem: Jerry Seinfeld is Jewish. Arno Michaelis was an anti-Semitic white nationalist.
Michaelis said he began asking himself questions that made him uncomfortable. He began to doubt everything he believed.
"Hey, does Jerry Seinfeld get to live in your whiter and brighter world? If he does, do you think he'd be very funny if you're killing all the other Jews?" Michaelis recalled thinking. "And the only answer to that is that I was full of s***."
Michaelis has done this kind of outreach the longest; he was at ease with an audience. For the others, the pain is fresher. They looked uncomfortable being gawked at by Hill staffers.
They didn't seem to relax until much later, when they were back at the hotel, together, veterans of an invisible war.
"We've all been hurt. We've all been manipulated," Buckley said. "Some of us went one way; some of us lost; some of us ended up in different directions. But we all ended up here, for a reason."
Senior producer Walter Ray Watson contributed to this report.
Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.