'We Were Blindsided': Families Of Extremists Form Group To Fight Hate | KCUR

'We Were Blindsided': Families Of Extremists Form Group To Fight Hate

Dec 12, 2019
Originally published on December 12, 2019 5:45 pm

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."

Melvin Bledsoe (right) and his daughter, Monica Holley, founded Parents For Peace in 2015. Bledsoe's son Carlos is serving a life sentence for a deadly 2009 shooting at a military recruiting office in Arkansas.
Courtesy of Parents For Peace

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.

Chris Buckley, a former member of the Ku Klux Klan, greets Myrieme Churchill, the executive director of Parents For Peace. The group is made of up of former extremists and their families.
Courtesy of Parents For Peace

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.

Members of Parents For Peace pose for a group photo during a recent trip to the U.S. Capitol. The families say the group gives them the chance to find support and heal.
Courtesy of Parents For Peace

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 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

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

HANNAH ALLAM, BYLINE: It's a recent fall afternoon, Day 1 of a conference at a hotel in Washington. There are nametags, 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 am 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 is 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 is one of the newest members.

C BUCKLEY: Some of us went one way. Some of us lost. Some of us ended up in 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 in to 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 when - 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, in that corner (ph) 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 and 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 file through security at the Capitol. They're all dressed up, gazing at the cavernous halls. They meet a Congress member, pose for group pictures.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: 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.

ARNO MICHAELIS: I 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, blonde, 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 Jerry Seinfeld) Hello, Newman.

(LAUGHTER)

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 was 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, we - because if I did and that was on my bookshelf and my white power buddies came over, that would make me a race traitor. We put it on a tape that said Amber's 2nd birthday party because we knew no one would ask to watch that.

(LAUGHTER)

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 seem truly relaxed is back at the hotel when they're all together, 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 extremists. It happens to be his birthday.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) Happy birthday to you.

ALLAM: His face lights up when the others surprise him with a cake. 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 GROUP: (Singing) Happy birthday to you.

ALLAM: Hannah Allam, NPR News, Washington.

(CHEERING)

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Yay.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.