How do we effectively challenge organized white supremacists? Post-Charlottesville, the spotlight focused on the work of an organization of former white supremacists that helps turn neo-Nazis away from racism: Life After Hate. Interviews with the group’s co-founders captured headlines on outlets from Mother Jones to The Intercept to Democracy Now—and even caught the attention of comedian Samantha Bee.
Much of this coverage decried cuts to the funding of Life After Hate, implemented earlier this year, when the Trump administration decided to roll back funding of an Obama-era program aimed at fighting “extremism.” The organization’s online, crowd-sourced fundraiser has raised more than $330,000 since it launched in June, demonstrating immense popular support for the group’s work in this moment. As an organization of “formers,” the group appears well positioned to provide education and consultation on the reasons why people join far-right organizations, and its is best known for its work counseling and supporting individuals through the process of leaving white-supremacist groups.
However, a deeper look at the organization reveals difficult truths for those invested in dismantling the white supremacy that’s entrenched in U.S. society and institutionalized in law enforcement. The funding that Life After Hate lost came from a federal program focused on surveillance and policing that disproportionately targets Muslims, called Countering Violent Extremism (CVE). This program has been widely criticized for promoting institutional discrimination and criminalization of Muslim communities. Furthermore, Life After Hate plans to expand its programs to include work challenging “jihadism,” indicating that the organization is buying into the federal program’s troubling “war on terror” framework.
By rallying around CVE funding, some progressives are promoting law-enforcement collaborations through a counter-terror lens — thereby undermining anti-racist struggle and the well-being of Muslims across the United States. We can’t fight Trump-style racism by clinging to the most reactionary policies of the Obama administration. Grassroots, anti-racist organizations have been mobilizing against CVE for years, which I’ve seen firsthand in my position as a staff organizer with the American Friends Service Committee in Chicago.
Surveillance, snitching and “counter extremism”
Since 2011, a federal program administered by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, in conjunction with the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Department of Justice, has been carrying out a community-policing strategy to counter “violent radical extremism” within the United States. The initiative, CVE, is based on a similar program in the United Kingdom called PREVENT and was developed largely under former President Barack Obama. CVE is designed to compel community partners to work with law enforcement in order to identify individuals allegedly at risk of radicalization and stop the “home-grown” terror threat.
In 2014, CVE pilot programs were rolled out in three cities — Los Angeles, Boston, and Minneapolis — to further engage with community-based organizations. And in 2016, the first-ever CVE grants, totaling $10 million per year, were made available to non-profit organizations willing to locate and report community members deemed at-risk for violent extremism.
These policing and surveillance programs have disproportionately targeted Muslims. Nearly 80 percent of CVE grants have gone to organizations in Muslim communities, according to a scathing report released earlier this year by the Brennan Center for Justice.
The rollout of CVE has been met with fierce opposition and pushback, primarily from Muslim communities across the United States. Critics express concern that such practices have the potential to entrap young, Muslim, Black and/or mentally ill people, criminalize entire communities and chill dissent.
In Minneapolis, the Somali community has been particularly targeted by CVE efforts, and young people have been leading the pushback. After the Minneapolis Public School district announced in 2015 it would participate in a CVE monitoring program, organizers have been educating the community about the dangers of such collaborations.
In Boston, critics from the Council on American-Islamic Relations and the Muslim Justice League have been speaking out about the dangers of CVE since before the pilot was launched. As the federal grant program rolled out in 2016, resistance to CVE spread. Students at the University of Chapel Hill, for example, campaigned to have their university refuse CVE funding and withdraw from the program. In October of 2016, a historic forum on CVE’s impacts was organized by youth with the Young Muslim Collective in Minneapolis.
A branding problem
Facing an image problem, CVE re-branded as a program aimed at fighting all varieties of “violent extremists,” including animal rights activists and environmentalist radicals in this category, alongside white supremacists. In February 2016, the FBI launched an online video game called “Don’t Be a Puppet,” which displayed a menu of diverse paths to “radicalization.”
When the first-ever CVE grantees were announced in the final days of the Obama administration, the list notably included funding for Life After Hate. Founded in 2011 by “former members of the American violent far-right extremist movement,” according to its website, Life After Hate advertises itself as a nonprofit that supports people looking to exit that lifestyle.
Fatema Ahmad, Deputy Director for the Muslim Justice League, told In These Times that “trying to equivocate those two communities — white supremacists and all Muslims, because that’s how it’s applied to us — won’t redistribute the damage that’s being done to the entire Muslim community through these grants.”
“A lot of what people generally think of as dangerous about CVE is that it disproportionately targets Muslims,” Ahmad continued. “But that’s not the only reason it’s dangerous — that’s why it’s racist. Why it’s dangerous is that it’s really based on debunked theories of radicalization that end up criminalizing First-Amendment-protected rights.”
The criteria that CVE programs rely on to determine who’s at risk of radicalization are dubbed the “Staircase to Terrorism.” They include factors like political dissent, religious expression (including wearing a headscarf), or social isolation.
CVE primarily targets young people, many of whom are in stages of identity development that are formative and vulnerable. Adolescents are prone to expressing dissatisfaction or demonstrating behavior changes, making the use of such factors to spot someone on the track towards becoming a “terrorist” troubling. Further, the FBI has admitted that there is no single, linear pathway to “extremist” violence.
This approach is made even more dangerous by attaching stipulations of law enforcement collaboration to social service provision. Community-based organizations, teachers and mental health workers — all of whom should be safe for young people developing their identities — become potential informants.
In early 2017, a string of community organizations approved for CVE funding under Obama announced their refusal to participate in the program with Trump at the helm. Ka Joog, a Somali nonprofit in Minneapolis slated to receive $500,000, refused funding after the inauguration, and the Claremont School of Theology in Los Angeles opted out of an $800,000 award.
When the Trump Administration took power, it froze all CVE funding for six months, then decided to prioritize programs that feature strong collaborations with law enforcement. Life After Hate’s proposal and 11 other Obama-approved grants were denied. Cuts included the University of North Carolina’s proposal to produce anti-jihadist videos ($867,000) and funding for the Muslim Public Affairs Council Foundation ($393,800).
When Life After Hate lost its funding, many progressives defended the group as providing critical anti-racist programming. Yet the organization’s work expands beyond the framework of counseling former white supremacists away from hate, and aligns with trends in federal and global “counter-terror” strategy.
In its CVE grant proposal, Life After Hate outlined the organization’s intention to use online targeting tools to identify individuals at risk of radicalization, including sympathizers of “far right extremism and jihadism.” On its donation wall, Tony McAleer, co-founder and board chair of Life After Hate, openly states, “The organization’s proposal was focused on domestic terrorism, the far-right and ISIS-inspired extremism.”
In These Times spoke with Sammy Rangel, executive director of Life After Hate. When asked why the organization chose to include countering “Islamic extremism” in its work, he responded that “it would have been in coalition [or] partnership with other organizations that are trying to serve Muslim or Islamic sectors of our nation…so that we could meet the needs of some of the people out there that aren’t necessarily from the far Right.”
While the intention to work with Muslim partners can appear innocent, it still upholds the pervasive racist notion that Muslims are uniquely prone to violence. This false assumption underlies the vast majority of counter-terror efforts, including CVE.
When asked whether CVE-related work would continue despite not receiving federal funding, the director expressed confidence that it would, citing an upcoming CVE conference he plans to attend this fall. Rangel also claimed that online fundraising on behalf of the organization post-Charlottesville likely raised more money for the group than it would have received through CVE, because the organization would be required to share CVE funds with partners, as stipulated in its grant proposal.
“We aren’t looking for equal-opportunity surveillance”
Nicole Nguyen, assistant professor and researcher at the University of Illinois at Chicago, told In These Times, “The events in Charlottesville caused people to want to refund Life After Hate because they thought this is an organization that can fight white supremacy … not realizing they are also targeting Muslims.”
“By arguing for this project to be funded,” Nguyen continued, “you’re not only propping up an organization that has said we’re going to target the Muslim community, you’re also propping up [the] Department of Homeland Security and all the law enforcement agencies that support the CVE project.”
Rangel expressed familiarity with criticisms of CVE, which he described as a misunderstanding on the part of communities. “There’s this mistrust that leads to this misperception that government-grant-funded programs are basically extensions of the federal government and law enforcement,” he said. According to Rangel, Life After Hate works to clarify the line between its work as an NGO and law enforcement. He said the organization does not share identifying information that could lead to direct arrests or prosecution of individuals, except in emergencies, in which the organization does its “due diligence.”
Yet, he went on to describe the organization’s pride in its good relationship with federal law enforcement, explaining, “What we do is share information about what’s working in the field, how people are responding to us, best practices — what seems to be working what seems to not be working, and then DHS shares with us the same. It’s more of an educational experience that we share.”
But these practices of sharing outreach and community engagement strategies are exactly what is so dangerous about CVE. Life After Hate is helping position law enforcement as a trusted protector against hate and violence, rather than a purveyor of immense levels of violence against communities of color living under mass incarceration, mass deportations and racist policing.
Such an approach also further cements the notion that the only form of violence worthy of fighting is that carried out by non-state actors — “extremist violence.” This absolves the U.S. state of its role in unleashing cycles of violence through its harmful and open-ended “war on terror.”
While CVE currently focuses on Muslim communities, many critics fear it will chill dissent and access to social services for many marginalized communities. Ahmad pointed out that the Denver Police Department’s CVE grant proposal extended its target to include Black Lives Matter and LGBTQ groups. “Knowing that any dissent against the government in the form of protest can be seen as a terror threat, this is a slippery slope towards criminalizing a lot of other communities,” said Ahmad. “We aren’t looking for equal opportunity surveillance.”
Ending law enforcement violence against Black communities and communities of Color is a primary goal of racial justice movements in the United Sates, as demonstrated by the work of the Movement for Black Lives and nationwide organizing to end deportations. Turning to the same apparatus that cages, kills and harms people of color in order to fight bigotry is short-sighted and dangerous.
What’s more, police-centric approaches to social justice issues have been shown to mean more criminalization for the most vulnerable members of society. INCITE-Women of Color Against Violence has pointed out that centering law enforcement when responding to domestic violence leads to the criminalization of survivors of sexual assault. And federal hate crimes legislation and enforcement have not meaningfully prevented violence against LGBT communities, but instead extended the reach of the criminal legal system.
Surveillance is no friend of social movements either. The Counter-Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO), led by FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, played a key role in sabotaging and undermining civil rights and Black Power movements of the 1950s and 60s. More recently, we know that law enforcement has surveilled Black Lives Matter organizing and used high-tech devices to track undocumented immigrants.
CVE has been denounced by community organizations, civil liberties groups and policy experts across the country for its stigmatizing focus on Muslim communities, its shaky empirical foundations and dangerous potential for curbing First-Amendment-protected activities.
Rather than expanding surveillance and law enforcement strategies that have the potential to harm marginalized communities, we must build robust social movements that transform relations of power in this country and out-organize white supremacists. How can we fight against the real threats that neo-Nazis pose, while steering clear of “solutions” that rely on oppressive institutions and the criminalizing rhetoric of counter-terror?
Earlier this month, Arab, Middle Eastern, Muslim and South Asian groups from across the United States released a statement opposing any expansion of CVE under the guise of fighting white supremacy. “Inclusion of programs focused on white supremacist bigotry into a larger system of state surveillance that upholds institutional white supremacy through its criminalization of entire marginalized communities will fuel the system upon which overt bigotry thrives,” the organizations warned. “We can and must work together to end white supremacy in all forms.”