Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

These Ohio groups are working to stop extremism

dc insurrection
John Minchillo
Trump supporters try to break through a police barrier, Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021, at the Capitol in Washington.

Addressing the slew of misinformation, frustration and anger that triggers events like the 2021 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol is difficult. But experts say it boils down to a simple concept: communication.

Jamie Small works for the University of Dayton's Human Rights Center. She's part of a project funded in 2022 by the Department of Homeland Security called PREVENTS Ohio. PREVENTS works with individuals and community groups to convene conversations on difficult issues. The goal: preventing political violence.

Small says as frightening as events like the Jan. 6 insurrection are, it's important to engage in dialogue and preserve our trust in each other.

"I think one thing we do to bring down the temperature and make it feel like a problem people can solve is to recognize that the majority of people are not hateful, the majority of people want to live peacefully in their communities," she says.

UD visiting professor Paul Morrow also works for the PREVENTS project. He says talking with your neighbors is the best way to approach extremism in your community — whether it's hateful leaflets like those found around Greater Cincinnati over the past few years, demonstrations, or other efforts by groups with divisive, even violent messages. He cites examples of community groups that paint murals extolling diversity to cover up hateful graffiti.

RELATED: How has extremism in Ohio changed since Jan. 6?

"It's not organized by the government, it's not coming from the top down that now you need to create a mural," he says. "It's people taking the action steps that are easily available to every person living in America, just getting together with neighbors to do something in response to these transgressions."

Know the warning signs

Law enforcement has also started focusing more on Ohio-based extremism since Jan. 6.

Ryan McMaster is a researcher at Case Western Reserve's Begun Center for Violence Prevention.

"A lot of the training over the last couple decades was really focused on foreign terrorist organizations like ISIS and al-Qaeda," he says. "Jan. 6 really changed the landscape across the country in terms of this topic."

McMaster has helped put together training programs for local law enforcement officials around threats of violence from across the political spectrum. Those focus on particular signs that a person or group is preparing to move beyond constitutionally protected speech about extreme beliefs to engaging in violence.

"When you show up on a scene, have you had training that makes you aware of those signs? Weapons acquisition and storage, people misrepresenting themselves, whether they're stealing some kind of identification or lying about who they are to get some kind of material that could help conduct an attack," he says.

Vigorous recruiting is also a warning sign, McMaster says. He and other experts are especially concerned about groups like white supremacist organizations' recent attempts to recruit young people online.

Southern Poverty Law Center researcher Jeff Tischauser says it's an increasingly common move by extremist groups.

"It's video games and TikTok," he says. "That's what we're worried about in terms of youth recruitment."

RELATED: More and more, young kids are being exposed to hate ideologies

He says members of extremist groups strike up conversations with young people in the chatrooms of online video games.

How to help

Small, the UD professor, has heard from young people about online extremist recruiting efforts. While it can be alarming, she says it's important to talk with kids who have been exposed to extremist material online with respect and empathy.

"Engage. Ask open-ended questions," she says. "Anytime you're trying to connect with a person, giving them an ultimatum or using a top-down approach isn't going to work as much as open-ended questions to help understand what need that connection or group is filling for that individual, and is there a different way to fulfill that need?"

Morrow says that's part of PREVENTS' broader philosophy — trying to provide resources not only to prevent extremism but to make civic life healthier overall.

"A lot of what our project does is try to show people that there are both institutional resources out there — people who do prevention, public health and emergency management work — and civil society groups, volunteers who are trying to make space for people who are on the margins in our society, and address some of the risk factors, which are not just risk factors for becoming an extremist," he says. "They're risk factors for all sorts of negative outcomes in peoples' lives — social isolation, economic disruption, substance abuse."

LISTEN: How to prevent people from turning to hateful ideologies

Morrow says he thinks these efforts are working. He points to surveys showing a decrease in the number of people in Ohio willing to resort to political violence in the years since Jan. 6. But he acknowledges there's a lot of work left to do in a tense election year.

Nick has reported from a nuclear waste facility in the deserts of New Mexico, the White House press pool, a canoe on the Mill Creek, and even his desk one time.