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These Ohio groups are working to prevent extremist violence

A picture of the U.S. Capitol on a sunny day.
Louis Velazquez
In the years since the Jan. 6th insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, organizations have kicked into high gear to prevent violent extremism in the state.

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

That gets to a concept, that Small and other experts say, is at the core of nearly all extremism and radicalization prevention: communication.

Small said creating a space for these hard conversations prevents people from ending up in an echo chamber of extreme beliefs. From there, members of a community can build trust, squashing stereotypes and hateful ideology.

“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 said.

UD visiting professor Paul Morrow also works for the PREVENTS project. He said connecting with your neighbors is the best way to assert shared values against violent beliefs before they spread.

He cites examples of community groups that paint murals extolling diversity to cover up hateful graffiti. That sort of clear message, he said, can help ensure extreme beliefs aren’t normalized.

"It's not organized by the government, it's not coming from the top down that now you need to create a mural,” Morrow said. “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."

Preventing violence

But sometimes, the danger posed by violent beliefs and homegrown extremism is more pressing. That’s where law enforcement comes in. 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 said. “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 local threats of violence from across the political spectrum.

Those programs help officers to spot signs when they’re out doing their daily jobs that a person or group is preparing to move beyond constitutionally-protected speech to engaging in violence.

"When you show up on a scene, have you had training that makes you aware of those signs?” he said. “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.”

Recognizing recruitment

McMaster said another of those signs is recruitment efforts – groups trying to recruit the next generation of extremists.

Southern Poverty Law Center researcher Jeff Tischauser agrees. He said one way extremist groups are trying to grow their ranks is by striking up conversations with kids online.

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

Jamie Small, the UD professor, said combatting that comes down to good communication. It can be frightening for a parent to realize their child has been exposed to extremism, she said, but it’s best to give space for a young person to talk about why those messages are compelling.

“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,” she said.

Reasons for optimism

Morrow, with the PREVENTS program, said the key is keeping the door open for people at risk of radicalization.

"A lot of what our project does is try to show people that there are both institutional resources out there 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,” he said. “(Those) are not just risk factors for becoming an extremist. They're risk factors for all sorts of negative outcomes in peoples' lives — social isolation, economic disruption, substance abuse."

Morrow says he’s optimistic: he cites surveys showing a decrease in the number of people in Ohio willing to resort to political violence in the years since the insurrection. But he acknowledges there's a lot of work left to do.

Nick is a general assignment reporter for WVXU in Cincinnati.