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How to Recognize—and Engage With—an Extremist in the Making

A new University of Denver program aims to help potential perpetrators of hate crimes escape extremism.

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In 2017, the University of Denver established the Colorado Resilience Collaborative (CRC), a resource hub for addressing bias-motivated behavior. Since then, the CRC has worked with law enforcement agencies and community groups to provide a support network for victims of hate crimes and for potential perpetrators. 5280 spoke with CRC director Rachel Nielsen about what makes someone vulnerable to fringe ideologies—and how you can help them.

Who’s At Risk: Hate groups have learned to target a certain audience for recruitment: young people seeking community, purpose, and a sense of belonging. As with gangs, individuals who feel distanced from—or rejected by—their families can be particularly susceptible.

Warning Signs: “Movement toward these ideologies almost always starts out with some kind of perceived injustice,” Nielsen says. For example, a young boy might feel rejected by the girls at school. If these individuals don’t see a solution to the purported slight, they might convince themselves that “those people” are the source of their problems. Listen for repeated grievances. Notice if one group is frequently blamed for all ills. And keep an eye on social media. As people ramp up toward violence, Nielsen says, “They almost always shout into the void online.”

How To Engage: Don’t directly confront the ideology by getting into a back-and-forth about the underlying beliefs. If you do, “you have now become an ‘other’ in an us-versus-them world,” Nielsen says. Instead, show concern, then ask questions about the grievance: What exactly is your concern? How long has this been going on? Why do you feel this way? In short, empathize. Acknowledging people’s feelings doesn’t mean you’re justifying their anger. But it can help you better understand where the rage comes from and might lead to simple solutions, like helping the person develop better social skills. If the ranting transitions to changes in behavior or groups of friends, stay engaged. Continue to ask questions. Doing so will aid you in knowing just how serious the situation has become—and where to turn next.

When To Report: When targeted violence occurs, typically at least one bystander had information about someone’s intention to attack, according to a report from the Secret Service and the U.S. Department of Education. Most of the time, Nielsen says, witnesses simply don’t know what to do with that intel. You should be extremely concerned if you become aware of someone choosing a target, buying a weapon, or talking about co-conspirators. These are the points at which one should contact law enforcement or Safe2Tell, an anonymous tip line (877-542-7233). Reporting a concern does not necessarily mean the individual has run afoul of any laws; in fact, the CRC can direct you to the appropriate resource without necessarily involving police. It does mean someone will come talk to them—offering an exit ramp from violence.

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