It’s hard not to feel the chill in the current political climate. Over the last 12 months, the world seems to have regressed by decades; with hate-filled campaigns and populist politics swiftly becoming the norm in many Western societies. In the UK, for example, 2016 brought us an earth-shattering Brexit vote, as well as a fivefold rise in racially-motivated hate crimes. In the US, the right-wing rhetoric of Donald Trump now reigns supreme.
For Christian Picciolini, these seismic shifts are not to be ignored. The son of Italian immigrants, he began life in a Blue Island city in Illinois, before eventually joining the neo-nazi Chicago Area Skinheads (CASH) in 1987. After feeling isolated by his parents, he became more and more involved with the group; attending rallies, recording white power music, and committing various and vicious acts of violence. “I spent eight years, from the time I was 14 years old in 1987 until I was 22 in 1995, as a member and eventual leader of America's first organised neo-Nazi skinhead gang,” he recalls. “When I became the group’s leader, I merged our group into the fledgling Hammerskin Nation: now the world's deadliest and most violent neo-Nazi/white supremacist organisation.”
Thankfully, it was at that point that his beliefs began to fade. Now known as a “race traitor” by the same group he used to lead, Picciolini has rejected his toxic teen ideologies. Inspired by the death of his brother – whose life was lost to violence – he started up Life After Hate in 2010; a non-profit peace advocacy group dedicated to fighting the extremist hate he once spread. This was followed by the 2015 launch of ExitUSA, a “one-to-one support service” for anyone who needs help escaping a hate group. We caught up with Picciolini, now a successful TV producer and author, to find out more about his experiences.
You spent eight years as a member – and eventual leader – of the Chicago Area Skinheads. Why do you think these white power groups attract so many people?
Christian Picciolini: For me, the attraction was benign at first. I was a lonely kid that felt abandoned by my parents because they were off running a small business and I rarely saw them. Of course, I recognise now that they were trying to support their family the only way they knew how – to work hard. But as an adolescent, I longed for their attention and wasn't very good at communicating it other than internalising my loneliness and eventually seeking a surrogate family. For young people who feel marginalised, or who come from broken homes, these groups are attractive not for their ideologies, but rather their ability to provide a perceived sense of family, camaraderie, and purpose. Then, once you're accepted into the fold, the ideology and violence become mandatory if you want to stay a part of that family. For so many, the sense of belonging keeps them involved even after the ideological beliefs wear off. Not only is it sometimes dangerous to leave, it's also a fear of losing everything you have and having to start over.
“Trump hasn't created more racism, he's just created a safe, mainstream platform for them to legitimise and grow. Trump is a dream candidate for white nationalists” – Christian Picciolini
What are some of your biggest regrets from that period?
Christian Picciolini: I have lots of regrets, as you can imagine. There were people I hurt physically and emotionally. There were people I hurt by recruiting them into the movement and altering their lives forever. I regret not spending more quality time with my little brother, who looked up to me and sought my attention by trying to follow in my violent footsteps. He was later murdered for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, but had I been able to mentor him, like I wished someone had for me, perhaps he would still be alive. I also regret all the seeds of hate I planted during those years. It's over 20 years since I've left that movement and I am still pulling toxic weeds that continue to sprout from those seeds two decades later. I feel personally responsible for the white extremist violence we continue to see too often in the US and abroad. While I may not be personally responsible, I helped put those vile ideas into the world and gave them credibility to some. Words and beliefs have consequences. But on the positive side, I do believe my experience shaped who I am now and equipped me for the work I've been doing for over 10 years to counter the hate-filled narrative I helped create.
What ultimately made you decide to leave? Was there a particular moment?
Christian Picciolini: There was no one moment, and it wasn't an overnight change. It was my life for eight years. It's all I knew as a young ‘adult’. But there were several important catalysts that challenged my belief system and fostered the transformation. The first was the birth of my children. When I had something tangible to love again, it made hate an afterthought. Around the time my second son was born, I decided to open a small record shop so that I could sell white power music. It was the first time that anyone opened a mainstream retail business to support the movement, specifically through music. Eventually, white power music sales became 75 per cent of my gross revenue, but I also began to sell heavy metal, punk, ska, hip-hop and other genres of music. That brought people into my shop that I normally would have alienated from my circle. Over time, my customers and I would strike up conversations about music that led to deeper discussions, allowing me to humanise people that were once the objects of my hate. I began to develop empathy for them – and also received it at a time when I least deserved it, from those I least deserved it from. Once I began to connect with others that I once hated, I could no longer justify that hate.
Do you believe there are certain traits or personality types that are more susceptible to these ideologies? Or could it happen to anyone?
Christian Picciolini: It’s my opinion that all people, especially the young, are susceptible to extremist radicalisation, depending on if various factors align: isolation, fear, low self-esteem, and marginalisation. Many times it attracts disenfranchised people with a strong sense of purpose, but an inability to express it. We all just want to belong and be accepted. These groups have savvy recruiters that know how to pinpoint the vulnerabilities in individual people, using fear and playing on ignorance and isolation. Some people get intercepted early and become ballet dancers or amazing artists. Others, like me, get intercepted by something more nefarious, and are dragged willingly down that path, despite our better judgment. I sought power and attention and that's exactly what I was promised and received. It was intoxicating to suddenly at 14, or 16, or 21 be the most "respected" (read: feared) person in my town.
You’ve said previously that most members of these groups haven’t actually met or interacted with the people they hate. Why do you think that is?
Christian Picciolini: Hate is born of ignorance. Fear is its father, and isolation its mother. The isolation creates fear of the unknown, which in turn makes it very easy for savvy recruiters to promise ‘paradise’ by placing the perceived blame on others. Nowadays, we're even seeing Trump and some extreme Republicans send the same messages with slightly more palatable messaging to appeal to the masses. It's a simple bait and switch marketing tactic that instills fear and reinforces isolationism, in turn creating more civil divisiveness and tension. I joke that sometimes I feel Trump plagiarised my recruiting speeches from the early 90s and just used a Thesaurus for ‘nicer’ words to say the exact same thing I used to say.
So you believe the rise of populist politicians like Trump seems to have legitimised racism in the US? What are the changes you’ve noticed in recent months?
Christian Picciolini: I'll answer this quite simply. I attended the Trump primary rally in Chicago, the one that was cancelled, supposedly, due to the protests. While inside a stadium of 3,000 Trump supporters, I witnessed and heard more vile and disgustingly racist things come out of people's mouths – people who looked like our next door neighbours, dentists, and teachers – than I did with any of the dozens of white power skinhead or Klan rallies I've been to. Trump hasn't created more racism, he's just created a safe, mainstream platform for them to legitimise and grow. Trump is a dream candidate for white nationalists.
“Since 9/11, more Americans have been killed on US soil by people associated with supremacist ideologies, than by any other extremist group or ideology combined” – Christian Picciolini
How was Life After Hate started? What inspired you to begin the process?
Christian Picciolini: Life After Hate began as an idea in 2009, for me and a colleague – another Former neo-Nazi skinhead – to start a blog where we would write about our personal stories. It was essentially a literary journal focused on fostering and shining a light on basic human goodness in people. At the time, there were no support groups or help mechanisms for people specifically looking to ‘exit’ from white supremacist ideologies. Having known how extremely difficult it was for us, personally, to leave the movement, we felt compelled to create something. We began to publish our stories and suddenly became flooded by other voices around the word that wanted to share in the experiment. Eventually, we became a registered non-profit, and scaled our outreach.
How has the organisation developed over the last few years? Are people becoming more open and receptive to the idea?
Christian Picciolini: Since 9/11, more Americans have been killed on US soil by people associated with supremacist ideologies, than by any other extremist group or ideology combined. We've made great strides in helping balance the CVE focus and bring attention to a growing domestic extremism problem. Likewise, families of affected subjects can reach out to us for help if they've had no luck on their own. Life After Hate has always been, and remains, 100% run by "Formers," or former extremists. This provides a very unique perspective and ultimately helps our subjects; unlike many other practitioners who were never immersed in an ideological extremist movement. That said, a proper intervention or ‘exit’ requires a multi-disciplinary team of professionals (mental health, job trainers, educators, tattoo removal services, etc) to adequately care for and prepare the individual for a successful disengagement. People, especially practitioners in CVE, have embraced our work slowly, but surely.
What are your hopes for the future?
Christian Picciolini: I would like to see extremism curtailed more through adolescent and young adult ongoing prevention programs. Counter-narratives and the education system are key. If we're focused on de-radicalisation only, that is just a band-aid. The wound will still fester and spread. If we balance intervention with prevention, just like we did with, say, polio (treat the sick AND inoculate the population so they don't get sick) we have a chance. But unless equal opportunity truly exists in America, which it currently does not for people of colour as well as some isolated and poverty-stricken whites, this same interview, with the same answers, can be written almost verbatim 20 years for now.
This interview has been edited and condensed for length
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