Christian Picciolini was recruited into the Chicago Area Skinheads in 1987 when he was just 14-years-old. By 16, he was leading it and by 22, he was looking for a way out. Today, he has become a sought expert neo-Nazis and he’s warning that this is a “pivotal moment for America.”
In an extensive interview with Voice of America, the son of Italian immigrants warned that the aftermath of the Charlottesville, Virginia violence proves the serious threat posed by violent white extremists. Further, this racist hate speech is nothing new from white supremacists — he’s been hearing it for 30 years.
“What I saw during those eight years [as a skinhead] was what I saw happen in Charlottesville,” he said. here were rallies with large numbers of protesters. We need to understand this is something that has been happening for a long time and we’ve been sweeping it under the rug. I’m glad we’re focusing on it now. I also want to make sure this isn’t something that we lose sight of again and end up revisiting in several years.”
He thinks that Charlottesville is a launching pad for the white nationalist movement.
“If we’re talking about these groups, and Charlottesville, what it did was give them legitimacy that they’re bigger than they are,” he said. “Now that’s not to say that they’re still not dangerous because we know small groups of people can be dangerous, but I do believe this represents a small minority of the people in our country who are actively part of this movement.”
He called it a “pivotal moment for America” in which we collectively agreed that this was happening in our country and that it was a problem we were no longer willing to sweep under the rug.
“That this is something that is very deeply seated in our fabric and is something that we need to tackle head on,” he said.
Picciolini told VOA that ideology isn’t the driver to radicalization the way it is for other movements. Many times it’s simply a way that violent people can be violent.
“I think what ultimately leads people to these extremist groups is something we all search for: We’re all looking for an identity, community and a sense of purpose,” he explained.
Those who come from broken homes or are broken themselves or faced abuse or mental illness, they’re searching for a home and a place they can be accepted and be part of something.
Whether it’s ISIS or the Klan, recruiters for groups like these know and understand that they can offer comfort for people. They promise paradise and win over “hearts and minds,” he said.
“The movement, especially the far-right movement, is very good at promising that identity to the most marginalized people, giving them a sense of community and redirecting somebody’s sense of purpose,” Picciolini said.
In the beginning, the groups don’t start out with the extreme of the extreme. Rather they tone it down in public and save the worst for behind closed doors.
“I can tell you from experience, from having done this and taught this tactic: When speaking to the media and having outward-facing dialogue, the rhetoric is much more subtle,” he said.
He explained that these dog whistles or ways of spinning white supremacy into a “movement of love” so that in front of cameras they’re able to say that it isn’t about racism or hate. This becomes something they’re “doing because they’re protecting something that they love, which is white identity, that there is nothing wrong with being proud of being white, which of course is true. There is nothing wrong with being proud of who you are,” he said.
But behind closed doors the pro-white talk is something that turns into being opposed to everyone else. It becomes
Part of what Picciolini did to help change things was start his organization Life After Hate. They seek to create meaningful interactions between white supremacists and neo-Nazis with the people that they proport to hate. He doesn’t argue ideology, he tries to listen for what he calls “potholes” in their life that impacted them and hurt them. Then he tries to fill them to make the person more resilient.
“Like you said, nine times out of 10, and I’d say nine and half times out of 10, the folks that are involved in these hate groups, never in their lives had a meaningful interaction or dialogue with people that they claim to hate. Yet they hate them and blame the world’s problems, their own problems, on these people whom they’ve demonized,” he said.
So he brings people together to humanize the “other” and make it more difficult to hate someone that they see is more like them than they thought.
Things might get better before they get worse, he said, but only because the rest of America is struggling to find the right way to respond to it.
“There hasn’t been a focus on the far right in our country, as far as extremism goes,” he continued. “And I think until we apply the right resources to it, or call it what it is when there is a violent act — that it is an act of terrorism based on an ideological premise.”
That’s nothing new, Picciolini closed. The rally had a tragic result in the death of Heather Heyer, but those violent acts and consequences have been happening for years. They’ll continue and grow as pressure is increased on them. But hopefully it can be eradicated.