"I've been at war for 30 years," Christian Picciolini says, intensity widening his eyes, "I'm ready to go home."
His homeward journey involves leaving the work that has consumed his life for the past two decades: disengaging white extremists from neo-Nazi organizations or similar groups. Physically and emotionally exhausted, wrestling with PTSD and panic attacks, and dealing with death threats on a regular basis, Picciolini says he has no choice but to stop working one-on-one with white extremists attempting to reform their lives.
This article first appeared in Salon.
"If I don't stop doing this, I could burn out and be no good to anybody, or I could die," Picciolini said, explaining that it's not just his own psyche he is trying to save, but also multiracial democracy in the United States. "There is a greater danger on the horizon, and I'm going to focus on that full time," he said.
As former leader of Chicago Area Skinheads (CASH) and lead singer of the hate-rock band the Final Solution, Picciolini has devoted the past 21 years of his life to anti-racism advocacy and outreach young extremists. He makes no excuses for the brutal reality of his past. "I hurt many people, and the music I made as a teenager influenced people like Dylann Roof" — the young white man who murdered nine Black worshipers at a South Carolina church in 2015.
"I'll have to live with that," Picciolini said. What began more than two decades ago with asking for forgiveness directly from the people he had harassed or assaulted, along with their communities, eventually grew into the world's most successful effort at disengagement or "deradicalization" — a word Picciolini avoids — effort in the world. That work has given him an up-close view of how the political and legal institutions of the United States are failing, he says, to adequately address the rising tide of white hate. Democratic politicians and most mainstream media reporters and commentators, he believes, are also frozen in denial regarding the escalation of fascist politics in the Republican Party.
Citing his experience, observations and research, Picciolini offers a devastating rebuttal to those who believe American democracy is indestructible.
I recently sat down with him for an interview in a quiet restaurant in suburban Chicago, where we both grew up. I asked how he feels about America's future, particularly Donald Trump's apparent consolidation of power within the increasingly autocratic Republican Party, and Trump's likely candidacy for the presidency in 2024. He said, "I'm terrified."
In 2017, Picciolini spoke to an audience in Hungary: "I told them, 'Based on everything I know and everything I've seen throughout my life, you are in big trouble." Three years later, the international nonprofit House of Freedom demoted Hungary from a "semi-consolidated democracy" to a "hybrid regime," reflecting Prime Minister Viktor Orbán's autocratic assault against the nation's remaining democratic institutions.
Picciolini recently spoke with the House committee investigating the events of Jan. 6, and sounded the same theme he has repeated to American officials and voters for decades. There is perhaps a painful irony here: In some ways, American society has gone the opposite direction from the trajectory of Picciolini's life.
At age of 14, in the late 1980s, Picciolini met a charismatic neo-Nazi recruiter in a dark alleyway of Blue Island, Illinois, a working-class Chicago suburb. Within a few years, he would rise to the top of his recruiter's violent, white supremacist organization, recruiting other members, committing hate crimes and even exporting "white power" propaganda on a trip to Europe. Picciolini tells the fascinating details of his redemption story, and how he renounced the white power movement, becoming both antiracist and anti-capitalist, in his memoir, "White American Youth: My Descent Into America's Most Violent Hate Movement — and How I Got Out."
The most heartbreaking element in Piccioini's chronicle of transformation is the murder of his younger brother. They were 10 years apart in age, but Picciolini says when they were young, they were inseparable: "We were each other's entire world." he said. Then Picciolini's world became the white hate movement, and his brother's world fell apart. Two of his close friends became members of the Latin Kings, a criminal street gang on the South Side of Chicago. Picciolini, having left his own violent gang, tried to warn his brother what lay ahead. "I told him, 'I've been on the road you're on, and it is going to end badly,'" he recalled. But his brother's anger over Picciolini's earlier abandonment of the family undermined any advice he could offer.
In 2004, at the age of 20, Picciolini's brother, riding in a car with his friends to an apparent drug transaction, was killed by members of a rival gang. "For a long time, I felt like my brother got the bullet that was meant for me," Picciolini said. "I've tried to be the guy for other young men that my brother needed before he died. I've tried to be the guy who can help people like my brother. When everyone else sees the monster, I can still see the child, and I try bringing that child back."
Since Picciolini's disavowal of white supremacy, he has worked as an advocate for hate crime prevention, racial equity and progressive politics, through books, speaking tours and a three-episode documentary series for MSNBC, which shares the title of his second book, "Breaking Hate: Confronting the New Culture of Extremism." Picciolini now describes himself as a "white nationalist translator," saying, "I still understand their language, symbols and movements. That enables me to go to law enforcement, policymakers and journalists and explain what is happening."
As Picciolini has transitioned from hate leader to democratic healer, he has watched significant sectors of American society, including a major political parties, defend, excuse and sometimes embrace the ideology of white supremacy.
"Everything happening right now is the skinhead's dream of the 1990s coming true," Picciolini told me. "Donald Trump's ideas are not new, but he has made people in influential positions comfortable in expressing racism. In a relatively short time, we've gone from not talking about these things, even if they were always there, to no longer feeling shame about it. Tucker Carlson, other right-wing pundits, congressional representatives like Paul Gosar and Mo Brooks, are saying exactly what I was saying when I was a Nazi. They are using softer terms, but the message is the same."
Picciolini says he understands how this strategy has played out. "We advised infiltration," he said, "infiltration of law enforcement, the military and political offices with low barrier of entry, like the school board, town council, county election positions. And that's exactly what we are seeing now: a widespread, coordinated effort for the far right to take power at the local level."
He specifically means the use of racial paranoia and panic, through invented culture-war issues like "critical race theory" and "voter fraud," as a pretext for far-right political victories.
What hangs in the balance is the survival of American democracy. Picciolini sees all the political momentum on the right, aided by disruptive foreign agents who manipulate social media to encourage hatred, division and extreme partisanship. Meanwhile, the combination of voter suppression and the "big lie" subversion of faith in fair elections has brought America, in his words, "to the edge of disaster." At the more immediate level, Picciolini joins many experts, such as genocide scholar Alexander Laban Hinton and political scientist Anthony DiMaggio, in predicting the possibility of mass violence.
White supremacists, according to all the available data, are already responsible for more political violence than any faction since the 9/11 attacks. Hate crimes from lone actors or small groups have steadily increased over the past 12 years, and Picciolini warns, "With people becoming more radicalized, it isn't a big step for these groups to coordinate larger attacks, especially with leaders like Donald Trump giving encouragement."
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He worries that law enforcement's tactical approach is the equivalent of "fighting the war on drugs by going after addicts, and maybe a few street-corner pushers. The traffickers are still out there, and there is an endless supply of addicts and pushers."
But with the U.S. at a flashpoint, Picciolini stands at a crossroads. For the past 14 years, as he chronicles in "Breaking Hate," he has counseled members of hate groups on an individual basis, pairing them with psychologists, teachers, clergy members, life coaches or anyone else who can give them the mental health assistance and treatment they desperately need to reform their lives and, even more important, stop them from hurting other people. As he told Susan Bro, the mother of Heather Heyer — the antifascist protester killed in Charlottesville in 2017 — "We need to work so other mothers don't lose their children." But the grueling requirements of that work, along with the "endless supply" of people who need it, have left Picciolini exhausted.
Picciolini officially shut down his disengagement services organization, Free Radicals Project, in early November. Meetings with those who have suffered at the hands of American hate, such as Bro, capture the conflict of Picciolini's decision. "Frankly, I'm tired of helping white men," Picciolini said before adding that when he has done so he has also insisted on measures of accountability. "I have no interest in being their laundromat," he said, explaining that members of extremist organizations may begin as victims, but morph into victimizers. Picciolini believes American society must "spend more time discussing and helping the victims," which mostly means people of color, Muslims, Jews, immigrants, LGBTQ people and members of other marginalized groups.
"Taking bad white men off the street and stopping them from doing bad things stops the cycle of abuse, and does help the victims," Picciolini said, "But radicalization happens very quickly, and so-called deradicalization takes a long time, sometimes years. There is no way that it can work long-term to prevent extremism throughout the United States."
Picciolini's emotional turmoil was palpable as he discussed his change of direction. In his 14 years of disengagement work, he has rarely taken a personal paycheck, instead directing all the funds he receives from speaking fees, donations and book royalties into his organization. He says he is fortunate: His wife has a professional career that can support them both. More debilitating than the material cost, he says, is the pain of constantly contemplating, discussing and dealing with trauma.
Among members of hate groups, he says, a traumatic disturbance of the psyche is perhaps the single most significant commonality. "Trauma creates potholes, and those potholes take a person off the road to a healthy and happy life," Picciolini said. "I'm a pothole fixer." Picciolini said. He began to suffer from panic attacks for the first time two years ago, he reports. Now in therapy, and feeling spiritually depleted, he is no longer able to relive trauma on a daily basis: hearing stories of abuse and heartbreak, and revisiting experiences in the white power movement that still darken his memory with shame, guilt and regret.
He does feel gratification for his successful interventions, which number in the hundreds, and that compounds the difficulty of closing down the Free Radicals Project. Picciolini said he recently convinced a young member of Identity Evropa, a neo-Nazi organization, to repudiate white supremacy and rebuild his life. On Jan. 6 of this year, the young man sent Picciolini a text message saying, "Just want to let you know the reason I am not in D.C. now is because of the opportunities you gave me."
"When I leave, there is going to be a void," Picciolini says. "No one else is really doing what I do right now."
That assertion might surprise many Americans, given the newfound focus on white supremacy after Charlottesville and Jan. 6. There are certainly other organizations ostensibly committed to "deradicalization," but Picciolini expresses suspicion about their authenticity and efficacy. He says he has heard from some hate group members that when they reach out to recently created nonprofit organizations, they hear nothing back.
"After 9/11, there was a cottage industry of terrorism prevention and so-called deradicalization of militant Islamists," he said. "Just a few weeks ago, the Department of Homeland Security gave $20 million in grant money to organizations claiming to fight homegrown extremism. My worry is we are going to see an ineffective but lucrative 'deradicalization industry.'"
Some organizations he declines to name, he says, have become "grant machines" by looking for "poster boys," whether sincere or otherwise, to herald as conversion success stories. The grift, he suggests, is transactional: The organization obtains the grant and a flashy news story, while the supposedly repentant extremist "gets his reputation laundered."
Those who are genuinely interested in assisting extremists in leaving white-power groups can follow the "blueprint" Picciolini has established, he says. But his concern is that even for those with the best intentions, "It cannot scale to meet the need."
"It is like I've been sent to a hospital emergency room, and there are hundreds of people about to flatline, because they've been poisoned, and I'm supposed to save them all," he said. "In the meantime, the poison is still out there, and I know that within days, another hundred patients are going to come into the ER."
Picciolini's former organization, Life After Hate, received a grant during the final months of the Obama administration only to have the incoming Trump administration immediately revoke it — a devastating early harbinger of a presidency that internally passed along articles from white nationalist websites, complimented white supremacists as "very fine people," and asked the Proud Boys, a violent hate group, to "stand by."
Picciolini says he will now focus on administering the antidote for the poison of racism, white supremacy and far-right violence" "long term prevention." Cultivating a society that diminishes the viability of hate organizations and demolishes the ideologies they promulgate, will require a mass political movement, he believes, to reorient public policy toward community, equality and solidarity. Progressive economic policies, expressed through reliable social services, such as education, health care and vibrant public institutions, will create healthier and happier people. Picciloni told me, "Healthy and happy people do not join hate groups." Central to the policy prevention agenda, he argues, is the demolition of systemic racism. "Institutional racism breeds racists because it creates privilege, and people will fight to keep their privilege," he said.
Such a political program, Picciolini says, is "the only way to turn off the bigot spigot," as opposed to dealing exclusively with the outflow on a piecemeal basis. That kind of long term solution is obviously difficult to achieve, since it demands an inversion of political priorities and cultural biases, but he thinks current efforts aimed at short-term mitigation of white extremism are even less likely to succeed.
Among Picciolini's reasons for ending the Free Radicals Project, perhaps the most alarming is his claim that no one in government or law enforcement is really listening. He recalls giving lectures to police officers and feeling them withdraw, cross their arms and stare at the ceiling. The only questions he receives from most officers concern the supposed dangers of antifa or Black Lives Matter activists. "Police union leaders, whether they're talking about BLM or vaccines, sound exactly like right-wing extremists," he said.
Citing recent research by political scientist Robert Pape, Picciolini noted that at least 21 million Americans appear willing to support violence as a pathway toward political victory. "What if research found that millions of Muslim Americans were supportive of ISIS, or millions of Black Lives Matter activists were supportive of violence?" Picciolini asked, leaving the obvious answer hanging in the air.
Recent reporting that Attorney General Merrick Garland fears sentencing Jan. 6 insurrectionists to lengthy prison terms at risk of "further radicalizing them" underlines Picciolini's condemnation of the Democratic Party: "You've heard the phrase, 'Don't bring a knife to a gunfight,'" he said. "They're not even bringing a knife."
Picciolini is certainly not alone in his sense of foreboding. The Brennan Center for Justice has documented that many police departments have officers with white supremacist sympathies, which clearly compromises efforts to investigate hate organizations and likely leads to more episodes of racial profiling and police brutality. The Brennan report describes internal attempts to combat white extremism within law enforcement as "strikingly insufficient." A similar problem exists in the military, with the Military Times reporting on the high number of extremists in the armed services. As the Brookings Institution has noted, these crises became viciously manifest on Jan. 6, when law enforcement reacted with leniency, especially compared to the often-violent response to BLM protesters during the summer of 2020.
Ryan Greer, national security director for the Anti-Defamation League, applauds the FBI for allocating more resources to combating the threat of white extremism, and welcomes increased political discussion of the problem, but also warns, "We simply have failed to see the massive scale of effort that is truly needed."
The consequences of failure are potentially catastrophic. "People always ask me about all the talk of 'war' and 'civil war' on the right," Picciolini said. "They say, 'Do you think there's going to be war?' I tell them, 'It doesn't matter what I think. If they believe there's going to be war, they will make sure of it. We're going to have a war.'"
Christian Picciolini's description of his own work varied over the course of our conversation. He called himself a "pothole fixer," a "white nationalist translator" and, by implication, an emergency physician. Although he didn't use the term, perhaps this is the best way to capture how he hopes to meet this historic moment: He aims to be a peacemaker.