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A Former Neo-Nazi Explains Why Hate Drew Him In — And How He Got Out

Posted by on Jan. 18, 2018 at 7:29 PM
  • 13 Replies
1 mom liked this


A Former Neo-Nazi Explains Why Hate Drew Him In — And How He Got Out


"It brings back a lot of shame," Christian Picciolini says of his time fronting a white power punk band. He has since disavowed the white supremacist movement and works to help others disengage from it too.

Dennis Sevilla/Hachette Book Group

Christian Picciolini was 14 years old when he attended the first gathering of what would become the Hammerskin Nation, a violent, white-power skinhead group. Looking back, he describes his introduction to the group as receiving a "lifeline of acceptance."

"I felt a sort of energy flow through me that I had never felt before — as if I was a part of something greater than myself," he says.

Picciolini embraced the white supremacist message he heard that day and went on to front a white-power punk band, White American Youth, writing and performing songs that inspired others to commit racist acts of violence.

But after eight years as a neo-Nazi, Picciolini began to question the hateful ideology he espoused. He remembers a specific incident in which he was beating a young black man. His eyes locked with his victim, and he felt a surprising empathy.

It was a turning point. He withdrew from the movement and in 2011 co-founded Life After Hate, a nonprofit that counsels members of hate groups and helps them disengage.

"Over the last 14 years I have actually helped over 100 people disengage from the same movement that I was a part of," he says. "[Neo-Nazis] know that I'm a danger to them because I understand what they understand — but I also understand the truth."

Picciolini's new memoir is called White American Youth.


Interview Highlights

On how he was recruited into believing the white supremacist ideology

So it was the fear rhetoric. ... I can tell you that every single person that I recruited or that was recruited around the same time that I did, up to now, up to what we're seeing today, is recruited through vulnerabilities and not through ideology.

On the role white power music plays in the movement

I had already been a part of the punk-rock subculture, so I was already searching for something to express my anger. And when I heard Skrewdriver [a white supremacist rock band] and when I heard this music that was coming over from England at the time, it allowed me to be angry, because the lyrics gave me license to do that.

I very effectively then used lyrics myself when I started one of America's first white-power bands to both recruit young people, encourage them into acts of violence and speak to the vulnerabilities and the grievances they were feeling so that I could draw them in with promises of paradise even through my lyrics.

On his band, White American Youth (W.A.Y.), and the way music was and still is used as propaganda

It brings back a lot of shame, because I know that I put words out into the world that still today are affecting people and hurting people. I learned just a few months ago that Dylann Roof had heard one of my songs a few months before he committed the tragedy in Charleston and he was on a white supremacist Web forum asking who the band was, and somebody had shown me that post just recently and I read through the lyrics and it didn't dawn on me instantly that those were my lyrics. But when I finished, I felt sick.

Music was the vehicle for propaganda. It was the incitement to encourage people to commit acts of violence and it was a social movement. ... Still today, I believe that music is a very powerful tool that the movement uses to inspire vulnerable young people into a very hateful social movement.

On how the white supremacists of the '80s and '90s strategized to make their movement more mainstream

I do think that there were a lot of concerted strategies in the '80s and '90s that we're seeing take hold today. We recognized in the mid-'80s that our edginess, our look, even our language, was turning away the average American white racist — people we wanted to recruit. So we decided then to grow our hair out, to stop getting tattoos that would identify us, to trade in our boots for suits and to go to college campuses and recruit there and enroll, to get jobs in law enforcement, to go to the military and get training and to even run for office. And here we are, 30 years later, and we're using terms like "white nationalist" and "alt-right" — terms that [the white supremacists] came up with, by the way. They sat around and said, "How can we identify ourselves to make us seem less hateful?" ...

Here we are in 2018 and we have a lot of hallmarks coming from political figures, the administration and policies that are very similar to what we espoused 30 years ago. The language may be a little bit more palatable. Dog whistles may be used, but it is still the same underlying theme. It is a white supremacist culture that is being pushed.

On how music led him out of the neo-Nazi movement

What it came down to was receiving compassion from the people that I least deserved it [from], when I least deserved it. Just before I left the movement, I opened a record store to sell white-power music that I was importing from all over the world. In fact, I was one of the only stores in the United States that was selling this music. And I also knew that to stay in the community and get their support I would have to sell other music. So I started to sell punk-rock music and heavy metal and hip-hop and when the customers came in to buy that music, who were often African-American, or Jewish, or gay, at first I was very standoffish, but they kept coming back.

The community, even though it's Chicago, everybody knew what I was doing, everybody knew how hateful I was and how violent I was, but these customers came in despite that. And over time I started to have meaningful interactions with them, for the first time in my life.

In fact, I had never in my life engaged in a meaningful dialogue with the people that I thought I hated, and it was these folks who showed me empathy when I least deserved it, and they were the ones that I least deserved it from. I started to recognize that I had more in common with them than the people I had surrounded myself for eight years with — that these people, that I thought I hated, took it upon themselves to see something inside of me that I didn't even see myself, and it was because of that connection that I was able to humanize them and that destroyed the demonization and the prejudice that was happening inside of me. Music brought me in, but in many ways it also brought me out.

by on Jan. 18, 2018 at 7:29 PM
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Seafaith
by Silver Member on Jan. 18, 2018 at 7:33 PM
3 moms liked this

In fact, I had never in my life engaged in a meaningful dialogue with the people that I thought I hated, and it was these folks who showed me empathy when I least deserved it, and they were the ones that I least deserved it from. I started to recognize that I had more in common with them than the people I had surrounded myself for eight years with — that these people, that I thought I hated, took it upon themselves to see something inside of me that I didn't even see myself, and it was because of that connection that I was able to humanize them and that destroyed the demonization and the prejudice that was happening inside of me. Music brought me in, but in many ways it also brought me out.

joyfree
by Platinum Member on Jan. 19, 2018 at 12:22 AM
5 moms liked this

I heard this fellow on Fresh Air(NPR) today.

He's a very articulate and thoughtful person. Too bad that racists/bigots can't be made to hear him speak.

I want to get his book.

Interesting that under the Trump administration, the funding for his foundation or initiative(??? I was driving at the time!)has been cut off when it's needed the most.

jpickens
by Platinum Member on Jan. 19, 2018 at 1:48 AM
5 moms liked this

I will buy this  book too.  I don't think people who have transitioned (and the ones who encouraged them to get there) get as much national visibility as they should. 

These stories are good for both sides because it encourages racists/bigots to change and the people in their lives who were the catalyst that encouraged them to change are great examples of how we can effectively fight racism/bigotry.  (If that makes sense).  

I will have to listen to his interview. :-)  

Quoting joyfree:

I heard this fellow on Fresh Air(NPR) today.

He's a very articulate and thoughtful person. Too bad that racists/bigots can't be made to hear him speak.

I want to get his book.

Interesting that under the Trump administration, the funding for his foundation or initiative(??? I was driving at the time!)has been cut off when it's needed the most.


jpickens
by Platinum Member on Jan. 19, 2018 at 1:54 AM
4 moms liked this

His story reminds me of Derek Black whose father was a former KKK grand wizard and Duke is his god father.  He was being groomed and on track to be a White nationalist leader before he changed.  I also find it very unfortunate that people bash Robert Byrd to hell because of a picture with Hillary and completely ignore his life story of redemption.  

I am glad he is sharing his story and all of them should be heard, outside of passing articles and its very sad that they aren't. 

Thanks for sharing OP.  This is good stuff. 

blondekosmic15
by Ruby Member on Jan. 19, 2018 at 7:56 AM
Sounds like a very interesting informative book to read. Thanks for your comments.

Quoting jpickens:

I will buy this  book too.  I don't think people who have transitioned (and the ones who encouraged them to get there) get as much national visibility as they should. 

These stories are good for both sides because it encourages racists/bigots to change and the people in their lives who were the catalyst that encouraged them to change are great examples of how we can effectively fight racism/bigotry.  (If that makes sense).  

I will have to listen to his interview. :-)  

Quoting joyfree:

I heard this fellow on Fresh Air(NPR) today.

He's a very articulate and thoughtful person. Too bad that racists/bigots can't be made to hear him speak.

I want to get his book.

Interesting that under the Trump administration, the funding for his foundation or initiative(??? I was driving at the time!)has been cut off when it's needed the most.

blondekosmic15
by Ruby Member on Jan. 19, 2018 at 8:47 AM
3 moms liked this
A very moving part of his personal story. Empathy, a beautiful virtue which leads to compassion and love of thy neighbor regardless of skin color and/or beliefs.

Quote>

But after eight years as a neo-Nazi, Picciolini began to question the hateful ideology he espoused. He remembers a specific incident in which he was beating a young black man. His eyes locked with his victim, and he felt a surprising empathy.

It was a turning point. He withdrew from the movement and in 2011 co-founded Life After Hate, a nonprofit that counsels members of hate groups and helps them disengage.
BluesPagan2.0
by IWantTacos on Jan. 19, 2018 at 9:00 AM
2 moms liked this
While I can’t confirm that this was the case I’m fairly certain i grew up in a white nationalist home. Certain things stick out to me. My stepfather leaving late at night with a baseball bat or crowbar because he had to “take care of something”. He would tell my mom that he would call if anything happened. My stepfather also threatened us when we were teens that we wouldn’t date any (n word) if we wanted to step foot I. The house again. We were not allowed to listen to music featuring black artists or watch shows featuring black families. Racism was heavy in that house. I grew up a lot in my mindset once I grew up and left.

So what he said here really rings true. Most white nationalists feel like they are disenfranchised. A group of angry, disenfranchised white men. That was my stepfather (well ex stepfather, he and my mom divorced a few years back). He was mad because we were the poor, working class, rural white family and he couldn’t work hard enough to get us out of it. Thats why the white nationalism appeals to these people. It gives them their power back and puts the blame for all their hardships on someone else.

I may have to read this boom if I can find the time.
jpickens
by Platinum Member on Jan. 19, 2018 at 9:37 AM
You’re more than welcomed.

Happy Friday! 😊


Quoting blondekosmic15: Sounds like a very interesting informative book to read. Thanks for your comments.

Quoting jpickens:

I will buy this  book too.  I don't think people who have transitioned (and the ones who encouraged them to get there) get as much national visibility as they should. 

These stories are good for both sides because it encourages racists/bigots to change and the people in their lives who were the catalyst that encouraged them to change are great examples of how we can effectively fight racism/bigotry.  (If that makes sense).  

I will have to listen to his interview. :-)  

Quoting joyfree:

I heard this fellow on Fresh Air(NPR) today.

He's a very articulate and thoughtful person. Too bad that racists/bigots can't be made to hear him speak.

I want to get his book.

Interesting that under the Trump administration, the funding for his foundation or initiative(??? I was driving at the time!)has been cut off when it's needed the most.

Seafaith
by Silver Member on Jan. 19, 2018 at 9:57 AM
1 mom liked this

You are welcome. While reading this I was smiling with tears in my eyes. This is one book I am going to buy for sure.


 Quoting jpickens:

His story reminds me of Derek Black whose father was a former KKK grand wizard and Duke is his god father.  He was being groomed and on track to be a White nationalist leader before he changed.  I also find it very unfortunate that people bash Robert Byrd to hell because of a picture with Hillary and completely ignore his life story of redemption.  

I am glad he is sharing his story and all of them should be heard, outside of passing articles and its very sad that they aren't. 

Thanks for sharing OP.  This is good stuff. 


hotspice58
by Silver Member on Jan. 19, 2018 at 10:35 AM

Very powerful.  Good for him!!!!

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