Christian Picciolini (@cpicciolini) is an Emmy Award-winning television producer, reformed extremist, co-founder of peace nonprofit Life After Hate, and author of Romantic Violence: Memoirs of an American Skinhead.
“Hatred is born of ignorance. Fear is its father, and isolation is its mother.” -Christian Picciolini
The Cheat Sheet:
- How the marketing of extremism has evolved to become more palatable to the masses.
- How identity, community, and purpose drive extremism — not ideology.
- Why extremism and race identity are popular with youth now more than ever before.
- What we can do if we know someone involved with — or thinking of becoming involved with — an extremist group.
- How an ex neo-Nazi skinhead became a uniquely qualified peace advocate to help others avoid walking in his footsteps.
- And so much more…
At a time when our States seem so thinly United, extremist groups seeking to divide us even further are enjoying a modern heyday of recruitment, media attention, and political emboldenment. But why are such groups havens for the disenfranchised, and is there ever a way out for someone seduced by their poisonous ideologies?
Joining us in this episode is Christian Picciolini, a reformed white supremacist who can answer all of these questions. Christian is the co-founder of Life After Hate, a nonprofit helping people disengage from hate and violent extremism, and the author of Romantic Violence: Memoirs of an American Skinhead. Listen, learn, and enjoy!
More About This Show
In a diverse nation seen by many as the world’s melting pot, why have the number of hate groups risen in the United States for the second year in a row, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center’s (SPLC) annual census of hate groups and other extremist organizations in 2017?
“People don’t join these groups because of ideology,” says Christian Picciolini, author of Romantic Violence: Memoirs of an American Skinhead. “People join these groups because they’re searching for an identity, a community, and a sense of purpose. And there’s some grievance, some underlying trauma or abuse or brokenness underneath all that. Could be mental illness, could be lack of employment or lack of an education…that’s why they become vulnerable to the messages and the narratives of these extremist groups. Because they are looking for somebody to blame for the problems that they have, and they’re not equipped to deal with them.
“So it’s very easy for someone to come across as savvy and say, ‘Oh, it’s the Jews,’ or, ‘It’s the Muslims,” or whatever. Then your narrative changes. And because you have now developed this identity, maybe you’re not this awkward, bullied, marginalized person anymore. You’re now this warrior and…now you have this built-in community and they give you the sense of purpose. They say, ‘Be proud of who you are.’ That’s what starts pretty benignly. Then it turns into, ‘Know your enemy.’ Then from know your enemy, it turns into, ‘Kill your enemy.’ That is the common theme, no matter what type of extremism group you’re talking about: left, right, fundamentalist, religious, sovereign citizens, militia groups, you name it. That is the common theme that I think we need to understand.”
Christian’s own parents immigrated to Chicago from Italy in the ’60s. But as loving as they were, the hard work required to maintain the family’s financial stability kept them away from home a lot. Consequently, as a child, Christian felt the sting of neglect and abandonment. So when Clark Martell, the charismatic adult leader of neo-Nazi Chicago Area Skin Heads (CASH) slapped a joint out of Christian’s fourteen-year-old hand in 1987 and offered him the attention he craved, it began his immersion into the world of white supremacy that would last for the next eight years.
By the time Christian was sixteen, Martell and several of the older skinheads in CASH were sent to prison for severely beating an ex-member and painting a swastika on her apartment wall in her own blood. Having found his own confidence and an ambition to run things — perhaps from growing up with entrepreneurial parents — this opened the way for Christian to lead the group, which had only grown in size since his own recruitment two years before. He founded one of America’s first white power skinhead bands because music was an effective way to bring in and indoctrinate new, young members.
“Metro [a venue in Chicago] was a primary recruitment ground after punk rock shows,” says Christian. “Stand out front and look for the kids that look like scumbags and promise them paradise.”
Even as the leader of this movement, Christian says it was the power that kept him enchanted, not the ideology — which he struggled with the entire time. But marrying a woman from outside the movement and starting a family began the process of transformation that would see him exit the group in ’95.
“My new identity as a father and my new community with my wife and my child and my purpose of being this family man really challenged my narrative…at my wife’s encouragement…I pulled back. I stopped going out on the streets. I stopped performing with the band. And I decided I was going to open a record shop. My compromise with her was I was going to run a business to support the family, but I wanted to sell white power music — because that’s really all I knew at the time.
“I opened a small record shop on the South Side of Chicago and I sold white power music. And I also sold punk rock and heavy metal and hip hop, but seventy-five percent of my music sales were white power music — this was before the Internet, so people were coming in from every state to buy it. What I didn’t expect was the customers who were coming in to buy the punk rock and the metal and hip hop having such an effect on me.
“At first I was very standoffish with minorities who would come in or anybody who I considered opposite of my views. This was a small neighborhood, so everybody knew what I was about. Over time, I started to have really meaningful dialogues with these people. They showed me compassion. They could have punched me. They could have broken my windows. They could have spray-painted my store. Slashed my tires. They never did that. And even though they knew who I was and how terrible my ideas were, they came in.
“And every time they came in, they approached me with compassion and with empathy. And it was that compassion and empathy from the people that I least deserved it from when I least deserved it that really helped me finally question what it was that I was involved in and allowed me the strength to realize that that wasn’t what I wanted to do. And it helped me get out.”
Listen to this episode of The Art of Charm in its entirety to learn more about what life was like for Christian after he left the movement, why Christian stopped hiding from his past and used his story to help others, how extremist recruiters manipulate prospects into a feeling of belonging they lack elsewhere; how extremist groups have evolved with the times to become more palatable (and marketable) to otherwise mainstream people; how identity, community, and purpose drive extremism, not ideology; the way fake news and conspiracy theories feed on people’s fears to make them susceptible to extremism, and lots more.
THANKS, CHRISTIAN PICCIOLINI!
If you enjoyed this session with Christian Picciolini, let him know by clicking on the link below and sending him a quick shout out at Twitter:
Resources from This Episode:
- Transcript for Christian Picciolini | Life After Hate (Episode 634)
- Romantic Violence: Memoirs of an American Skinhead by Christian Picciolini
- Life After Hate
- Christian Picciolini’s website
- Christian Picciolini at Facebook
- Christian Picciolini at Instagram
- Christian Picciolini at Twitter
- American History X
- Graeme Wood | Understanding ISIS (Episode 613)
- Hate Groups Increase for Second Consecutive Year as Trump Electrifies Radical Right by Southern Poverty Law Center
- Gunman Opens Fire at GOP Baseball Team Practice in Alexandria by Scott Wise, CNN Wire
- Snopes entry debunking Pizzagate conspiracy
- The Trump Administration Is Pulling a Grant From a Group That Combats Neo-Nazis by Josh Harkinson, Mother Jones
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