Books

Former White Supremacist Leader—Here's How to Stop Hate Groups from Spreading

Christian Picciolini on his new book, "White American Youth: My Descent into America’s Most Violent Hate Movement—and How I Got Out."

For almost 23 years, Christian Picciolini has been making amends—to his parents, to his children, and to the people he hurt as a leader of America’s white supremacist movement. He tells his story in the recently released White American Youth: My Descent into America’s Most Violent Hate Movement—and How I Got Out (Hachette Books). The book is simultaneously horrifying and redemptive. 

In it, Picciolini describes his adolescent self as alienated, furious at the hard-working Italian immigrant parents who seemed to have little time for him and turned off by a school curriculum that seemed irrelevant and meaningless. He had few friends and was subject to near-constant taunts and bullying. A chance 1987 meeting with Clark Martell, an older white supremacist who had been terrorizing the Chicago area for several years, turned Picciolini from a weed-smoking eighth-grader into a fearless racist who thought nothing of beating up strangers as he parroted incendiary rhetoric about “muds,” Jews and queers. Music, much of it coming from English and German neo-Nazi punk bands, was central, both an enticement and a way to unite kids eager to demonstrate their white, heterosexual pride. Picciolini became lead singer of a band called WAY (White American Youth), and performed in and around his Chicago hometown as well as throughout the country and eventually, Europe.

For eight years, from age 13 to 21, Picciolini was deeply immersed in white supremacy. Articulate and charismatic, he quickly become a leader. It was only after he opened his first business, a record shop, and began interacting with diverse customers, that he finally began to grasp how misinformed he’d been. “For one-third of my life, I’d chewed and swallowed grisly bits of twisted ideologies,” he writes in White American Youth, “and now all I felt like doing was jamming my fingers down my throat and vomiting them all up into the nearest toilet. I felt like a dope fiend, except I was detoxing from selfish power and control, always craving more and living on a razor’s edge, perpetually looking to score the next hateful fix.”

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Picciolini left white supremacy in 1995, got a college degree and went on to co-found Life After Hate (www.lifeafterhate.org), a now seven-year-old group intended to help people disengage from white supremacist organizations or deter them from joining in the first place.

Picciolini spoke to Eleanor J. Bader by phone in late December, several days after White American Youth was released.

Eleanor J. Bader: Why do you think Clark Martell’s message resonated so strongly with you?

Christian Picciolini: I had no real identity when I met Clark. Hammerskin Nation and other groups I belonged to gave me a sense of purpose. I bought into it because it filled a void. Clark was the first person to offer me power, and he and the movement delivered. Once I got involved, I had friends, I became a feared kid, and I was heard. It was not initially about race, racism, or hate.

Actually, I don’t think most people join white supremacist groups because of the ideology or dogma. They gravitate to these groups because they’ve hit potholes in their lives and there are things they can’t figure out how to navigate on their own. This might be bullying, parental abuse or neglect, mental or physical illness, or, for adults, unemployment. Looking back, I’ve learned that everyone is searching for three things: Identity, community, and a sense of individual purpose. These are fundamental, and if a person feels marginalized or disenfranchised, they’re likely to turn to something negative, maybe drugs, maybe promiscuity, or maybe a white supremacist group.

EJB: When I read the book, I kept wondering why your parents didn’t try to stop you. It seemed like they were terrified of you. 

CP: They weren’t necessarily scared that I’d hurt them, but at first, they didn’t understand what I’d become part of. Later, they simply didn’t know what to do.

I have two sons, ages 23 and 25, and know that parents need to listen more and speak less. Young people today don’t always know what’s going on or how they fit in, and if someone walks up to them and says, ‘Hey, kid: If you listen to me I’ll give you power and a sense of purpose,’ it can hold tremendous appeal. Plenty of the young people I recruited were smart enough to pull away, but each one of them wanted to be heard. We need to make sure that our children know different kinds of people, eat different kinds of food, and learn our true history. The way most schools teach history is wrong. If they talk about slavery it’s typically just for a couple of days and the lessons almost never address the systems that have hindered people of color for more than 250 years. This has to change.

EJB: Did you try to bring women into white supremacy or did you only try to recruit young men?

CP: We did recruit women, but recruitment was highly individualized and we tried to reach people by appealing to their specific needs. In my day, more men than women were brought in. In public, we’d talk about women as progenitors of the white race, goddesses who would give birth to the next generation of white warriors. But I have to tell you, behind closed doors this was the most misogynist culture I’ve ever seen. Women were solely for sex and for making babies. They were also the recipients of male aggression, someone to boss around. Women planned our events, but were only there to support the men. They could organize the merchandise table but were never part of the political discussion and were never thought of as leaders.

EJB: You and your colleagues shaved your heads, wore steel-toed Doc Martens, and held your pants up with red suspenders. Today’s white supremacists wear suits and chinos. When and why did this change?

CP: In the late 1980s and early '90s, the movement made a concerted effort to blend in. David Duke started this when he took off his hood and put on a suit. The idea was to be what was called ‘the leaderless resistance.’ We wanted to look like our neighbors, move from the fringes, and spread our racist ideas while having regular, normal conversations. At the same time, we began massaging our language. We weren’t white supremacists, we were promoting white pride. We weren’t white racists, we were white separatists. Today’s white supremacists pose as defenders of free speech.

Eleanor J. Bader: 'White American Youth' talks about 'The Turner Diaries' and its continued influence in right-wing circles. What is it about the book that continues to hold appeal, 40 years after its publication?   

CP: The book is written in a way that’s easy to read. It’s something of a hero’s journey, the story of an everyday person who sticks to his ideals. It can be inspiring to people who feel like everyone and everything is against them. I think it is particularly dangerous because it is not about waving swastikas. It’s about the average person who lost everything and is now fighting back. The book tells readers that a regular person can start a revolution. Every skinhead I knew had read it and it is still required reading for white supremacists today.

EJB: Can you talk about the role music played for the racist skinheads you worked with? Is music still a potent recruitment tool?

CP: Music is still important but racist bands are more prominent in Europe than they are in the U.S. and the music has changed from the punk we loved to electronic. There are also white hip-hop bands and racist folk and Americana bands.

In my day, music was incredibly important as a tool for bringing people together. Skinhead concerts happened just a few times a year and they brought people from all over the country to one place. The lyrics were propaganda to incite people to act.

Today, music is still important but the internet has enabled racists to interact over social media. Well-known websites like the Daily Stormer and Stormfront have been supplemented by hundreds of lesser-known sites on the Dark Web. They’ve created their own platforms as gathering places for their conspiracy theories and hate-mongering, like Facebook for white supremacists. Basically, there’s been a shapeshifting. It’s the same ugly movement that it’s always been, but contemporary participants look prettier and are more tech-savvy than they were 20 or 25 years ago.

EJB: The group you co-founded in 2011, Life After Hate, was awarded $400,000 by the Obama administration, and although the grant was rescinded after Trump took office, critics have called the funding stream, a Department of Homeland Security program called Countering Violent Extremism, Islamophobic and have questioned LAH’s willingness to accept DHS funding. How do you answer these critics?

CP: Life After Hate practices countering violent extremism. The CVE program of the Department of Homeland Security is very different from the work of Life After Hate. Life After Hate counters violent extremism by helping people disengage from white supremacy or, better, never join in the first place. We don’t go into communities to spy on anyone or ask people to turn in friends or neighbors they think might be planning terrorist acts. We had planned to use the Homeland Security money to create an online program to help people who want a way out.

I’ve spent nearly 23 years trying to erase my racist footprint and be proactive about keeping people from joining hate groups. Over that time, I’ve been called a Pakistani ISIS supporter, a pedophile, a liar, and an Islamophobe. I get hate mail and death threats regularly, which tells me I’m kicking the right hornet’s nests. 

By the way, I’m no longer working with Life After Hate. We parted ways a few months back so that I can launch an international effort, tentatively called EXIT Global, to bring everyone who does anti-racist interventions into a large network to share tools and strategies.

EJB: What do you think is the most effective way to counter today’s white supremacists, the so-called alt-right?

CP: I know that it is tempting to ignore these folks but when we are silent or claim that we’re post-racial or that white racism does not exist, it allows these groups to flourish. I also know that if we are violent against them, it allows them to use a victim narrative.

Closer to home, parents need to listen to their kids and encourage them to develop passions at an early age. Schools need to do a better job of helping kids take responsibility for their own learning. I know that if I was more engaged in school, I might have been more interested in attending. Schools also need to teach empathy and multiculturalism from the earliest grades. Furthermore, the justice system needs to change its policies so that all people are treated equally.

EJB: Are you scared about the direction the U.S. is moving? Does the rise of the alt-right worry you?

CP: I read recently that in the U.S. today, the majority of people under the age of 21 are immigrants or first- or second-generation Americans. As a child of immigrants, I know that it can be hard to know who you are. I wasn’t sure if I was American or Italian or Italian-American, and it caused an identity crisis that Clark was able to exploit. Had I had other mentors, this might not have been possible. We need to integrate young people into community life far more fully than we currently do and give them role models they can relate to. We can do this if we make it a priority.

So although I worry about youth, I’ll tell you what worries me the most. Most white supremacist groups are made up of paranoid, marginalized alpha males who are socially awkward. During my involvement, skinhead groups were always brawling with each other. That will probably continue and I expect there to be some infighting between the various groups; some will likely implode. That doesn’t bother me. What scares me most is the fact that the racist right has really never had a good organizer who can move into the mainstream and get people mobilized. It could happen. The existence of a racist political party in the U.S. is now a reality and that scares the shit out of me.

EJB: So what should we do?

CP: If we are going to fix this, we have to look at white supremacists differently, not as monsters but as broken men and women who are capable of doing monstrous things. I am proof that people can change. We have to be careful not to treat these folks as enemies who can’t be saved. If we do that, we’ll create more of them.

Take Dylann Roof, who killed nine African Americans in a Charleston, South Carolina church in 2015. Yes, we have to hold him and others like him accountable, but we also need to recognize that he was given false information about African Americans that he believed. He thought that shooting up a church was the solution to his problems. We need to change the culture that allows this to happen. I know from firsthand experience that our environment and the things and people who cross our paths make all the difference. If people have no prospects for a decent job or a place to belong, it leaves them vulnerable to whoever comes along. For me, it was a Nazi skinhead.

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Eleanor J. Bader teaches English at Kingsborough Community College in Brooklyn, NY and is a freelance writer. Her work appears frequently on Truthout.org, Rewire.news, Theasy.com, and on the Lilith Magazine blog.