Sitting down for coffee with a former Nazi
When I was offered an interview with a former neo-Nazi turned peace advocate, I had made up my mind to decline. From the media to the justice system in this country, we’re sympathetic enough toward troubled white minds. As a whole, the nation is constantly being fed a humanizing narrative; where people of color are monsters or terrorists and white folks are simply mentally ill or led down the wrong path.
My conscience balked at the thought of centering another white man in this way.
But then I casually researched Picciolini, just for the hell of it. What I read and heard changed my mind about taking the assignment. Because what we have in Christian Picciolini is something of an informant. He asks us to understand, yes, but not with the intention to excuse — rather the hope to dismantle. He is an unabashed truth-teller, and a willing weapon against hate and bigotry all over the world. This is not hyperbole.
In town for a TEDxTalk, with only an hour window to spare, I meet with him in the lobby of his hotel. He’s wearing an easy smile and an Ice Cube t-shirt, sleeves pushed up slightly, dark ink poking out from underneath. As we greet one another, I’m struck by how soft-spoken he is, not what I expect from an accomplished public speaker — nor a former Nazi.
Over the course of our conversation, he reinforces my decision to sit with him, welcoming challenges and espousing his own outrage at those same societal constructs that had triggered my initial skepticism. The charisma that had made him such a successful neo-Nazi leader decades ago, now colors his messages about peace, white privilege and the insidious nature of hate.
To start, tell me about how it all began.
"I was recruited when I was 14 years old, and I wasn’t necessarily radicalized by ideology or dogma or anything. Nobody is. I was on a broken search for who I was, where I belonged, and what my purpose was.
As a kid I was bullied, I felt abandoned by my parents, I felt pretty worthless, and I never had any friends. So the first time that somebody showed any attention, it didn’t matter what they were selling, I was in.
The literal story is that I was standing in an alley smokin’ a joint, and this guy who was twice my age came up to me. It was 1987, he had a shaved head, boots, nobody knew what a skinhead was in America in those days. He came up to me and pulled the joint from my mouth, and he looked me in the eyes and he said, ‘That’s what the Communists and the Jews want you to do, to keep you docile.’
I’m 14. I don’t know what a Communist or Jew or the word docile is. But, you want to talk to me? Cool. And then it went from this very benign, ‘You should be proud of who you are’ to, ‘Be careful, there are people who want to take that pride away from you, oh and you should eliminate them.’ That’s how it progressed."
Is this still a favorite recruitment method?
"Absolutely. I learned how to recruit eventually, and we were looking for vulnerable young people. We would go to skateparks and punk rocks shows and look for kids who looked like they had nowhere to go, and then we would promise them what was missing in their life.
We delivered on identity, community and purpose — everything that they were looking for. And most of them didn’t know what the hell they were getting into, until they were so brainwashed that the community hated them and they had nowhere to go, so they had to dive in headfirst. That was the case for me, and that was the case for a lot of people.
These days they are specifically recruiting on campuses, looking for young people in the process of developing their own ideas, the first time breaking away from parents’ influence, being exposed to all kinds of new stuff. They target forums online that are for autism spectrum disorder and ADHD, because they know there are a bunch of kids there that may not have friends in real life. It’s becoming like a millennial social movement at this point."
Of course, the movement has changed from the days of Picciolini’s involvement to what we’re presently staring down the barrel of. There’s a national suspicion that what’s coming to fruition now is born of seeds intentionally planted decades ago. But to hear him recount exactly that, is both validating and chilling.
"It’s definitely the same cancer that has metastasized. It’s different now than it was 30 years ago, but it’s the same in many, many ways. It’s different because we made it different 30 years ago. We recognized that the shaved heads, the swastikas — it was turning away even average American white racists that we wanted to recruit. They thought it was too much.
So we said, we need to start growing our hair out, trading our boots in for suits, we need to go to college, get jobs in law enforcement, go into the military and get training. And here we are, 30 years later, and we have the ‘alt-right,’ we have this president in the white house, we have cops shooting black teenagers … We pushed that ball down the hill."
So are white supremacists more active or just more visible now?
"Both. I think it’s definitely grown, and it’s grown in scary ways because it’s not really visible Nazis anymore. It’s our neighbors, it’s cheerleaders. It’s become a social movement for outcasts. Young people are idealistic. I was idealistic. At 14, I wanted to build hotels, I wanted to be an architect, and then all of a sudden this guy stepped in my path and promised me paradise."
Sounded appealing I’m sure.
"It also sounds like ISIS. Or gangs. People join, and I’ve talked to thousands of people both in and trying to get out, and everyone will tell you the same thing. ‘It’s because I wanted to belong to something.’ And the reason they got out is because they started to feel compassion from the people that they thought that they hated. Because it destroyed the prejudice."
What specifically triggered your exit from the movement, and what did that exit look like?
"I had a record store that I opened in ’94 because I wanted to sell white power music. And I knew the community wasn’t going to let me open up a racist music store, so I sold hip-hop and punk rock and metal. A small section. And I never thought anybody was going to come in and buy that stuff, because I was known as the white power store. But people did come in and buy the music.
At first, I was very standoffish, but when they started to come back, knowing exactly what I was about, eventually we’d start having small conversations, and then they’d turn into real conversations.
One day, a black teenager came in very visibly upset. I asked him what was wrong, not even really caring. He told me his mother had been diagnosed with breast cancer. And I felt very connected to him because my mother had been diagnosed. All of a sudden I had something in common with this kid who I thought was a different species. I was so ignorant that that’s what I believed. And then a gay couple with their child would come in, and I saw that they loved their child in the same profound way that I loved my own. And now, none of it is making sense to me anymore. So I started to look really deeply into what I believed, and I wasn’t brave enough to leave yet, but I started questioning things.
Finally I became so embarrassed to sell the white power music that I pulled it from my shelves. It was 75 percent of my revenue, so I had to close the store."
Picciolini says his parents, wife, and children cut ties with him over his membership in the movement, so losing his record store friends along with his neo-Nazi family meant he was left very much alone. Newly aware of how utterly wrong his ideals had been, he was ashamed to look in the mirror and tried to run from his past. In the process, he got a job with IBM, once assigned to install computers at, of all places, the very school he was twice kicked out of.
What happened at IBM?
"I had had a restraining order against me 5 years before from that school, I had picketed out in front of that school, I had done interviews with newspapers calling the black female principal words that should never come out of anybody’s mouth. I had gotten in a fistfight with the black security guard there on multiple occasions, and I got kicked out and taken out in handcuffs the second time.
And as I’m creeping around, so scared of being found out, that same security guard walked by me. I thought I was going to pass out, but I just had to do something, so I chased after him and found him in the parking lot. I tapped him on the shoulder and when he turned around and saw me, he was terrified because he recognized me, and all I could say was, ‘I’m sorry.’
And he forgave me. He talked to me and said, ‘You know what? I forgave you but it’s important for you to tell your story because you’re not just some kid from a bad family who screwed up his life. You had promise, you were good kid, why did you go down that way?’
I said, ‘Because I hated myself. I hated other people because I didn’t want to deal with my own pain. I projected.’
And he said, ‘Okay well if that’s the case, you have to tell your story.’
And he made me promise, and he told me I needed to forgive myself. I actually got a chance to see him again for the first time in 18 years just a couple weeks ago, and now we’re going fishing, he’s the greatest guy ever. He changed my life."
Throughout the interview, Picciolini speaks regularly about compassion like this. It’s what saved him, and it’s what he uses now in various organizations and in his public speaking to extract others from hate groups. For many though, this can be the hardest part to accept.
He clarifies that the purpose of the compassion is to understand why it happened, so we can prevent it from happening again.
"We tend to think of these people as monsters when we look at the things they do. Rightfully so, that’s a human instinct. What I know, having been one of those monsters, is that I was just a broken human being doing monstrous things. If we can understand that they weren’t born to do this, that gives us some insight on how we can prevent it in the future. We’re failing young people at the earliest ages when they’re the most vulnerable. If kids are passionate about something, we need to support it. We need to stop telling them what to do and start listening more."
How does that connect to allyship?
"White people in general need to stop prescribing the solutions for everybody’s problems. What we need to do is be true allies and say, ‘I’m at your disposal. I feel for you, I understand your pain but I can’t truly understand it because I am not you. What can I do to help?’
Politicians need to do that, law enforcement needs to do that, allies like us we need to do that. We need to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with them and say I’m here for you, tell me what you need. I will use my privilege as a shield for you if I have to. And acknowledging our privilege is a big thing. There’s some white people who think ‘I’m not privileged I’ve struggled for everything I’ve got!’ But that’s missing the point. It’s not how much you struggle, it’s the fact that you have white skin, and when people look at you, they treat you differently than they would somebody of color. That’s privilege."
Couldn’t we just make public spaces as uncomfortable as possible for white supremacists to dismantle them?
"There is a place for that. People need to be held accountable. And if you’re in a situation where somebody’s doing something that is clearly not appropriate, I would stand up right now and I would get in that person’s face and say, ‘That’s not appropriate, you gotta go.’ There’s a time and a place for compassion.
But there are two things that white supremacists love: they love silence, and they love violence. They love silence because if we just sweep it under the rug and pretend like we’re living in a post-racial society, look what happens. They recruit, they grow right under our noses. If we don’t think that they exist, then they flourish.
If we’re violent against them, they flourish because then they become the victims. They use that as the narrative and say, ‘You see? White men, we are marginalized! There’s prejudice against us, they’re trying to take away our pride, our culture. Black people can be proud and march but when we do it’s ... ’ You see what I mean?"
For years, Picciolini has worked alongside fellow anti-hate activists for Life After Hate, a national organization he co-founded with the aim to deradicalize individuals in extremist movements. Recently he parted ways with LAH to pursue a new venture, something still under wraps, but promises to make a big splash with anti-hate activism around the world, from ISIS to Nazis. He describes it as “a global intervention network that’s going to empower communities to provide services to make people who are at risk more resilient.”
Nearing the end of our time, he expounds on the work he dedicates his life to:
"Some people have a problem with it because they think it’s providing a safe space for racists. But if somebody would’ve done that for me, I wouldn’t have gone down the road that I did. Shouldn’t we try to avert them from going down that road? I’m not doing it because I feel bad for them. I’m doing it because I want to save lives.
I’m not a pacifist. If it comes down to it and they start marching down the street with tanks and weapons, I’m gonna fight back. But what are we gonna do, arrest and kill people for saying really ugly things? Unfortunately we have to tolerate it or do something about it. And we do something about it in two ways: I treat it like Polio. When they cured Polio, they treated sick people who had it, which is what I do through intervention. But they also inoculated the population so they wouldn’t get Polio.
Because if I just keep helping people who are in this, it’s a never-ending line of people. We need to prevent people from going in. And I think that we do that by understanding and doing a better job with young people."
Picciolini fleshes out these formidable concepts as well as personal history in his book, “White American Youth” — out December 26th via Hachette Books.