My bio: My name is Christian Picciolini. I am a former member of America’s first neo-Nazi skinhead gang (Chicago Area Skinheads/Romantic Violence). I was recruited in 1987 when I was 14 years old and stayed in the movement for seven years, until I was 22 in 1996. I held a regional leadership position in the Hammerskin Nation, America’s most violent skinhead group. I stockpiled weapons hoping to overthrow the US government, and I was asked to meet with Muammar Gaddafi to form an alliance. In 1996, I decided to leave the vicious movement I helped create because I could no longer reconcile my hateful ideology and thoughts with the empathy I began to feel and the compassion I began to receive from those who I deserved it from the least — those who I previously hated.
After nearly two decades of self-reflection and atonement, in 2010 I co-founded a nonprofit called Life After Hate to help educate people on issues of far-right extremism and radicalization and to help people disengage from hate groups and to love themselves and accept others, regardless of skin color, religious belief, or sexual preference. I helped launch ExitUSA, a program of Life After Hate, which acts as a beacon and support system to those wishing to leave hate groups.
I published my memoirs, Romantic Violence: Memoirs of an American Skinhead last week. My story is a poignant cautionary tale that details my indoctrination when I was barely a teen, a lonely outsider who, more than anything, just wanted to belong. When my mentor went to prison for a vicious hate crime, I stepped forward, and at 18, I was overseeing the most brutal extremist skinhead cells across the country. From fierce street brawls to drunken white power rallies, recruitment by foreign terrorist dictators to riotous white power rock music, I immersed myself in racist skinhead culture, hateful propaganda, and violence.
More info on the new book: http://www.christianpicciolini.com/book/
What was meeting with Gaddadfi about?
It’s a great scene in the book. He sent an attache to meet with a Canadian racist, who in turn sent someone to ask for my group to be involved in a trip to Libya to receive funds to fight the Jews in America. I turned it down. I wasn’t interested in being a traitor to the US. Turned out to be a Canadian Intelligence undercover operation. Phew!
How so you think technology helps or hinders hate groups now? I’d think that tech used for recruitment could would be largest boon. Do you consider location tracking a concern for most members of similar groups? (I figure lower on totem pole louder the digital presence?)
I acually wrote about this in Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen’s (Google) book, The New Digital Age.
I think it helps AND hurts. It helps extremist groups because the reach is broader (social media), it’s relatively anonymous, and it’s cheap to use to recruit and disseminate propaganda. People can be racist without having to do it in person. The internet acts as a buffer. It hurts because it has a much more effective close rate (referring to recruiting) if it’s performed by a face to face interaction. Closing the deal and keeping engaged has to be done in a high touch way.
It seems that more that leaning the hard way might be only way out of rabbit hole?
If we change education, we can avert it altogether.
So Gaddadfi wasn’t really involved?
I believe he was supporting US groups with money. Though this particular instance was a setup. Several even visited Libya and met with Gaddafi’s people.
Did you guys really think you could overthrow the U.S. government? How was this a reasonable supposition?
Like the rest of our ideologies, we were delusional.answer
Though I do believe that most revolutions have started with just a spark. Our spark was unsustainable and illogical.
Have you ever seen American History X ? And if so, when was it, and what did you think of it?
Yes, I have. Only once a bit after it came out in the 90s. I did download it on Google Play a few months ago, though I have yet to watch it again. I think it’s a pretty accurate, though dramatized, depiction. Frank Meeink, who is my great friend and also a board member of Life After Hate, our nonprofit, is a large basis of Ed Norton’s character. Check him out. He wrote a book called Autobiography of a Recovering Skinhead. I think Daniel Vinyard in AHX was a composite character based on a few people.question
You mention being ‘indoctrinated’ into the group. What form did this take? Did you posses any racist views prior to joining the gang, or were they developed during your membership?
Repetition of thought. Rhetoric. Reinforcement of insecurities backed by promises of comfort, power, and supremacy. Music was the most effective propaganda tool for white power skinheads in the 80s and 90s. Even now.
I was not raised to be a racist. In fact, my parents came to this country in the 60s from Italy and they were often the victims of prejudice themselves. I formed these opinions on my own because I was searching for meaning. I wanted to fit in. When I met a group that I thought filled those needs, I was like putty.
When you say music, how did they use it? I can’t imagine a camp fire with a guitar singing skinhead ‘kumbaya’
Music has a great influence on society: fashion, language, culture, behavior, appearance.
The lyrics in the songs I listened to inspired violence and hate. They were filled with words that gave me the (perceived) answers to my problems. It was an outlet for my angst and confusion. Listened to enough times, it became my education. I then did the same when I wrote my lyrics and music. It was a recruiting tool and very effective. It was a community.
It looks like you’ve kept some of your white-supremacy-related tattoos. Can you talk about the decision keep them? I’m sure that you get some looks for those from folks who don’t know you.
I have covered some — the most hateful ones. The others are a reminder. Some I just haven’t gotten to yet. My tattoos are my permanent diary. Some that I’m embarrassed of for sure.
What was the first moment you realized that what you were doing in the extremist group was wrong and hateful? What other discoveries and occurrences led you to realize your extremism?
I wasn’t raised racist, so I had small moments of doubt throughout my whole 7 year involvement. It didn’t make sense 100% of the time. But my first real “moment of clarity” came when a group of us attacked a group of black youth at a McDonalds. They shot at us and when the gun jammed, we beat the gunman. While kicking him, I had a moment of empathy and it stung me.
Are you worried about how easy it is nowadays to become part of an extremist and hateful ideology? Especially when you see young people going over to join such groups, such as ISIS.
I think that anytime there are large unemployment rates, inequality, lack of opportunity ANY society will have to deal with extremism. I joined the white power movement for the same reasons that young Americans go to Syria and join ISIS.
What are those reasons?
Promise of power, inclusion, protection, sense of community, your ideology shifts once you’re given reasons to blame others for your shortcomings or problems.
You mentioned that your parents were Italian immigrants often subjected to discrimination themselves. How did they handle your indoctrination into a hate group? Did they have any influence on your decision to change your lifestyle to or back from that group?
My parents were terrified for me. I don’t think they ever knew the extent of my involvement, but they were scared.
I believe I know someone “like you”, that once belonged to a hate group but has stepped away from it. This friend of mine has many “nazi tattoos” and I want to be able to talk to him about it but I don’t know how to start the conversation. I am worried he still has connections to the group. Question being: What’s the best way to start a conversion on the subject? How do I deal with it if he tells me that he still is connected to the group and its vision? What would you tell him in order to show you don’t agree with it but not pushing him away?
Just ask him. And talk it through. Chances are he is dying for someone to talk to openly about it. He’s likely very embarrassed (if he’s no longer a part). If he still is a part, ask him why. And then question why you want to be friends with him. Be compassionate. It’s hard to counter logically.
Hey just got released from Mansfield Correctional Institution in February of this year… I am a part of the neo-nazi movement currently and am just wondering how you made it out alive? Did you have problems leaving?
Well, for one, I’m not a rat. Even in my book, I don’t “out” anyone except for myself. I have been called a traitor and had my address and phone number published online. But never a threat of physical violence. I initially had some serious problems when I left, but I can’t live my life scared to do the right thing.
What made you want to join Romantic Violence? What can we do to make sure today’s youth aren’t susceptible to the same kind of influence?
I was a lonely 14 year old kid that was hungry to do something that mattered — that meant something. I joined because I was ambitious and susceptible. I was targeted by a recruiter, a charismatic individual.
We need to provide education and services geared towards young kids to keep them engaged…at a young age. People usually join extremist groups/gangs/etc because there are no other opportunities.
What’s the best way for me to help others overcome hate?
Show them compassion. It was what ultimately changed me. I know it’s hard, but it’s contagious (unless they are a sociopath or psychopath). Then send them over to www.exitusa.org. Our focus is to be a support system for those who want to get out of hate groups or away from hate in general.
What was your favorite part of doing the Adam Carolla Show? Was there ever a time where you met a Jew, during your skin head years, and though, “myeh….he seems like a nice guy..maybe i shouldn’t be hating so hard?
Everyone at Adam Carolla show was very nice! I even had a chance encounter with Dr. Drew and gave him a copy of my book. I think my favorite part was the looseness of the interview. I’m used to doing very serious interviews. It was nice to relax.
Honestly, I think I met maybe 2 jews the whole time I was a skinhead. Likely none before that. Now, it seems like every one of my friends, colleagues, or business partners are Jewish. I love every single one of them. Like family.
Was there a single attack or event that you ordered or were apart of that made you say “this has gone too far,” and begin leaving the group? Or was it a gradual process?
It was a gradual process. My group, while under my command, was more geared towards marketing and recruiting rather than violence. There certainly was some violence, but mostly not.
I was in one of America’s first white power skinhead bands and the first to travel overseas to Europe. My role was to recruit through music.
How do your experiences recruiting in Europe relate, in your mind to the recruitment of ISIS in the youth of Europe as well? Do you think this means youth are susceptible to this kind of influence all over the globe?
Yes 100%. Our young kids are susceptible. The recruiting measures are basically the same.
How do you feel about your past in comparison to your current efforts? Arguments can be made that the reason you have such as impact now is because of damage that you caused in your past. Do you feel conflicted about this?
Great question. My past fuels my present. Those seven years I was active, I spread and planted a lot of seeds of hate around the world. I spend most of my time now pulling weeds that have sprouted from those seeds. I’m not conflicted so much as I am committed to repairing what I broke.
In that case, what do you consider your greatest failures from the past, as in the things that you’re having the most trouble repairing? Also, what are you most pleased with having repaired so far?
My greatest failure is that I wasn’t there for my brother as much as he needed me to be. Subsequently I feel responsible for his death/murder. I could have done more to divert his path.
Are you sure you aren’t the guy from American History X?
Edward Norton’s character was a composite of several people. Frank Meeink being one of them. I also think I may have been used as a character study.
You’ve been through an overwhelming change in your thought process and self image from an adolescence to the man you are today, what about you has stayed relatively constant?
I am still ambitious, I still love Nutella and The Clash, and I am still shy (though you’d never know it).
In your opinion, are there any popular misconceptions of neo-Nazi groups?
The only misconception is that members can’t change. In most cases it is a learned ideology and can be “unlearned” through enlightenment.
How do you feel about the people recruited in prisons and the best way to circumvent it? I knew a guy who did time, and ended up with white supremacy ink solely because he was white and had nowhere else to “fall into” that would accept him. He definitely didn’t prescribe to the ideology, but he needed community and support and protection, and they were the only ones offering it up. Obviously it came at a cost though.
Tough one. Don’t go to prison is the best answer, I guess. Once you’re there, though, not sure there is much else to do but try and get thru it as best as you can.
How many members do change? Is the story of a teenage kid getting involved in a gang, then leaving in their 20’s a common one?
I think many change their beliefs but just don’t have anyone to talk to about it. Their past drags them down like an anchor and they never seem to heal internally and lead positive lives. There were no support groups for this before Life After Hate.
On the other hand, others never do change and continue down a dark path.
As a reformed extremist, how do you view our current (US Govt) approach to preventing extremist in our country? The concern I have is that we have documented and/or recorded (by the internet or NSA) all of the youthful stupidity of all our country and many who would have outgrown this ignorance (as you did) may forever be labeled as a threat and never outgrow it. This may lead many to believe all hope is lost… How do you respond to this?
I don’t really know what our govt is doing to stem extremism. I think there is a concern, but the concern is mitigated by poor programs and band-aid reform.
re: Internet. It’s no different than a 14 year old black inner city youth who gets busted with a dime bag of weed. That stays with them forever and hurts his/her chances for success even though they may have grown out of it. Judge people based on their character, not past discretions.
I don’t know whether this will be answered, but when people learn about your past, have you been discriminated against? Or have people been more glad, and supportive of your move out of that lifestyle?
Most everyone has been very supportive…and surprised.
I think it’s great that you’ve not only come so far in your mission of acceptance, but that you’re helping others out as well. Just one question to lighten the mood, as I always try to ask. Any thoughts on Game of Thrones?
Dude. Thank you.
I have watched every single episode and I still have no fucking idea what is going on. It’s an amazing show, but I’m constantly lost. Though I have a bit of a crush on Cersei.
Sometimes reddit is considered fall into a racist mindset when confronted by racial stereotypes. So I was wondering if you browsed reddit enough to determine what common pit falls reddit falls into when these stories appear and how we can best avoid thinking like this?
There is a lot of racism online. It happens on Reddit and on YouTube in the comments. I think the communities need to self-regulate. There is more good out there than bad.
Do you think people who have a change of heart after committing horrendous hate crimes should be forgiven? If so, do you think there is a border, or set of behaviors that can be crossed where you would have said otherwise?
I think most normal people can shed the ideology and change their views with a proper support system and education. On the other hand true sociopaths and psychopaths cannot be changed, IMO.
If “Romantic Violence” becomes a film, which actor(s) do you want to portray you?
Interesting question. I’m not so up on my 18-24 year-old-looking actors. Dave Franco?
How do you think the world should handle ISIS?
We need to provide young people with opportunity so that ISIS isn’t a viable option. ISIS is being effective because they are promising a perceived paradise situation, though it’s all a lie, to young marginalized and disenfranchised people.
Any idea on how to change this? Because the way I see it, supremasist groups promise people beter life’s if they side with them. It is possible to show them they’re lives have only become worse since they joined them. However groups like ISIS promote a better afterlife.
We need to work harder to provide young people with better opportunities so they don’t go looking at other options.
Do you still dress skinhead? Do you still wear boots, braces, etc.? Did you turn into an anti-racist, reggae listening skinhead or did you abandon the style completely? If you’re still dressing the part, are you accepted by the anti-racist skins?
No I don’t consider myself a skinhead in any way. Not saying I don’t own a pair of docs or a fred perry, but not to look like a skinhead.
Social media has proven to be an effective way of recruiting to the side of hatred – what do you think is the most efficient and effective method of using that same media to divert members from hate groups and gangs?
What exactly goes through the mind of a skinhead? Why does he hate so much?
First, not all skinheads are racist. There are anti-racist skinheads, communist skins, traditional/apolitical skins etc…
My brand of skinhead was racist/neo-nazi. We were angry, blaming, unwilling to accept responsibility ourselves for our own shortcomings. If something was wrong, it was because of “jews” or “blacks”…not, because I have no education or training and I’m lazy.
I hated because I was ignorant and I blamed others for my shortcomings
Knowing that not all skinheads are racist, and that the anti-racist ones have a hard time shaking the connotation, why did you call your book “Memoirs of an American Skinhead” instead of “Memoirs of an American Nazi?”
I feel like I want to answer this one more. I have heard many times from people (usually anti-racist skinheads) that I should not have used “skinhead” in the title. And I understand, from a traditionalist perspective why they wouldn’t want the term associated with the original meaning of a skinhead — non-political, fashion-oriented. But the truth was that I was a skinhead, albeit a racist one, for seven years. There are different kinds of skinheads, let’s fac e it. I was the bad kind.
Because I wasn’t really a Nazi. I was a white power skinhead.
You mentioned in another comment that you had skinhead music influence. How has your musical taste evolved since separating yourself from the skinhead culture?
Before I became a skinhead (pre-14), I listened to The Clash, Minor Threat, DRI, Ramones, Bad Brains. When I was a white power skinhead it was British Oi! (4skins, Business, Cock Sparrer, Cockney Rejects, Last Resort) and white power music like Skrewdriver, No Remorse, Brutal Attack, Bound For Glory. After I left the movement, I started to like bands like Social Distortion, Joan Jett, and Bad Religion. Still loved the Clash. Now, I love bands like Riverboat Gamblers, Foxy Shazam, Portugal. The Man. Still love The Clash.
Now that you no longer subscribe to the neo-nazi ideology, what are your opinions on left-wing punks, sharps and groups like the ARA that deal with racism from within the punk community?
I applaud them, but urge them not to use violence. Many of the anti-racist skins I met were just as violent as we were and they hated just as much as we did.
Are you a traditional skinhead now. Or do you still listen to the music?
I am not a skinhead now. I do occasionally listen to some British Oi! I especially like Cock Sparrer and 4skins.
What is your current pollitical stance? I am wondering if the actions and beliefs of the far right pushed you to a more leftist ideology or if you still support the right-side pollitics while resenting the extremists?
I would say I am much more liberal and left, though I find myself in the middle quite a bit too.
What attracted you to Neo-Nazis at first?
Music and lifestyle.
Do you think personal profit, ego stoking, and the chance of fame and recognition affect why you became an anti racist activist? There are a handful of you guys that have made quite a comfortable living for yourselves in your post extremist lives. It seems to me a lot of the reasons you are an anti racist activist are in fact the same reasons you became an extremist in the first place. I have read your book and the other recent ones that tell the same story. Their main characters all share this exact trait that I mentioned above. This is from a former skinhead btw.
I don’t know anyone who has profited greatly from this or from writing a book: Frank Meeink, Arno Michaelis, TJ Leyden. None of them are making a living from their books and I can say with 100% certainty that none of us are doing it for profit or ego.
Any other Chicago area Skin or Punk crews ever pop up on your radar? If so, who?
I am not really familiar with any of the new groups.
What is your opinion of non-hateful, peaceful white nationalist groups as well as peaceful racial nationalist groups of other races? Do you see the attitude of “help our own instead of hurt others” as a positive or negative view?
It’s all BS based on hate. No pride involved.
Have you heard of the PEGIDA organization and what is your take on there goals?
Yes and they are a fear-mongering racist group.
What were your defining moments on deciding to becoming a Neo-Nazi and what changed your viewpoint?
I was a lonely 14 yo kid looking for something. It found me and I fell hard. When I was 13, my bike was stolen by black kids and I was beat up by them. That was the key that my recruiter used to prove to me that the ideology was right. Lots of things changed my viewpoint: kids being born, meeting non-whites through my record store and becoming friends. Compassion broke me.
Do you really believe that we are all equal and the same?
Without equal opportunity, we do not all have the same chance to be equal.