Christian Picciolini was just 14-years-old when a man twice his age approached him in an alley. It was an encounter that would set Mr. Picciolini down a path of hatred and violent extremism.
“The year was 1987, and I was smoking a joint,” Mr. Picciolini recalled. “The man came up to me, pulled the joint from my lips, looked me in the eyes, and said, that’s what the Communists and the Jews want you to do to keep you docile.”
The man was Clark Martell, the first prominent leader in the neo-Nazi skinhead movement.
“At the time, I had no idea what a Communist was, and had never met a Jewish person in my life,” Mr. Picciolini said. “But it was the first moment where somebody had given me a lifeline of acceptance.”
Mr. Picciolini is a first-generation American, the son of Italian immigrants who struggled to plant roots in their new country. He recalls the anti-immigrant prejudice directed at his parents.
“I grew up without a clear identity,” Mr. Picciolini explained. “I was a shy, lonely, bullied kid, and this man, who happened to be America’s first neo-Nazi skinhead leader, drew me in through those vulnerabilities. I never grew up hating people of color or Jews, but that was the price of admission for a sense of community and purpose.”
Mr. Picciolini traded logic for the reward of empowerment by the white-supremacist movement. By age 18, he led America’s first neo-Nazi skinhead gang and helped to recruit and organize new radicals across the country. As the frontman for two white-power punk bands, including one named The Final Solution, he wrote and performed songs that inspired others to commit racist acts of violence. After eight years, Picciolini withdrew from the movement and eventually co-founded a group called Life After Hate that works to bring others out of white supremacist groups.
“It’s deeply shameful to know what I had participated in 30 years ago,” Mr. Picciolini admitted. “I’m still pulling up the weeds from all those seeds of hate that I planted, which is why I have dedicated the last 20 years of my life to eradicating racism.”
Mr. Picciolini began his transformation from neo-Nazi to an anti-hate advocate in his late teens. “Having my child when I was 19 years old and being married was a powerful catalyst because I finally had something to love,” he said.
As he works to mitigate the effects of his past hatred, Mr. Picciolini notes a disturbing trend in the rise of violent, far-right Extremism.
“Overt racism has become ingrained in the mainstream, partially because that ideology is now so accessible,” Mr. Picciolini suggested. “Those ideas were handed to me directly by one person in a dark alley. Now the skinhead movement recruits new, disaffected youth at a massive scale through the digital alley of the internet.”
Yet the proliferation of digital hatred is only the symptom of a systemic problem.
“The policies of institutional racism have fostered the idea of white supremacy for centuries, from slavery to Jim Crow to the prison-industrial complex – which is a modern-day equivalent of slavery,” Mr. Picciolini observed. “Most white people don’t know they’re complicit in a racist system.”
While he is encouraged by the positive momentum of the broader social justice movement, Mr. Picciolini warns the situation will worsen before it improves.
“Extremism flourishes in times of uncertainty,” Mr. Picciolini explained. “The worsening pandemic and lack of healthcare, rising unemployment, a disappearing middle class, and a struggle for economic and racial equity, are all concurring threats that lead people to grasp out-of-the-box ideas and embrace promises of a return to greatness.”
Historically, extremist movements direct their ire towards marginalized groups, something Mr. Picciolini sees playing out in modern American society.
“You’ve heard the tropes: Mexicans are criminals and rapists, Black people are either drug addicts or dealers, and Jews spread a multicultural agenda intended to destroy white culture through their control of the media and financial systems,” Mr. Picciolini illustrated.
Indeed, those who espouse racist ideology are a threat, but those who do nothing to resist hatred are roadblocks to progress.
“White supremacy is a problem that needs to be fixed by the white people who are complicit in or who benefit from the system,” Mr. Picciolini said. “That is the only way to stop the factory of racism from creating future racists.”
And yet the factory of racism is working at full-capacity, polishing racist dogma or antisemitic tropes into governmental policies and passing it off as patriotism and nationalism.
“Racism is not always as clear as a skinhead with tattoos or a Klansmen in a white-hood,” Mr. Picciolini said. “But that should worry us even more because hatred is being normalized for our children.”
While it is never the victim’s responsibility to combat their oppression, Mr. Picciolini suggests that what brings former extremists out of hate is receiving compassion from the people they least deserve it from at a time when they least deserve it.
“I recently learned about Tikkun Olam; I participated in breaking the world, so now I’ve made it my mission to repair that,” Mr. Picciolini said. “We live in a world where we can all change our society’s trajectory with small actions. It starts when we share our vulnerabilities and try to understand each other. That’s the universal glue that holds us together.”
Please join us on Monday, July 27th, at 7:00 p.m. for Breaking Hate: Confronting the New Culture of Extremism, a free, virtual conversation between Christian Picciolini and Rabbi Steve Schwartz, brought to the community through The Rabbi Mark G. Loeb Center for Lifelong Learning at Beth El. Register here.
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