A Reformed White Nationalist Speaks Out On Charlottesville Former white nationalist Christian Picciolini says he was "lost" and "lonely" when he was recruited into a white supremacist group as a teenager. He now runs a nonprofit that advocates for peace.

A Reformed White Nationalist Speaks Out On Charlottesville

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/543259499/543259500" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


We're talking with someone now who knows a bit about the anger and divisiveness on display yesterday. Christian Picciolini says he was lost and lonely when he was recruited into a white supremacist group as a teenager. He immersed himself in the group's ideology. And by age 16, he has - he had emerged as a leader of the group called the Chicago Area Skinheads, and he recruited others to the cause. That is until, he says, he had an awakening after the birth of his first child. He renounced ties to the neo-Nazi movement in 1995 at age 22 and went on to co-found a group called Life After Hate. He also wrote a book called "Romantic Violence: Memoirs Of An American Skinhead." Christian, thanks for joining us today.

CHRISTIAN PICCIOLINI: It's my pleasure, Stacey. Thank you.

SMITH: So as you were watching the events unfolding in Charlottesville over the past 48 hours, what was your reaction?

PICCIOLINI: Well, it was both disheartening to me but also unfortunately not a surprise because my organization and myself have been warning about the specific situation for many, many years. You know, when we left the movement 30 years ago and have spent the last 20 or so years trying to help people disengage from these extremist groups, we've also seen that underground that this has been growing, but it's also been shapeshifting.

It's gone from what we would have considered very open neo-Nazis and skinheads and KKK marching to now people who look like our neighbors or doctors or teachers or mechanics. And it's certainly starting to embolden them because of a lot of the rhetoric that's coming out of the White House today is so similar to what we preached and what they preached but in a slightly more palatable way.

SMITH: There has been a lot of speculation about that moment in Trump's speech yesterday when he condemned the violence happening on, quote, "many sides." What did you think when you heard that?

PICCIOLINI: Oh, I heard right away. And I was watching the television with my wife sitting next to me. And the first thing I said was - is he is calling out the left-wing protesters as the violent ones. Because that's a common tactic from white supremacist or white nationalist groups is to claim that they're the oppressed, to claim that white males are the ones who are being the most oppressed in this country today and that, in fact, everybody else is a hater.

So when I heard him say, you know, we condemn the violence from the haters and from all sides, I knew that he was avoiding saying neo-Nazis or white nationalists simply because so many of his supporters are from that movement. I'm not saying that everybody is, you know. Whatever somebody voted for politically is their business and they're allowed to do that. However, we have to acknowledge the fact that so many white supremacists, known white supremacists have come out in support publicly for the president. And, in fact, after the events of yesterday, are even praising the president for supporting them and not attacking them personally.

SMITH: Well, let me ask you about the incident with that car plowing into the anti-racism protesters. The name of the suspect has been released, James Alex Fields Jr. We still have a lot to learn about him. And there is a lot of speculation going on right now about what would have caused someone to do something like that, to drive a car into a group of people. What are your thoughts?

PICCIOLINI: You know, I think ultimately, people become extremists not necessarily because of the ideology. I think that the ideology is simply a vehicle to be violent. I believe that people become radicalized or extremists because they're searching for three very fundamental human needs - identity, community and a sense of purpose. If underneath that fundamental search is something that's broken - I call them potholes. Is there abuse or trauma or mental illness or addiction? In my case many years ago, it was abandonment. I felt abandoned, and that led me to this community.

But what happens is because there are so many marginalized young people, so many disenfranchised young people today with not a lot to believe in, with not a lot of hope, they tend to search for very simple black and white answers. Because of the Internet, we now have this propaganda machine that is flooding the Internet with conspiracy theory propaganda from the far-right, disinformation. And when a young person who feels disenchanted or disaffected goes online, where most of them live, they're able to find that identity online.

They're able to find that community, and they're able to find that purpose that's being fed to them by savvy recruiters who understand how to target vulnerable young people. And they go for this solution because, frankly, it promises paradise. And it requires very little work except for dedicating your life to that purpose. But I can say that they're all being fooled because the people at the very top have an agenda, and it's a broken ideology that can never work, that, in fact, is destroying people's lives more than the promise that they were given of helping the world or saving the white race.

SMITH: Can Charlottesville become a turning point for this country, do you think, politically and philosophically?

PICCIOLINI: Absolutely. I believe that the world has now seen what we have been sweeping under the rug for many, many years, thinking we were in a post-racial society. And I think that this catalyst shows the world, one, that it's a problem, a real problem that exists in our country. Two, that white extremism should be classified as terrorism. And now that we've attached a terrorism word to it, it will get more resources. It will be at the top of people's minds.

What people need to understand is that since 9/11, more Americans have been killed on U.S. soil by white supremacists than by any other foreign or domestic terrorist group combined by a factor of two. Yet we don't really talk about that, nor do we even call these instances of the shooting in Charleston or what happened in Oak Creek, Wis., at the Sikh temple or even what happened in Charlottesville this weekend as terrorism.

SMITH: Well, you work with a lot of these young people who have been associated with white nationalist groups in your group Life After Hate. What do you tell them?

PICCIOLINI: You know, I listen more than I speak. And when I listen for is the potholes, the ones that I mentioned before. You know, were they abused? Is there addiction? Is there a mental health issue? Are they just simply disconnected and have never had the time to have a meaningful interaction with somebody they claim to hate? But as I listen, then I start to fill in those potholes with services, whether it's mental health therapy. But to challenge the ideology.

What I do after working on the person, on the human, to make them more resilient and more whole so that they don't have to blame the other, is I'll immerse them in situations that challenge their narrative, so I may introduce a Holocaust denier to a Holocaust survivor or an Islamophobe to an imam or a Muslim family for dinner or somebody who is homophobic to an LGBTQ couple. And oftentimes, what happens is they are able to humanize these people that they once had this idea of them being a monster or a parasite in their head.

And because they've made that humanizing connection, they typically can't justify the prejudice or reconcile the hate any longer. And 9 times out of 10, this is the first time that the hater has had a meaningful interaction with the person they feel they hate. And when they receive compassion from the people they least deserve it from, when they least deserve it, that, to me, is the most transformative process. And I've seen that happen hundreds and hundreds of times, including to myself personally.

SMITH: Christian Picciolini is a former white supremacist and co-founder of the group Life After Hate. His book is "Romantic Violence: Memoirs Of An American Skinhead." And he joined us from Chicago. Thank you, Christian.

PICCIOLINI: Stacey, thank you so much for having me.

Copyright © 2017 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.