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How one man left hate behind – and helped others do the same

Why We Wrote This

On the anniversary of last year’s Charlottesville protests, former white supremacist Christian Picciolini offers a unique view into how to counter hate. By his count, he has helped more than 200 individuals exit a life of hate by giving them a new sense of identity, community, and purpose.

Teresa Crawford/AP
Christian Picciolini, founder of the group Life After Hate, poses for a photograph in his Chicago home on Jan. 9, 2017. Picciolini, a former skinhead, is an activist combating what many see as a surge in white nationalism across the United States. He's doing it by helping members quit groups including the Ku Klux Klan and skinhead organizations.

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Christian Picciolini was recruited into America’s first skinhead group, Chicago Area Skinheads, when he was a young teenager. He was frequently bullied at school and felt abandoned by his parents, Italian immigrants who worked so hard to make a living that he rarely saw them. Mr. Picciolini became an international leader in the movement, but was eventually impelled to leave it through the compassion he was shown by the very people he thought he hated. By his count, he has helped more than 200 individuals exit a life of hate by giving them a new sense of identity, community, and purpose. Picciolini is the host and narrator of a new documentary produced by Part2Pictures, that traces the story of how he helped a Charlottesville protester walk away from the neo-Nazi views he espoused – with the help of Susan Bro, whose daughter was killed in the protests. The following is a transcript of a Monitor interview with Picciolini ahead of the documentary’s airing on MSNBC on Sunday, Aug. 12, at 9 p.m. Eastern. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Christian Picciolini was recruited into America’s first skinhead group, Chicago Area Skinhead, when he was a young teenager. He was frequently bullied at school and felt abandoned by his parents, Italian immigrants who worked so hard to make a living that he rarely saw them.

Mr. Picciolini became an international leader in the movement, but was eventually impelled to leave it through the compassion he was shown by the very people he thought he hated. By his count, he has since helped more than 200 individuals – including not only white supremacists but also ISIS members and potential school shooters – exit a life of hate by giving them a new sense of identity, community, and purpose.

Picciolini is the host and narrator of a new documentary produced by Part2Pictures, “Breaking Hate,” which traces the story of how he helped a Charlottesville protester walk away from the neo-Nazi views he espoused – with the help of Susan Bro, whose daughter was killed in the protests. The following is a transcript of a Monitor interview with Picciolini ahead of the documentary’s airing on MSNBC on Sunday, Aug. 12, at 9 p.m. Eastern. The interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Q: What originally attracted you to white supremacy?

A: One day, at 14 years old, I was standing in an alley smoking a joint and this guy came up to me who was twice my age. He had a shaved head and he was wearing boots. In 1987, nobody in America knew what a skinhead was – it was brand-new.

He pulled the joint from my mouth and looked me in the eyes and said, “That’s what the communists and the Jews want you to do, to keep you docile.”

He put his hand on my shoulder, he asked me what my name was, and he learned that I was Italian. And then he started to talk to me about my ancestors and their greatness and the glory of the Roman Empire and started to kind of pull me in by playing at my pride.

And I didn’t know anything about politics, I didn’t know anything about racism. It wasn’t part of our family DNA. But because I was so desperate to belong somewhere, I was willing to learn to tune out the negative parts of what he was saying.

And once I started to be welcomed into this group … the brotherhood and the power that I thought I felt – having gone from being very powerless – was intoxicating.

Q: So what touched your heart and led you to leave white supremacy behind?

A: Well, to be honest I had questions for the eight years that I was involved. I stayed in until I was 22 and I became a national leader and kind of an international figure through a couple of bands that I started.

I had opened a record store in 1994 to sell white power music. It was about 75 percent of my revenue. But other people started to come in to shop for hip hop, and funk, and heavy metal – African-Americans, Jews, gays, Asians, or Muslims. They knew exactly what my ideologies were; I never hid it.

And it was the compassion that I received from them, at a time when I least deserved it, that started to change me. The humanization began to destroy the demonization in my head. After a while I couldn’t reconcile my prejudice or my hatred anymore.

Ultimately, I walked away.

Q: Was it hard to walk away?

A: It was incredibly difficult, not only because of the pressure from the group but also because it was really all that I had ever known since I was 14 years old.

So I struggled for about five years after I left. I was waking up wishing that I hadn’t. A friend came to me and she said, “You know, I don’t want to see you die, you should go apply for a job at this company that I started working at called IBM.”

I thought she was crazy. I said, “Why would somebody like me with my past with no education, covered in tattoos, an ex-Nazi, why would they hire me?” I didn’t even own a computer. And she said, “Well, give it a shot, what do you have to lose?”

I got the job. It was just an entry-level job networking computers and installing desktops and it kind of filled me with hope – until they told me where I’d be going for my first day of work: my old high school, the one I’d been kicked out of twice. [The second time, it was for getting in a fist fight with an African-American security officer.]

On my first day, that security officer walked right past me. He didn’t recognize me, but I decided I was going to follow after him and talk to him. As he was getting in his car, I tapped him on the shoulder. When he recognized me, he took a step back. All I could think to say or do, because I was so nervous and so afraid, was, “I’m sorry.”

He embraced me and he forgave me. He hugged me, and we cried. He made me promise that I would tell my story…. And I’m so glad that he did because it saved my life.

Q: So how did this “Breaking Hate” special come together?

A: This mother had read my book [“White American Youth: My Descent Into America’s Most Violent Hate Movement – and How I Got Out”] and she emailed me. She was distraught because here was her kind and warm teenage boy, Gabe, who had now become this mean, aggressive neo-Nazi skinhead. He was a Hammerskin, which is the same group that I once was a part of.

People gravitate toward those ideologies not because of the ideology but because it fulfills that identity, community, and purpose. I don’t try and change their political beliefs. I let them do it themselves.

And the second step is introducing them to people that they think they hate. Suddenly people who have never had that meaningful engagement with those people that they think they hate are suddenly receiving empathy and feeling empathy.

Gabe was actually at Charlottesville last year. This was during the time that I [had started] working with him. When I found out, I proposed the idea of going back to Charlottesville to face his demons without his friends. I was lucky enough to meet Susan Bro, who is an amazing person and just so courageous. And I put them together. I think that story and interaction … will floor people.

Q: What is your hope for what the documentary will accomplish?

A: I hope it will show [viewers] people’s capacity for change – and not to write people off. And I hope it will also help them understand why people go to these groups, so that we can start to preemptively help people before they get to that point. Nobody is born to hate. We wear it like armor to protect our wounds.

I’ve worked with hundreds of people and their situations are all different. But I can tell you with full certainty that every single one of them was led to [hate] because they were searching for identity, community, and purpose.

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