By Ben Tinsley
Christian Picciolini was a very young Chicago teen when he first was recruited into what he describes as America’s first neo-Nazi skinhead group.
Picciolini was only 14 at the time. By age 16, he had already risen through the ranks of that gang to the level of group leader. He also joined a hate-rock band.
Picciolini was a member of the neo-Nazi movement for eight years. He extracted himself and escaped that life at age 22.
“There wasn’t a single day in those eight years I was in the movement that I didn’t question what I was doing,” he said. “I wasn’t led to the movement by racism or ideology. I wasn’t brought up that way. I did it because I had felt marginalized for 14 years. … I left because everything fell into this inner explosion I couldn’t ignore anymore. So I walked away.”
That was decades ago.
Now nearly 45, Picciolini has pledged his life to helping others escape the white supremacy movement — out of the clutches of those who approach the disenfranchised and offer them friendship and camaraderie and then drag them down into a world of hate, ignorance and violence. And as someone whose very words and actions helped the neo-Nazi movement move forward when he was a member, Picciolini feels he has much to make up for.
During a May 3 presentation at the Communities Foundation of Texas, 5500 Caruth Haven Lane, Picciolini — now an acclaimed author and TED Talk Speaker — discussed how he has essentially spent the better part of two decades making amends and helping others escape that life. The audience was packed to overflowing.
“I planted a lot of really awful toxic seeds many years ago — many seeds of which I have pulled up today,” Picciolini said. “I am trying to replace what I am pulling out with something more positive.”
Since he left the white power movement, Picciolini founded the peace advocacy/counterextremism group “Life After Hate” in 2010. This group studies the traps that lure people into lives of extremism. Picciolini also regularly visits schools and speaks with community groups.
The road Picciolini walked to where he is now has been both rocky and precarious. For instance, Picciolini said, he didn’t leave the movement fast enough for his ex-wife. So, she took their children and left him.
Leaving a white supremacist life that included being kicked out of six high schools, the former ne’er-do-well spent the next five years in a depression, trying to figure out how to move forward. Life for Picciolini became a matter of treading water — both emotionally and developmentally.
It was at this point, he said, that a good friend came forward and encouraged him to apply for a job at IBM.
At first, Picciolini was incredulous.
“I thought, ‘There is no way they would hire an ex-Nazi with no college experience who had been kicked out of high school,’” Picciolini said. “But my friend said, ‘Just go.’ and I did. And I got the job. I learned how to network computers and install desktops for business and school districts.”
That is when Picciolini came face-to-face with his past: His first assignment for IBM was at one of the high schools he had been kicked out of twice.
And one of the first people he ran into there was a black security guard he had spent much of his high school career tormenting.
So Picciolini said he did the only thing he could: He approached the guard, identified himself, and asked for forgiveness.
“The guard was right there on my first day and I went up to him and told him, ‘I’m sorry.’ I really didn’t know what else to say, But he forgave me and encouraged me to tell my story to others.”
It turns out applying to IBM was the smartest move Picciolini ever made. The company paid for his college. (He got a degree in international relations.)
“All of a sudden, life was like living in Technicolor instead of black and white,” he said.
When Googling Picciolini’s name these days, you are as likely to find the listing of him as a professional musician next to accounts of his efforts to extract people from white supremacy.
The momentum of his new life led Picciolini to become a valued speaker. He has been featured as a contributor on numerous media programs, including CNN and CBS Evening News.
in 2016, he won a Regional Emmy Award for Exit USA’s “There is life after hate” campaign, for which he served as director and executive producer.
In 2017, Picciolini released a memoir titled White American Youth: My Descent into America’s Most Violent Hate Movement and How I Got Out (Hachette Books).
As the years go by, Picciolini’s efforts to extract others from the white supremacy movement continues to be his central mission of redemption.
He considers himself very fortunate that his demonization of other races transformed into illumination.
But he still holds himself responsible for helping build the white supremacist movement while he was a member.
“I have essentially spent the past two decades trying to people disengage from the movement I helped build,” he said. “People say this is a timely topic because of the rise in hate crimes that we are seeing. This is something that happens all the time and has happened throughout history.”
Picciolini discussed the Neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, last August. He noted that similar rallies happen elsewhere quite a bit, but do not garner as much attention as this one did.
Heather Heyer, who championed civil rights issues on social media, was killed there when a car “plowed into a crowd of counter protesters gathered to oppose a ‘Unite the Right’ rally of white nationalist and other right wing groups. Nineteen others were injured in the incident,” according to CNN.
“A young innocent woman was murdered that day, and the people behind that rally have not yet been held accountable,” Picciolini said “I have been to Charlottesville several times since then and spoken with the woman’s mother.”
Picciolini said despite the way her daughter died, Heyer’s mother has been very open to people trying to disengage from the white supremacist movement.
“She is so empathetic to others,” Picciolini said of Heather Heyer’s mother. “The fact she can do so after losing her daughter to someone who could have been part of that (hate) group is pretty incredible.”
In an issued statement, Mary Pat Higgins, president and CEO of the Dallas Holocaust Museum, said the presentation gave audience members the opportunity to explore the depths of racism through the lens of someone who spent years within the movement and as one of its most ardent supporters.
“Our hope is that Christian’s testimony will inform and touch the community in a lasting, impactful way so that future generations do not make the same mistakes that generations before them have made,” she said in the statement.
Picciolini said he will continue to reach out to people who “were just like me” and offer them a way to disengage and gain a new perspective on the people they think they hate.
He said he intends to spend the rest of his life making amends for his participation in the white supremacist movement.
And he’s not so sure he’s even worthy of the title “Upstander.”