My Descent into America's Neo Nazi Movement and How I Got Out
This TED Talk was specially selected to support lessons from Chapter 6 “Moral Gravity” of the Diplomatic Planner, as part of supplementary learning and development in balancing ethics, values, personal and professional protocol and guidance.
At 14, Christian Picciolini went from naïve teenager to white supremacist -- and soon, the leader of the first neo-Nazi skinhead gang in the United States. How was he radicalized, and how did he ultimately get out of the movement? In this courageous talk, Picciolini shares the surprising and counterintuitive solution to hate in all forms.
ABOUT THE SPEAKER
After leaving the white supremacist skinhead movement he helped build in America during the 1980s and 90s, Christian Picciolini earned a degree in international relations from DePaul University. He launched Goldmill Group, a global media and counter-extremism consulting firm. In 2016, he won an Emmy Award for his role in producing an anti-hate advertising campaign aimed at helping people disengage from violent extremist groups. His life since leaving the white-supremacist movement over two decades ago has been dedicated to helping others counter racism and extremism by founding such organizations as ExitUSA and Life After Hate.
Picciolini has spoken all over the world, sharing his unique and extensive knowledge, teaching all who are willing to learn about building greater peace through empathy and compassion. His involvement in the early American skinhead movement is chronicled in his memoir WHITE AMERICAN YOUTH: My Descent into America’s Most Violent Hate Movement—and How I Got Out (Hachette). He is co-developing a television docu-series based on his work helping people disengage from violent ideologies.
My journey away from violent extremism began 22 years ago, when I denounced racism and left the American white supremacist skinhead movement that I had helped build.
I was just 22 years old at the time, but I had already spent eight years, from the time I was 14 years old, as one of the earliest and youngest members and an eventual leader within America's most violent hate movement.
But I wasn't born into hate; in fact, it was quite the opposite. I had a relatively normal childhood. My parents are Italian immigrants who came to the United States in the mid-1960s and settled on the South Side of Chicago, where they eventually met, and opened a small beauty shop. Right after I was born, things got a little bit more difficult. They struggled to survive with raising a young family and a new business, often working seven days a week, 14 hours a day, taking on second and third jobs just to earn a meager living. And quality time with my parents was pretty nonexistent. Even though I knew they loved me very much, growing up, I felt abandoned. I was lonely, and I started to withdraw, and then I started to resent my parents and become very angry. And as I was growing up, through my teenage years, I started to act out to try and get attention from my parents.
And one day, when I was 14, I was standing in an alley, and I was smoking a joint, and a man who was twice my age, with a shaved head and tall black boots, came up to me, and he snatched the joint from my lips. Then he put his hand on my shoulder and he looked me in the eyes, and he said, "That's what the communists and the Jews want you to do to keep you docile." I was 14 years old, I'd been trading baseball cards and watching "Happy Days" -- I didn't really know what a Jew was.
It's true. And the only communist that I knew was the bad Russian guy in my favorite Rocky movie.
And since I'm here baring my soul with you, I can reveal that I did not even know what the word "docile" meant.
But it was as if this man in this alley had offered me a lifeline. For 14 years, I'd felt marginalized and bullied. I had low self-esteem. And frankly, I didn't know who I was, where I belonged, or what my purpose was. I was lost. And overnight, because this man had pulled me in, and I had grabbed onto that lifeline with every fiber of my being. I had gone from "Joanie Loves Chachi" to full-blown Nazi.Overnight.
I started to listen to the rhetoric and believe it. I started to watch very closely as the leaders of this organization would target vulnerable young people who felt marginalized and then draw them in with promises of paradise that were broken. And then I started to recruit myself. I started to do that by making white-power music. And soon, I became the leader of that infamous organization that was led by that man in that alley who recruited me that day, who was America's first neo-Nazi skinhead and who had radicalized me. For the next eight years, I believed the lies that I had been fed. And though I saw no evidence of it whatsoever, I didn't hesitate to blame every Jewish person in the world for what I thought was a white, European genocide being promoted by them through a multiculturalist agenda. I blamed people of color for the crime and violence and the drugs in the city, completely neglecting the fact that I was committing acts of violence on a daily basis, and that in many cases, it was white supremacists who were funneling drugs into the inner cities. And I blamed immigrants for taking jobs from white Americans, completely neglecting the fact that my parents were hardworking immigrants who struggled to survive, despite not getting help from anybody else.
For the next eight years, I saw friends die, I saw others go to prison and inflict untold pain on countless victims and their families' lives. I heard horrific stories from young women in the movement, who'd been brutally raped by the very men they were conditioned to trust, and I myself committed acts of violence against people, solely for the color of their skin, who they loved, or the god that they prayed to. I stockpiled weapons for what I thought was an upcoming race war. I went to six high schools; I was kicked out of four of them, one of them, twice. And 25 years ago, I wrote and performed racist musicthat found its way to the internet decades later and partially inspired a young white nationalist to walk into a sacred Charleston, South Carolina, church and senselessly massacre nine innocent people.
But then my life changed. At 19 years old, I met a girl who was not in the movement, who didn't have a racist bone in her body, and I fell in love with her. And at 19, we got married, and we had our first son.And when I held my son in my arms in the delivery room that day, not only did I reconnect with some of the innocence that I had lost at 14 years old, but it also began to challenge the very important things that drew me to the movement to begin with: identity, community and purpose -- things that I had been struggling with as a young boy. And now, I struggled with the concept of who I was again. Was I this neo-Nazi hatemonger, or was I a caring father and husband? Was my community the one that I had manufactured around me to boost my own ego, because I felt self-hatred for myself and I wanted to project it onto others, or was it the one that I had physically given life to? Was my purpose to scorch the earth or was it to make it a better place for my family? And suddenly, like a ton of bricks hit me, I became very confused with who I'd been for the last eight years. And if only I'd been brave enough to walk away at that moment, to understand what the struggle was that was happening inside of me, then maybe tragedy could have been averted.
Instead, I did compromise. I took myself off the streets for the benefit of my family, because I was nervous that maybe I could go to jail or end up dead, and they would have to fend for themselves. So I stepped back as a leader, and instead I opened a record store that I was going to sell white-power music in, of course, because I was importing it in from Europe. But I knew that if I was just a racist store selling racist music the community would not allow me to be there. So I decided I was going to also stock the shelves with other music, like punk rock and heavy metal and hip-hop. And while the white-power music that I was selling was 75 percent of my gross revenue, because people were driving in from all over the country to buy it from the only store that was selling it,
I also had customers come in to buy the other music. And eventually, they started to talk to me. One day, a young black teen came in, and he was visibly upset. And I decided to ask him what was wrong.And he told me that his mother had been diagnosed with breast cancer. And suddenly, this young black teenager, who I'd never had a meaningful conversation or interaction with, I was able to connect with, because my own mother had been diagnosed with breast cancer, and I could feel his pain. On another occasion, a gay couple came in with their son, and it was undeniable to me that they loved their son in the same profound ways that I loved mine. And suddenly, I couldn't rationalize or justify the prejudice that I had in my head.
I decided to pull the white-power music from the inventory when I became too embarrassed to sell it in front of my new friends. And of course, the store couldn't sustain itself, so I had to close it. At that same time, I lost nearly everything in my life. I used it as an opportunity to walk away from the movement that I'd been a part of for eight years, the only identity, community and purpose that I'd really known for most of my life. So I had nobody. I lost my livelihood because I closed the store. I didn't have a great relationship with my parents, even though they tried. And my wife and children left me, because I hadn't left the movement and disengaged quickly enough. And suddenly, I didn't know who I was again, or where I fit in or what my purpose was supposed to be. I was miserable inside, and I often woke up in the morning wishing that I hadn't.
About five years in, one of the few friends that I had was concerned about my well-being, and she came to me and she said, "You need to do something, because I don't want to see you die." And she suggested that I go apply for a job where she worked, at a company called IBM. Yeah, I thought she was crazy, too.
Here I was, a closeted ex-Nazi covered in hate tattoos. I didn't go to college. I'd been kicked out of multiple high schools multiple times. I didn't even own a computer. But I went in, and somehow, miraculously, I got the job. I was thrilled.
And then I became terrified to learn that they'd actually be putting me back at my old high school, the same one I got kicked out of twice, to install their computers. This was a high school where I had committed acts of violence against students, against faculty; where I had protested out in front of the school for equal rights for whites and even had a sit-in in the cafeteria to try and demand a white student union.
And of course, as karma would have it, within the first couple of hours, who walks right by me but Mr. Johnny Holmes, the tough black security guard I had gotten in a fistfight with, that got me kicked out the second time and led out in handcuffs from the school. He didn't recognize me, but I saw him, and I didn't know what to do. I was frozen; I was this grown man now, years out of the movement, and I was sweating and I was trembling. But I decided I had to do something. And I decided I needed to suffer under the weight of my past, because for five years I had tried to outrun it. I'd tried to make new friends and cover my tattoos with long sleeves, and I wouldn't admit it because I was afraid of being judgedthe same way I had judged other people. Well, I decided I was going to chase Mr. Holmes out to the parking lot -- probably not the smartest decision that I made.
But when I found him, he was getting into his car, and I tapped him on the shoulder. And when he turned around and he recognized me, he took a step back because he was afraid. And I didn't know what to say. Finally, the words came out of my mouth, and all I could think to say was, "I'm sorry." And he embraced me, and he forgave me. And he encouraged me to forgive myself. He recognized that it wasn't the story of some broken go-nowhere kid who was going to just join a gang and go to prison. He knew that this was the story of every young person who was vulnerable, who was searching for identity, community and purpose, and then hit a wall and was unable to find it and went down a dark path. And he made me promise one thing, that I would tell my story to whoever would listen. That was 18 years ago, and I've been doing it ever since.
You might be asking yourself right now: How does a good kid from a hardworking immigrant family end up going down such a dark path? One word: potholes. That's right. Potholes. I had a lot of potholes when I was kid. We all had them -- you know, the things in life that we hit that invariably just kind of nudge us off our path, and if they remain unresolved or untreated or not dealt with, sometimes we can get dangerously lost down pretty dark corridors. Potholes can be things like trauma, abuse, unemployment, neglect, untreated mental health conditions, even privilege. And if we hit enough potholes on our journey in life, and we don't have the resources or the help to navigate around them or to pull us out, well, sometimes good people end up doing bad things.
One such person who had potholes is Darrell. Darrell is from upstate New York. He had read my memoir, and he was really upset about the ending. You see, I'd gotten out of the movement and he was still in. And he emailed me and he said, "I didn't really like the way that turned out." And I said, "Well, I'm sorry."
"But if you want to talk about it, we could certainly do that."
And after a couple of weeks of going back and forth with Darrell, I learned he was a 31-year-old military veteran who had been injured and was really angry about not being able to go to Afghanistanto kill Muslims. And one day on the phone, he told me that he had seen a Muslim man in the park praying, and that all he wanted to do was kick him in the face. I flew to Buffalo the next day, and I sat down with Darrell, and I asked him, "Have you ever met a Muslim person before?" And he said, "No!Why the hell would I want to do that? They're evil. I don't want anything to do with them." I said, "OK."So I excused myself, and I went into the bathroom and I took my phone out in the bathroom, and I Googled the local mosque, and I called them very quietly from the bathroom, and I said, "Excuse me, imam, I need a favor. I have a Christian man who would really love to learn more about your religion."
"Do you mind if we stop by?"
Well, it took some convincing for Darrell to go, but finally we got there, and when I knocked on the door, the imam said he only had 15 minutes left for us, because he was preparing for a prayer service.I said, "We'll take it." We went in, and two and a half hours later, we came out after hugging and crying and very strangely, bonding over Chuck Norris for some reason.
I don't know what it was about that, but that's what happened. And I'm happy to say now that Darrell and the imam, you can often find them at the local falafel stand, having lunch together.
You see, it's our disconnection from each other. Hatred is born of ignorance. Fear is its father, and isolation is its mother. When we don't understand something, we tend to be afraid of it, and if we keep ourselves from it, that fear grows, and sometimes, it turns into hatred. Since I've left the movement, I've helped over a hundred people disengage from extremist movements, from white supremacist groups -- to even jihadist groups. And the way I do that is not by arguing with them, not by debating them, not by even telling them they're wrong, even though, boy, I want to sometimes. I don't do that. Instead, I don't push them away. I draw them in closer, and I listen very closely for their potholes, and then I begin to fill them in. I try to make people more resilient, more self-confident, more able to have skills to compete in the marketplace so that they don't have to blame the other, the other that they've never met.
I'd like to just leave you with one last thing before I go. Of all the people I've worked with, they will all tell you the same thing. One, they became extremists because they wanted to belong, not because of ideology or dogma. And second, what brought them out was receiving compassion from the people they least deserved it from, when they least deserved it.
So I would like to leave you with a challenge: go out there today, tomorrow -- hopefully every day -- find somebody that you think is undeserving of your compassion and give it to them, because I guarantee you, they're the ones who need it the most.