One Man's Journey from Hate to Compassion
Aug 09, 2018
Christian Picciolini is the author of "White American Youth: My Descent into America’s Most Violent Hate Movement - and How I Got Out." He was a white supremacist leader until the people he thought he hated showed him compassion.
Christian Picciolini was 14 years old when a white supremacist with a shaved head and big boots approached him in a Chicago alley. “He pulled a joint from my mouth and smacked me in the head,” says Picciolini, “and looked me in the eye and said, ‘that’s what the communists and Jews want you to do to keep you docile.’” Shortly after the encounter, Picciolini joined the neo-Nazi skinheads.
Listen to a conversation between Christian Picciolini and New York Times contributing op-ed writer Wajahat Ali in our “Off-Stage” podcast series from Aspen Ideas to Go.
Picciolini’s neighborhood, Blue Island, was where the Chicago-area skinheads got their start in 1985. The ideology was brought over from England, says Picciolini, and quickly grew. According to the Anti-Defamation League, white supremacists believe that whites are “doomed to extinction by a rising tide of non-whites who are controlled and manipulated by the Jews.” The number of people adopting this ideology is increasing. The Southern Poverty Law Center reports, neo-Nazi groups grew from 99 to 121 over a one year period, from 2015 to 2016. One of the largest and most violent gatherings of white supremacists happened last year in Charlottesville, Virginia when protesters clashed during a so-called “Unite the Right” rally. One person was killed.
The draw of joining the skinheads, says Picciolini, was to gain a sense of belonging. He was bullied in school and his parents, Italian immigrants, weren’t around much—they worked long hours at their business. He was looking for identity, community, and purpose and the neo-Nazi group provided it. ”They give you meaning when you feel meaningless. They give you this perception of worth when you feel worthless, and power when you feel powerless.” These desires, he thinks, are the same reasons others join extremist groups. “It’s why someone might fly to Syria to join ISIS, a cult, or a gang in an inner city—it’s about wanting to belong and be part of something that’s bigger than yourself.”
For eight years Picciolini was part of the white supremacist movement. He created racist music and opened a record store that sold racist music. Then, people he didn’t expect in his store showed up: African Americans, Jews, and LGBTQ people. “They knew who I was and what I’d done, and they still came in and treated me with compassion,” says Picciolini, “it was the compassion I received from them—the people I least deserved it from—that really was the most powerful, transformative thing.” He could no longer demonize them, so he began to humanize them. He says, “it changed my whole perspective.”
Instead of spreading hate, now Picciolini works to combat it. Two decades after leaving the white supremacists, he helps others counter racism and violent extremism with Life After Hate, an organization he co-founded, and the Free Radicals Project that helps people disengage from hateful and violence-based radicalization. “We really do have to treat it like we’re treating polio. We have to treat those who are sick,” he says, “but we also have to inoculate the population through prevention.” He thinks we need to do a better job of raising our children to be compassionate. “Parents, adults, and teachers need to be vulnerable with younger people so that young people can learn to be vulnerable and talk about their feelings instead of bottling them up.”
The views and opinions of the speakers in the podcast do not necessarily reflect those of the Aspen Institute.
Written by Marci Krivonen, associate editor/producer for Public Programs at the Aspen Institute