For former skinhead leader Christian Picciolini, the road to redemption has many tolls, but continues on
At 14, Christian Picciolini found himself at the intersection of Union and Division Streets in Blue Island, birthplace of the American white power skinhead movement and one of the two towns that he was shuffled back and forth from every day. It’s also the location where the young, impressionable kid who didn’t fit in found a new friend. Not a traditional friend, rather a “friend” that would lead him metaphorically down Division Street for next 8 years as he did his best to exaggerate the differences between nationalities and races using hatred and racist propaganda to recruit and grow the first neo-Nazi American skinhead gang in the United States while rising through the group’s ranks.
Picciolini grew up in Blue Island, the son of Italian immigrant parents. Eventually, his parents moved to Oak Forest but because they both worked every day, Christian would be picked up from school and brought back to Blue Island to stay with his grandparents. In his 2015 book Romantic Violence: Memoirs of an American Skinhead, Picciolini writes that he was an outcast in both towns, “too rich” to be in Blue Island and “too ethnic” to be in Oak Forest. Then at 14, he was befriended by 26-year-old Clark Martell, a man that would bring a sense of belonging and importance to him and lead him to join Chicago Area Skinheads (CASH). By 16, he led CASH and facilitated a merger with the Hammerskins, a more violent and well-organized white supremacist skinhead organization.
Throughout his 8 years in the hate group, Picciolini would rise in the ranks and be looked at as an important leader by skinheads from around the world. He recruited the same types of kids that he was and took part in many rallies and violent beatings as he spread the message of hate. He also fronted two white-power bands, White American Youth (W.A.Y.) and Final Solution, which was the first American white power skinhead group to play Europe.
Along the way, he put his parents through hell, getting kicked out of four different high schools [Marist and Brother Rice in Chicago, Project Individual Education (PIE) in Oak Lawn, and Eisenhower (twice) in Blue Island] and neglecting his brother Alex, who was 10-years younger and idolized him.
Music proved to be a great recruiting tool for Picciolini. He was a leader in the movement and his band was playing to thousands of impressionable kids, increasing his stardom in skinhead movement. Ironically, it was also music that helped save him. Married at 19 to Lisa, a non-racist from neighboring Alsip, Picciolini shrugged off her initial challenges to his belief system and stayed in the movement. His relationship with his wife may have been the spark that started him to question his lifestyle, but it would take more for him to leave the movement. They had a son, Devin, and he questioned his beliefs even more. In 1994, Picciolini had another son, Brandon, and opened Chaos Records in Alsip where he stocked the shelves with punk records while selling white power records under the counter. But as he spent more time at his record store and less time at skinhead meetings and rallies, he also spent less time at home. At his store, he began to interact with customers that were everything he claimed to hate for 8 years — black, gay, Jewish and non-racist whites. It was that interaction, along with the birth of his sons, that helped him to realize that his life was built on a foundation of lies and misery.
Eventually, Picciolini got out, but at a high price. Largely because of the lack of attention he was paying to his family, Lisa divorced him. By 21, Picciolini found himself totally alone. Divorced and without custody of his boys, he also lost his business and all of his friends. Shortly after, his brother was murdered by gang members who mistook the van he was in as a rival gang that they had problems with. As Picciolini explained in his book and our interview, it’s an event that he blames himself for and that, along with the mistakes he repeatedly made during his 8 years in the hate movement, are what he has dedicated his life to atoning for through his foundation, Life After Hate, which helps members of hate groups make the transition out of that lifestyle.
To be clear, Picciolini doesn’t consider himself a victim. He has come full circle in his life but continues to try to make up for the 8 years he lost. He knows he’ll never get his brother back and can’t stop every impressionable kid from making the same mistakes that he made, but he isn’t giving up.
These days, Picciolini’s life is very positive. He has been married to his second wife, Britton, for ten years; his boys, now 23 and 21-years-old, live together and both have good jobs. His relationship with his parents is healthy as is his relationship with his first wife Lisa.
The Chicago Ambassador spoke with Picciolini recently about his life, his foundation, and his concern about the current political atmosphere which he described as having a lot of similarities to the hate movement.
Interviewed by Bob Chiarito for The Chicago Ambassador.
CA) One of the things that I found fascinating about your story, and I’ve read some articles and your book, is that you weren’t raised to be racist. It seems to me and correct me if I’m wrong, that you just didn’t fit in because you were shuffled back and forth from Oak Forest to Blue Island as a kid and kind of an outsider in both towns, making you an easy mark for the likes of a charismatic, older guy like Clark Martell, who recruited you.
PICCIOLINI) Yeah, that’s true. And from day one, when I started to learn what they were about, I was like, ‘Yeah, I’m in. I had rationalized it even though I didn’t see the other kids in the neighborhood doing it.
CA) Your parents were somewhat aware of what you were into?
PICCIOLINI) I don’t think they were ever fully aware of what I was into. They knew I was into something bad.
CA) You managed to live in the basement apartment. Did that make it easier to hide it from them?
PICCIOLINI) I don’t think I hid the fact that I was involved. I think I hid the fact of how involved I was.
CA) They thought it was a phase?
PICCIOLINI) Yeah, I think they thought it was a phase. They were really concerned and obviously it lasted almost 8 years so it grew out of the phase stage. But they never stopped trying to reach me and that’s what saved me. A lot of parents could have been like ‘Fuck off’ and kick you out of the house. I put them through hell.
CA) You were kicked out of four high schools?
PICCIOLINI) Yeah. The first one I was kicked out of twice [Eisenhower in Blue Island]. I had to graduate at Morraine Valley Community College because there were no more high schools left for me. And I loved college because I was actually interested in what I was learning. It was a lot different than if you didn’t do your homework in high school you’d get a detention. If you didn’t do your homework you’d get an F. But I liked it and I didn’t like it before. That’s where I think I turned boredom into something else. [Years later, Picciolini would graduate from DePaul University with degrees in International Business and International Relations].
CA) When you first started dating your first wife Lisa, you were 17 or 18. She asked you “Why do you have so much hate inside of you?” and you wrote in your book that your answer to that was bullshit. You responded by basically spinning things that you were “pro-white” —Was this your usual rationalization?
PICCIOLINI) Yeah. It’s funny that you asked that because we actually used that as a marketing tool for other people. When people would say ‘You guys are just haters’ we’d say ‘No, we just love what we’re about and we don’t want to see it go away. It was bullshit, but I think that I started to believe it. I started to use it to rationalize the situation because obviously with Lisa I didn’t want to be like ‘I hate these fucking people.’ It was more like ‘I love you, I love me and I love our future and I want to protect it.’ I think I really started to believe my own bullshit.
CA) You talk about a few incidents that happen – especially after the birth of your son — that made you reassess things. One was when a black skinhead came into your music store and bought a bunch of records. You were prepared to shoot him and his companions, thinking they were going to rob you, until he actually spent a lot of money and made you realize that he was “just another lost soul.”
PICCIOLINI) He was one of the first skinheads in Chicago, back when there were no factions of racist or anti-racist skinheads. He had a swastika tattooed on his forehead just to piss people off. He was the type of guy that if somebody like me saw somebody like him on the street, especially because we were on opposing sides of the skinhead thing, we would have killed each other. We would have definitely gone to battle. But when he came into my store we had this weird bond because I respected him for how long he was around and he respected me for the same reason. Even if I had to [shoot him] and I was hoping that I would not have to, the fact that he bonded with me, somebody he would have killed on the street — that was another moment of me thinking ’Something is just not right. If I could get along with this guy, even if it is just a mutual respect, how can I generalize the whole race?’
CA) That episode in your book reminded me of a scene in American History X. Did you like that movie?
PICCIOLINI) I thought it was pretty genuine. I thought it was partly based on my life, without them having asked. I know several people that I think certain parts are based on.
CA) The scene in the film that I’m thinking of is where the Ed Norton character is talking to the black convict that he’s working alongside in the prison laundry. When he finds out how much time the black guy is doing for a petty crime it doesn’t sit well with him and some of his beliefs start to crumble.
PICCIOLINI) Yeah. That’s how it works. You meet somebody that you keep outside of your bubble and all of a sudden you start to develop something with them and you start to humanize them. The hate that you have for somebody that is just a thing is easy, but it’s hard once you humanize them and can relate to them. For me, it was at the record store where I saw the love that a same-sex couple had for their kid is the same love that I have for my kid, they would do anything for their kid as I would. As a kid I was pretty compassionate. I remember we had a garage sale when I was 5 or 6 and I had this big rubber football that I loved. My mom told me to put it in the garage sale and then these two kids were going to buy it, but I took it back because I didn’t want to get rid of it and they left. I felt so bad that I ran after them and I gave it to them for free. That’s who I was and when these things started to happen, especially when I had my first kid, I started to reconnect with that because for 8 years I had pushed it down.
…Lisa helped save my life, my boys saved my life, and strangers saved my life. If it wasn’t for the strangers who showed me compassion when I least deserved it — by the people who I least deserved it from, I’d be either in jail or living on the street or doing nothing positive with my life.
CA) I always find it interesting that most people who seem to make ignorant comments don’t have any contact with the people they are disparaging. I’ve been in some bad neighborhoods covering all types of stories, but most of the people in those neighborhoods are not bad. We all just want the same thing.
PICCIOLINI) There just isn’t as much opportunity. Chicago is a very segregated city. It was designed that way from the beginning…. If you talk to the kids, they don’t say ‘I want to shoot people and sell drugs.’ They want to be basketball players, or be a teacher or a veterinarian, but they can’t.
CA) You definitely paid a high price to get out of that world. At 21, you lost your wife, home, store, custody of your two boys and most of your friends. Four months later, Timothy McVeigh blew up the Alfred P. Murrah building in Oklahoma City, killing 168. He had an envelope containing pages from The Turner Diaries, the same book Clark Martell gave you when you were 14. Was that the last straw for you?
PICCIOLINI) Yeah, I think so. I think by that time I was already disconnected with it but when that happened I knew it. I knew that something like that was somehow tied to something that I was involved with and when I found out that it was, it really hit me hard. Especially the picture of the fireman carrying the child out of the rubble. I knew that somehow indirectly that I contributed to that, just by putting the ideas out there.
CA) You also took a lot of blame for your brother’s murder.
PICCIOLINI) I should have been there for him.
CA) You wrote in your book that “My brother was killed because he was in a car with people whose skin color threatened a bunch of scared, ignorant kids with different skin-color.” Would you say kids who join skinhead groups or inner city gang like the Latin Kings or Gangster Disciples share a lot of similarities?
PICCIOLINI) Absolutely. There is not much difference between why kids join inner city gangs, join racist groups, or fly from middle America to Syria. I think essentially what these groups do is promise you paradise. Clark Martell promised me paradise. Not in so many words, but he said ‘Come with me and all these problems that you have will not only go away, but I’ll tell you who is at fault for them.’ We never took responsibility for our own bad decisions and we closed our eyes to what was really happening. My parents were never out of work. I never had anyone do anything bad. It was like a shell game, who can we blame for this? But I should have been there for my brother. He wanted to be like me but he wasn’t like me and I feel responsible for it. I really feel like I want to help other people now because I didn’t help my brother.
CA) You talk and wrote a lot about how you recruited others. You came of age before the Internet and Social Media. But you talked a lot about how music really drew you to the skinhead music and about how you would recruit by making flyers and pamphlets. Do you think the vulnerable kids out there today are easier to seduce because of technology..i.e. YouTube, Facebook, Twitter?
PICCIOLINI) I think the method is the same. It’s about spreading misinformation and blaming other people for your problems. It’s not that different than what’s happening today in politics. For us, it was very high-touch. We would have to go to a show or a skate park or find the vulnerable one who lived on the fringes who you could find someone for them to blame. I think with the Internet, it’s good and it’s bad. It’s bad because there’s so much misinformation out there and it provides a layer of anonymity. You can say anything you want, things that you wouldn’t say to someone’s face. It’s a really good tool to recruit. It’s full of people that are looking for something to do, something to belong to, and they are savvy. They give answers, not real answers —
CA) And they can look like a legitimate source when it’s probably some bullshit guy in his apartment —
PICCIOLINI) In his underwear in his mother’s basement at 50 years old. Most times it is. That to me is scary because, I’m a total advocate for free Internet, I don’t think we should censor it at all, but I think we need to do a better job of educating young people to recognize that type of stuff and also provide more opportunities to kids. Kids don’t want to be told what to do, they live under this authoritarian environment for 18 years, but if they have opportunities it would be a better society. I joke all the time that if ballerinas lived across the street from me I could have been the greatest ballet dancer. Don’t picture that. [Laughter]. Instead I was accepted by America’s first racist skinhead group.
CA) There obviously still is a lot of work to be done to address hate. Just yesterday, numerous people were stabbed in an incident between Neo-Nazi’s and protestors in Sacramento California. Did you hear about that and what was your initial thought?
PICCIOLINI) I heard there were 25 skinheads and a couple hundred counter demonstrators. My simple answer is violence is violence. You can’t battle ideologically because nobody wins, they just get pissed off and get further apart. The skinheads are wrong, obviously they are wrong for hating people and hurting people, but they can say whatever they want. We can’t use violence to combat it.
…Every time there’s a shooting or something like that I feel so responsible because I know that many years ago I planted those seeds of hate. For the last 20 years I’ve been pulling out weeds every day.
CA) But the kids in the skinhead groups now never got your message of hate.
PICCIOLINI) Yeah, but I contributed to it. My music is still out there. I feel responsible. I know I didn’t directly create these people but I put it out into the world. I recruited people who recruited people who recruited people.
CA) You’ve said that America’s biggest treat comes from within it’s borders. What do you think about the rise of Donald Trump in the U.S. and his many controversial statements about Mexicans and Muslims?
PICCIOLINI) I think it’s dangerous. I just got back from two weeks in Europe where I spoke at the conference for the U.S. Department of State. When I was in Europe I saw the same thing happening there. There are right wing parliament seats where racism is hiding behind nationalism. They were asking people in the UK why did you vote to leave the European Union, it was because of the immigrants. It wasn’t about finance, it wasn’t about trade or anything that it was supposed to be about. It was about fear and ignorance. I was at the Trump rally here in Chicago. I’m not a Trump supporter but I went to see what was happening and I wanted to silent protest. I was inside and I heard things coming out of Trump supporters’ mouths that were worse than anything I ever heard at any skinhead or KKK rally. There was a guy walking by who was clearly from the Middle East. I don’t know if he was a Muslim or a Sikh or what, but people were taking pictures and pointing at him like he was a zoo animal. When we were inside, people were dropping the N-word; one woman was going up to everyone with dark skin and saying they were protesters and having them kicked out for just sitting there. I heard terrible nasty things come out of people’s mouths [at skinhead events] but what scares me is that it’s affected the mainstream. Trump didn’t create these racists, he just created a safe place for them to come out and be a community. He’s made it ok to do that. I mean, I could write his speeches. He says things that are anti-immigrant or anti-Muslim. We used to do the same thing, he just uses prettier words that appeal to more people. He’s not saying the N-word, he’s not saying Jew. He’s saying ‘The Media’ and instead of Mexicans, he’s saying immigrants. That was a strategy we promoted. We had something that we called leaderless resistance, which is essentially the lone-wolf strategy: Tone down the rhetoric, stop showing the swastikas and shaving your head. Look like America and get out there and display a savvier, marketable message. Because people buy into that and desperate people will say, ‘You’re right, I don’t have a job in my rural 150-person community. My farm got taken by the bank because all these people are coming in.’
CA) I find it interesting that Trump has a lot of rural supporters considering he’s a billionaire from New York who has nothing in common with them.
PICCIOLINI) Nothing. He would eat them alive on a normal day without even batting an eye. To go back to your question about threats within our borders, if you go back to 9/11, if you don’t count Orlando, which I don’t think was a terrorist attack. I think that was a guy with a confused identify who used terrorism as a cover up to hide the fact that he was probably gay and didn’t want to anger his father or whatever. That aside, more white supremacists have killed people than any terrorists by at least double. Yet all of our attention is going into foreign terrorism and that hasn’t been necessary. When someone goes into a church in Charleston, South Carolina and murders 9 people based on an ideology, or when someone goes into a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin and murders 6 people based on an ideology and you don’t call that terrorism, we have a problem. And until white extremism gets classified as terrorism we have a problem. The minute somebody with dark skin does something the media is saying ‘Terrorism, terrorism!’ without knowing any facts. Until the same classification is given to white extremists, it’s not going to get the same focus or resources and it’s going alienate further and create a lot of problems. Let’s face it, most people don’t trust the government and don’t trust cops.
CA) It’s easy to understand why people are fed up with politicians.
PICCIOLINI) Yeah, you’re from Chicago, you’re used to that.
CA) Most of them are morons, but I don’t think Trump is the answer.
PICCIOLINI) I understand his appeal. He comes directly to what I call the reptile brain, your emotional brain. His supporters are very emotional. He’s playing to peoples’ ignorance and fear. I have this thing that I say: hatred is born of ignorance, fear is its father and isolation is its mother. Put those three together and people will believe anything and say anything.
CA) Can you talk about your organization?
PICCIOLINI) I started Life After Hate in 2009. It’s all made up of formers. [Former skinheads]. It’s the only organization in North America that is not only entirely made up of formers but it’s the only one focusing on far right domestic extremism.
We do active interventions and launched a program called Exit USA, which is a really simple website where you can contact us confidentially if you’re in a hate group and want to get out. We want to find out what’s missing in their life that led them to that place. People don’t join hate groups because they are happy. Something is missing and they are searching. If we can give them what’s missing — maybe it’s job training, education, tattoo removal… We want to make the transition for them without battling their ideology by promoting empathy and putting them in situations where they can realize things by themselves. It’s effective because we understand their motivations, we were there. We know why they joined, we know why they stayed and we know why they want to get out. Academics understand the issue; psychologists get the mental process behind it; law enforcement understands how to contain it; but none of them know the motivation, which is why we’re effective. We’re also credible. They come knowing we aren’t some suit who wants to analyze them. We just want to talk to them. It’s like the gang model where former gang members who were on the streets for years are now trying to get guys off the street. It’s not that different. We have a network of about 50 formers now from all over the country. When somebody new comes in we bring them into a private Facebook page and they talk about their issues and what they struggle with. We talk and joke around like a family. People go into different groups and then they leave groups and they kinda need another group. When I left I went off on my own and was depressed and didn’t know what to do. If I had a group like this when I left it would have made the transition a lot easier. That’s what we are hoping to provide. I lost 8 years of my life but I’ve been able to recover from that. I think it’s because there are so many thousands of other kids who are losing their lives so I’ve really dedicated my life to try and make sure people can get out.
CA) How do you raise funds?
PICCIOLINI) That’s a good question. We are really, really good at what we do but really not good at raising money. We get donations, sometimes we get grants. We manage to stay alive.
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One Response to “For former skinhead leader Christian Picciolini, the road to redemption has many tolls, but continues on”
[…] Christian Picciolini, a former skinhead leader who has been working for more than a decade to pull people out of hate groups and who once fronted his own white-power band, said bands like Hellvetron feel emboldened in the current political climate. […]