Inside the mind of a former neo-Nazi: ‘It was easy to hate somebody I didn’t know’

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CHICAGO -- Christian Picciolini says he wasn’t raised a racist by his Italian immigrant parents who came to Chicago. He got into white supremacy in 1987 when he said he was a lost 14-year-old boy just hooking up with a rough crowd.

He learned to hate. He formed a band promoting white power. There was even a gig in Germany where Picciolini posed in front of a concentration camp.

The Blue Island man wound up on talk shows spewing hate as a self-described racist. On one show, he told Jerry Springer, "I stand for my own flag which is the banner of the white race."

He was covered in tattoos, using ink symbols and a code. One was "14 words." Nazis know what it means. Translated: "we must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children." Fourteen words.

Listening to Christian today, it’s hard to believe it’s the same guy. He eventually left the skinhead movement more than two decades ago.

"I met the people who were the objects of my hate, and I’d never met them or engaged with them before," he said. "And when I started to meet them, I couldn’t justify or reconcile that hate anymore. I realized that we had more similarities than differences."

All of that led to Picciolini and a team of others to found “Life After Hate” in 2010, a non-profit group that helps men and women who want to leave extremist pasts.

He said people stay in those groups even after they start to question their ideology because it meets their needs by giving them an identity, a sense of purpose and a community. Especially when it comes to young people, he said, saying somebody else is causing their problems makes it "really easy for a person who’s vulnerable or marginalized to go down that path.”

He said it's similar to what attracts people to join gangs, or even extremist groups like ISIS.

"Because, really what it comes down to is we all have those needs," he said. "For a young person who is looking for power when they feel the most powerless it’s easy to go down that path," he says.

Picciolini said he’s worried because now he’s seeing warning signs of a resurgence. He said he sees the so-called "alt-right" as similar to an effort he took part in to make white supremacist beliefs more appealing to "mainstream" people.

"We knew that we were turning away the average American racists because we had shaved heads and waved swastika flags and we knew that we needed to shape our image," he said. "We stopped waving those swastika flags and started waving the American flag. And we pitched it to people who have grievances all across America because it was more palatable."

"The alt-right is what we were and we were Neo-Nazis. We were racists. The marketing message has changed, but nothing else,” he said.

Some things the world has seen the last year appear to be proof. Hateful rhetoric has reared its head more prominently. Like the white supremacist Richard Spencer leading a rally a day after the election in a Federal building shouting "heil Trump." Trump the candidate shouting at followers to “knock the crap” out of protesters at a rally. “Build the wall” slogans chanted in middle schools. And a group of Chicago African-Americans beating a white man during a traffic altercation, shouting that he voted for Trump.

Lonnie Nasatir, who heads Chicago’s Anti-Defamation League, says complaints to his group are way up.

"Those are happening in school districts all across Chicago," he said. "These things are happening at a pretty regular basis which is cause for alarm."

Picciolini is now working alongside Nasatir, who is a man of the Jewish faith. Christian said  it was a series of difficult steps that took him down the path of reform to be able to work with people from different backgrounds, but one day in particular stands out in his memory.

"It was November 11, 1992 and it was when my son was born, and the first time I held him in my arms, and to a certain degree I reconnected with the innocence that I lost at 14 years-old when I was recruited," he said.

He said his priorities shifted in that moment, as he felt he was filled with love for his child, and he started to feel his new mission was to support his family and be there for his son.

"And the things I was doing before, that were based in this fantasy world, were doing nothing to benefit my family and my son, me or humanity. And that started me down the path," he said.

But then his world fell apart again. He said his wife left because he didn't leave the neo-Nazi movement fast enough. He also closed his store and lost his livelihood at the same time as he lost his family.

"Not only did I have to start from scratch, I was still a racist to everybody. So it took me a very long time," he said.

He said after living with a deep depression for years, and even contemplating suicide, his past caught up with him. A friend approached him about applying for a job at IBM, where she worked.

“And I said, 'You’re crazy.' I’ve got tattoos. I’m an ex-Nazi. I went to five different high schools. I got kicked out of all of them. One of them twice," he said. "She said, 'just tell them you’re good with people.'"

He ended up getting a job to help roll out a computer program at the very high school that kicked him out as a kid. He said on his first day he recognized the African-American security guard that he had fought with before getting kicked out of school the second time.

"I followed him into the parking lot and I tapped him on the shoulder, and this man with a normally jolly smile turned around and he was afraid of me," he said. "And all I could think to do at that moment was to extend my hand and say I’m sorry. And he looked at me and he shook my hand. And we talked and we embraced and we cried."

Christian said the security guard made him promise to share his story with anyone who would listen. He got the chance when one day he was walking down the street and a man recognized his tattoos.

"I was walking in the street one day and this guy came up to me and said, ‘hey nice tattoos bro. White power,’ and I said, ‘Hey bro, let’s talk,’" he said. "That was really kind of my first intervention."

He said he realized that his appearance gave him a certain credibility that could help him connect with people who still have the beliefs that he has left behind.

"And that’s what I continue today. I give compassion to the people that least deserve it when they least deserve it," he said.

Picciolini wrote a book about his experience, Romantic Violence: Memoirs of an American Skinhead, which also includes praise from Nasatir of the Anti Defamation League and a forward written by rocker Joan Jett, who Christian once toured with.