Former Skinhead On The Threat Of White Supremacist Violence In The U.S.

WBUR, Boston/August 30, 2017

After the racially charged violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, some have criticized the Trump administration for failing to follow through on a $400,000 grant to a group called Life After Hate. The organization rehabilitates former neo-Nazis and right-wing extremists. The Obama administration announced the grant in January, but it was canceled in June.

Here & Now's Robin Young talks to Christian Picciolini (@cpicciolini), a former skinhead and co-founder of Life After Hate, about his group's work in the wake of Charlottesville.

On his upbringing and the process of being recruited

"You know, I came from a normal family. My parents were Italian immigrants who came to the U.S. in the mid-'60s. And I didn't have a foundation of racism. There wasn't any prejudice as part of my DNA. I just didn't grow up that way. But because my parents were immigrants, they also had to work very hard, and that kept them away from home seven days a week, 14 hours a day, so I felt very abandoned as young boy. And, you know, they were very insulated in their community, so I didn't really understand where I belonged. I didn't know if I was Italian or American and I was bullied because of that.

"You know, it started out as him boosting my pride. He saw me as this vulnerable young kid who really wanted to matter. He would tell me things like, 'Your ancestors are great warriors and philosophers and artists.' But then the language would change over time to say, 'Your pride, somebody wants to take that away from you.' And then, of course, it would ramp up to, 'We have to eliminate the enemy that's trying to take that away from you.' So, you know, during those eight years there were levels of violence that, even today, remembering them, are troubling to me. There was a lot of recruitment of young people, and certainly I changed the lives of many people who either went to prison or ended up dead, not to mention the victims of our violence. It was an eight-year period where I really hated myself, and I was trying to project that hatred onto other people so I didn't have to feel my own pain."

On his record store devoted to "white power music"

"I certainly opened the store with the intention of selling white power music, and it was very successful — it was 75 percent of my revenue. But I also wanted to be a good businessperson, and I decided to expand and sell punk rock music and hip hop music and heavy metal. And what happened next I never would've expected. The people who came in to buy that music who were African American or Jewish or gay — instead of attacking me, they came in and showed me compassion. In fact, they showed me compassion when I least deserved it, and they were the people that I likely least deserved it from. And that allowed me to humanize them, because in my head, I had this picture of a monster of a parasite who was attacking me, when in reality, I had never had a meaningful interaction with the people that I thought I hated, and this allowed me to bridge that gap."

On the organization Life After Hate

"When we first launched the organization in 2011, initially it wasn't an intervention service. We were just speaking publicly and educating people and doing trainings. But we very rapidly saw the need of people who were reaching out to us unsolicited that wanted help disengaging from that movement. When we first started, we were getting about two request a week, and I can tell you, after the election, in 2016, we started to receive about four or five requests a day.

"Sometimes people themselves will reach out to us if they feel stuck and can't leave, because it's so difficult to leave, and there were so many people that I knew in the movement who had questioned their ideology but couldn't abandon their identity, their community and their sense of purpose because that's all they had known. To start that process is very difficult, and we wanted to be able to help folks do that."

On why federal grant funding for Life After Hate was rescinded

"Honestly, I don't know. We were never given a reason. I did absolutely make some tweets that were critical, you know, I believe in speaking my mind and speaking against injustice, and a lot of the rhetoric and policy that's coming out of this administration mimics a lot of what we used to say 30 years ago. It's very anti-immigrant, it's xenophobic, it's bigoted, and certainly the white nationalists and the alt-right and the white supremacists, right now, are rejoicing over the fact that it appears the administration is supporting their efforts, based on, not necessarily what they say, but what they don't say."

On how recruitment for supremacist groups happens today

"It's very pervasive. The internet has allowed the movement to — and not just the white nationalist movement, but also extremist groups like ISIS — to ramp up their recruitment efforts online, whereas in my day, it was very face to face, very personal. We had to scope out vulnerable people at punk rock shows and skate parks to recruit them. Now, people can go online if they feel marginalized, they can create whatever identity they want, they have a built-in community on the internet and the purpose is given to them by these very savvy, very fashionable recruiters who don't look like we used to. You know, we were skinheads, and in our day, there was KKK, and you could easily identify a white supremacist walking down the street. Nowadays, because of a concerted strategy on our part 30 years ago when we recognized that the average American white racist was put off by our edginess, we decided to tone it down, to grow our hair out, to wear suits instead of boots, to go to college campuses and recruit, to get jobs in law enforcement and join the military to get training and to even run for office. It was a strategy to blend in. ... Look like your neighbor, your dentist, your attorney, your teacher, your nurse and take the message of the ideology and polish it just to make it a little bit more palatable, a little bit easier to swallow for the average American white racist and recruit that way. Because we recognized that, if we wanted them, we needed to be like them, sound like them and look like them, and here we are 30 years later, and, in fact, that's exactly what's happening."

This segment aired on August 30, 2017.

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