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From a neo-Nazi to an advocate for peace: The story of a former white supremacist

SINGAPORE — It could have very well been a scene from American History X, the provocative 1998 American film whose protagonist is a white supremacist neo-Nazi skinhead. Except this was real.

Christian Picciolini, former white supremacist turned peace advocate, co-founder of Life After Hate and founder of the Free Radicals Project. He became a neo-Nazi skinhead when he was a teenager.

Christian Picciolini, former white supremacist turned peace advocate, co-founder of Life After Hate and founder of the Free Radicals Project. He became a neo-Nazi skinhead when he was a teenager.

SINGAPORE — It could have very well been a scene from American History X, the provocative 1998 American film whose protagonist is a white supremacist neo-Nazi skinhead.

Except this was real.

“There was a moment when I was 19 years old. There was a black teenager in a McDonald's restaurant. There were several black teenagers and there were several skinheads with me,” said 45-year-old Christian Picciolini.

“I walked in and I told him to leave because I said it was my McDonald's — simply because he was black. He and his friends ran and we chased after them.”

He continued: “And one of the black teenagers pulled out a gun and wanted to fire at us, but the gun jammed. We caught that individual and we beat him (up) very badly.”

For eight years, Mr Picciolini was a neo-Nazi skinhead living in the suburbs of Chicago who wanted white Americans to “once again regain control” of the United States. His “enemies” were primarily African Americans, Jews and gays. Street fights were a norm.

But in 1995, he decided to walk away from the world of white supremacy. No more Nazi salutes. No more bashing of others. No more hatred.

Mr Picciolini became an advocate for peace, forming several organisations that focus on drawing white supremacists out from the circle of hate.

He sat down for an interview with TODAY on Thursday (June 20), on the sidelines of the three-day International Conference on Cohesive Societies where he spoke at a plenary session on overcoming hate.

For Mr Picciolini, the only remnants of his past are the skinhead tattoos inked on his arms and memories of the savagery he had inflicted onto others that continued to haunt him. Like how he had beaten that black teenager to a pulp.

As he recounted that incident, Mr Picciolini seemed hesitant to dig up reminders of his former self. His eyes looked to the floor, lips pursed. Twice he was on the verge of tears, his voice trailing off as he regained his composure.

It was not the bashing that was etched in his mind, but what happened afterwards. “I remember kicking him when he was on the ground, and him opening his swollen eyes and connecting with mine. It was the first time in one of those situations where I felt empathy for my victim,” said Mr Picciolini.

“I thought at that moment that he could have been my brother or my father or somebody that I cared about.”

That was the last time he committed an act of violence, Mr Picciolini said, but he was not about to leave his gang.

“I was too afraid to admit what I was going through, too afraid to admit the confusion that I had,” he continued.

“Because at that point, I was a leader in this (white supremacist) movement. And there was no confiding in anybody about what you were truly feeling. It was about wearing a suit of armour 24 hours a day.”

AN UNLIKELY BIGOT

Mr Picciolini has been wearing that suit since 1987. Then a delinquent at 14, he was loitering at an alley in his hometown of Chicago when a man approached him.

That man was Clark Martell, America’s first neo-Nazi skinhead leader.

Martell introduced him to the white supremacy ideology and movement, and the teenager was convinced.

Mr Christian Picciolini doing the Nazi salute back when he was a white supremacist. Photo: Christian Picciolini/Facebook

Yet, Mr Picciolini was the most unlikely bigot; his parents are Italian immigrants who moved to the US in the 1960s, themselves the victims of prejudice.

He described them as “loving” parents who slaved away at work 16 hours a day, seven days a week. But Mr Picciolini said he grew lonely and felt abandoned. Joining the white supremacist group Chicago Area Skinheads, for which he later became its leader, he was promised “inclusion, a sense of identity, community and purpose that I’ve never felt before”.

“For them, they feel as though this world was created by them,” he said. “That they’ve conquered and they’ve earned the right to maintain power.”

They felt under siege, thinking other communities were taking away opportunities from white Americans.

“So the idea of white supremacy is maintaining control. Now, (white) people feel that they're losing control, especially in the United States... And when people feel like they're losing something, well, they tend to blame others,” Mr Picciolini explained.

‘THEY WANTED TO KILL ME’

For him, the breakdown of his marriage played a part in his transformation.

He had met his wife — who is not a neo-Nazi — at the age of 19. They got married and had two sons.

With a family of his own, they challenged the “sense of identity, community and purpose that I found in the movement”.

But Mr Picciolini “was never brave enough to walk away” from his family of white supremacists. So, his wife walked out of his life, taking their kids along with her.

He plunged into depression and became suicidal.

For Mr Christian Picciolini, the only remnants of his past are the skinhead tattoos inked on his arms and memories of the savagery he had inflicted onto others that continued to haunt him. Photo: Christian Picciolini/Facebook

Then in 1995, three years after the bashing of the black teenager, Mr Picciolini finally decided to part ways with the Chicago Area Skinheads.

So what made him do it? There was no “Aha!” moment, he said, and the road to reform was painful and long.

“It was every person that I met, that just nudged me a little bit more. And it was essentially receiving compassion from the people that I thought I hated that changed me, that allowed me to see that it was me that was broken and not anybody else,” he said.

Shedding his white supremacist image was the “hardest thing” as it meant reinventing himself, said Mr Picciolini who has since remarried.

The people he once called brothers and sisters made life difficult as well. He put it bluntly: “They wanted to kill me.”

For Mr Picciolini, however, it was resurrection. “It felt like I had been reborn again into, you know, going from a black and white television to high definition colour television. It was both amazing and terrifying at the same time.”

GUIDING OTHERS TOWARDS THE LIGHT

He did not only seek a new life but made it his mission to reform white supremacists.

With that goal in mind, he co-founded the non-governmental organisation Life After Hate, and started another called Free Radicals Project, making it his mission to reform white supremacists.

Thus far, he has helped over 400 people. His approach is simple: Be non-confrontational, listen and show compassion.

He would introduce white supremacists to the people they think they hate. In one room, Holocaust deniers and survivors as well as Islamophobes and Muslim families come face to face.

That is when supremacists see commonalities instead of differences. “What happens is that the demonisation is replaced with humanisation,” said Mr Picciolini.

The toughest case he has handled involved a 17-year-old female white supremacist. Having been in her shoes, he knew the importance of not vilifying the teen.

“We are all, to some degree, broken and afraid. (But) nobody is born to hate,” he said. “I can’t tell them they’re wrong… because I know that if somebody told me I was wrong at 17 years old, it would have pushed me further down a hole.”

In the US, hate crimes — defined as criminal acts motivated by race, ethnicity, religion or gender — have been on the rise, growing from 6,121 in 2016 to 7,175 in 2017, according to the most recent available data.

There have also been a growing number of terror attacks by white extremists around the world in recent years, with the latest being the mosque shootings at Christchurch, New Zealand in March.

Mr Picciolini even admitted living in fear in his own country. He has been getting death threats every day for the past two decades, though they “never materialised into anything”.

“It hasn’t stopped me,” he said. “In fact, it's emboldened me more to do this work.”

From a teen who led a hate movement to an adult who advocates peace, how would he sum up his life? “I still am on that journey,” Mr Picciolini said. “So, I can't tell you what the ending of that story is.

“But I can tell you that, for me, it's really been about the only true supremacy that one can attain — and that’s knowledge. That has given me the ammunition that I need to go forward.”

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American History X neo-Nazi skinhead Christian Picciolini

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