CHICAGO -- As a leader of the American white supremacist movement nearly 30 years ago, Christian Picciolini wrote propaganda, devised infiltration strategies and brokered mergers with similar organizations in the United States.
Now the 43-year-old Chicago native spends his days with a different purpose, as co-founder of Life After Hate, a nonprofit group devoted to helping former neo-Nazis and other extremists shed their toxic ideology.
He is busier than ever.
Since Donald Trump was elected president, referrals to his group have gone from two a week to five a day, Picciolini said. And since a car plowed into a crowd protesting a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va., Aug. 12, killing a woman, referrals have skyrocketed, he said.
He has quickly become the public face of an effort to counter white supremacist groups, giving speeches and interviews, including appearances on Samantha Bee's TBS show Full Frontal and CBS's Face the Nation.
Much of the group's work is carried out by volunteers, since the Trump administration in June rescinded a $400,000 grant from the Department of Homeland Security.
A crowdfunding campaign established after the Charlottesville attack raised more than $200,000.
To Picciolini, it was only a matter of time before violence like that in Charlottesville happened. Trump's talk emboldened neo-Nazi groups, he said, and it reached a breaking point in Virginia.
"It was disheartening, and I think it might get worse before it gets better," Picciolini said. "I'm also very hopeful because I think it was a major turning point in our history. I think it kicked America in the gut."
Picciolini, the son of Italian immigrants, was 14 when, by his account, a white supremacist cornered him in an alley in Blue Island, Ill. He said Clark Martell, the former leader of the Chicago Area Skin Heads, a neo-Nazi group, yanked a marijuana cigarette from his lips and told him that was exactly what those he perceived as his enemies wanted, Picciolini recalled.
Martell went on to say that Picciolini's Italian forefathers had been warriors and he could be one too. To a shy, susceptible teenager tired of being ignored by his parents and picked on by his peers, Picciolini said, the message resonated.
After the family moved to Oak Forest, Ill., Picciolini made his way through four high schools, including one where he organized a cafeteria sit-in of about a dozen students demanding a white student union.
After Picciolini assaulted a black student and a black security guard, the school obtained a restraining order that prohibited him from receiving his diploma with other graduates.
But he didn't care. Shortly after Picciolini joined the skinheads, Martell and several others went to prison for smashing windows at synagogues and assaulting a former skinhead member who had befriended a black man. They drew a swastika on the wall of her home with her blood.
At 16, Picciolini was suddenly the most senior member of the gang and became the leader.
In 1994, Picciolini opened a record store in Alsip called Chaos Records, devoted to white power music that he imported from Europe and sold to customers around the United States. To make more money off those he called the enemy, he started carrying hip-hop and other genres to draw in black clientele. But getting to know the new customer base changed his life, he said.
"Blacks and Jews showed me compassion, and they were the ones I least deserved it from," he said. By then, his wife and two sons had already left him. "I became so embarrassed."
Picciolini closed the store and moved back in with his parents, landing a job installing computers.
Picciolini began an online journal to document his journey. Other former white supremacists found their way there and contributed. At a conference in Ireland in 2011, the small group of contributors met and agreed to help others in need of a way out. After that trip to Ireland, Life After Hate was born.
Since then, the group's members have provided direct services to help about 200 people disengage from hate groups. They've also trained law enforcement, psychologists and other anti-violence groups to do the same.
They do it by filling the voids that led the person down the wrong path to begin with, Picciolini said.
"Ideology doesn't radicalize people," he said. "People join extremist groups because they're looking for identity, community and purpose. Ideology becomes the vehicle to be angry and to be violent."
In cities and towns across the country, Picciolini and his team have established networks to provide job training, life coaches, therapists and tattoo removal.
"When people are more confident and competitive in the workforce, when they feel more whole, they feel less of a need to blame the other for taking away," he said. He also has introduced clients to people they thought they would hate. He and clients have spent the day with a Muslim imam and volunteered at centers that serve the LGBT community.
"Nine times out of 10 they've never had a meaningful interaction or dialogue with the people that they hate," Picciolini said. "They hate other people because they hate themselves."
Junaid Afeef, director for the targeted violence prevention program at the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority, met Picciolini when he started pursuing anti-violence work several years ago. He was struck by the similarities of their upbringing and the role luck played in each of their stories.
Afeef, a son of Indian immigrants raised in the suburbs, remembers being a shy teen searching for purpose in the 1980s, the same time mujahedeen were recruiting young Muslim men to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan. They never found him, Afeef said. He went to college and found community by joining a fraternity. But the neo-Nazi movement found Picciolini, he said.
Afeef's program at the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority did not lose its $187,000 grant from the Department of Homeland Security to train citizens on how to recognize warnings signs in people prone to extremism, such as a lack of family support or a history of violence.
Much of it is based on what Afeef has learned from Life After Hate, he said.
Law enforcement and the Chicago Anti-Defamation League also consider Life After Hate a partner in fighting extremism, whether it's recruitment of youths in the city or suburbs by the Islamic State, Latin Kings or white supremacists.
A man convicted of smashing the window of a Chicago synagogue in February was given a court-mandated 12-month intervention with Life After Hate as part of a plea deal with the Cook County state's attorney.
"Here's a kid who went to a private school, his parents did everything they could for him," said Jessica Gall, the associate regional director for the Anti-Defamation League. "That's where the power of his story is. ... Telling a kid you're powerful and you can do whatever you want works."
Telling voters the same thing also works, Picciolini said.
"We were those people. We know what we did," Picciolini said. "We created the language. We built the propaganda being used today."
SundayMonday on 08/27/2017
Print Headline: Ex-skinhead makes countering hate his mission