My descent into America’s neo-Nazi movement — and how I got out | Christian Picciolini

My journey away from violent extremism
began 22 years ago, when I denounced racism and left the American white
supremacist skinhead movement that I had helped build. (Cheers and applause) I was just 22 years old at the time, but I had already spent eight years,
from the time I was 14 years old, as one of the earliest
and youngest members and an eventual leader within
America’s most violent hate movement. But I wasn’t born into hate; in fact, it was quite the opposite. I had a relatively normal childhood. My parents are Italian immigrants who came to the United States
in the mid-1960s and settled on the South Side of Chicago, where they eventually met, and opened a small beauty shop. Right after I was born,
things got a little bit more difficult. They struggled to survive with raising
a young family and a new business, often working seven days a week, 14 hours a day, taking on second and third jobs
just to earn a meager living. And quality time with my parents
was pretty nonexistent. Even though I knew
they loved me very much, growing up, I felt abandoned. I was lonely, and I started to withdraw, and then I started to resent my parents
and become very angry. And as I was growing up,
through my teenage years, I started to act out to try and get
attention from my parents. And one day, when I was 14, I was standing in an alley,
and I was smoking a joint, and a man who was twice my age,
with a shaved head and tall black boots, came up to me, and he snatched the joint from my lips. Then he put his hand on my shoulder
and he looked me in the eyes, and he said, “That’s what the communists
and the Jews want you to do to keep you docile.” I was 14 years old, I’d been trading baseball cards
and watching “Happy Days” — I didn’t really know what a Jew was. (Laughter) It’s true. And the only communist that I knew
was the bad Russian guy in my favorite Rocky movie. (Laughter) And since I’m here
baring my soul with you, I can reveal that I did not even know
what the word “docile” meant. (Laughter) Dead serious. But it was as if this man in this alley
had offered me a lifeline. For 14 years, I’d felt
marginalized and bullied. I had low self-esteem. And frankly, I didn’t know
who I was, where I belonged, or what my purpose was. I was lost. And overnight, because this man
had pulled me in, and I had grabbed onto that lifeline
with every fiber of my being, I had gone from “Joanie Loves Chachi” to full-blown Nazi. Overnight. I started to listen to the rhetoric and believe it. I started to watch very closely
as the leaders of this organization would target vulnerable young people
who felt marginalized and then draw them in
with promises of paradise that were broken. And then I started to recruit myself. I started to do that by making
white-power music. And soon, I became the leader
of that infamous organization that was led by that man in that alley who recruited me that day, who was America’s first neo-Nazi skinhead
and who had radicalized me. For the next eight years, I believed the lies that I had been fed. And though I saw
no evidence of it whatsoever, I didn’t hesitate to blame
every Jewish person in the world for what I thought was a white,
European genocide being promoted by them
through a multiculturalist agenda. I blamed people of color for the crime and violence
and the drugs in the city, completely neglecting the fact
that I was committing acts of violence on a daily basis, and that in many cases, it was white supremacists
who were funneling drugs into the inner cities. And I blamed immigrants for taking jobs from white Americans, completely neglecting the fact that
my parents were hardworking immigrants who struggled to survive, despite not getting help
from anybody else. For the next eight years, I saw friends die, I saw others go to prison
and inflict untold pain on countless victims
and their families’ lives. I heard horrific stories
from young women in the movement, who’d been brutally raped by the very men
they were conditioned to trust, and I myself committed acts
of violence against people, solely for the color of their skin, who they loved, or the god that they prayed to. I stockpiled weapons for what I thought
was an upcoming race war. I went to six high schools; I was kicked out of four of them, one of them, twice. And 25 years ago, I wrote
and performed racist music that found its way
to the internet decades later and partially inspired
a young white nationalist to walk into a sacred Charleston,
South Carolina, church and senselessly massacre
nine innocent people. But then my life changed. At 19 years old, I met a girl
who was not in the movement, who didn’t have a racist bone in her body, and I fell in love with her. And at 19, we got married, and we had our first son. And when I held my son in my arms
in the delivery room that day, not only did I reconnect
with some of the innocence that I had lost at 14 years old, but it also began to challenge the very important things that drew
me to the movement to begin with: identity, community and purpose — things that I had been
struggling with as a young boy. And now, I struggled with the concept
of who I was again. Was I this neo-Nazi hatemonger, or was I a caring father and husband? Was my community the one
that I had manufactured around me to boost my own ego, because I felt self-hatred for myself
and I wanted to project it onto others, or was it the one
that I had physically given life to? Was my purpose to scorch the earth or was it to make it
a better place for my family? And suddenly, like a ton of bricks hit me, I became very confused with
who I’d been for the last eight years. And if only I’d been brave enough
to walk away at that moment, to understand what the struggle was
that was happening inside of me, then maybe tragedy
could have been averted. Instead, I did compromise. I took myself off the streets
for the benefit of my family, because I was nervous that maybe
I could go to jail or end up dead, and they would have to fend
for themselves. So I stepped back as a leader, and instead I opened a record store that I was going to sell
white-power music in, of course, because I was importing it in from Europe. But I knew that if I was just
a racist store selling racist music the community would not
allow me to be there. So I decided I was going to also
stock the shelves with other music, like punk rock and heavy metal and hip-hop. And while the white-power music
that I was selling was 75 percent of my gross revenue, because people were driving in
from all over the country to buy it from the only store that was selling it, I also had customers come in
to buy the other music. And eventually, they started
to talk to me. One day, a young black teen came in, and he was visibly upset. And I decided to ask him what was wrong. And he told me that his mother
had been diagnosed with breast cancer. And suddenly, this young black teenager, who I’d never had a meaningful
conversation or interaction with, I was able to connect with, because my own mother
had been diagnosed with breast cancer, and I could feel his pain. On another occasion, a gay couple
came in with their son, and it was undeniable to me
that they loved their son in the same profound ways
that I loved mine. And suddenly, I couldn’t rationalize
or justify the prejudice that I had in my head. I decided to pull the white-power
music from the inventory when I became too embarrassed
to sell it in front of my new friends. And of course, the store
couldn’t sustain itself, so I had to close it. At that same time, I lost
nearly everything in my life. I used it as an opportunity to walk away from the movement that
I’d been a part of for eight years, the only identity, community and purpose
that I’d really known for most of my life. So I had nobody. I lost my livelihood
because I closed the store. I didn’t have a great relationship
with my parents, even though they tried. And my wife and children left me, because I hadn’t left the movement
and disengaged quickly enough. And suddenly, I didn’t know who I was again, or where I fit in or what my purpose was supposed to be. I was miserable inside, and I often woke up in the morning wishing that I hadn’t. About five years in, one of the few friends that I had
was concerned about my well-being, and she came to me and she said, “You need to do something,
because I don’t want to see you die.” And she suggested that I go
apply for a job where she worked, at a company called IBM. Yeah, I thought she was crazy, too. (Laughter) Here I was, a closeted ex-Nazi
covered in hate tattoos. I didn’t go to college. I’d been kicked out of multiple
high schools multiple times. I didn’t even own a computer. But I went in, and somehow, miraculously, I got the job. I was thrilled. And then I became terrified to learn that they’d actually be putting me
back at my old high school, the same one I got kicked out of twice, to install their computers. This was a high school
where I had committed acts of violence against students, against faculty; where I had protested out in front
of the school for equal rights for whites and even had a sit-in in the cafeteria to try and demand a white student union. And of course, as karma would have it, within the first couple of hours, who walks right by me
but Mr. Johnny Holmes, the tough black security guard
I had gotten in a fistfight with, that got me kicked out the second time and led out in handcuffs from the school. He didn’t recognize me, but I saw him, and I didn’t know what to do. I was frozen; I was this grown man now,
years out of the movement, and I was sweating and I was trembling. But I decided I had to do something. And I decided I needed to suffer
under the weight of my past, because for five years
I had tried to outrun it. I’d tried to make new friends
and cover my tattoos with long sleeves, and I wouldn’t admit it because I was afraid of being judged the same way I had judged other people. Well, I decided I was going to chase
Mr. Holmes out to the parking lot — probably not the smartest
decision that I made. (Laughter) But when I found him,
he was getting into his car, and I tapped him on the shoulder. And when he turned around
and he recognized me, he took a step back because he was afraid. And I didn’t know what to say. Finally, the words came out of my mouth,
and all I could think to say was, “I’m sorry.” And he embraced me, and he forgave me. And he encouraged me to forgive myself. He recognized that it wasn’t the story
of some broken go-nowhere kid who was going to just
join a gang and go to prison. He knew that this was the story
of every young person who was vulnerable, who was searching for identity,
community and purpose, and then hit a wall and was unable to find it and went down a dark path. And he made me promise one thing, that I would tell my story
to whoever would listen. That was 18 years ago, and I’ve been doing it ever since. (Applause) You might be asking yourself right now: How does a good kid from
a hardworking immigrant family end up going down such a dark path? One word: potholes. That’s right. Potholes. I had a lot of potholes when I was kid. We all had them — you know, the things in life that we hit that invariably just kind of
nudge us off our path, and if they remain unresolved or untreated or not dealt with, sometimes we can get dangerously lost
down pretty dark corridors. Potholes can be things like trauma, abuse, unemployment, neglect, untreated mental health conditions, even privilege. And if we hit enough potholes
on our journey in life, and we don’t have the resources
or the help to navigate around them or to pull us out, well, sometimes good people
end up doing bad things. One such person
who had potholes is Darrell. Darrell is from upstate New York. He had read my memoir, and he was really upset about the ending. You see, I’d gotten out of the movement and he was still in. And he emailed me and he said, “I didn’t really like the way
that turned out.” And I said, “Well, I’m sorry.” (Laughter) “But if you want to talk about it,
we could certainly do that.” And after a couple of weeks
of going back and forth with Darrell, I learned he was a 31-year-old
military veteran who had been injured and was really angry about
not being able to go to Afghanistan to kill Muslims. And one day on the phone, he told me that he had seen
a Muslim man in the park praying, and that all he wanted to do
was kick him in the face. I flew to Buffalo the next day, and I sat down with Darrell, and I asked him, “Have you ever met
a Muslim person before?” And he said, “No! Why the hell would I want to do that? They’re evil. I don’t want
anything to do with them.” I said, “OK.” So I excused myself,
and I went into the bathroom and I took my phone out in the bathroom, and I Googled the local mosque, and I called them very quietly
from the bathroom, and I said, “Excuse me,
imam, I need a favor. I have a Christian man who would really love to learn more
about your religion.” (Laughter) “Do you mind if we stop by?” Well, it took some convincing
for Darrell to go, but finally we got there, and when I knocked on the door, the imam said he only had
15 minutes left for us, because he was preparing
for a prayer service. I said, “We’ll take it.” We went in, and two and a half hours later,
we came out after hugging and crying and, very strangely,
bonding over Chuck Norris for some reason. (Laughter) I don’t know what it was about that, but that’s what happened. And I’m happy to say now
that Darrell and the imam, you can often find them
at the local falafel stand, having lunch together. (Applause) You see, it’s our disconnection
from each other. Hatred is born of ignorance. Fear is its father,
and isolation is its mother. When we don’t understand something,
we tend to be afraid of it, and if we keep ourselves from it, that fear grows, and sometimes,
it turns into hatred. Since I’ve left the movement,
I’ve helped over a hundred people disengage from extremist movements,
from white supremacist groups — (Applause) to even jihadist groups. And the way I do that
is not by arguing with them, not by debating them, not by even telling them they’re wrong, even though, boy, I want to sometimes. I don’t do that. Instead, I don’t push them away. I draw them in closer, and I listen very closely
for their potholes, and then I begin to fill them in. I try to make people more resilient, more self-confident, more able to have skills
to compete in the marketplace so that they don’t have
to blame the other, the other that they’ve never met. I’d like to just leave you
with one last thing before I go. Of all the people I’ve worked with,
they will all tell you the same thing. One, they became extremists because they wanted to belong,
not because of ideology or dogma. And second, what brought them out was receiving compassion from the people
they least deserved it from, when they least deserved it. (Applause) So I would like
to leave you with a challenge: go out there today, tomorrow —
hopefully every day — find somebody that you think
is undeserving of your compassion and give it to them, because I guarantee you, they’re the ones who need it the most. Thank you very much. (Applause)

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