“Since 9/11 more Americans have been killed on U.S. soil by white supremacists than by any other foreign or domestic group,” says Christian Picciolini in an interview with Sarah Silverman on her Hulu show, I Love You, America.
He’s right. Since Sept. 12, 2001, 110 people have been killed in our country due to violent white nationalist attacks. The total number of people killed in jihad-motivated attacks in that same time is 107.
Picciolini argues this point to ensure Americans do not ignore the very real threat of white nationalist terror. Following the racially motivated El Paso shooting, Tucker Carlson of Fox News called the idea of white supremacy in our nation a hoax. This belief, propagated by the right-wing entertainer, is dangerous as it dismisses a prominent and violent ideology.
Picciolini knows this type of violence first-hand. He helped create and promote it for eight years, as a high-ranking member of the fringe white power movement of the ’80s and ’90s.
A 1992 photo of Picciolini shows a young man giving the Nazi salute in front of the entrance to Dachau concentration camp. He appears satisfied with his display of this abhorrent gesture and confident in his hateful doctrine. At the time, Picciolini was a prominent leader in the American white power movement. He was a young and bright recruit plucked out of an alleyway in Chicago, and hardened into a dogmatic foot-soldier. His ability to convey and advance the ideology can be seen in his performance as a fierce frontman among various white power bands.
Picciolini was more than a skinhead follower, more than just another shaved head in the rowdy clubs playing the fringe music. He was a leader. This is apparent in a 1992 CNN interview, where a charismatic and articulate Picciolini speaks on a national platform about his plans for a nationalist socialist movement. He believed in the ideology, it had been planted early in the fertile soil of this impressionable teenager. It had been tattooed on his young mind searching for identity, purpose, and belonging.
Picciolini was raised in Blue Island, Illinois, a working-class enclave just south of Chicago. Since the 19th century, the city has been home to immigrants working to establish a foothold in this nation as newcomers. It was here where Picciolini was embraced by the Chicago Area Skinheads, a small but fierce neo-Nazi group. In 1987, the group’s leader Clark Martell became a role model for Picciolini, giving him direction and identity, and most importantly, a place where he felt he belonged.
He embraced the insidious ideology. It gave him a purpose, a place for his anger, and a chance to be part of something bigger than himself. Talking to Dave Davies of NPR, Picciolini explained what he experienced and what makes people susceptible to joining hate groups.
“I don't believe that ideology nor dogma are what drive people to extremism,” he said. “I believe it's a broken search for three very fundamental human needs of identity, community, and purpose.”
Picciolini eventually became the leader of the Chicago Area Skinheads and other white power organizations. He embodied the movement, becoming a prominent member of the racist bands, White American Youth and the Final Solution. Their music helped spread the malignant ideology and a message of hate that Picciolini screamed through microphones to crowds of angry skinheads. Photographs show Picciolini in his frontman role, with swastika flags hanging around him.
As the movement metastasized, Picciolini and other white power leaders recognized its limitations. The rough edges of the fringe subculture were unpalatable for the majority of the population. Though these skinheads felt at home in the dark, dingy beer halls of working-class America, they saw the ideology stagnating.
“Upon the realization that the movement was turning off the average American white racists who didn’t want to be so visible, there was a push to make things more mainstream—grow the hair out, turn in the boots for suits,” Picciolini recalled.
Entrepreneurial leaders like himself saw the future. The movement, as it was, would not grow out of the working-class neighborhoods where it germinated.
“The goal was to blend in and it worked. Extremists were encouraged to get jobs in law enforcement, in the military, in education, in politics, etc. in order to appear ‘normal’ and have the access to influence.”
Picciolini now sees the fruits of his labor, and is warning the public that this is not going away on its own. The world he imagined is here. National news pundits deny the existence of white supremacy, even in the wake of the El Paso shooting which targeted people of Mexican descent, killing 22 and injuring 24 individuals. The president stands proud and defiant, in front of a crowd chanting “Send her back!” to non-white congresswomen.
This same vitriolic commander-in-chief drums up Islamophobic sentiment by emphasizing Barack Obama’s middle name, Hussein—despite no familial connection to the dead Iraqi despot.
“Now we live in a social and political climate where a once-fringe ideology has been brought into the foreground.”
On white nationalist internet forums, Picciolini finds his own words and ideas from decades ago.
“I learned just a few months ago that Dylann Roof had heard one of my songs a few months before he committed the tragedy in Charleston," Picciolini said in an NPR Fresh Air segment.
Shortly before his attack on the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston (which killed nine) Roof had posted about the song and its hateful lyrics, which Picciolini wrote and shouted through microphones to skinhead crowds in the ‘90s.
Picciolini, the former architect of hate, now works to find weaknesses in the structure. He was drawn in as a marginalized youth, but now strives to identify and de-radicalize individuals before they become the next Dylann Roof, Robert Bowers, or Patrick Crusius.
Examining Picciolini at the height of his involvement with the neo-nazi movement, it appears there was no turning back for him, no return to a life of peace.
“Unfortunately, many of the people from my past life ended up in prison or dead. My outcome is an exception but I've been working for the last two decades to try to help more find their way out of hate as I did.”
It wasn’t an immediate change, but Picciolini “retired” from white nationalism. He felt the internal tugs, an undercurrent, pulling him away from hate after the birth of his first son. Though he still embodied and believed the ideology, he did not want his children to see or be a part of it. Music had initially strengthened his resolve and his belief in the doctrine of hate, but now it began to crack away at it.
Picciolini had opened a shop—Chaos Records—initially devoted to white power music, but it was not enough to keep the doors open.
“To stay in business, I had to expand my inventory and I started carrying hip-hop and other genres of music. My clientele began to change and I was forced to interact with Jewish, LGBTQ+, and Black customers.”
The sprouts of human empathy, which started with the birth of his child, now flourished as Picciolini began connecting with others.
“I found common ground with them as we talked and I got to know them.”
In the grit and chaos of Picciolini’s extremist world, the harmony of human connection took hold of him. How could he hate a Black man who told Picciolini of struggles coping with his mother’s cancer diagnosis, when he himself was dealing with the same issue? How could he ignore and discount a gay couple’s love for their child, when he shared similar moments with his own son? The stone resolve of his ideology buckled under the growing weight of human connection.
“The people I thought I hated showed me compassion, even when I didn't deserve it, and my worldview started to change,” he remembers. “My demonization of them was replaced with humanization.”
Picciolini’s transformation is just one story. It is by luck and chance that he developed and grew out of the movement. But Picciolini’s leadership spirit, which helped him thrive in the cold, dark world of white nationalism, is now driving him to convey the power of human connection to those still mired in hate. He has turned his one story into a universal message, a siren call to those who misplace their anger and embrace hate. He recognizes the psychological and socioeconomic conditions that drove him into the movement, and has made it his life’s work to identify and reach out to those in similar situations.
Picciolini’s job is not easy. The ones who hold the ideology close to their hearts are working harder than ever to recruit members into white separatist groups, emboldened by a divisive president. While many who join are the misled members that Picciolini attempts to divert, he must also navigate through the true-believers as well. They are harder to single out now, as a more groomed appearance hides the hatred below in a new more “palatable” form of white nationalism. Picciolini, however, knows what lies beneath the polish.
“While they may have put down the swastika flags, the rhetoric is the same, the ideology is the same, and the mission of really creating a white homeland, and expelling anyone who they wouldn’t consider a white European out of the country—that is their ultimate goal,” he said.
The extremists who push and create the ideology are learning how to market it and recruit a wider swath of Americans. They will find them, unless the nation acknowledges the existence of white nationalism, and shines a light in these dark places.
In the meantime, Picciolini presses forward, pulling individuals out of the movement. It is the best method of combat that he knows; harnessing humanity and weaponizing it against hate. Each time he pulls someone from the world of white supremacy, he creates a force multiplier, a new story that others can use to shape their path.
Though solving the problem of white nationalism may seem a sisyphean and complex task, Picciolini provides a simple way to start.
“Find someone that’s undeserving of your compassion and give it to them, because I guarantee that they’re the ones who need it the most.”
Editor's Note: This article was updated on 1/14 to reflect updated statistics on white nationalist and jihad-motivated attacks.