Thirty years ago, Christian Picciolini was an angry, disillusioned 14-year-old smoking a joint in an alley and admiring a Firebird driven by Clark Martell, the founder of the Chicago Area Skinheads (CASH). Martell, one of the prominent Neo-Nazis in America, noticed. ‘Don’t you know the communists and Jews want you to smoke weed to keep you docile?’ he asked. Picciolini didn’t, but he was willing to listen and then, for five years, he was willing to surrender his personal identity — what had formed of it anyway — to CASH. By age 16, he was the group’s leader and by age 19 he was headed to Germany with his white power band to play for thousands of skinheads. He had quickly built a career in hate and aspired to more.
Then he held his son for the first time.
Today, Picciolini is an author, public speaker, and co-founder of the non-profit Life After Hate, which is dedicated working with individuals looking to leave help groups and grappling with the causes of intolerance and racism, everything from childhood abuse, to mental health issues. At a time when white power groups have a higher profile than they have in decades, Picciolini is busy at home and in the field trying to be the father figure his two son — and a lot of young men–need. He spoke to Fatherly about pride, where it comes from, and how it can change a life.
CASH was the first Neo-Nazi group in America. What did their recruitment process look like and why do you think you were open to it?
I was like most teenagers. I was looking for an identity, community, and sense of purpose. I was vulnerable because I was angry. I felt abandoned by my parents, who were Italian immigrants who came to America in the mid-’60s. I didn’t understand then that they were just working parents trying to make ends meet. I felt like they weren’t there for me. I was angry about that.
Were you familiar with the ideology?
I wasn’t. I wasn’t racist. My parents were the victims of prejudice when they came to the U.S. But it was about belonging. I was powerless, and they made me feel powerful. And, with that feeling, I began buying into it.
When exactly did you become a dad?
Almost in the middle of my time with “the movement.” I was 19. I had just gotten back from Germany where my band had played a show for 4,000 skinheads from all around Europe. We were the first American white power band to travel to Europe. Came back to the states, met a girl, fell in love, but she was not a part of the movement. At 19, we got married and had our first child.
Suddenly, those three things that drove me to the movement — identity, community, purpose — were challenged. My identity was now father and husband. My community was my wife and my child. My purpose was to support my family and be the role model my child needed. Holding my child in the delivery room for the first time sort of gave me back some of my innocence and helped me love again. I regained that innocence.
Was becoming a father the only thing that changed you or were there other factors that made you alter your way of thinking?
It was a powerful catalyst. Becoming a dad combined with having meaningful engagement with the people I claimed to hate. I thought of these groups as monsters, but getting compassion from the people I least deserved it from was extremely powerful. Those two experiences helped me realize I didn’t want to be a part of “the movement” anymore
Was it hard to walk away?
It was extremely difficult. I had opened a record store to sell white power music. I was selling a lot of it. It was 75 percent of my store’s revenue, but I started to sell other music, and that allowed me to connect with other people I had not before. Suddenly I was interacting with black customers, Jewish customers, gay customers, and I started to connect with them.
I eventually decided to stop selling my white power music, and my store closed. On top of that, my wife took my kid and left, because my wife wanted nothing to do with “the movement.” And while I was disengaging, it wasn’t quick enough. I didn’t want to give up the power or notoriety. I was afraid of losing my community, even though I no longer agreed with their ideology.
And even after I left and had abandoned the ideology, I wasn’t ready to talk about it for several years. I was trying to escape it. It wasn’t until I decided to start talking about my past, that I became a better father and a better person.
What made you decide to start Life After Hate?
I wanted to give people who felt like there was no escape the resources to leave their old lives behind. There comes a point where everyone is going to start questioning the ideology, but many of them still won’t leave “the movement” because they don’t want to give up that community. That is why I became the co-founder of “Life After Hate.”
Whatever else you might think of them, the men that brought you into the movement were effective motivators and, presumably, good as speaking to kids. How do you talk to young people currently involved with hate groups?
When I get face to face with these kids, I don’t talk. I listen. I listen for potholes, things in their past that deviated them onto this path. Could be trauma, mental illness, poverty, unemployment, or anything else. My job is to fill those potholes, not argue ideology. I give them job training, education, or mental health therapy. When people feel more confident and they have the tools to succeed, they no longer feel the need to blame the other. Then the ideology will fall away, and we can start addressing leaving their community behind.
What are the biggest lessons you have learned about being a parent?
The world is a complicated place, and there are no simple solutions. If someone is offering an easy solution to life’s complicated problems, chances are high they are leading you down a dangerous path.
I wanted to be there for my kid. I made sure that was my priority. My commitment to being a good dad to make sure they never went down the path is what gave me the courage to leave the movement. Without being a dad, I don’t know if I would have found that courage.
Why do these sort of movements still have so much success recruiting teens?
It’s a little different these days. You have millions of young kids online now who may feel ostracized or vulnerable, and these far-right groups can find them all over the country. There is so much propaganda and conspiracy-fueled news online, that it can feed this ideology for a kid who doesn’t really want to think about it.
Far-right recruitment is frighteningly similar to what happens with ISIS. People don’t join these groups because of ideology, it’s about belonging. ‘Find your tribe. Do something heroic. Save the white race.’
How can a parent recognize this sort of behavior in their kids? And how do they talk about it if they recognize it?
Number one is be brave enough to recognize it is a problem. So many people are afraid of the stigmas associated so they ignore the signs in front of them. That is a mistake. It can be your kid. Embrace professionals who are out there. Get help.
When behavior changes dramatically, pay attention. No matter what it is. Drug use, alcohol, or something like this. Have open, important, and often awkward conversations. Listen to your kid more than you talk to them. People are good at giving clues at what they need and how they got there.
There’s always hope. Don’t give up.