Former White Supremacists Urge Hate Group Members to Renounce Their Bigotry

Christian Picciolini, former white supremacist and co-founder of the Life After Hate organization, speaks about his personal efforts to undo hate during a Safe Communities Institute (SCI) Lecture Forum on Oct. 9, 2015. (Photo: USC Price / Tom Queally)Christian Picciolini, former white supremacist and cofounder of the Life After Hate organization, speaks about his personal efforts to undo hate during a Safe Communities Institute Lecture Forum on October 9, 2015. (Photo: USC Price / Tom Queally)

Long before Angela King became active in fighting white supremacy, she was a 15-year-old girl with low self-esteem. She’d been raised in the rural South and says that racist and homophobic slurs were a staple of her upbringing.

She eventually became an active member of numerous hate groups, including the Aryan Nation, Church of the Creator, American Front and World Church of the Creator. From 1991 to 1998, King lobbed her teenage fury at people of color and those perceived to be gay.

Then, after she was convicted of a hate crime — the robbery and beating of a Jewish video store owner, targeted solely because of his faith — she was incarcerated. “I met women from all over the world in prison of different religions and races and with different ethnic backgrounds,” she told Truthout in an email. “Despite who I was, some of them treated me with compassion. Being treated with kindness completely disarmed me.”

Nonetheless, King knew that it would not be easy to leave the white supremacist organizations that had served as her base for nearly eight years and admits that when she first disengaged, she felt completely alone. “I struggled with guilt, shame and fear of repercussions from my former associates,” she wrote. She also had no idea how best to dislodge the prejudice that had been part of her life since childhood.

That task, she eventually realized, would take a community.

Life After Hate

King is now the deputy director of Life After Hate, a seven-year-old, Chicago-based organization founded by former members of violent, far-right white power groups. There, she and a cadre of others provide emotional support — by telephone, in closed online chat rooms and face-to-face when practical — to those who want out. They also assist family members who want counsel about getting a loved one to consider alternative viewpoints. Most importantly, they try to dispel the fallacies of their former belief systems to deter potential recruits from signing up.

“Life After Hate [LAH] is modeled after the public health response to polio,” cofounder Christian Picciolini said. “Of course, we treat people who have the disease, but we think we can do a lot more by inoculation, by preventing people from getting sick in the first place.”

“I got indoctrinated. I repeated the racist rhetoric and began to recruit other kids who needed a place to belong.”

Picciolini became part of the neo-Nazi skinhead movement in 1987, when he was 14 years old; he remained active until 1995. Unlike King, he did not grow up in a racist milieu. “The neo-Nazi skinhead movement began in the town where I spent most of my childhood, Blue Island, Illinois, on the southwest edge of Chicago,” he told Truthout. His involvement was almost serendipitous. “I didn’t come from a broken home,” he said. “My parents were immigrants from Italy who came to the US in the mid-1960s and opened a small beauty shop. They worked 12 hours a day and left me with my grandparents, aunts and uncles.” Although he concedes that his relatives showered him with love, the absence of his parents left him feeling abandoned and by the time he hit puberty he was cutting school and getting in trouble.

Picciolini describes his adolescence as lonely and anger-filled. “I was looking to belong and was ambitious,” he said. “Even as a kid I wanted to be important and do something that mattered.” One day, he says, he was hanging out in an alley smoking a joint when a tall white man with a shaved head stopped his car, got out, pulled the joint out of his hand and scolded Picciolini. “‘Hey, don’t you know that this is what the communists and Jews want you to do?'” he screamed, according to Picciolini. “He then explained that if I continued down this path it would hurt me.”

While Picciolini says that he had no idea what a communist was and had never met a Jew, the fact that a cool-looking man was paying attention to him made something click. He later learned that the man was Clark Martell, then leader of the Chicago Area Skinheads (CASH).

Picciolini speaks calmly, and it is obvious that he has told this story many times before, not only to reporters, but also in his self-published autobiography, Romantic Violence: Memoirs of an American Skinhead. He speaks slowly, clearly, and in phrases that sound well rehearsed, if heartfelt.

A few weeks after meeting Martell, he adds, his bike was stolen by several Black kids. This gave Martell the pretext to pull the enraged — and eager — Picciolini into the fold. “At first I’d run errands for him, but what really drew me in was the music that Martell and his friends listened to. I didn’t register the lyrics whatsoever; very quickly Martell and CASH became my surrogate family. I got indoctrinated. I repeated the racist rhetoric they spouted and began to recruit other kids who needed a place to belong.”

A year later, when Martell was convicted of participating in hate crimes including painting swastikas on Chicago-area synagogues and pistol-whipping a young woman suspected of being a “race traitor,” he went to jail and Picciolini, then 16, stepped into leadership. Although Picciolini played no role in either crime, he saw the arrest of his mentors as a personal opportunity, his chance to rise within the ranks of CASH and later, the Hammerskin Nation. He was interested, he says, in being respected, a person of stature and sway, and while he used race-baiting language and liked to talk about the coming race war, he favored talk over action.

“I somehow understood that music had power as a propaganda tool,” he said, “so in 1990, I formed White American Youth, WAY. I thought the band would shake American kids out of their slumber about Black and Brown people taking what belonged to whites.”

In retrospect, Picciolini acknowledges that he loved being in leadership. Nonetheless, despite the intoxication of power, he periodically wondered if what he was doing was right and in quiet moments his parents’ and grandparents’ admonitions to stop what he was doing would resonate. One incident, he says, was particularly jarring.

They are as fervent about stopping racial violence and hate as they once were to promote it.

He and his friends were at a McDonald’s late at night and approached some Black boys who were hanging out. The white supremacists told them to leave the restaurant. “They must have been scared because they ran out,” Picciolini recalled. “We chased them. One of the Black kids pulled out a gun and shot at us three times. He didn’t hit anyone but we grabbed him and beat him really badly,” Picciolini added. “The guy’s face was covered in blood. I remember looking down at him and connecting with his eyes. I didn’t want to show weakness but I backed off while my friends continued to pound him.”

“I pushed any empathy I had aside,” he said.

Still, despite momentary doubt about the reckless violence, he continued to verbally harass all people of color — whether a school security officer or a random person on the street — out of a deep sense of resentment over the alleged “special privileges” meted out to anyone dark skinned or Jewish.

But Picciolini’s life soon took a dramatic turn and he slowly began to shift directions: He got married at 19 and by 21 was the father of two sons. Although the marriage ended in the mid-1990s, the responsibilities of parenthood and the need to make a living prompted him to seek work; he became an entrepreneur, opening a record shop. Although he says that 75 percent of his income came from the sale of behind-the-counter white power music, he lined the store’s shelves with hip-hop, ska, heavy metal and other popular genres.

As improbable as it sounds, Picciolini says that it was both the responsibility of parenthood — wanting to be there for his kids in a hands-on way — and the one-on-one contact he had with random customers that slowly began to shake him out of his knee-jerk racism. “Same-sex couples and Black and Brown people would come in and we’d talk. After awhile we bonded over music and I became embarrassed to sell the racist stuff. But once I stopped selling it my income tanked and I had to close the business. More importantly, though, I’d met all kinds of wonderful people and could no longer justify my hate.”

That said, there was another, more primal, reason that Picciolini left the movement: The murder of his friend, Joe Rowan, lead singer of the racist band, Nordic Thunder. As he recounts in Romantic Violence, Rowan’s death “left his two young babies fatherless and a young, single mother unequipped to care for them … I could no longer deny my doubts about this miserable existence I’d created. This life wasn’t for me. This fractured perpetual motion machine of unending violence and despair that I’d helped create was not something I was proud to be a part of anymore … I began to let go of my biases.”

His marriage over, and his community and business gone, Picciolini says that he became extremely depressed and found himself at loose ends. Then, once again, a serendipitous encounter changed his life.

“I ran into a Black high school security guard I’d fought with and called terrible racist names many years earlier,” he said. “When I saw him getting into his car in the late 1990s, we recognized each other right away and I knew I needed to speak to him. All I could think of to say was, ‘I’m sorry.’ We talked for a while and eventually we both cried; before he drove off he made me promise I’d tell the world about my change of heart. I already understood that I was not healing because I was not talking about my past or what I had done to hurt others.”

Today, Picciolini, King and a small group of “formers” — the name used for anyone who has left neo-Nazi, skinhead, Christian Identity or Ku Klux Klan groups — are working with Life After Hate to make amends, help members leave racist groups and keep others from engaging with hatemongers.

And they are as fervent about stopping racial violence and hate as they once were to promote it.

Data on Why People Join and Leave Hate Groups

Stopping the spread of hate is obviously a huge undertaking and requires nuanced psychological and political insight. Needless to say, there are no one-size-fits-all strategies to get people out or keep them away from hatemongers. Still, information is key and LAH is working with researchers and scholars on an ongoing US Department of Justice-funded project to analyze who joins, and later leaves, right-wing hate groups.

“Although we’re still analyzing the data, we know that people leave for a variety of reasons, not all of which mean leaving the ideology,” cautions sociologist Kathleen Blee, co-author of Women of the Right: International and Transnational Perspectives. Unlike King and Picciolini who repudiate their past ideology, Blee reports that “sometimes the group leaves them: They were kicked out or the group dissolved and they may be biding their time until another group appears. Or they may be fed up with the group but still believe its ideas. This is true for both men and women.”

That said, Blee notes that women’s reasons for leaving do, at times, diverge from men’s. “Women typically have very gendered experiences,” she said. “They get sick of men monopolizing the meetings or treating them as sexual objects.”

In addition, she reports that some women leave because they don’t want their children asking questions about their activities. For still others, like King and Picciolini, there is a precipitating incident that calls their assumptions into question.

“Certain people are vulnerable to recruitment. The group, no matter what it is, fills a void.”

Prof. Pete Simi of the University of Nebraska Omaha is also part of the Justice Department research team. “People join groups with certain expectations,” he said. “When these expectations are unmet, disenchantment builds. Members may expect brotherhood, sisterhood or loyalty but what they often see is backstabbing and infighting. The discrepancy between the lived reality and the expectation creates the sense that this is not what they bargained for.”

Sometimes, he adds, questions arise due to relationships with people outside the movement who ask open-ended questions without either rejecting or supporting the member’s racist point of view. “People who ask questions without judgment plant seeds of doubt that over time may deteriorate their ties to the movement,” Simi said.

This, of course, sidesteps the bigger question: Why do people get drawn to hate groups in the first place?

Matthew DeMichele, a sociologist at Research Triangle International, says that almost to a one, the people who participated in the Justice Department study told their interviewers that they joined because they needed somewhere to belong. “Many had been socially isolated and the group gave them a strong sense of identity,” DeMichele said. What’s more, many came from families steeped in physical and sexual abuse, or had been neglected. Additionally, parental drug and alcohol abuse or incarceration were also common.

“Violent extremists are not unique,” Simi added. “Certain people are vulnerable to recruitment. The group, no matter what it is, fills a void. Many recruits are searching for family-like acceptance.”

That need is apparently growing. The Southern Poverty Law Center’s SPLC Report for spring 2016 notes a 14 percent spike in hate groups between 2014 and 2015. The number of anti-government organizations increased from 874 to 998, while those classified as hate groups now number 892, up from 784. And last year alone, 52 murders were attributed to the far right, including the killing of nine churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina, and three Planned Parenthood patients in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

Nonetheless, as scary as this is, SPLC senior writer Ryan Lenz notes that organizational expansion is just one rung on the ladder of hate. Indeed, he reports a huge increase in so-called lone wolves. “It’s not always a bunch of grizzled racists sitting in a room planning an attack, but is now just as likely to be a guy sitting alone in front of a computer reading racist screeds online and getting fired up,” he said.

Lenz’s strategy, and that of the SPLC, is to reveal the identities of hate group leaders. “People tend to post anonymously and we think people should know who is behind the messages,” he said. “There’s a podcast called White Rabbit Radio that is run by someone who calls himself Horus the Avenger. We did some hardcore investigating and eventually identified Horus as an unemployed guy who lives in his parent’s basement. He was not a proud Aryan warrior and we think his followers should know this.”

LAH and a group called Serve 2 Unite take a different tack, however. Arno Michaelis, former singer with the hate metal band Centurion and a cofounder of Life After Hate, now focuses his attention on his hometown of Milwaukee. He and Pardeep Kaleka, the son of Satwant Singh Kaleka, one of six Sikhs murdered by a white supremacist in 2012, have paired up to promote coexistence. Their work is one of the only examples of victim and persecutor working together.

A project of Arts at Large, Serve 2 Unite goes into schools to “address the need for identity, for belonging and for finding a sense of purpose,” Michaelis said. “We tell our personal stories and use our common humanity as a foundation. We stress that difference is an asset rather than something to fear. I tell people that kindness — in my case from people in the rave scene — helped me find my way out of hate. Pardeep talks about how being of service to others has helped him heal from the trauma of his dad’s murder. We then help kids identify ways they can act to stop violence rather than cultivating it.”

His conclusion is as simple as it is stark: “People only commit hate crimes if they’re unhappy. Happy people do not shoot up a church or beat someone because of their skin color or sexual orientation,” he said.

Indeed, if LAH, the SPLC and Serve 2 Unite can help people collectively air their grievances and work together to find solutions to common problems, they’ll have made great headway in undercutting the appeal of hate groups. Let’s hope they succeed.