Updated by Matteen Mokalla to VOX.com Feb 27, 2017, 9:30am EST
“Bomb threats against Jewish community centers across the country. The desecration of headstones at a Jewish cemetery in St. Louis, Missouri.
For Christian Picciolini, these recent incidents are not necessarily surprising. He’s at the forefront of warning Americans against the growing threat from white nationalists.
What makes Picciolini’s insight into these individuals so compelling is that he used to be one.
When he was only 14, Picciolini was recruited by Clark Martell, a prominent neo-Nazi skinhead leader. By age 18, Picciolini was leading America’s first neo-Nazi skinhead gang and helping to recruit and organize cells across the country.
Picciolini worked to soften the neo-Nazis’ external image and political language to attract individuals who would otherwise not have been willing to join the movement.
“We hear terms like ‘liberal media,’ when in fact what they are talking about is Jewish media,” Picciolini told me. “We used to say that the Jews controlled the media. And now they’ve just massaged the phrase to call it ‘liberal media.’”
Picciolini began his transformation from neo-Nazi to anti-hate advocate in his late teens.
“Having my child when I was 19 years old and being married was a powerful catalyst for me because I finally had something to love,” he said.
In 2010 he co-founded Life After Hate, a not-for-profit organization dedicating to fighting racism and violent extremism. Five years later he published his memoirs of his time in the neo-Nazi movement, Romantic Violence: Memoirs of an American Skinhead.
“I’m still pulling up the weeds from all those seeds of hate that I planted,” he said, “which is why I have dedicated the last 20 years of my life to help eradicate racism.”
He recently sat down with me to talk about how he joined and left the neo-Nazi movement. In our conversation, Picciolini also explained why the American public should be as alarmed about white extremism as they are about Islamic radicals.
What was it about your early life that made you so susceptible to white supremacist views?
I wasn’t raised a racist. My parents were often victims of prejudice because they were Italian immigrants.
So it wasn’t a foundation of who I was. But what I was searching for, just like every young person who is vulnerable searches for, identity and community and a sense of purpose.
[Clark Martell] gave that to me when I felt very powerless. And the racism actually came later.
My neighborhood was changing, and he was able to use those instances of crime to focus my purpose.
He made me learn how to hate people — people that I didn’t even know, people that I never communicated with.
I was taught to go against them because it was an us-against-them mentality, and if I didn’t protect myself, my race would die.
The Trump administration has made it clear that it will focus on countering Islamist terrorism.
Reports indicate it will put far less resources into monitoring white extremism. Is this a mistake in your view?
In prior administrations, the government has supported the fight against white extremism.
They’ve recognized the threat in our own borders. But some of those policies might change — I think that’s a mistake.
Not only is that denying that we have a problem with our own borders, but it’s also marginalizing other people, Muslims specifically, telling them that they’re the problem.
That we need to infiltrate their communities. And that’s not what countering violent extremism is about.
It’s about being community-led and having the communities really work with the people they know the best to help understand and provide the services that they need.
And if you remove white extremism from the focus of terrorism and counterterrorism, we’re only setting ourselves up for failure because we’ll only embolden that side.
And it will only marginalize the others.
There is a sense among some that white nationalist violence is underreported in this country. Do you share this feeling too?
White violence and white extremism often goes underreported.
One incident in particular was in Las Vegas, where two police officers were executed and then draped with the flag that represented their militia group.
Sometimes we blame it on mental illness or the work of a lone wolf. But this is an ideological threat that runs deep within these groups in our country.
And if we don’t start calling it terrorism like it is, it won’t get the attention that it needs to be combated.
There has been a shift in the imagery and language of white nationalists over the years. What are some of the messaging tactics these groups are using these days?
The imagery of white supremacy has changed over the last three decades.
It’s gone from what you would consider your normal racist, who might be a skinhead with tattoos or a Klansman wearing a robe and a hood, to something that’s more mainstream:
Suits and ties, fashionable haircuts, and clothes that would never identify them as neo-Nazis until they open their mouths.
That was a concerted effort because we knew that we were turning people away who we could eventually have on our side.
And now we’re seeing the suits and the ties. And we’re seeing people go to universities and spread their messages on campuses.
And we’re seeing people join law enforcement and run for office.
They know, if they take away the edge, if they take away the things that turn most people off, even if they’re racist, they can attract more people.
Because now they’re appealing to the grievance the people have and they’re using us against them narrative to really spread racism.
And most people that fall into this camp don’t even know that.
When they’re being xenophobic and they’re talking about Muslims being the enemy, they don’t really understand because maybe they’ve never really interacted with these people.
They’ve never had a dialogue with these people. But they believe the propaganda and lies that are out there. And that’s all fear tactics.
What about the phrase “Make America great again” — do you see that as coded language?
These days with our political climate, we see a lot of coded language or dog whistles, the use of star of David, when talking about politicians.
We hear terms like “liberal media,” when in fact what they are talking about is Jewish media.
We used to say that the Jews controlled the media, and now they’ve just massaged the phrase to call it “liberal media.”
“Make America great again?” Well, to them, it means make America white again.
And I’m not ready to let that happen, because America is for everybody.
What exactly is the “white paradise” that white nationalists promise today and that many years ago brought you into the movement?
White nationalists, just like any other extremist groups, promise paradise.
They promise that the problems of crime and the problems of white genocide are going to go away.
And that you come from a very white noble cause and that your culture is worth protecting.
The problem is that nobody is trying to take that away from you.
The promise they make you is false because there is no “us against them.”
We’re here on this world together to work together.
And in fact, America was based with its greatest import being immigrants. So there is no problem.
The only problems they have are the ones that they inflate with propaganda, with fake news.
Where they teach you that blacks commit more crimes against white people or that Jews control the media and the finance system.
These are all conspiracy theories; there’s no basis in truth.
I know this because I helped create those lies from the beginning.
I helped spread them, and ultimately I believed them myself.
And I infected that lie to other people that were innocent, and even 20 years later, after I left the movement, I’m still pulling up the weeds from all those seeds of hate that I planted.
That’s why I have dedicated the last 20 years of my life to help eradicate racism.
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