When Christian Picciolini was 14 years old, he joined America’s first organized neo-Nazi white power movement and remained there for 8 years. He became a leader in the organization and recruited hundreds of others to join. He ran a record store specializing in music that promoted Neo-Nazi ideology and committed countless acts of violence and hate.
And then…. he changed his life.
This is the story of how Christian lost everything to radicalization, and then rebuilt his life on an entirely new foundation: make good happen.
That is Picciolini’s personal mission statement, and today he works to help people of all ages disengage from extremist organizations on both ends of the political spectrum.
In this episode of Rob Konrad: Conversations, Christian shares the powerful story of what drove him to join the movement and what eventually led him to leave, and how he regained his sense of purpose in the process.
Click the video on top to watch the episode – and join the conversation NOW!
00:00:00 – Episode Teaser
00:01:36 – Introduction
00:01:39 – Meet Christian Picciolini, a former white supremacist Neo-Nazi turned peace advocate.
00:03:11 – Why a 14-year-old boy, from a “normal” middle-class family, decides to join a white power group.
00:06:34 – A skinhead takes Christian under his wing
00:09:22 – How believing lies creates a sense of power
00:10:20 – “The soccer coach who never came”
00:12:06 – Christian knew hurting people was wrong – but he did it anyway
00:13:54 – Christian gets married to a girl outside of the movement and starts a family.
00:15:47 – An eight year transformation of deradicalization begins
00:17:16 – What were Black, Asian, Jewish and gay people doing in his racist record store in the first place-?
00:18:57 – A young black customer’s personal story of trauma is a wakeup call for Christian
00:19:58 – Why broken people are vulnerable to hate organizations
00:21:05 – “Very fine people on both sides”
00:22:30 – How Christian helps people disengage from extremist movements.
00:24:40 – The ongoing consequences of the past: the Dylan Roof shooting
00:26:19 – Where extremists recruit young people online
00:27:32 – Using the internet to turn the Holocaust into a fable
00:29:21 – Radicalization, monetized.
00:30:04 – The far right is no longer a fringe movement
00:32:20 – Freedom of speech, hate speech and repercussions
00:33:11 – The way to combat hate speech is….
00:35:05 – About the types of people who are vulnerable to extremist movements
00:36:51 – The mysterious disappearance of Christian’s old mentor
00:38:41 – Losing everything and leaving the movement
00:41:35 – Forgiveness from an old victim, and deciding to make amends
00:43:25 – The warning signs of radicalization
00:45:08 – Extremists of today have traded the boots for suits
00:46:30 – How an old friend helped Christian get back on his feet and start to change his life
00:48:18 – Going fishing with the security guard, and experiencing his compassion
00:49:09 – Christian’s biggest regrets
00:50:25 – How to reach out to Christian if you need help
00:53:32 – A challenge to show compassion to those we don’t believe deserve it
00:53:58 – A three-word mission statement
00:55:18 – Preview of the next episode
Listen as Podcast
Christian Picciolini is an MSNBC contributor, an Emmy Award-winning director and producer, a published author, TEDx speaker, global peace advocate, and a reformed extremist. His work and life purpose bear witness to a deep-seated desire to atone for his grisly past, and an urgency to transform the hurts and wounds he inflicted into vehicles for profound healing. Christian tenaciously works to use the redemption he has been offered to make the world a better, more peace-filled place. His involvement in, and eventual exit from, the early American white-supremacist skinhead movement is chronicled in Christian's memoir WHITE AMERICAN YOUTH: My Descent into America's Most Violent Hate Movement—and How I Got Out (link below).
... read full bio....
In 2009, he cofounded Life After Hate, a non-profit organization dedicated to helping communities and organizations implement long-term solutions that counter racism and violent extremism. Christian is currently leading the Free Radicals Project, a global network of extremism preventionists, who are helping people disengage from hate movements and other violent ideologies around the world. In 2018, Christian premiered Breaking Hate on MSNBC, a television docu-series produced by Part2 Pictures.
Christian is a frequent commentator and focus of national and international media platforms such as MSNBC, CNN, 60 Minutes, CBS Evening News, CBS Face the Nation, CBC, Vice, Washington Post, NY Times, Vox, Rolling Stone Magazine, GQ, Time Magazine, BBC, NPR, Glenn Beck, PBS, DemocracyNow!, CSPAN, and others. He has also appeared as a guest on shows by Sarah Silverman, Samantha Bee, Adam Carolla, Mitch Albom, and many more.
In 2010 and 2011, he was nominated for three regional Emmy Awards for his role as executive producer of JBTV, one of America's longest-running, nationally-broadcast music television programs. In 2016, he won an Emmy Award for his role in directing and producing an anti-hate advertising campaign called “There is life after hate,” aimed at helping youth disengage from white-supremacist groups.
Connect with Christian
Website – https://www.christianpicciolini.com
Twitter – https://twitter.com/cpicciolini
Facebook – https://www.facebook.com/officialchristianpicciolini/
Instagram – https://www.instagram.com/cpicciolini/
YouTube – https://www.youtube.com/user/cpicciolini
Christian is currently leading the Free Radicals Project, a global network of extremism preventionists, who are helping people disengage from hate movements and other violent ideologies around the world.
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Rob Konrad 1:36
Hey this is Rob Konrad from Switzerland.
Rob Konrad 1:39
When he was 14 years old, Christian Picciolini, son of a middle class Italian immigrants family in the United States, joined – and later became a leading figure – in the first organized neo nazi white power skinhead group in the US. He recruited young people into the organization. He committed countless acts of violence against people of different race and religion and fought for his ideas and ideals of white supremacy. He continued like this for eight years – until he started to have conversations with the people he believed to be so despicable and realized that they are actually more alike than different, and eventually he changed his mind and he left the organization.
Rob Konrad 2:17
He's now a peace advocate, a TED speaker, co founder of a nonprofit organization called “Life After Hate”, and the “Free Radical Project” that supports people in leaving extremist organizations. He's an Emmy Award winning director and producer and author of the book “White American Youth – my descent into America's most violent hate movements – and how I got out”. Thanks for taking the time. Christian Picciolini.
Christian Picciolini 2:40
Thank you, Rob. That's a mouthful. You just said a lot.
Rob Konrad 2:42
Yeah, yeah 🙂 That one I had to write down…
Rob Konrad 2:49
Christian Picciolini 2:49
Thank you for having me.
Rob Konrad 2:51
Yeah. Thanks for taking time, appreciate it, man. So yeah, when I first heard the story, I was amazed. I mean, it's it's rare that people make this kind of turn – and I'm glad to see that you are alive! I mean, I guess you you did have some issues with threats after the whole…
Christian Picciolini 3:10
Oh, yeah, I'm I'm sure if I move your screen over to the left a little bit and look at my email inbox. There are probably threats there right now. As a matter of fact, but, you know, I left that movement 23 years ago when I was 22 years old. I got in in 1987 when I was 14. And you know, when I got in it wasn't about the ideology. I didn't know anything about that. At 14 years old, I don't even know that I studied, you know, national socialism or Nazi Germany in school or paid much attention at that point. What I was looking for was a sense of identity and community and purpose. I didn't feel like I got that growing up or at least I struggled with it.
Rob Konrad 3:52
Rob Konrad 3:53
That's what I was a bit surprised about to hear because didn't come from a family of, you know, abuse and alcoholism and a broken home with radicals already in your in your family – you came from a normal middle-class Italian family – two parents, yes, they were working a lot, but that's about it, I would say, right?
Christian Picciolini 4:15
And here, here is the secret information is most people who become extremists come from pretty normal backgrounds. They don't come from radicalized families, actually, the Anti-defamation League in the United States published a statistic that said that 90% of people that join extremist movements they're not radicalized in the family! They're radicalized outside of the home. So my story is actually very typical in the movement. But I, you know, I did have, you know, there was trauma in my life, there was that sense of abandonment, which can sometimes feel like the loss of a parent as a child, you know, as if a parent dies psychologically, anyway.
Christian Picciolini 5:01
And you know, it's a lot for some people, it could be a very deep pothole that you step into as far as what detours your life or it could be, you know, a multitude of very shallow potholes. I would say I had a multitude of shallow potholes I dealt with. You know, the crisis of “An I Italian” or “Am I American?”
Rob Konrad 5:21
It was identity….
Christian Picciolini 5:23
Yeah, it was, it was an identity crisis, because I lived in such a an Italian bubble in a town in Chicago with the same families from the same villages in Italy that my parents came from. So, you know, they were very close with each other. And I didn't live outside of that as a kid. But the rest of the world was America. And I wanted to be there. And I started to resent who I was. And, you know, I started to resent my parents because I felt abandoned by them. So I think that that really…. because I never resented who I was. I was very proud of being Italian. I had gone to Italy, you know, during the summers almost every year as a kid growing up. And that was the only time that I really saw my parents, because they were working every other day. So, for me it was more about wanting to belong to something, wanting to find that community, that family that I thought I was missing. And then I was always driven by purpose, I was always very idealistic. The problem was, that nobody found me to to channel this energy into something positive, and then someone found me to channel that energy into something bad.
Rob Konrad 6:31
And that was Clark Martel?
Christian Picciolini 6:33
Right that was a skinhead by the name of Clark Martel who was you know, I believe 26 years old at the time when I was 14. And and you know, I was standing in an alley in a backstreet smoking a joint, and he came up to me and he grabbed the joint from my mouth. And he said, “That's what the communists and the Jews want you to do to keep you docile, to keep to keep control of you!”
Christian Picciolini 6:59
I didn't know what a communist or a Jew or even what the word he used was, “docile”. But it he paid attention to me, okay. And after that, he put his hand on my shoulder. And he was very nice to me. And he brought me close. And he said, “You should be proud of who you are”. And, “and there are people who want to take that away from you”. And, that's all I needed to hear. It didn't matter what he was selling, I would have bought it.
Rob Konrad 7:25
I found it very interesting. In your book you describe when you went to these first meetings, and when you felt the energy in the room and you felt the people screaming and all sharing the same idea that something you really connected to you. That's when you felt purpose for the first time, really.
Christian Picciolini 7:41
Oh, yeah. I mean, it was like I was on a different planet. And I had been sheltered in this Italian-American, very small world for so long, that suddenly I saw that there was something else outside and it and they welcomed me, and it was, you know, they were uniforms, it was that identity, it was all crystal clear, and very standard, the community, you know. Everybody was friendly, and they hugged each other. And, the purpose was very clear – they told you exactly what they wanted you to do, who to hate, who to hurt – and then I started to believe it, and then I started to push it.
Rob Konrad 8:20
And it didn't take long for you to adapt, really, to get sucked into the ideology.
Christian Picciolini 8:47
No, not at all. Not long at all. Because at first it wasn't about that. It was about the music and the friendship and dressing a certain way that now all the people that had bullied me growing up for who I was – whether I was shorter, because my parents didn't speak perfect English, or the clothes that they put me in as a kid that I didn't have any control over. When I shaved my head, and I wore boots, they would cross the street and they would avoid me. That made me feel like I had gone from powerless to powerful. It wasn't true power, of course. I'd gone from worthless to to somebody who was saving the world. Because that was the only information I got. And I swallowed it, because I needed to stay a part of it. But I believed that too, because I didn't know anything before that. So that was the only information that I had. And I saw it as truth. It was almost like I went to school and learned that two plus two is five my whole life. And there's nothing that you could do to tell me that two plus two is really four. Because I knew the truth and you didn't. And it filled me with power.
Rob Konrad 9:43
You think at that time someone could have saved you from from the whole mess you got into
Christian Picciolini 9:50
Had a soccer coach walked up to me in that alley, at 14 years old and said, “Let's go play soccer”. I would have gone and played soccer. Because I didn't know what a skinhead was. Nobody knew what a skinhead was, I didn't want to hurt people. I wanted to just be accepted. But I had to hurt people to stay involved. And then it filled me with this sense of false power.
Rob Konrad 10:11
So it was less about the actual ideology. It was more about finding something to believe in – whatever that is?
Christian Picciolini 10:16
Rob Konrad 10:17
That just happened to be…
Christian Picciolini 10:19
…the soccer coach never came. Yeah, that's what happened is the soccer coach never came, and that other person did. And, how I do my work now is, I try and be that soccer coach for people. Both as they're, you know, feeling marginalized and starting to look into these types of things, or when they're in and they've recognized: “I don't… this is not what I want to do. This is not what I agree with. But I can't leave because there's nothing to go back to.”
Christian Picciolini 10:47
Because everybody. I tell you, Rob *everybody* in that movement, in ANY extremist movement, questions at some point, because it's based, it's illogical, it can't work. It's not natural to want to hurt other people simply for, you know, what they believe or what they look like, or who they believe in.
Christian Picciolini 11:07
But it is natural to question those things. And it's important that when they do they have a way out
Rob Konrad 11:11
Okay. In your book you describe rather graphically how you were, you know, beating up people of other skin color really for no reason, except that they have their own skin color or that they're of Mexican descent or Jewish or black or whatever. What was the first time when you felt “it's not right what I'm doing here”. I mean, there must have been a points… you didn't grow up with violence. So it must have been a point where you thought, hey, maybe beating up somebody or beating somebody into a bloody pulp is not the right thing to do.
Christian Picciolini 11:43
Every time I every time I hurt somebody, I felt it was wrong. So what do you do? Because I… I felt that the benefit that I received from it, the sense of respect or this, you know, belonging was was more important to me, than the fact that I was hurting somebody else. You know, here's the truth, I hated myself. That's why I hated other people. I was projecting my own self hatred. So when I hurt other people, it was… making them feel worse than I did was sometimes the only way I could feel good about myself at that time. So I fooled myself into thinking that it was like a drug. When I hurt other people, or when I preached this ideology, or when I sang racist music on a stage. It was like a drug, it made me feel good for a short time, but I always knew it was killing me and everybody around me, but I couldn't stop because I knew that if I stop, it would kill me. Or it was all I had, what would I go back to?
Rob Konrad 12:50
You wrote a sentence… I wrote that down actually, you wrote “that's the violence and dominance became pleasurable, and you felt completely in control of your life”, that is something that stuck with me,
Christian Picciolini 13:01
and I was completely out of control. Yeah, see, that was the feeling that I felt in control. But there was no control in my life. I lost everything I had, because of that lack of control.
Rob Konrad 13:12
So so for about eight years, you kind of rose the ranks and became a pretty prominent figure, you know, got a lot of people into the organization. And at what point did you start to feel “okay, maybe this is something that's shouldn't continue forever…”
Christian Picciolini 13:34
I would say right around the time I was 18 years old, that's when I met a girl that I fell in love with, who was not a part of anything that I was involved. In fact, she, she hated it.
Christian Picciolini 13:46
But somehow she, you know, we found a way to love each other. And 19 years old, we got married, and we had our first child and at 21, we had our second and certainly from the time I met her, I, I was challenged that sense of identity, community and purpose for the first time since I was recruited, because now I had to think: “Was I a father? Or was I a hate monger? Was I involved in this family? Or was I involved in this other family that I had surrounded myself with to boost my ego? And my purpose came in question. So that was really, I would say that that was the first major catalyst for me. But there were certainly many, many more as I started to meet more people, and be open to that and have meaningful interactions for the first time.
Rob Konrad 14:36
And then when can the point when you said, “I want out, I want to actively… I want to leave this organization, I want to kind of cut the ties to everything”, you want to leave this old family and start a new one somewhere else that with another purpose.
Christian Picciolini 14:51
Yeah, I would say in 1995, very early in 1995, after I decided that I, was running the record shop at the time to sell racist music. But I was also selling other music as well, hip hop and, and punk rock and heavy metal. And I never expected to sell any of that. 75% of what I was selling was music I was importing from Europe, that was racist, but people came in to buy that music, who are black, who were Jewish, or gay, who were Asian, and over time I started to connect with them, I started to see them as human beings instead of the demons that were in my head, because I'd never had these types of interactions with people. And I started to feel that I had more in common with them than the people that I thought were my family.
Christian Picciolini 15:46
So you know, it was it was a long process of… it was not a quick transformation I think, you know, it took eight years really. Because every day that I was impacted by people both good and bad, it would either push me further into what I was doing or pulled me farther away from it. The problem was, is nobody ever committed to either one of those if somebody had committed to pulling me further pushing me further away by attacking me or by insulting me or shaming me or any of those things that I completely deserved at the time, probably that would have pushed me further away.
Christian Picciolini 16:28
if somebody would have committed on the other side… also to saying, you know what like the people in my record store who were compassionate to me even when they didn't have to be then I probably would have gotten out earlier. And it's not their responsibility. I would never make it the the potential victims responsibility to be compassionate to somebody. It can hurt them, but I think that as human beings if we all just do that all the time or just be compassionate, you never know who you're affecting.
Rob Konrad 17:00
How did that work out practically? I mean, you were a white supremacist, we have the have are still are still have to choose all of you buddy…. Why did people like Jews and and gays come into your record store in the first place?
Christian Picciolini 17:15
That's a good question. I wish I knew who they were to this day. Because they were strangers at the time who knew me who knew about my involvement, but I never really knew who they were until I started to get to know them. And I wish I knew, you know, and I think you know, I think that they were just very brave, very forward thinking people who maybe saw something in me that I didn't see at the time. And, they were good human beings who said, “You know what, I don't see a monster I see a broken”, you know, “person who's wearing armor to cover up his own wounds”. And I'm very grateful for them because they saved my life.
Rob Konrad 17:59
What kind of conversations did you have with these people that opened your eyes to what we're talking about?
Christian Picciolini 18:05
At first it was just about music. It was a music store. So they would ask for recommendations. And, I had no idea how to recommend hip hop at the time, I don't think I've ever listened to that kind of music.
Christian Picciolini 18:19
So I knew that they were asking to try and and feel me out, they were trying to get information from you by listening. So, you know, some of the the very impactful conversations…. There was a young black man who had come in several times. And he was always very, happy and friendly, but I was not – I was just a business person, I was not interested in being his friend. But one day he came in very visibly upset. And I had asked him what was wrong and, he told me his mother had recently been diagnosed with breast cancer.
Christian Picciolini 18:56
And I suddenly could relate to that, because my mother had been diagnosed with breast cancer just recently as well, that same time, and it was those connections, that understanding that…. I had never in my life had these types of conversations with people like him, or the other people that I've met. And suddenly I realized what was in my head, what I thought of them, it didn't exist. It didn't relate to my real experience. And the more I had these situations occur, the more I realized I was being fooled, and that I was fooling myself because I went along willingly,
Rob Konrad 19:39
And the people from your former organization, what kind of people were these, I mean, I did, they all come from similar backgrounds? Did they have, they have the same struggles? Certain patterns that you that you saw, with all these people?
Christian Picciolini 19:57
Everybody had their own trauma, some form of it, it could have been abuse, it could have been neglect, it could have been privilege, it could have been, poverty, it could have been a million things. As, you know, people who witness their their father who committed suicide at a young age or, you know, children of divorce, every single person was broken, just like every human being is broken. Frankly, unfortunately, you know, these human beings that I was involved with, were intercepted by somebody who had a motive, you know. There were good people that I met, there were good people that I recruited, that I knew were good people that I sold lies to. To get them to join me. And, you know, there were bad people too. There were people who were so broken that if they weren't institutionalized or put in prison, they wouldn't have gotten you know… They wouldn't have been… people wouldn't have been safe. But there were good people and I'm sure even in Switzerland, you've heard, our president here say the phrase “Very fine people on both sides” when he was talking about the Charlottesville rally, and certainly that's, you know, a point of anger. And I was very angry when I heard that and then I thought about it. And then I had to believe that there were very fine people on both sides, because if I didn't believe that then I would be denying myself my own change, and everybody else that I've worked with over the years. And in fact I've since that rally worked with many individuals who were there who've since denounced and said, “I don't want to be a part of that.” it suddenly became real to them, you know, it's not behind their computer screens anymore. Suddenly, they're faced with you know, fights and words and people dying and that might be enough for some people to say: “This whole club, the social club I was a part of, is not what I want to be a part of”.
Rob Konrad 21:59
Tell me a little bit about the work that you're doing now in your organizations.
Christian Picciolini 22:03
Well, I help people disengage from extremist movements. And, and I work with people on the far right, I work with people who are Islamic state supporters, people on the far left, and because I really do believe that people gravitate to these movements, these extremists movements for the same reasons. It's not because of ideology, it's because of that search for identity, community and purpose and our broken journey for that.
Christian Picciolini 22:29
And I don't argue with people, I don't tell them that they're wrong, I want to of course… So you know, I hear some awful things come out of people's mouths that really are no different than anything that I said when I was, you know, 15 years old. So I recognize how ridiculous it is. And I filter that noise out and I listen very, very closely for their potholes, those that broken this in them and then I fill them. I will work with people to get job training or an education or mental health therapy, or tattoo removal or life coaching, or even family counseling. Because when people start to feel better about themselves, when those voids are filled, there's no reason to blame the other for something that is happening in their life. Because they're accountable. They now know it's because of their own brokenness that they do that, but I don't stop there. I also I introduced them to the people that they think that they hate. And I've had conversations, I've sat for hours with Holocaust deniers and Holocaust survivors and, you know, Islamophobes and Imams and Muslim families having dinner and it's a really beautiful thing to see that demonization be destroyed by humanization.
Rob Konrad 23:43
And how do you get those people at the same table?
Christian Picciolini 23:48
I have to turn them away. I have so many people reaching out to me saying I want to be your Jewish person that meets with that Nazi. I want to be the gay person who shows that person who hates me, that he has, or she has, nothing to hate. I don't have to ask, because I have so many people asking me to do that.
Rob Konrad 24:10
How do you feel about your former self?
Christian Picciolini 24:16
I feel ashamed, you know, I feel you know, I feel responsible for a lot of what is going on today, both directly and indirectly, for the ideas that I put into the world and more directly for the actual physical words and music that I put out into the world. Because you I know that to this day, it's still affects people. You know, just recently I found out that Dylan Roof, who, who massacred nine people in Charleston, yeah, in Charleston, South Carolina. And in 2015, four months before he had walked into that church he had posted, on a white supremacist website, my band's lyrics asking for more music from my band. Now, this is 20, you know, 20 plus years after I had written it. Many, many years after I've left, after fighting to try and have that music removed. And of course, it will never go away because of the internet. But those are the consequences of our words. Even when, even when we're finished speaking them years later. And I feel responsible for that.
Rob Konrad 25:23
20 years ago, there was no internet… So it was just in the very early stages…
Christian Picciolini 25:26
And I'm lucky because of that. Because if the internet was around I'd be in a lot more trouble. Let me just tell you that
Rob Konrad 25:32
N, it's just much more amplified than 20 years ago, so.. does it worry you how easy it is for influences like your former self to access young people who are looking for purpose, for meaning in life?
Christian Picciolini 25:46
Yeah. And, and, you know, I think everybody would agree that the internet is full of millions of young people who feel marginalized, who maybe don't have, you know, positive relationships or any relationships in real life. Who build them online – and online, you can be anybody you want, you can have any identity, you can join any community, that's what it's for. And, you know, your purpose now is curated for you because it is fed to you based on your interests like news.
Christian Picciolini 26:18
And what's disturbing the most to me, Rob, right now, is the way that extremists are recruiting people online because they know that there are marginalized people there, but they're going to traditional safe zones on the internet, places like forums dedicated to depression and autism spectrum disorder. They're starting to recruit younger by recruiting over multiplayer gaming, you know, when there are young people wearing headsets and are playing… you know, whatever game…. But they're also putting messages and videos that are on online about video games like Minecraft and Roadblocks and Fortnite, you know, people go to YouTube and they watch videos of people playing video games. I used to like to play video games when I was a kid, not watch people play them on the internet.
Rob Konrad 27:04
I never understand why people watch recordings…
Christian Picciolini 27:07
It's a thing. It's very popular. I mean, there are millions and millions of views. But in these videos sometimes, you know, in a very benign Minecraft video – and in the middle of it, you'll hear somebody trying to recruit you into… You know, “what do you think about the Jews? Do you believe in the Holocaust?” things like that. And then, you know, they kind of do it to desensitize young people to it. They make memes and jokes about it. So people spread it around and laugh about it. So that something like that Holocaust becomes a fable. It becomes ancient history, and it doesn't affect people. And you know, it's a thing, it's called mimetic warfare, where we can desensitize people by giving them the same information over and over and over so that they get so tired of hearing about it – or they just accept that, that it doesn't have the same impact anymore.
Christian Picciolini 27:54
So they're using so many tactics now, because of the internet, not to mention fake news and propaganda that I used to have to read in a book. Now it can be accessed with a click, and it's actually fed to you. Because now you've gone down a rabbit hole, you've watched one video on accident and your recommended feed recommends things that you want to watch more, so it's the internet is radicalizing us
Rob Konrad 28:18
Okay, so these are organized efforts to influence other people. So these are not individuals who are, you know, speaking to mind, these are organized efforts, by, by radical groups, to radicalize other people?
Christian Picciolini 28:31
You know, it's not so much about the groups anymore these days, like it was when I was involved. Now it's much more of a leaderless resistance. And the internet really made it that way for people to be connected without a central structure.
Christian Picciolini 28:48
And it's led by movements, by the idea and the leaders, but the people are the ones engaging in this, it's the followers, it's people who are good graphic designers take it upon themselves, to make flyers for the internet, or memes. And, you know, good writers post blogs, some people are making podcasts, you know, it's really anything that you or I can do to, you know, have a presence on the internet to boost your podcast, or to talk about my book or anything like that they're doing. And they, can now monetize it. We never could figure out how to make money back in those days. We sold music and it didn't, you know, we sold a lot of it, but I never received a paycheck for for the movement or for my music. Now, they're making money off of you YouTube ads, because their videos are getting millions of views, they're making subscriptions off of their podcasts, they're buying Bitcoin and investing that, they're creating their own social networks, because they're being deplatformed from the mainstream ones. So they've created their own. This is a whole ecosystem that they've now created. It's not just a fringe movement, this is now part of the fabric of our society, no matter where we live, especially in Europe.
Christian Picciolini 30:03
I mean, we've seen the far right grow immensely over here, especially in Eastern Europe. And, I have to say it because, … I know people are probably tired of hearing about it, maybe not you in Switzerland, but Americans are tired of hearing about it. But the influence coming from Russia with these disinformation campaigns and the propaganda – that's really where this is coming from. Thousands and thousands of sock puppets and chatbots are still continuing today. Even having started before our election for president, but you're seeing that rise in Eastern Europe, because they're for former Soviet republics that Putin wants to reclaim again, so he's grooming all these players throughout the world. One thing that scares me is that during World War Two, Hitler didn't have worldwide support for his ideas. He had a few allies, but they were, you know, they were insignificant. The ideas that are now spreading with the far right are much more far reaching across Europe and the United States. And even in places like Brazil were Bolsonaro is on the verge of potentially being like… this is far scarier to me, because the widespread acceptance of nationalism, extreme nationalism, is growing. And it's something I don't want to see happen.
Rob Konrad 31:29
In your discussion with Sam Harris, you talked a bit about giving certain people platforms to discuss their ideas who might be on whatever end of the spectrum, could be both.
Christian Picciolini 31:40
Rob Konrad 31:41
Where do you draw the line in terms of censorship? I mean, censorship would be one way to get that out. But where do you… it's not a solution, as we all know. So how do you see that whole situation, shall we deplatform people, shouldn't we..?
Christian Picciolini 32:00
I think there is a line, but I think I've also changed my opinion somewhat on that since then. You know, I used to believe that – and certainly hate speech that affects somebody so much that it hurts them physically or terrorizes them or causes other people to harm others – I think that that's a line there, right. But I do believe we should be able to say whatever we think, but also know that there are repercussions for that. You know, there's no freedom on your speech to other people. In America, we have freedom of speech, but that is our freedom against the government to infringe on our speech, not against each other. We, you know, there's no such thing as hate speech laws in America, there is no…
Christian Picciolini 32:45
We have free speech.But when that causes violence, when insights a movement that is killing people on a regular basis, in fact, is killing people more than any other radical terrorist extremist group in our country, you know, there's a line there. But I think the way I've changed my opinion, is that the way to combat hate speech is with more speech. It's with education. It's not by limiting it, because when you limit speech, you embody the same ideas of the people that you are fighting against, who want to limit you. So it doesn't, it just doesn't make sense to me. And that's why I don't believe violence can solve violence,
Rob Konrad 33:30
And then how can people – especially the young people – filter? I mean, it if there's speech and more speech, and more speech, at some point that just gets, well, hard, you know, to look through the whole thing.
Christian Picciolini 33:43
We have to be responsible adults and give them information that is beneficial for them and doesn't divide or hurt them. You know, we can say, “Well, you know, how can young people, what can they believe?” Well, it's up to us to give them the information for them to digest. So, we have to look at ourselves. We're creating this problem. And I say, we, as kind of just the general society.
Christian Picciolini 34:11
We're creating this world, we're paying for it, we're buying into it, we're, we're enabling it, and we're leaving it as a legacy for the next generation to deal with. And frankly, I think they're far more equipped than we are to deal with it ,to be honest, because I think the world has progressed. I think we understand things more than than my generation did and your generation, you know, does now. But that doesn't remove the responsibility for us to fix it now, because they're better equipped to deal. It's our responsibility to them to make sure that they don't have to deal with it, or at least have something to work from.
Rob Konrad 34:54
And the people that you help to disengage – at what point in their life are they usually? And what are the biggest challenges that they face?
Christian Picciolini 35:04
Oh, that's a good question. I mean, they range in every age, and they're male and female, and every person is different in what they need. You know, I've worked with 15 year old boys, 17 year old girls, 60 year old men, 40 year old women. It's certainly more male dominated, you know, extremist movements are more male dominated, but the female component is actually growing because they've learned that they can use women to be the mouthpiece is the propagandists because it attracts men. So they've gotten a little bit savvier in that respect. But, you know, really, it is about just building resilience in the human being, and connecting them to knowledge, and knowledge is sometimes meeting somebody. So, that's, typically what I do with everybody.
Rob Konrad 35:55
Okay. And the person who introduced you 25 or 30 years ago, Clark, did you ever get in touch with him again?
Christian Picciolini 36:06
That is the mystery of my life, my friend, because I can tell you that after he went to prison – so he went to prison when I was 16 years old. And that's when I was the last person remaining. Everybody had gone to prison by that point. So that's when I took over leadership of the organization. He went to prison. I saw him one time in 1994 – 1995 – yes, out of prison. I was out of the movement at the time. And he showed up at an event that I was doing with a band that was not a political band.
Christian Picciolini 36:39
And we didn't say hello, he didn't, you know, he recognized me, I recognized him. It was very uncomfortable, we didn't speak, it was at a concert. So it was easy to get lost in the crowd. So I didn't have to see him. And I haven't seen him or heard from him since. And, in fact, when I was writing my book, I tried to, you know, pull public information related to his birthday, and things like that. So I had things accurate in the book. And every place that I knew to look – I knew where he was born, I knew his birthday – there were no records found for this man, with this name, with this birthday. Or with this person record.
Rob Konrad 37:17
Oh, ok. So he lived under a false identity.
Christian Picciolini 37:20
I don't know. I wish I could tell you. I knew. I wish I knew the answer to it. But for for all purposes, he's disappeared. He's a ghost and he never existed.
Rob Konrad 37:30
And from your former peers that were in touch?
Christian Picciolini 37:33
I mean, he's a real person. Many, many people have met him. He was the first American neo-Nazi skinhead leader. He started this.
Rob Konrad 37:41
You never heard from anyone who got in touch with him again?.
Christian Picciolini 37:44
I've heard stories, legends and rumors. But there's no there's no indication… unless I have information wrong, which I don't think I do because it's the same information everybody has, it's a it's a mystery. I wish I knew the answer to that, because it would help me with a lot. I want closure I just… Clark Read Martel born in Billings, Montana. This does not exist anywhere on earth today that I'm aware of.
Rob Konrad 38:12
Christian Picciolini 38:13
Maybe he maybe he died as a homeless person and no record was filed of it… I don't know. But let's not get into conspiracy.
Rob Konrad 38:20
Yeah. At the time when you left the organization, you also disconnected from your family, from your wife from your two sons at that point..
Christian Picciolini 38:32
Disconnect… me disconnecting from her is a very nice way to put that. Thank you. She divorced me and she took the children, okay. But yes, I lost everything. I lost my business because I walked away. After I became embarrassed to sell the racist music, I removed it from the store. And it was so much of my revenue, 75%, that I couldn't sustain the store anymore. So I closed the store. I didn't have a great relationship with my parents, because I was angry at them still, and they tried. But I was not having… My wife and my children left. And I walked away from the movement. I lost. You know, I lost everything. I lost everything that I knew who I was, both for my family, and the hope for the future, and who I had been for eight years. And I wish I could tell you I was brave and that I told them, You know, I told them off or something like that. And, you know, I said, You know, I made a big… I walked away quietly, and I was afraid. I ran. because I didn't want to admit my past to people. I tried to make new friends. I never talked about who I was, and until I until I couldn't anymore.
Rob Konrad 39:40
Did you have a chance to reconnect?
Christian Picciolini 39:43
With my family? Yeah. Oh, yeah. I mean, my kids are now 26 and 24 years old. They're not babies anymore. But yeah, no way. I'd never lost touch with them. That was always very important. As I was always, even though we were divorced, I was always there for them. I had, you know, shared custody every weekend. And, and my parents, of course, I've reconnected with them. They never gave up on me. All these people who never gave up on me, saved my life. And I owe them, I owe them everything.
Rob Konrad 40:13
What do they think? What did they think about you?
Christian Picciolini 40:17
I think they're proud. I think, you know, it's, I think I'm just trying to be a human being. So it's very uncomfortable for me when people you know, and I think my parents and my family knows that it's, this is just regular business, we should all be doing, these things. We should all be compassionate. We should all have empathy for marginalized people. So, you know, I know that they're proud of me.
Christian Picciolini 40:44
But I also think that they know I don't like compliments very much.
Rob Konrad 40:49
And the the people that you've hurt in the past, and there were a lot of people, I guess, did you get a chance to reconnect with those people to apologize to, to explain your situation to explain where, you know….
Christian Picciolini 41:03
Some of them, the ones that I could find, of course, you know. There were some that were strangers, I had no idea who they were. And, and for them, you know, I hope the work that I'm doing to help people disengage and talking about these issues, is providing some comfort to them. I know I could never apologize for that. An apology makes me feel better, but it doesn't do anything for anybody else. And for the people I have been able to connect, I've been lucky enough to find them and, and receive their forgiveness. One of them was the old security guard for my high school, a black man who I terrorized when I was in school. I had protested, there were fights, I'd fought with him. And, and I met him one day, you know, by chance, by fate. And I was so embarrassed. I hadn't talked about my past with anybody. And when I saw him, I didn't know what to do. I didn't know what to say to him. And I just apologize. I said, I'm sorry. And he made me promise, one, after forgiving me to tell my story. And, two, that I wouldn't just apologize. Because again, that makes me feel better did nothing for him – that I would make amends. And I've been doing that for almost 20 years now.
Rob Konrad 42:19
So what are warning signs in terms of… what early warning signs that people are getting radicalized?
Rob Konrad 42:28
Are there certain things that you can see that are typical for people who get radicalized? Something that parents can can look out for, that friends can see potentially…?
Christian Picciolini 42:40
Yeah, I mean, I think it's not rocket science. I think that we start to become radicalized the day we're born. And it's just when we find that outlet that that radicalization happens.
Christian Picciolini 42:53
So, you know, ideology is like a permission slip. It's like the driver's license that says okay, now you can be angry and be really loud about it. But nobody wakes up with a swastika tattoo or, or hating anybody, or interested in joining a cult, or becoming a school shooter, or doing any of these things. Those are, that's all extremism, or even falling into sex trafficking or becoming addicted to drugs. That's extremism, lifestyle. So all the warning signs are the same. You know, somebody who's marginalized, somebody who's lonely, who doesn't have an outlet or a good foundation, who doesn't have opportunity. Same can be said about gangs in my city of Chicago, you know, where, where people aren't supported or don't feel they have a positive outlet. Sometimes the only option is not a positive outlet. And that's an unfortunate situation that people don't have access to the help that they need, whether it's in therapy or a job, because desperation really leads to extremism. It's, it's not about heroism; it's not about me wanting to save something. It's about me wanting to destroy.
Rob Konrad 44:13
Has it become harder to identify those people, because 30 years ago we were shaving your heads and wearing Doc Martin's and and white shoe laces and everything. Nowadays , radicals are wearing suits and are fully integrated in society. They have stable jobs and, other forms of communicating. Has it become harder to find those people, identify those people and work against those people?
Christian Picciolini 44:40
Absolutely. I mean, our mission back then was to terrify people by being seen. I mean, that was part of it. There were there were fewer of us, at least, who were extremist at that point. But at one point, we recognized that we were too extreme, that we were turning people away that maybe we could have recruited if we just maybe we're a little bit softer. If we just maybe made our words not so offensive, but had the same meaning. And, you know, essentially, we traded the boots for suits. And, you know, 30 years ago, we recognized that, and we encouraged people to get jobs in education, and become teachers and to become police officers. And, and join the military to get training. And, you know, you can run for politics, if their record was clean.
Christian Picciolini 45:28
And, you know, here we are, it is much more difficult to see what is coming because they are our neighbors, and they look like you, and they look like me now. And, you know, like our friends and our family and our doctors and our lawyers. And that's the unfortunate situation is it's very difficult to know what extremism is, and what the impact is in the world without somebody opening their mouth or committing an action. And now it's not about waving a flag anymore. It's about being part of the fabric.
Rob Konrad 46:01
And after you've left, you wrote about that you fell into a deep depression because you lost your sense of meaning. You had to disconnect from everyone. That was your literal virtual family in a way. How did you pull yourself out of that?
Christian Picciolini 46:18
It wasn't easy, let me tell you, because I would wake up, you know, wishing that I hadn't every day. I got an opportunity, a friend urged me to, to, you know, to not die. She said, I don't want to see you die basically, after, you know, after five years of this shit she, you know, recognized it.
Christian Picciolini 46:39
And she urged me to go apply for a job at a company where she worked. And there was a very small company that none of your your viewers have ever heard of called IBM. And yes, I thought she was crazy. Because, you know, here I am this ex Nazi with still, you know, I still had the tattoos. I hadn't gone to college I hadn't. I had been kicked out of six high schools, one of them twice, and I didn't even own a computer. I don't even think at the time. It was ridiculous, you know, for me to even consider it. But I went, you know, she was a good friend. And I didn't want to let her down. And they asked me to come back for another interview. And eventually they offered me a job. And it was an entry level position. It was not, you know, computer programmer was installing computers that businesses and universities and schools and I was I was thrilled, there was hope for me. And then they told me where I'd be going to install those computers on my first day of work. And when they told me it was my old high school, the same one, I'd been kicked out of twice, and they had no idea about my past. Suddenly, it wasn't so hopeful anymore. Suddenly, I was terrified again, and, but I worked through it. And that's where I met the security guard, who really gave me a second chance. And it just started there. And, and my life changed immediately.
Rob Konrad 48:03
Are you guys still in touch? Or is he still alive?
Christian Picciolini 48:05
He's still alive. I actually, I met him again for the first time, in maybe 18 years, just a few months ago. And now we communicate on a regular basis. We plan on going fishing soon. And he's an amazing guy. I mean, he's… he told me… one time he said, “You know, I didn't just raise you in that school. I didn't just have, you know, a job to keep my eye over you. I, I raised thousands of you. And I saw thousands of people like you – not that believed in the same thing. But that could have, or that could have gone a different way.” And he's the one who told me, you, you know, “it's not in your DNA to do that. You just found that path or frankly, that path found you when you weren't looking for it. But you were looking for something”.
Rob Konrad 48:57
You did a lot of things that's, I'm sure you regret.
Christian Picciolini 49:01
Oh, yeah, of course, off of all these things.
Rob Konrad 49:04
What's the biggest regrets?
Christian Picciolini 49:08
That's a really tough question. Because I you know, there are so many, you know, I regret every time I hurt somebody, I regret every time I, I hurt somebody by recruiting them and bringing them into a movement that that maybe never would have found it, had it not been for me. I regret the seeds that I planted years ago, that still are growing, you know, into weeds today. I regret not being there for my brother during those years. Because, you know, after I left the movement, we'd grown apart. And then he was murdered. And I never got the opportunity to, to spend that time with him. He wanted to be like me. He didn't get involved in the same things that I did. But he looked up to me, and I wasn't there when when he was young, the same way that you know, maybe my parents weren't there for me. So I feel that I failed him. And you know, I really try and be that that brother now for everybody else who maybe needs a little bit of help, just like that soccer coach.
Rob Konrad 50:09
People who need help, how can they reach out to you? Can you talk about what's the best way to contact you and your organizations?
Christian Picciolini 50:16
Sure. I'm pretty easy to find, you know, they can just Google my name. And they'll have a multitude of ways to contact me. But the easiest way is, is to just go to my website and use the form there. And it's christianpicciolini.com. I trust that you'll maybe put a graphic – it's not an easy name to spell. But, ya know, they can contact me there, or on social media. I get requests from people every day, or every time I speak, it's inevitable, somebody will come up to me and say, I'm in the same boat that you were in, and I'd like to talk about it. So, you know, I encourage people to not be afraid. Everything is confidential. I'm not interested in, you know, arguing with them or changing their mind. I want them to change their own mind based on new information.
Rob Konrad 51:04
And what if people are afraid of repercussions from their peers and from their their family? In a way, what could you tell them to get them to do that step, to take a step and to take the first step to leave these organizations?
Christian Picciolini 51:22
They should be worried, it is dangerous. It can be. But I can tell them it's more dangerous if they stay. That their end will come soone – trust me – if they are involved with these organizations, rather than being brave enough, or finding the courage to leave now. And I know it's not easy, but that's why there are people like me, people who have left. And I'm not the only one. There are others like me, many others who've left and we're here to help them through that transition.
Rob Konrad 51:48
That's amazing. And Christian, you have another interview coming up. So I don't want to keep you too long. I always end these conversations with two questions that I'm asking everybody. And the first question is: this is a series of interviews with extraordinary people from from across the globe, from all different areas of life. Who would you consider an extraordinary person that I might even talk to you next? Someone that inspired you, someone that changes the world, someone that…
Rob Konrad 52:18
I feel like every person I meet that I work with inspires me. But you know, I would say there's an extraordinary individual. Her name is Shannon Martinez. I knew her 25 years ago, we were both involved in this movement. And we reconnected later she's now become one of my best friends. She's the mother of seven children. She's an amazing person. She's lived a very, she's lived a very transformative and traumatic life. And I think her story is powerful. And I think it's one that both men and women need to hear, especially in this time when, you know, we're really trying to understand how it is we're breaking this world even further. And hopefully, you know, now trying to fix it. So I'm happy to put you in touch with her. But she's an amazing human being,
Rob Konrad 53:10
I will reach out to her, sounds very interesting. And finally, to close the conversation with your message. What's your core message that's close to your hearts to anyone who's watching or listening to this podcast?
Christian Picciolini 53:22
Okay, can I give them two?
Rob Konrad 53:23
Yeah, sure. Go ahead.
Christian Picciolini 53:26
One's a longer one, one's a super easy one. But the longer one is really just, you know, find…. I challenge people: find somebody that you think is undeserving of your compassion, give it to them, and then pay attention because it changes people and, you know, getting it from the people we least deserve it from is so powerful. And they need it the most, I guarantee it. And my second one is very simple. That's three words. Somebody challenged me one time to come up with a mission statement for my life.
Rob Konrad 53:55
Three words. that's hard for mission statement.
Christian Picciolini 53:57
That was hard and I thought about it and then I came up with it and I've tried to live every decision or moment by those three words and it's just: Make Good Happen. If it doesn't make good happen, doesn't fit that definition or criteria, you probably shouldn't do it. And it's been… it worked pretty well so far.
Rob Konrad 54:15
Christian. I thank you so much for your time. It was a pleasure talking to you and I hope to talk to you very soon again.
Christian Picciolini 54:22
Thanks, Rob. I appreciate it.
Rob Konrad 54:23
All the best. Bye bye
Christian Picciolini 54:25
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