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How Do You Change a White Supremacist’s Mind? We Asked a Reformed Neo-Nazi

Christian Picciolini discusses Trump’s decision to strip a $400,000 grant to his organization to combat right-wing extremism, the recent surge in demand he’s seen, and more.

Photo: Dennis Sevilla

Last week Congress passed a resolution condemning white supremacy, one month after a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, left counter-protester Heather Heyer dead. Donald Trump signed the resolution but not before reviving rhetoric equating violence from white supremacists with that of counter-protesters. On Thursday, he told reporters there were “some pretty bad dudes on the other side also.”

Life After Hate co-founder Christian Picciolini says white nationalists have been bolstered since Trump’s election because many of the things these hate groups espouse “are supported by the administration.”

Nearly 30 years after leaving the white supremacist movement, his Chicago-based nonprofit organization is attempting to rehabilitate right-wing extremists and neo-Nazis. Picciolini talked with Chicago about the intervention process, Charlottesville, and Trump’s failure to honor a grant issued by the Obama administration to combat hate groups.

How does the intervention process at Life After Hate begin?

It typically starts with people emailing or calling me for help: either people who are in and want help getting out, or a bystander (a parent, co-worker, or a friend) who’s concerned about somebody. There are also people like me who found their way out of the movement on their own; it’s something they’ve never talked about publicly and are looking for that support.

Before the 2016 election, we were getting, on average, two requests a week. Almost immediately after the election, we were receiving five requests a week. During the week and half after Charlottesville, we saw [about five a day]. I attribute that to several things. We’re talking about it more in the media, so people are more aware of it. Now, people are calling and they say, “that’s what my son was looking at online. I understand now.”

What methods does Life After Hate employ to rehabilitate someone involved in a hate group?

My first rule is to never argue or battle ideologically with anybody. My approach is to build trust, rapport, and listen. I look for what I call “potholes,” things like trauma, abuse, addiction, mental illness, chronic unemployment, poverty, abandonment. Ideology isn’t what radicalizes people, it’s the search for identity, community, and purpose. My job then is to be a pothole filler. I find service providers like job training, a job coach, a psychologist, tattoo removal, or education to help.

Instead of telling them they’re wrong, I’m trying to build a better person. The way I challenge the ideology is by immersion, introducing them to people they think they hate. I may bring a Holocaust denier to meet with a Holocaust survivor, or an Islamophobe to meet with an imam. My goal is to allow them to humanize these people, because nine times out of ten, they have never met or had a meaningful dialogue with the people they think they hate. I’m trying to build a non-aggressive, compassionate connection, because I know that overwhelmingly, what helps people disengage, is receiving compassion from the people you least deserve it from, when you least deserve it. I keep repeating that process until people decide on their own that their hate can’t be reconciled with what they know now to be reality.

How did you become involved in one of these groups?

As a kid, I felt a great sense of abandonment. My parents were Italian immigrants who came to the U.S. in the ’60s, and lived in an Italian bubble. When I was born, they moved to a very non-ethnic white suburb, and because of that, I was the outsider. I wasn’t accepted by my schoolmates. I didn’t have any friends.

My parents worked seven days a week, 14 hours a day, and as a young boy, you don’t necessarily understand why your parents are gone all the time. You just know they’re not there. I went looking for that acceptance, and that family elsewhere. When I was 14 years old, I found this group while I was standing in an alley smoking a joint. This guy twice my age with a shaved head and boots came up to me, pulled the joint from my mouth and said, “Don’t you know that’s what the Jews and communists want you to do to keep you docile?” I didn’t know what a Jew or a communist was, or what the word docile meant at that age, but he was the first person to pay attention to me. He went on to boost my self-confidence, asked me what my name was. He said, “Ahh, that’s Italian. You should be really proud of your ancestors. They’re great warriors, philosophers, and artists.” He made me proud of something, then over time he made me afraid of losing that. As more time passed, he gave me someone to blame for that. It was always immigrants, Jews, African-Americans, anyone who wasn’t white.

What kind of similarities do you see between your involvement in white supremacist groups in the late ’80s and ’90s, and Charlottesville?

I see those people who are marching in the khakis, with the polo shirts, and torches, they probably feel marginalized, vulnerable, and got into that movement because they were looking for a sense of belonging in the world—where frankly there’s a lot of confusion right now. Young people don’t have the opportunities that they used to. Our national identity is struggling because we’re so divided.

Young people are naturally idealistic and if they sense something is broken, destroying the world feels like saving the world. Until the very end of my involvement in these groups, I thought I was saving the world, I thought I was doing the right thing. And I couldn’t understand why everyone else didn’t agree with me. The people in Charlottesville are being manipulated, they’re being fooled. I think we have to look at them as human beings because they are. We can’t put them in jail for speaking their mind, but we can change them, we can educate them, and provide them with things that they need.

Earlier this year, Trump didn’t follow through on an Obama-era grant to fight hate groups in the U.S. How has that impacted your organization?

It was disappointing. Life After Hate was awarded $400,000 under President Obama to develop an online intervention program, which is greatly needed because that is where so much of this radicalization is happening. In June, the Trump administration pulled the money without any reason. We weren’t given any new criteria or data as to why we were turned down.

We felt like we had a project that was ready to roll out. Certainly after Charlottesville, we believe that maybe our methods could have gotten to the driver of the car [that killed the counter-protester] because it was a pretty prolific program. Since Charlottesville, we’ve launched a crowdfunding campaign that’s raised over $300,000 in two weeks. We are a little more hopeful now.

What can family members or friends do to help deescalate or disengage a loved one from one these hate groups?

One: Don’t argue, it doesn’t solve anything. I get frustrated sometimes. When I hear them say wrong, insane, and hurtful things that I used to say, I want to reach out and shake them sometimes—but I know I can’t. I know that that’s going to break the trust, and I know they’re not going to have an open mind.

Two: Provide support for the things that they’re passionate about outside of that movement.

Three: Bring them in, draw them in closer, surround them with love so that they don’t have to seek it in negative ways. We need to be more inclusive of people we think are bad, because the reason they are bad oftentimes is because they’ve been put on a sideline. They think opportunity doesn’t exist for them, and they’ve found a very black and white solution in this movement to a very complex problem. They are taking their own self-hatred, and they are putting it on other people.

Telling them they shouldn’t hate Jews because it’s wrong, or hate black people because it’s wrong, is not going to penetrate them. They live in another reality. Let’s say you land on one these fake news sites, or propaganda sites, just like Dylann Roof did, where it inflated an improper statistic on black-on-white crime. Then all of sudden these websites start feeding you similar sites and you go down a rabbit hole where the only information you receive is this narrative. So when someone comes to you with an opposite narrative, you think they’re nuts.

Why do you think we’re still dealing with white supremacy in 2017?

We’re not calling white supremacy what it is, and that’s terrorism. Until white extremism—like what happened in Charleston; Oak Creek, Wisconsin; Portland; or even Charlottesville—is classified as terrorism, I don’t think it’s going to get the same resources and attention. In a few weeks or a month, we’ll stop talking about Charlottesville and go back to talking about ISIS. When in fact, since 9/11 more Americans have been killed on U.S. soil by white supremacists than by any other foreign or domestic terrorist group by a factor of two. While ISIS-inspired terrorism is a real threat, and we certainly shouldn’t take our eye off the ball. We already have a domestic terrorism problem within our own borders that we are completely ignoring.

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