The extremist hate movement is alive in Chicago. We may not see old-style skinheads marching, but many of the same groups continue to operate. Christian Picciolini, anti-hate activist and author of “White American Youth” says most people don’t acknowledge that our cities are sites of “horrific, modern-day white supremacist terror attacks and killings.”
Once an extremist, Picciolini now works to build a global extremist prevention network. He was on Newcity’s 2017 Lit 50 list, spoke at last year’s Printers Row Lit Fest, has appeared on “60 Minutes,” at Denver’s 2017 TedXMileHigh, and appears on national and international platforms. Although he receives almost daily death threats, trolling and cyberattacks, Picciolini says domestic extremism is getting enough attention that ordinary Americans are mobilizing against it.
Chicago was the headquarters of the National Socialist Party of America (spun off from the American Nazi party) in the 1970s, notorious for the Skokie march and Marquette Park rallies. “The KKK has long had chapters here and throughout the Chicagoland area and the World Church of the Creator was headquartered here for some time,” he says. “One of its members, Benjamin Smith, went on a killing spree in 1999 that killed Northwestern [former men’s basketball] coach Ricky Byrdsong and Indiana student Won-Joon Yoon.”
Unlike their highly visible predecessors, younger millennials aim to blend in, a strategy designed to normalize hate group ideologies. Young people join extremist groups and gangs because they lack opportunity, feel marginalized and lonely, Picciolini says. “Their search for identity, community and purpose has become broken. Their own anger, frustration, low self-esteem, trauma, shame or feelings of marginalization thrust them into the open arms of recruiters who are very keen at spotting kids with vulnerabilities.” Recruiters seek them in online gaming forums and mental-illness support groups online. “This is terrifying to me and something that people should be aware of. They are actively stalking our most vulnerable young people.”
Picciolini believes we are failing our children. “We need to do a better job making sure they never get to the point of feeling unsupported or marginalized. We also need to tackle bullying, unaffordable education, lack of jobs after graduation, lack of opportunity to pursue success and happiness, bring equity to our unjust institutions and systems, and stop feeding your kids chicken nuggets and hot dogs. Instead take them to ethnic restaurants like Indian, Japanese, African, Latin and so on. Perhaps if they grow up unafraid of ‘different’ foods, they may be more tolerant of ‘different’ cultures and people. Just a thought.”
Picciolini’s own feeling of not belonging, despite having a loving family, enabled a recruiter to enlist him when he was fourteen. He was an early member of the first neo-Nazi skinhead group in America, Chicago Area Skinheads (CASH), founded on the Southwest Side of Chicago. His memoir, first published as “Romantic Violence” (and reviewed by Newcity in 2016), tells his story of being recruited, leading, then escaping from a life of hate. He became director of the Northern Hammerskins, which spanned the northern states and included several hundred members, the largest chapter within the Hammerskin Nation. It came to national attention again in 2012 when Wade Michael Page, a Northern Hammerskin, killed six Sikhs in a Wisconsin temple. Picciolini did not know the killer, but says Page would have known of him. He describes the Hammerskins as the most violent and deadly hate group in America and perhaps even in Europe. “They still exist, and though they are not as powerful as they once were, the members now are more violent.”
He says many Klan groups exist in the wider Chicago area. The city recently had a high-profile hate crime and Picciolini is counseling this person, through mandate by Cook County courts. “Chicago is littered with remnants of traditional hate groups which have now mainly adopted staunch pro-Trump, ‘Make America Great Again’ personas, while still promoting neo-Nazi ideologies and ‘pro-white’ agendas via more undercover means. Art Jones is a perfect example. Notice the toned-down America First rhetoric, then the Holocaust denial link on his ‘Art Jones for Congress’ website.”
Unsurprised by the magnitude of today’s hate, Picciolini finds it heartbreaking. “I’ve watched this ramp up for thirty years. Not just on the far right, but also with Islamist extremism. As war, lack of opportunity, oppression, weak leadership and xenophobia grows, so does desperation and extremism.” He predicts that far-right groups and Islamist extremists will join forces. “While they might not like each other much, their common enemies are ‘Jews.’ They both operate on the same set of conspiracy theories and, dare I say, fake news. It’s just a matter of time in my opinion. In 1991 or 1992, I was invited by Qaddafi to visit Libya for an infusion of funds to ‘fight the Jews’ in America. I declined and am glad I did. Turned out to be a Canadian Intelligence sting operation.” He predicts a rise in fear rhetoric and violent nationalism emerging as climate change worsens. Declining water supplies in the Middle East and Africa will create a monumental refugee crisis.
President Obama awarded a large grant to Life After Hate, a group Picciolini was previously associated with, but the current administration rescinded the grant. He says it was disappointing because it was the only organization helping people escape from white supremacist groups. “It became obvious to us that there was an agenda at play. People we knew closely in the government alluded to foul play, but would never go on record. We were never given a reason why the grant was pulled. It tells me that they are not taking the threat of white supremacist extremism seriously and it will be innocent American lives that will pay for that lack of focus in the long run.”
Picciolini is dismayed that the President of the United States has normalized racist extremism, including by characterizing the Charlottesville protestors as “nice people.” “People call these messages dog whistles that are coded messages to white supremacists. To me, they are bullhorns. While the divisive rhetoric may be more palatable or coded to appeal to and indoctrinate unsuspecting Americans today, it is based in the same hateful ideologies and rhetoric we spewed thirty years ago. It’s racist, xenophobic, isolationalist/separatist, and to white supremacists, tantamount to a stamped letter of approval and a wink.”
He believes more details will emerge about the administration’s links to Eastern Europe and Russia. “In October of 2016 I discovered that Russian operatives were creating thousands of social media profiles to bolster the alt-right.” He hates that term, which like “white nationalist,” was coined for marketing and public relations. Picciolini believes that many of the prominent leaders in the movement today are influenced and even possibly funded by foreign players and foreign state entities. “This is both a play for ultranationalist amplification and to sow discord in our country” as well as Europe.
The internet has become the new extremist playground, taking over from music as the primary propaganda tool. In the movement from the late eighties to the late ninenties, music provided a way to focus anger and incite violence, a powerful recruiting tool, and a social networking marvel. “Music and concerts would bring the kids out, allow them to become indoctrinated into an ideology by offering identity, community and purpose to those who had none and desperately struggled to find them,” Picciolinis ays. “The ideology was the tie that bound us and gave us license to be angry.”
Today, music is more important in Europe than in the United States and Canada where the main recruitment tools are memes, white supremacist forums, podcasts and YouTube channels. Social media allows disinformation to spread rapidly and is used to organize quickly, as well as provide safe spaces for followers to gather. “It’s the virtual equivalent of our face-to-face meetings. I am seeing a new trend of electronic and EDM white power music starting to spread in the United States. The old music of my time is still influential and now thought of as the ‘classics’ by the new movement.”
Regarding recent speaking invitations extended to extremists, Picciolini challenges the elasticity of “free speech.” “Extremists have learned to toe the line and not step over it, making their hate speech arguably fall under free speech. In my opinion, when speech demeans others specifically because of race, creed, color, gender, religion or sex, or incites violence, it is no longer free speech. An opinion is one thing, a verbal attack based on prejudice or denial of facts (i.e. ‘The Holocaust didn’t happen’) is hate speech.”
While university groups are free to bring speakers to campus, the university also has to weigh the safety of the school and protection for people at the school who may be disrupted or feel threatened. Schools that are state-funded also have a responsibility to protect citizens and promote safe discussion of values. “That said, we have to be careful not to enforce these rules in a way that can be felt as inequitable. Taking away true free speech from extremists only justifies their narrative that they are the victims and that they are losing freedoms. Schools are institutions that need to reflect their communities. If a small minority of people want a Bannon or Spencer, then does that trump the wishes or safety of the majority?”
In Picciolini’s experience, white supremacists target progressive or “liberal” areas to protest or speak at, such as Charlottesville, Berkeley and Skokie, in order to provoke opposers. They aim to elicit hateful and sometimes violent responses from good people, then use it to promote a “victim narrative.” The activist’s two sons, who were aged three and one when he left the movement in 1995, are now twenty-five and twenty-three. He is immensely proud of them, after purposefully raising them to be compassionate and open. He did not hide his past from them and thinks honest communication helped.
Struggling against domestic terrorism can be an overwhelming task. “While most folks have only been talking about this since the Charleston tragedy and then again after Charlottesville, it’s something I have been warning about for almost twenty years. For the first sixteen years, it felt as though no one was listening. It’s a shame that it takes multiple tragedies to get people’s attention, and sometimes that doesn’t even help.”
We can’t ignore it any longer, he says. “White terrorism exists, it has for 250 years in America and unless we recognize it as terrorism, we’ll never get the resources or attention we need to combat. Still much work to do.”
He has helped more than one-hundred individuals disengage from hate groups and hateful ideologies over the years, but he says the flow of requests for help is overwhelming and seems to be steadily increasing. “I deal with it, perhaps because I lived it, contributed to it and feel a responsibility to use my unique insight, experience and the tools I have to combat it. I planted many seeds of hate thirty years ago and I am still pulling out the weeds. I will continue to do so until I can’t any longer. Not only is it my mission, but it is my responsibility.”
Driven by the idea that any extremist that he can’t get to in time could become the next tragic headline, Picciolini is heartened that his message is now reaching large audiences, both supportive and dissenting.
“It means that my message is getting to the people who need it. I am working with individuals all over the world who are now disengaging after hearing my story. Other people are reporting to me that they are using my methods of compassion and empathy (see my TEDx video for my pothole theory) and it is working. The response to my book and my work has been utterly overwhelmingly positive.”
In his memoir, Picciolini wrote that before he became an activist, he was “suffering under the weight of my past.” He vows to be “cautiously vulnerable.” Being forthcoming about his past isn’t easy when talking about the people he has physically hurt. “I know that I will be making amends for that for the rest of my life and I accept that. Any pain that I feel is minuscule to the pain I have caused others. It is part of my atonement.”
During his global travels, he has met successful groups working with extremists to disengage, including groups of mothers in Mali, ex-foreign fighters in Lebanon and former neo-Nazis in Germany and Sweden. In any given week, he travels across the United States, Europe, Latin America and Canada to give lectures, train members of law enforcement, promote his book, build the network, shoot a new television docu-series or work with individuals to disengage. “I never accept money for my intervention work, so my lectures pay for that. I am busy, but I like it that way. I don’t see them as different business lines, but rather as one message and mission.”
Christian Picciolini will discuss and sign “White American Youth: My Descent into America’s Most Violent Hate Movement—and How I Got Out” on March 14, 7pm at The Book Cellar, 4736-38 North Lincoln, (773)293-2665
Toni Nealie is the Literary Editor of Newcity and the author of the essay collection “The Miles Between Me.” A Pushcart Prize nominee, her essays have appeared in Guernica Magazine, Rust Belt: Chicago, The Rumpus, The Offing, Essay Daily, Chicago Quarterly Review, Hobart, Entropy and elsewhere. She worked in magazine journalism, politics and PR in her native New Zealand, the United Kingdom and Singapore and now edits, writes and teaches in Chicago. Find her at toninealie.com and on Twitter @tnealie. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.