To look into the eyes of Christian Picciolinieyes that seem to smile in a nonthreatening and empathetic wayone would probably not believe at the age of 16 he led one of the most violent Neo-Nazi hate groups in the world. However, listening to his story, one might believe that redemption is possible.
Picciolini is the co-founder of Life After Hate, a non-profit organization working to help individuals exit hate groups through outreach, intervention, and education. He has assisted more than 100 people to disengage from hate movements. He is an Emmy-Award winning director and producer, and the author of White American Youth: My Descent into America's Most Violent Hate Movementand How I Got Out ( Hatchett Books, 2018 ). Picciolini, a Chicagoan, travels the world sharing his story.
Picciolini's story served as the centerpiece at the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center's first College Leadership Summit on Oct. 12an event that attracted more than 100 college attendees interested in social justice and advocacy work.
At a time when the president of the United States is calling himself a "nationalist," has a history of defending the Alt-Right, and leans towards dividing the country into us and them, it's only fitting Picciolini's message be spoken in a place of remembrance like the Illinois Holocaust Museum which is "dedicated to combating hatred, prejudice, and indifferences."
"I've had the honor to speak at Holocaust museums all over the world. But speaking in Skokie is extra powerful for me because there is the history of Nazi's wanting to march here in the 1970s," Picciolini said. "The most important thing is the museum is capturing the story of survivors."
According to Picciolini, the Holocaust is like ancient history to the young people he works with. There is a disconnect. The Illinois Holocaust Museum is the first museum in the world to utilize three-dimensional technology to preserve Holocaust survivor's stories in the exhibit, The Survivor Story Experience shown in its holographic theater.
"The hologram exhibit keeps the Holocaust real and the story in the public," Picciolini added.
Standing in front of a giant screen displaying a younger, somber Picciolinieyes narrowed, arm stretched out giving a Heil Hitler salutePicciolini recounted for students the turmoil he was going through when he decided to join the Chicago Area Skinheads ( CASH ) at 14 after being approached by Clark Martel, the leader of CASH, in a Blue Island alley in 1987 while smoking a joint. Picciolini had a normal childhood with loving Italian immigrant parents. But his parents were often too busy working to pay attention to him, and Picciolini rebelled. "I felt lonely and isolated. Like all young people, I was searching for identity, community and purpose," said Picciolini.
"If a baseball coach had approached me that day and asked me to play ball, I would have chosen to play ball over the Neo-Nazi. Somebody paid attention to me that day and made me feel important."
Targeting the broken and marginalized kid, explains Picciolini, is how extremists continue to recruit young people, and it's easier than ever via the internet. Extremists will look to online mental health and depression forums or gaming sites seeking out new members. That's why Picciolini is currently combating online extremist recruitment through his organization, the Free Radicals Project.
During the Obama administration, Picciolini applied for a $400,000 government grant meant to fund programs working to end extremism. He learned his organization, along with 37 others, would receive the funding. While most organizations dealt with Islamic extremism, Picciolini's organization was the sole group focusing on white supremacists. But days after the Trump administration took office, Picciolini received a letter rescinding the award, with no explanation.
Picciolini told the story of Grace, a 17-year old Florida girl who was radicalized online, to drive home the necessity for this kind of work. Grace had met what she thought was a 21 year-old boy from Idaho online. They began dating him. He coerced her into making Neo-Nazi propaganda and other hate-related videos. When Grace's parents recognized she was deep into the ideology, they contacted Picciolini. With very little information, Picciolini discovered the man was a 35-year-old from Moscow who was fooling 12 other girls, the youngest being 14. He had explicit photos of the girls and threatened to reveal the photos, if the girls didn't do as he asked. Picciolini turned over the information he had uncovered to the FBI a few weeks before the presidential election in October 2016. He hasn't heard from the FBI since.
Grace's story does not end there. Picciolini never argues with or tries to discount the beliefs of the extremists he works with. Instead, Picciolini makes a human connection by introducing extremist to the people they think they hate. Grace's new best friend is 96-year-old Holocaust survivor, Elsie. "The two talk all the time," said Picciolini. "Grace recently started college and is doing great. It would not have happened if Grace hadn't opened her eyes and wanted to meet Elsie."
Picciolini has accomplished these feats by first listening to what drove the person towards the movement in the first place: stories of sexual abuse, poverty, mental disorder and even privilege where folks shut themselves off from diverse communities and never get to know people. Through his organization, Picciolini provides job training, education, life coaching, psychological therapy, and other means needed to be rehabilitated from the movement.
Picciolini also addressed how the Trump administration's discriminating messages about LGBTQ issues, particularly those pertaining to the transgender community has helped fuel far-right extremists, saying the messages amplify what far-right extremists have always said. "It's about them making those who are the "other" appear sub-human. Laws such as the attempt to ban transgender people from the military essentially dehumanize peoples' ability to participate in daily activities applies to the far-right extremist's message," Picciolini confirms. "They [the Alt Right] feel very emboldened by it. The whole Make America Great Again message does not include gay people, or equal rights for African-Americans, or for immigrants. Where the Trump Administration is not coming out and specifically saying, We are white nationalists and this is a white nationalist message, they've taken the message and made it more palpable. But it's still very exclusive to anybody, but white males."
Picciolini was quick to point out the white nationalist movement is not exclusive to gay people. "I know plenty of gay people who are part of the Alt Right who share these ideas. Traditionally, they were very exclusive, but it seems lately some of the pundits who are influential as far as messaging and propaganda goes, are gay. This is not something that is separate from gay people," he said.
When asked what the LGBTQ community can do to help stomp out LGBTQ hate messaging from the far-right extremist movement, Picciolini was clear. "If you want to combat hate, it's not about disproving what they believe in with words. It's with actions. People who hate need to come to the conclusion they are wrong by themselves because telling somebody their wrong doesn't always work. People don't like to be told they are wrong. However, if they come to that conclusion themselves, it takes because it's genuine," he said.
"The only way people can come to that conclusion is if we are kinder, more empathetic and more compassionate with one another. If we listen to the other person's heart instead of their words, then maybe we'll find out more about each other," says Picciolini. "If we made it a point to look at each other in the eye and judge each other with our eyes instead of everything else, eyes are the same, they don't lie."
More about the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center's holographic Survivor Stories Experience is at www.ilholocaustmuseum.org/ . To learn more about Christian Picciolini, visit www.christianpicciolini.com/ .