Meet The Former Skinhead Who Rehabilitates Neo-Nazis

In the Trump era, Christian Picciolini's Life After Hate organization is being bombarded by people who want help extricating themselves or their loved ones from white supremacist groups

Photo: Britton Picciolini, Photo Illustration: Vocativ
Apr 24, 2017 at 12:11 PM ET

Christian Picciolini is one of the first people you should call if you’re concerned a loved one is being radicalized by far-right extremists. Very few peace advocates understand hate groups as well as Picciolini, who spent his formative years as the leader of the first neo-Nazi skinhead gang in the United States.

Picciolini was first introduced to white supremacist ideology at the age of 14. He was smoking a joint in a Chicago alley, when a 27-year-old man pulled over his muscle car and stepped out. With a shaved head, boots, and thin suspenders, he looked like nothing the boy had ever seen in his blue-collar community. The man plucked the joint out of Picciolini’s mouth and told him marijuana is how the capitalists and Jews keep everyone docile.

The skinhead was Clark Martell, founder of the first American neo-Nazi group. That gang, Chicago Area SkinHeads (CASH), also known as Romantic Violence, offered an identity and a sense of purpose to lost teens like Picciolini. Two years later, when Martell went to prison for assaulting a woman who tried to leave the group, Picciolini became the leader. At the time, the group boasted about 3,000 members, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.

As the head of CASH, Picciolini played in a white supremacy punk band, marched with the KKK, and helped merge his group with the violent skinhead organization, Hammerskins. He stockpiled weapons and participated in countless bloody street fights. Picciolini’s gang had gotten so much attention that a radical Canadian KKK leader tried to introduce Picciolini to an attaché of Libya dictator Muammar Gaddafi, who allegedly wanted to pay North American anti-Israel radicals a million dollars to fly to Libya and help start a race war. “I suppose I didn’t particularly care if Gaddafi wasn’t white. He despised the Jews as much as we did. And this could help bankroll a weapons arsenal. After all, an enemy of the enemy—the Jews and Israel—could be an ally,” Picciolini wrote in his book “Romantic Violence: Memoirs of an American Skinhead.”  In the end, Picciolini opted out, worried he’d get caught or that it was a set-up. He was right. The Canadian Intelligence captured the KKK leader in a sting operation.

When Picciolini’s wife gave birth to their second child, he opened a record store to provide for his family. Even though the store had a white power music section, he was forced to interact with Jewish and LGBT clients for the first time. The more he humanized these people, the harder it was to hate them. “I didn’t want to bring my family into what I saw as a very dirty movement. I didn’t want to dirty their souls,” Picciolini told Vocativ. “I started to realize, this love thing is pretty cool.”

In 2009, 13 years after Picciolini cut his ties to neo-Nazism, he helped form Life After Hate, an organization that helps people leave extremist groups. The nonprofit and its outreach program, ExitUSA, take inspiration from the counter-extremism “Exit” programs which originated in Norway and Sweden in the 1990s.

When Picciolini joined CASH in 1987, that was the only known neo-Nazi gang. By 1991, when Southern Poverty Law Center began tracking hate groups, there were 457. Today there are around 917 groups. And that doesn’t include movements like the alt-right, which espouses white nationalist ideologies. Picciolini sees his group as a clear forebearer of the alt-right, recalling how he similarly advocated that extremists tone down their rhetoric, wear fashionable clothes, and try to blend in with society. “Voilá! Richard Spencer,” as Picciolini puts it.

In the Trump era, Life After Hate has been bombarded by requests for help from people concerned about their loved ones and former members of hate groups who want to join support networks. Requests for help have gone from one to three per week to one to three per day.

Picciolini said the organization gets contacted by people who are involved in a hate group but want to leave, as well as social workers referring people and family members who are concerned about a loved one in a hate group. “When people leave a gang or a cult, they need to go into something else because they need to develop a new identity,” Picciolini said. “They need a new community and a new purpose. So we try to address all their grievances and all the holes in their lives without arguing ideologically with them.”

Instead, Picciolini and the other members of Life After Hate, who are also former extremists, try to determine the services they can provide that will help people achieve goals without the aid of their hate group — be it tattoo removal, job training, or career counseling. “When they start succeeding and they feel self-sufficient and more whole, the ideology falls away,” Picciolini said.

One important component of Life After Hate’s program is a private Facebook group where about 50 former extremists share everything from memes to pet peeves to confessions to sensitive revelations. Shannon Martinez is a former skinhead who vets people before inviting them to the forum. “When some people leave their groups they feel in danger. Threats are made against their lives. You’re taught that you’re a traitor,” Martinez said. “We’re creating a space where people feel safe to share their struggles. Or talk about days when they think, ‘I really feel like maybe I should go back.’ There’s no judgement. It’s a sense of community that I didn’t have when I left.”

For severe cases, when people are thinking of causing harm to people they hate, Picciolini will travel to meet with people and help them leave a group or abate their extremist views. He’s found one of the most effective tools is simply introducing them to what they hate the most — like when he tricked an Islamophobic man into meeting a Muslim imam. The 31-year-old Buffalo, New York, resident and new father had been encouraged by his wife to clean up his act. The man, who identified as Christian, agreed to meet with Picciolini, but didn’t think he’d actually have to talk to a Muslim. He begrudgingly agreed to a brief chat that extended into a three-hour conversation in which the two men found commonalities in their own religions and life outlooks. According to Picciolini, the two are now good friends who regularly meet for lunch, and the Christian man even volunteers at the imam’s mosque.

When it comes to off-ramping people enmeshed in modern hate group collectives, Picciolini and other experts believe that social media has made it particularly difficult to pull people away. A recent study by J.M. Berger, a fellow with George Washington University’s Program on Extremism, found that American white nationalist movements’ social media followers have grown by more than 600 percent in the last four years. While online white nationalist groups are not as organized as ISIS’s online presence, they seem to have taken many cues from the Islamic terrorist organization’s use of Twitter in recruiting new members. And now white supremacist groups and leaders “outperform ISIS in nearly every social metric, from follower counts to tweets per day.”

The efforts are amplified by the trolling culture of online forums like 4chan and 8chan “where mostly anonymous participants seek to outdo each other with obnoxious or harassing content” making it “unclear in many cases whether these users are committed white nationalists, committed trolls, or something in between.”

This provides a fertile ground for the spread of white nationalism. The trolls amplify the hate of the dedicated racists and the earnest white nationalist indoctrinate those who just come for the lulz. “White nationalism is heavily stigmatized. So the internet provides way around that. You can craft an identity, find other like-minds, and express yourself on these forums in a way you can’t when you’re at school or work,” said Steven Piti, an associate professor of sociology at Chapman University and co-author of American Swastika: Inside the White Power Movement’s Hidden Spaces of Hate. “And so this provides an alternative means for folks that have fears and anxieties — who don’t feel connections with more mainstream culture — to be this alternative identity.”

But even though white nationalist groups are taking inspiration from ISIS online recruitment, neo-Nazis were actually early adopters of internet outreach. In 1985, the Anti-Defamation League released the Computerized Networks of Hate, a report on pre-internet bulletin board systems created by white supremacists groups. The most popular network was Aryan Nation Liberty Net, operated by Louis Beam, who was a grand dragon of the KKK and a leader of the Aryan Nation group. As the report states, these networks were made to foster hatred towards “enemies” of white supremacy, lure young people “by using computer technology which attracts young computer ‘hackers,'” and to circulate “coded messages among like-minded right-wing activists.” It’s a coded language that is still used within these groups today.

“The far-right in the United States were one of the first social movements to recognize the power of the internet. They were on the internet early and saw it as having a real potential to get their message out and to get people early access to their message,” Simi said. “From the beginning of the internet the far-right has been utilizing it. If you look at [the first white supremacist web site] Stormfront today, it is still one of the largest white supremacist web forums.”

Picciolini recently learned just how difficult it is to pull someone away from the grasp of online white supremacy networks. Last September, he got a message through ExitUSA, from concerned parents of a 17-year-old girl who was making disturbing videos in her Florida bedroom, under the moniker Crusader Girl.

In the short videos, the wide-eyed girl wears shirts with neo-Nazi insignia, explains why the white race is superior, and invites her viewers to “come join the crusade against the destroyers of western civilization.”

The scripts for these overtly racist videos don’t sound like they were written by a high schooler — because they weren’t. Many of them were fed to her by a Russian troll, who she thought was her midwestern American boyfriend. By using reverse image search, Crusader Girl’s mom was able to determine that the person catfishing her daughter was pulling photos from a modeling site.

For months, Picciolini could not convince Crusader Girl that she was being conned. “Her identity was so wrapped up in this guy and so wrapped up in the propaganda that she thought everybody saying that he wasn’t who he said he was must be lying to her,” Picciolini said. “She talked to him every night. He would send her photos, he would send her recorded videos, all stuff he stole online… He would say things like ‘When you’re 18, we’ll make babies and go all Dylan Roof all over the country.'”

Crusader Girl was also getting a taste of the popularity she didn’t have IRL. Within a month, her YouTube channel had about 2,000 subscribers. She became close friends with other popular white supremacist YouTubers, like Evalion, a Canadian teenager who was kicked off YouTube after she made a video in which she sang “Happy Birthday” to a photo of Adolph Hitler illuminated by the candle glow from four Swastika cupcakes, and shared it with her 40,000 subscribers.

After Crusader Girl mentioned to her internet friends that her parents had contacted Picciolini, he and his family started getting death threats from far-right trolls. But Crusader Girl was still open to speaking with Picciolini. Initially, she was friendly, but rejected any evidence that her boyfriend was fake and countered any arguments that challenged the anti-Semitic, Islamophobic propaganda she had been reading and watching.

But Picciolini finally made a breakthrough in January when he introduced the teenager to a 96-year-old Holocaust survivor. The woman was an American who was arrested in Italy when she was Crusader Girl’s age, 17. She and her father were accused of being spies after they were caught “signaling” aircrafts with cigarettes. She went through four camps. The third was Auschwitz. The fourth was a facility for female medical experimentation. Today she lives in Florida, a few hours from Crusader Girl. Picciolini had met the woman before and asked her if she would be willing to meet with someone who had doubts about concentration camps.

Assuming it was just another trick, Crusader Girl came prepared with Holocaust-denial articles. But when the teenager suggested it couldn’t be that bad since there was a swimming pool at the concentration camp, the woman told her that the only holes in the ground she ever saw were the ones they dug to bury their friends.

“It was a turning point for her, because I think she realized at that point that she was being fooled and that she had been taken advantage of,” Picciolini said. “And while I think she’s still struggling with withdrawal from leaving the [white supremacy] community, I think the ideology is disappearing.”

Grace has deleted her Crusader Girl account (though someone else has ripped all her videos and posted them on a fake account). She recently filmed a new video that she’s considering posting on YouTube, under a new account.

“My name is Grace and I’m here to talk about how being a racist stole my high school years,” she says in the video. “I came across a web site that told me that minorities are responsible for all the wrong in the world, and I believed it. I soon found a white nationalist movement that gave me a sense of belonging and a sense of purpose.”

“Nowadays, I just want to reinvent myself and help people of all races,” she concludes. “The best gift you can give to the world is a kinder version of yourself.”

The new season of DARK NET — an eight-part docuseries developed and produced by Vocativ — airs Thursdays at 10 p.m. ET/PT on SHOWTIME.