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A Former Neo-Nazi Explains Why Hate Drew Him In — And How He Got Out

Jan 18, 2018
Originally published on January 22, 2018 10:26 am

Christian Picciolini was 14 years old when he attended the first gathering of what would become the Hammerskin Nation, a violent, white-power skinhead group. Looking back, he describes his introduction to the group as receiving a "lifeline of acceptance."

"I felt a sort of energy flow through me that I had never felt before — as if I was a part of something greater than myself," he says.

Picciolini embraced the white supremacist message he heard that day and went on to front a white-power punk band, White American Youth, writing and performing songs that inspired others to commit racist acts of violence.

But after eight years as a neo-Nazi, Picciolini began to question the hateful ideology he espoused. He remembers a specific incident in which he was beating a young black man. His eyes locked with his victim, and he felt a surprising empathy.

It was a turning point. He withdrew from the movement and in 2011 co-founded Life After Hate, a nonprofit that counsels members of hate groups and helps them disengage.

"Over the last 14 years I have actually helped over 100 people disengage from the same movement that I was a part of," he says. "[Neo-Nazis] know that I'm a danger to them because I understand what they understand — but I also understand the truth."

Picciolini's new memoir is called White American Youth.


Interview Highlights

On how he was recruited into believing the white supremacist ideology

It started out with Clark [Martell, the former leader of Chicago Area Skinheads] and several of the older skinheads in this group appealing to my sense of pride, of being European, of being Italian. And then it would move on to instilling fear that I would lose that pride and that somebody would take that away from me if I wasn't careful. Then it went on to name specific groups through conspiracy theories that were bent on taking that pride or that privilege away from me.

So it was the fear rhetoric. ... I can tell you that every single person that I recruited or that was recruited around the same time that I did, up to now, up to what we're seeing today, is recruited through vulnerabilities and not through ideology.

On the role white power music plays in the movement

I had already been a part of the punk-rock subculture, so I was already searching for something to express my anger. And when I heard Skrewdriver [a white supremacist rock band] and when I heard this music that was coming over from England at the time, it allowed me to be angry, because the lyrics gave me license to do that.

I very effectively then used lyrics myself when I started one of America's first white-power bands to both recruit young people, encourage them into acts of violence and speak to the vulnerabilities and the grievances they were feeling so that I could draw them in with promises of paradise even through my lyrics.

On his band, White American Youth (W.A.Y.), and the way music was and still is used as propaganda

It brings back a lot of shame, because I know that I put words out into the world that still today are affecting people and hurting people. I learned just a few months ago that Dylann Roof had heard one of my songs a few months before he committed the tragedy in Charleston and he was on a white supremacist Web forum asking who the band was, and somebody had shown me that post just recently and I read through the lyrics and it didn't dawn on me instantly that those were my lyrics. But when I finished, I felt sick.

Music was the vehicle for propaganda. It was the incitement to encourage people to commit acts of violence and it was a social movement. ... Still today, I believe that music is a very powerful tool that the movement uses to inspire vulnerable young people into a very hateful social movement.

On how the white supremacists of the '80s and '90s strategized to make their movement more mainstream

I do think that there were a lot of concerted strategies in the '80s and '90s that we're seeing take hold today. We recognized in the mid-'80s that our edginess, our look, even our language, was turning away the average American white racist — people we wanted to recruit. So we decided then to grow our hair out, to stop getting tattoos that would identify us, to trade in our boots for suits and to go to college campuses and recruit there and enroll, to get jobs in law enforcement, to go to the military and get training and to even run for office. And here we are, 30 years later, and we're using terms like "white nationalist" and "alt-right" — terms that [the white supremacists] came up with, by the way. They sat around and said, "How can we identify ourselves to make us seem less hateful?" ...

Here we are in 2018 and we have a lot of hallmarks coming from political figures, the administration and policies that are very similar to what we espoused 30 years ago. The language may be a little bit more palatable. Dog whistles may be used, but it is still the same underlying theme. It is a white supremacist culture that is being pushed.

On how music led him out of the neo-Nazi movement

What it came down to was receiving compassion from the people that I least deserved it [from], when I least deserved it. Just before I left the movement, I opened a record store to sell white-power music that I was importing from all over the world. In fact, I was one of the only stores in the United States that was selling this music. And I also knew that to stay in the community and get their support I would have to sell other music. So I started to sell punk-rock music and heavy metal and hip-hop and when the customers came in to buy that music, who were often African-American, or Jewish, or gay, at first I was very standoffish, but they kept coming back.

The community, even though it's Chicago, everybody knew what I was doing, everybody knew how hateful I was and how violent I was, but these customers came in despite that. And over time I started to have meaningful interactions with them, for the first time in my life.

In fact, I had never in my life engaged in a meaningful dialogue with the people that I thought I hated, and it was these folks who showed me empathy when I least deserved it, and they were the ones that I least deserved it from. I started to recognize that I had more in common with them than the people I had surrounded myself for eight years with — that these people, that I thought I hated, took it upon themselves to see something inside of me that I didn't even see myself, and it was because of that connection that I was able to humanize them and that destroyed the demonization and the prejudice that was happening inside of me. Music brought me in, but in many ways it also brought me out.

Amy Salit and Seth Kelley produced and edited the audio of this interview. Bridget Bentz and Molly Seavy-Nesper adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2018 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross who's off this week. Of those who are working to expose and undermine racist hate groups, our guest Christian Picciolini brings a special passion to the task. He joined a skinhead neo-Nazi group as a teenager and became a leader in one of the most violent white supremacist groups in the nation. As you'll hear, he hurt a lot of innocent people. And as the front man for a white-power punk band, he wrote and performed songs that inspired others to commit racist acts of violence. After eight years, Picciolini withdrew from the movement and eventually co-founded a group called Life After Hate that works to bring others out of white supremacist groups. Picciolini has a new memoir called "White American Youth: My Descent Into America's Most Violent Hate Movement And How I Got Out."

Well, Christian Picciolini, welcome to FRESH AIR. You know, you describe an encounter when you were 14 with a white-power leader in an alley. What happened?

CHRISTIAN PICCIOLINI: You know, I was just a normal youth, Dave. And I had been marginalized for many of those years. And one day when I was 14 years old, I was standing in an alley. The year was 1987, and I was smoking a joint. And the man, who was twice my age, came up to me and he pulled the joint from my lips. And he looked me in the eyes and he said, that's what the Communists and the Jews want you to do to keep you docile.

Now, at 14, I didn't really know what a communist or a Jew was, and, to be quite honest, I didn't really know what the word docile meant, either. But it seemed at that time that it was the first moment where somebody had given me a lifeline of acceptance. Having grown up the son of Italian immigrants, I didn't really know what my identity was. And this man, who happened to be America's first neo-Nazi skinhead leader, drew me in through those vulnerabilities.

DAVIES: And this was Clark Martell - right? - who was a leader of the movement at the time?

PICCIOLINI: He was. He was at a time when nobody in America really knew what a skinhead was or what a neo-Nazi skinhead was. He seemed to me to be everything that I wanted to be. And when I say that, I don't mean racist because I didn't really grow up with that as part of my family DNA. In fact because my parents are immigrants, they were often the victims of prejudice. But what I saw in him was charisma and leadership, and a sense of what I thought was respect. And I had gone from a powerless young person to somebody who suddenly, when I adopted that look and that ideology, became what I perceived to be very powerful.

DAVIES: You know, you write that people don't get into these kinds of groups or other kinds of terrorist groups so much because of ideology, but out of a personal need for community, identity, some kind of fulfillment. You didn't come from a broken or abusive home. Where do you think your need came from?

PICCIOLINI: I felt abandoned by my parents, not understanding at that age that my parents as immigrants had to work seven days a week, 14 hours a day to survive in a foreign country. And as a young person, I just wondered what I had done to push them away and why they weren't there. And I went in search of a new family. But you're right. I don't believe that ideology nor dogma are what drive people to extremism. I believe it's a broken search for three very fundamental human needs of identity, community and purpose.

DAVIES: I gather music was also a big way into this for you. You liked a British band called Skrewdriver, right? And yet this is a band that had a lot of racist, you know, neo-Nazi lyrics. Did that make sense to you? I mean, did you even know what they were singing?

PICCIOLINI: You know, not at first. It was really the driving beats and the edginess of - and the angst that I was able to release through the music that was very appealing to me. I had already been a part of the punk rock subculture so I was already searching for something to express my anger. And when I heard Skrewdriver, when I heard this music that was coming over from England at the time, it allowed me to be angry because the lyrics gave me license to do that. And I very effectively then used lyrics myself when I started one of America's first white-power bands to both recruit young people, encourage them into acts of violence and speak to the vulnerabilities and the grievances that they were feeling so that I could draw them in with promises of paradise even through my lyrics.

DAVIES: But when you were getting into this and you were hearing that Jews and blacks and Mexicans were the enemy, I mean, to what extent did that square with any of your own experience or opinions?

PICCIOLINI: Well, it didn't start that way. It started out with Clark and several of the older skinheads in this group appealing to my sense of pride of being European, of being Italian. And then it would move on to instilling fear that I would lose that pride and that somebody would take that away from me if I wasn't careful. And then it went on to name specific groups through conspiracy theories that were bent on taking that pride or that privilege away from me. So it was the fear rhetoric.

And then I, you know, at a very young age thought, gosh, these older guys know what they're talking about. I don't want to seem stupid. They seem to know the secret. And I bought in simply because - at first because I wanted to belong. Now, that doesn't absolve me from the responsibility of what I did for those eight years that I was involved because I did swallow the ideology and I did pass that along to other people. But I can tell you that every single person that I recruited or that was recruited around the same time that I did up to now, up to what we're seeing today, is recruited through vulnerabilities and not through ideology.

DAVIES: You know, you write that there was a turning point when you went to a meeting at an apartment in Naperville, Ill. Tell us about that.

PICCIOLINI: That meeting was in 1987, or, early '88, and that was the first gathering of what became the Hammerskin Nation. And that meeting was when I was 14 years old and I was in a room full of about 30 skinheads from all over the country who had tried to come under one umbrella. There were disparate groups all around the country popping up after it started in Chicago, and the goal was to try and unify everybody. But that was the first time that I felt a sort of energy flow through me that I had never felt before, as if I was a part of something greater than myself. Even at 14 years old when I was desperately searching for that purpose, this seemed to fill it. And I certainly bought in.

DAVIES: And at this point, you had shaved your head and started wearing boots and took on the skinhead look?

PICCIOLINI: I did. And I noticed a change in my environment very quickly. The bullies who had marginalized me prior now would cross the street when they saw me coming because they feared me, and then I would begin to recruit them. And I noticed a very stark change in how people treated me, and I mistook that as respect when in reality it was fear and really not wanting to be involved with what I was involved in.

DAVIES: When you went to this meeting at this apartment in Naperville, Ill., you describe people giving, you know, the Hitler salute and shouting Heil Hitler and getting all caught up in that. Did you have any clue what it meant, what you were doing?

PICCIOLINI: At that time, I really didn't. I knew it was a subculture. I knew that I believed that they had some sort of a truth that the rest of the world didn't understand, and I knew that I wanted to belong to something. Suddenly this had become my identity, and my community was this one I had surrounded myself with and my purpose. I dove headfirst into a hateful ideology because I thought at that time that it fulfilled my needs.

DAVIES: What's interesting about this, I mean this part of it, is that, you know, for people of my generation, we grew up in a post-war world where Hitler was, you know, the essence of evil and he had fought against American troops, not to mention, you know, perpetrating the Holocaust. And I'm wondering, did you know about any of that at the time, and did it put up any red flags for you?

PICCIOLINI: You know, in looking back in school, we didn't learn a lot about World War II history outside of kind of, you know, just the generalities of it. We didn't delve into issues like the Holocaust. I wasn't very aware of that. And then when I became a part of this movement, I was told that it was false, that the Holocaust was a lie, that six million Jews weren't killed. And that, you know, what we called back then the Jewish media and what we're calling now the liberal media was lying to us, that it was fake news back then, a term that we're hearing a lot of now.

DAVIES: And it came from people you trusted.

PICCIOLINI: And it came from the only people that I trusted at the time.

DAVIES: You know, violence was clearly a part of this too. When did you discover you could be tough?

PICCIOLINI: My first experience with a fight actually came in eighth grade, when the bully who had antagonized me essentially for eight years of Catholic school had decided he was going to pick on me one final time. And somehow, I mustered the courage, I suppose - if that's the right word - to actually attend the fight that he invited me to. And I was so scared. I didn't know what to do but throw the first punch. And he went down. And that was the first time I experienced the power of violence. And I mistook that, again, as respect because people's attitudes around me changed. I had gone from this nobody, this foreigner in a, you know, in a non-ethnic school who had been invisible for eight years.

And suddenly, this one incident where I had bloodied the nose of the school bully elevated me into, you know, a status that I had never known before. And I became very intoxicated with that power. And over the years, I committed more acts of violence. And I encouraged acts of violence because I thought it was powerful. But I certainly know now that it was not true power. It was perceived power in a self-loathing for myself that I was projecting on to other people.

DAVIES: We're speaking with Christian Picciolini. He spent several years as a young man as a leader in neo-Nazi groups. He now works to combat racism and hatred. He has a new memoir called "White American Youth: My Descent Into America's Most Violent Hate Movement - And How I Got Out." We'll continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF AVISHAI COHEN'S "GBEDE TEMIN")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And we're speaking with Christian Picciolini. He spent several years when he was a teenager and a young man in white supremacist groups. He now works to combat racism and hatred. He has a new memoir called "White American Youth." You became part of a group called, I guess, CASH - Chicago Area Skinheads. And this was at a time when you write that there were other skinhead groups popping up around town, some of whom weren't - didn't adopt the white supremacist neo-Nazi approach that your group did. Who were these other groups, and what kind of contact did you have with them?

PICCIOLINI: Well, I think, first, it's important to note that the skinhead subculture didn't start out as a racist one in the '60s in England. It started out as a subculture just like any other punk rock movement or a rebellious movement. And it didn't really lean towards any sort of politics. But in the '70s, it did become political. And there was a schism.

And we have what we call anti-racist skinheads - and perhaps maybe now what we're calling antifa - and the racist skinheads. And it was a difficult time because we didn't really - although we claimed who our enemy was, we thought that the enemy was the Jews and minorities and you government, we spent most of our time actually fighting against other white anti-racist activists for most of those years.

DAVIES: So actual fistfights, you'd meet and rumble?

PICCIOLINI: We would meet and rumble, but we would also just attack indiscriminately, you know, not only anti-racist activists but people of color, homeless people. And it was for us, you know, our expression of our low self-esteem to be able to project our own pain, I think, onto other people. And I certainly recognize that now and didn't then.

DAVIES: You were living with your parents then. I mean, you were young. You were 14 and 15 when this was going on. What was your relationship with your parents like?

PICCIOLINI: I was angry at my parents. I didn't understand why they weren't there. And certainly, at first, when I was involved in this hate movement, I kept it pretty quiet. I didn't, you know, really express that to my parents. So they didn't really understand what was going on. They were concerned. And by the time I was so entrenched in this movement and they recognized what it was that I was a part of, it was too late. I was too angry. And almost anything that they did to try and discourage me pushed me further away.

DAVIES: And you kind of took over a spare room they had. And so you had this sort of autonomous place within your parents' home, right?

PICCIOLINI: Yeah. At 15 years old, I commandeered the basement apartment which had a separate entrance and a separate kitchen and bathroom and essentially moved in and claimed it as my own. And for all intent and purpose, I was on my own at 15 years old.

DAVIES: What did it look like? What did you have up in the place?

PICCIOLINI: Oh, it was a bit of a Nazi frat boy dorm room. There were, you know, among the swastika flags hanging up, you know, beer signs made of neon and Confederate flags and posters from some of the British racist bands that I followed.

DAVIES: Clark Martell, the skinhead leader who got you into this stuff, eventually went to prison because of stuff he had been doing. And that cleared a way for you to become a leader at the age of - what? - 15.

PICCIOLINI: I was barely 16 when Clark Martell went to prison. And suddenly, because Clark had gone to prison for a series of violent activities, one being on the 49th anniversary of Kristallnacht - he and several of the other members of the organization went around Chicago and broke windows of Jewish stores and spray-painted swastikas on synagogues. But they also went to a female member's home, and because they had seen her with a black man at a bus stop, had kicked in her door and pistol-whipped her and beaten her to an inch of - within an inch of her life. And before they left, they painted a swastika on her wall in her own blood.

And luckily, they went to prison for that. Unlucky for me, I was essentially the last person standing. I had been too young to really participate in that level of violence, but because the people who had been recruited after me looked to me on what to do, I suddenly became the leader of this very notorious organization. And I grabbed that opportunity almost as an entrepreneurial opportunity.

DAVIES: I want to talk a little bit more about your time in the movement. Music was a big part of this, and you formed this band, White American Youth. And I thought we would listen to a cut. I don't know whether you listen to this anymore at all or not.

PICCIOLINI: (Laughter) No.

DAVIES: I thought we should hear a little bit of it. This is from an album that - you were the singer, right? You were the frontman, right?

PICCIOLINI: That's correct.

DAVIES: And this is from the album called "Walk Alone," and the track we're going to hear a little of is from a song called "Amerikkka For Me." That's America with a KKK rather than a C. Let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AMERIKKKA FOR ME")

WHITE AMERICAN YOUTH: (Singing) Walking around, what do I see? No longer an America for you and me. With our dark, muddy boots and our haircuts short, it's not a fashion, it's not a sport. The pride of living, being white - we're the master race, the Third Reich. (Unintelligible) don't want it, [expletive] not allowed. White men are strong as much as we're proud. Skinheads have the upper hand. White men's strength will save our land. We stand together - unity the key. [Expletive] back to Africa. America for me.

DAVIES: And that's our guest, Christian Picciolini, in another life singing with the band White American Youth. What's it like to hear that again?

PICCIOLINI: Well, it brings back a lot of shame because I know that I put words out into the world that still today are affecting people and hurting people. I learned just a few months ago that Dylann Roof had heard one of my songs a few months before he committed the tragedy in Charleston. And he was on a white supremacist web forum asking who the band was, and somebody had showed me that post just recently, and I read through the lyrics. And it didn't dawn on me instantly that those were my lyrics. But when I had finished, I felt sick to know that my words still today might be encouraging people, might be putting false ideas into the world and might still be hurting people.

DAVIES: You know, the music has a lot of energy and a lot of anger to it. I mean, I - you know, it's - how much of a connection is there that - between this kind of - the emotion of that kind of music and the violence of the movement, do you think?

PICCIOLINI: I think it's very connected. At least, it was during the '80s and '90s. Music was the vehicle for propaganda. It was the incitement to encourage people to commit acts of violence, and it was a social movement. People would come in for the very few concerts that were held every year from all over the country or all over the world. And it was a way to gather. And still today, I believe that music is a very powerful tool that the movement uses to inspire vulnerable young people into a very hateful social movement.

DAVIES: Christian Picciolini's new memoir is called "White American Youth." After a break, he'll talk about a turning point in his racial views when his eyes met those of one of his beating victims. And he'll explain how he now tries to help others get out of hate groups. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOSHUA REDMAN'S "BALANCE")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross, who's off this week. We're speaking with Christian Picciolini. As a teenager, he was recruited into a violent white supremacist group. He became a prominent leader and the frontman for a white supremacist punk band. He left the movement after eight years and now works to get others out of hate groups. He has a new memoir called "White American Youth."

You know, you spent a lot of time traveling around the country as you rose in prominence in the movement. You went to Germany and toured there with the band with some groups there. And there's a point where you give a really evocative description of the skinhead rally where you say, it begins with speeches, and there's lots and lots of beer-drinking throughout and then, you know, frenzied, you know, music and then eventually, sooner or later, fights break out among different groups who are in attendance or because someone was jealous over a romantic approach to somebody's girlfriend. It doesn't exactly sound like people were trying to put together a strategy for change, right? Either winning elections, or armed revolt or much of anything other than coming together and having these moments with each other which often ended in violence.

PICCIOLINI: Well, I don't think that that's correct. I do think that there were a lot of concerted strategies in the '80s and '90s that we're seeing take hold today. We recognized in the mid '80s that our edginess, our look, even our language was turning away the average American white racist, people we wanted to recruit. So we decided then to grow our hair out, to stop getting tattoos that would identify us, to trade in our boots for suits and to go to college campuses and recruit there and enroll to get jobs in law enforcement, to go to the military and get training and to even run for office.

And here we are 30 years later and we're using terms like white nationalist and alt-right, terms that they came up with, by the way, that they sat around and said, how can we identify ourselves to make us seem less hateful? Back in my day when I was involved, we used terms like white separatists or white pride. But it certainly was neither one of those. It was white supremacy and - as is white nationalism or the alt-right today.

DAVIES: And was it effective in connecting with people?

PICCIOLINI: Well, here we are in 2018 and we have a lot of hallmarks coming from, you know, political figures, the administration and policies that are very similar to what we espoused 30 years ago. The language may be a little bit more palatable, dog whistles may be used. But it is still the same underlying theme. It is a white supremacist culture that is being pushed.

DAVIES: You know, when you described the meetings, it seems like beer was a big part of all of them. Were there times when you'd sit down and just seriously focus on some reading and political discussion, too?

PICCIOLINI: Of course. You know, we ran businesses. We ran record labels. We ran record stores. We ran magazines that were glossy. We made videos before the Internet. I mean, it was for all intent and purpose a global movement that was highly organized but lacked a, you know, a very charismatic central figure. And I'm worried about that because over the years and over the decades, the movement has never really been able to establish that leader. And should that person come along some day, if they haven't already, that could be something that unites them further.

DAVIES: An American Hitler or Mussolini, in other words?

PICCIOLINI: That's true.

DAVIES: So when you were in the movement and you were a leader, what were the daily and weekly activities like? I mean, were there planned attacks on minority families or mosques or...

PICCIOLINI: Well, aside from just the indiscriminate violence that, you know, the acts that we committed on almost a daily basis against anybody - it didn't really matter, there really wasn't a reason - there were also times where we were involved in, you know, in planning armored car robberies, where we talked about that. There was a point in 1991 where I was approached by somebody representing Muammar Gaddafi, from Libya, who wanted to bring me to Tripoli to meet with him and accept some money to fund a revolution against the Jews in the United States.

And that's something that's always scared me because that set a precedent that I think that we will see more of in the future where we start to see some of these Islamist terror groups start to partner with these far-right groups. And while that may sound crazy because they hate each other, unfortunately, their enemy, their number-one enemy is what they would consider the Jew. So I think it's only a matter of time before we start to see these organizations begin to work with each other and start to spread their terror more globally.

DAVIES: And that offer of that attempt to get you connected to money from Gaddafi, that's the one that turned out to be a law enforcement sting operation, didn't it?

PICCIOLINI: It was. And of course I turned it down. Something inside of me, you know, was still proud to be an American and didn't want to associate with, you know, with a dictator from a foreign country. And luckily I didn't get involved because it ended up being a Canadian intelligence sting operation that took quite a few people down.

DAVIES: This was a violent time, and you got kicked out of a lot of high schools. And there's one incident that you recall at Eisenhower High School that was pretty dramatic. Do you want to tell us what happened here?

PICCIOLINI: There was a period in my life where I was angry at everybody, and it didn't take very much to provoke my violence. And, one day, I had gotten into a fist fight with a black student twice in one day. And the second time, I was carried out of the school in handcuffs after being detained by the African-American security guard, Mr. Holmes (ph). And it was a very contentious situation. I was brought into the principal's office after this fight, and the principal - or the dean, rather, happened to be an African-American woman. And the words that I used were very hurtful. And the security guard, Mr. Holmes, had detained me until the police arrived, and I was brought out in handcuffs. But that moment was one where not only was I kicked out of my fifth school - that one for the second time.

But it was a moment where I started to recognize my own weaknesses because I had recognized that my fears had overcome me. I didn't know these people. I had never had a meaningful interaction with them, but yet, I was ready to blame them for everything that was wrong in my life, especially how angry I was at my parents, at society and at people for feeling marginalized. And I took it out on two people that really tried to help me at that moment, and I didn't recognize that.

Many years later, after I had left the movement - in fact, five years after I had left the movement after having gone through a depression where I would wake up mornings and, frankly, I would wish that I hadn't woken up, a friend of mine at the time had come to me and said, I don't want you to die; you need to change something. So she recommended that I apply for a temp job through a placement company that was placing employees for IBM, and I thought she was crazy.

Here I was - you know, an ex-neo-Nazi, and even though I was treating other people with respect, I wasn't treating myself with very much respect. I had gone to multiple high schools, been kicked out. I was covered in tattoos and had no college experience nor computer experience. But I went in for an interview, and I got the job.

And as it happened, the first place out of the millions of customers that IBM has - they put me at my old high school - at Eisenhower, the same one I was kicked out of twice - to help install their computers. And I was terrified. I thought, for once, something good was going to happen in my life, but it was going to be taken away from me because of what I had done in the past and that somebody would recognize me instantly.

And, of course, as karma or fate or destiny would have it, within the first few hours of me going to Eisenhower and skulking around the dark hallways to try and avoid people, Mr. Johnny Holmes, the old black security guard who I'd gotten in a fist fight with that got me kicked out for the second time, walked right past me. Now, he didn't recognize me, but I certainly recognized him, and suddenly, I was faced with a dilemma. I didn't know what to do.

For five years, I had been outrunning my past. I was scared to be judged the same way that I had judged other people. But I decided I was going to chase after Mr. Holmes, and I found him in the parking lot. And when I tapped him on the shoulder, and he turned around and recognized me, he took a step back because he was afraid. And all I could think to say, Dave, at that moment, was, I'm sorry. And after speaking for a while and finding enough words, he shook my hand, and he embraced me, and he made me promise that I would tell my story.

DAVIES: Christian Picciolini has a new memoir about his time in a neo-Nazi movement. It's called "White American Youth." We'll continue our conversation after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF DAN AUERBACH SONG, "HEARTBROKEN, IN DISREPAIR")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with Christian Picciolini. He spent several years as a young man and a teenager in neo-Nazi groups. He now works to combat racism and hatred. He has a new memoir called "White American Youth: My Descent Into America's Most Violent Hate Movement - And How I Got Out."

You know, you engaged in a lot of violence in those years - random attacks on people. And I - you recount one case in particular where you and some other guy set upon some young black kids who were in a McDonald's, chase them into the street and beat them up. Did you ever, in any of those moments, feel empathy with any of your victims?

PICCIOLINI: That moment that you're talking about in the McDonald's was a pivotal moment for me. Here I was, 18 or 19 years old, the leader of one of the most prominent neo-Nazi skinhead organizations in the world. And I was with a group of friends who walked into this McDonald's after a night of heavy drinking and loudly proclaimed that it was my McDonald's and that they had to leave. And, of course, they were intimidated, and they ran out, and we chased them.

And one of the black teenagers, as he was running across the street, pulled out a gun and started to fire at us, and the gun jammed. And we caught that individual and proceeded to beat him very, very badly. And as I was kicking him when he was on the ground, his eyes opened, and they looked at mine. And I remember feeling a very deep connection or a deep empathy for this person that I didn't know that I was essentially trying to kill.

And when our eyes connected, I thought for an instant that that could be somebody that I loved, could be my brother, could be my mother or father and that there would be people that would be impacted by my actions. And that was the last time I committed an act of violence. And I don't know who that individual was, and I don't know what happened to him, but that moment changed my life.

DAVIES: What else made you think differently about the movement?

PICCIOLINI: Over the years, I always had confusion and questions about my ideologies because it wasn't the way that I was raised. But ultimately, what it came down to was receiving compassion from the people that I least deserved it when I least deserved it. Just before I left the movement, I opened a record store to sell white power music that I was importing from all over the world.

In fact, I was one of the only stores in the United States that was selling this music. And I also knew that to stay in the community and get their support, I would have to sell other music, so I started to sell punk rock music and heavy metal and hip-hop. And when the customers came in to buy that music, who were often African-American or Jewish or gay, at first, I was very standoffish, but they kept coming back. And the community, even though it's Chicago - everybody knew what I was doing. Everybody knew how hateful I was and how violent I was. But these customers came in despite that, and over time, I started to have meaningful interactions with them for the first time in my life.

In fact, I'd never in my life engaged in a meaningful dialogue with the people that I thought I hated. And it was these folks who showed me empathy when I least deserved it, and they were the ones that I least deserved it from. And I started to recognize that I had more in common with them than the people I had surrounded myself for eight years with and that these people that I thought I hated took it upon themselves to see something inside of me that I didn't even see myself. And it was because of that connection that I was able to humanize them, and that destroyed the demonization and the prejudice that was happening inside of me.

DAVIES: How did the record store come to an end?

PICCIOLINI: When I became too embarrassed to sell the white power music in front of my customers, which I now considered friends, I decided to pull the white power music. And, of course, because it was 75 percent of my revenue, the store had to close. At that same time, my wife and my children - I'd been married at 18 years old, and we had our first child at 19 and our second at 21.

They left me because they were not a part of the movement, and I hadn't detached from that movement quickly enough. I didn't have a great relationship with my parents. I'd lost my livelihood at the record store when I closed it. And I walked away from the only community that I really knew for most of my formative years. And it was at that point where, even though I was treating other people with respect and I decided to walk away from something that I had helped build, I wasn't treating myself with very much respect. And I suffered a great depression that nearly took my life.

DAVIES: And how did your former neo-Nazi mates take your departure?

PICCIOLINI: Not well, still to this day, not specifically from the same people that I used to know. But I still receive death threats on a daily basis. My family has been trolled online and had private information like home address and phone number published multiple times on the Web. They're not too happy about the work that I'm doing. But I also know that I'm in a position to have seen both sides and there are very few people on earth that have gone through that. And they know that I'm a danger to them because I understand what they understand, but I also understand the truth.

DAVIES: It was some years after that you left the movement that you cofounded a group called Life After Hate, right? And I understand you're no longer working with them. But this was an effort to undo some of the damage to try and rescue people from this kind of hatred. You know, it's easy to give speeches to people who agree with you. How did you try and connect with people who were still in the movement and bring them out?

PICCIOLINI: Well, first, I recognized I needed to make amends for the damage that I had done. And the only way I really knew how to do that was to share my story so that hopefully other people could learn from my mistakes. I didn't really understand how to head-on accept responsibility for it. So I started to tell my story after promising my now-friend Mr. Holmes, the old security guard from my old high school, that I would tell my story. And I started to recognize in 2009, when I cofounded Life After Hate as a literary magazine, that other people shared the same experience that I had.

And very quickly, this online magazine started to elicit responses from people all over the world who wanted to share their stories and who thought maybe they were the only ones who had gone through that and who had left. Very quickly, I recognized that in order to help people, I wanted to work with them one-on-one, that they needed a support community, that if we were going to pull them out of an identity in a community and a purpose that was negative or detrimental to them or society, that we needed to also provide them with a positive alternative for that.

So Life After Hate became and perhaps still is one of America's only organizations, nonprofits, that are focused on helping people disengage from white supremacy and from hate movements. I've continued that work. I parted ways with Life After Hate last year to launch a global intervention providers network. I've traveled all over the world. I've been lucky to do that and to share my story with groups in every community on almost every continent. And what I've recognized is that there are people already doing the same work that I was doing, perhaps not in the same capacity.

There are organizations in Mali of mothers who are helping young people not go into extremist groups. There are ex-foreign fighters from Lebanon who are trying to deradicalize young people so that they don't make the same mistakes. And I started to understand that there really wasn't a recognizable place for people to go to for help, people who wanted to disengage themselves but also for bystanders, loved ones who were concerned about somebody that may be going down a dark path. So my goal now is to take these organizations who operate independently and bring them into a global network where we can share best practices, where we can perhaps feed each other individuals who could benefit more from a local approach.

DAVIES: Christian Picciolini's memoir is "White American Youth." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF EXPLOSIONS IN THE SKY'S "REMEMBER ME AS A TIME OF DAY")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with Christian Picciolini. He spent several years as a young man in neo-Nazi groups. He got out and cofounded an organization called Life After Hate. His new memoir is "White American Youth."

I understand that in the closing months of the Obama administration, the Department of Homeland Security gave Life After Hate a $400,000 grant to fund its services, among other grants that they give to other antiterrorist organizations. That ended when Trump came into office, right?

PICCIOLINI: That's correct. So two weeks before President Obama left office, we were awarded a $400,000 grant to expand our intervention services online. A few weeks after the president took office, we were notified that the grant was rescinded for us. Out of the nearly 40 organizations that were promised grants, we were one of maybe two that were rescinded. And we were the only organization that was completely focused on the far-right and white supremacists. And fortunately, momentum of society and people's concerns for the loss of that grant ended up in donations of over $500,000 to the organization. So we were able to recover that.

DAVIES: Samantha Bee did a piece on her show, which probably helped bring it some visibility.

PICCIOLINI: She did. She was an amazing supporter. You know, I do believe that comedians today are in many ways the voice of reason and some of the only people who can speak the truth freely. And I really commend them for stepping up and recognizing a time in society where their voices are necessary and that they're stepping up to say things that normally wouldn't come out of a comedian's mouth.

DAVIES: One thing when we were talking about the Trump administration having rescinded the $400,000 grant - do you know why? Were you given any explanation?

PICCIOLINI: We were really never given a proper explanation. I just received an email that seemed like a pretty generic form email from somebody I didn't know at the Department of Homeland Security saying that after all the applications were reviewed, and in fact, all the grantees were reviewed, that the money was not going to be offered to us after all. There was never any official explanation as to why, and I still don't know.

DAVIES: But why do you think it happened?

PICCIOLINI: You know, I don't want to speculate. I mean, certainly, the administration change, you know, made things a little bit trickier. And certainly, there was a different focus. But, you know, I find it very disheartening that we still have a problem calling white extremism terrorism in our country, when in fact, since 9/11, more Americans have been killed on U.S. soil by white supremacists than they have by any other foreign or domestic terrorist group combined.

Part of that is because we don't have domestic terrorism statutes on the books. But also, part of that is because I think we have a hard time holding a mirror up to ourselves and admitting our failures. So I don't know what the reason is, but I can tell you that there is an overwhelming focus in the counterterrorism space and the countering-violent-extremism space on, you know, Islamist terrorism and not enough of a focus - and I believe our government should be looking at this threat that all of our intelligence agencies agree is a massive problem in our country today.

DAVIES: You know, you spent a lot of years absorbing and believing in these theories about how the world worked, that the media and the banking system was controlled by Jews, and Mexicans and blacks were taking things away. And when you broke with the movement because you made human connections with people who you thought were your enemies, it must have been kind of a hard intellectual thing to kind of rewire your brain and think about the world differently.

PICCIOLINI: It was extremely difficult. It was essentially all I had known from the time I was 14 years old. And I certainly wasn't sophisticated enough, you know, to have an idea of the world before I was 14. It was a bit of a culture shock. It was embarrassing. It was shameful. I felt foolish.

And I felt very sad that I had not only wasted eight years of my life but planted so many seeds of hate that I'm still, 22 years after I've left this movement, pulling out and pulling out the weeds from those seeds. And it's something that, as I help people disengage, is always something that's very important for me - is to establish, you know, this positive sense of identity and surrounding of a community and a purpose that is greater than one's self but that benefits all of society.

DAVIES: Well, Christian Picciolini, I wish you luck in your efforts, and thanks so much for speaking with us.

PICCIOLINI: It's been a great pleasure, Dave. Thank you so much.

DAVIES: Christian Picciolini's new memoir is "White American Youth."

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN COLTRANE QUARTET'S "OUT OF THIS WORLD")

DAVIES: If you'd like to catch up on interviews you missed, like our interview with Peter Morgan, the creator of the Netflix series "The Crown," or with Melba Pattillo Beals, one of the Little Rock Nine, students who integrated Central High School in 1957, check out our podcast, where you will find those interviews and many more. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie, Thea Chaloner and Seth Kelley. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN COLTRANE QUARTET'S "OUT OF THIS WORLD") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.