From messenger of hate to preacher of tolerance
“I planted a lot of seeds of hate... and I feel it is my responsibility to erase some of what I helped to create,” said former neo-Nazi Christian Picciolini during an event in Sofia. From the time he was 14 growing up in Chicago until he was 22, Picciolini was a member of a neo-Nazi skinhead group and rose to be its leader. He stockpiled weapons hoping to overthrow the US government, and was asked to meet with Muammar Gaddafi to form an alliance. In 1996, he decided to leave the vicious movement he helped create because "I could no longer reconcile my hateful ideology and thoughts with the empathy I began to feel and the compassion I began to receive from those who I deserved it from the least — those who I previously hated". After nearly two decades of self-reflection and atonement, in 2010 he co-founded a nonprofit called Life After Hate to help educate people on issues of far-right extremism and radicalization and to help people disengage from hate groups and to love themselves and accept others, regardless of skin color, religious belief, or sexual preference. He helped launch ExitUSA, a program of Life After Hate, which acts as a beacon and support system to those wishing to leave hate groups.
In 2016, he won an Emmy Award for directing and producing ExitUSA's "There is life after hate" PSA. In 2015, he published his memoirs, Romantic Violence: Memoirs of an American Skinhead.
I talked to Christian about his journey from love to hate and back, his transformation and the danger of the recent rice of populism and extremism in the USA and across Europe.
Where do you think hate could mostly grow roots in? In what kind of people, groups or societies?
Hate can affect any group, any society or any person at any age if the situation is right. When there is a lack of opportunity, people thurn to very desperate solutions. And when somebody comes and promises an easy solution and blame somebody else for the problems that you have, it's very easy to say: "Yeah I hate that person, because they took my job, because they hurt my family. But without experiencing the truth, we shouldn't judge other people on that. So when people feel on the outside they blame somebody else for that problem. Instead of looking maybe inside.
How you as a son of migrants go to fight against other migrants?
I was an angry teenager. I was looking for an identity, I was looking for community to belong to. I wanted to do something important but I felt very abandoned by my parents. I didn't understand then that they were just working hard to support their family. But I felt abandoned by them so I went searching for a new family. And then I became angry at my parents so I turned my anger towards other immigrants.
You didn't understand that they are migrants as you are and that they are not to blame?
I didn't realize that because I was so angry that when I started to get a little bit of power because people now accepted me for fear, I mistook that for power, it wasn't real power, it was folse power but it clouded everything logical in my mind. I was just acting in a very angry way. As a revenge because I hated myself and if I took my own hate and put it on other people then I wouldn't feel the pain.
Where were your parents at that time? Didn't they see the change in you?
At first they didn't see the change because I was hiding it. When I was 14 years old I was very shy, I was very insecure. But being part of that movement filled me with this false power. And when they found out, they really tried to help me, they try very, very hard but at that point I was so resentful to them for feeling abandoned that I didn't want to listen to them. They argued with me about what I believed and told me I was wrong. That made me angrier and pushed me farther away. As parents we need to listen more than we talk cause young people want to be heard, they don't want to be talked to. If we listen to the young people what they have to say and then support their passions, they will move on to more positive things instead of feeling so desperate that they have to find a solution in a negative way.
What's the role of music in your life? How it could serve as a recruitment tool for the hate group and at the same time as a personal transformation tool to leave that group?
Music has always been a very important part of my life. At 14 years old I was into punk rock and I was you know trying to be rebellious. Then I found this music - the "White Power" music that spoke to me, lyrics inspired me, made me feel heroic. So it was very strong propaganda and then I recognize that it was a strong way to recruit people to and I formed one of America's first White Power skinhead bands. People would come to the concert and I attracted a lot of people because I educated them through the lyrics. But the words had consequences because there was always violence in my words that taught other people to make violence.
But music is powerful because it also pulled me away. Because of music and because of different tipes of music I was finally able to meet people that I hated but I had never met before. When they started to talk to me, it became very personal and I realized that I felt the same pain that they felt, that I felt the same love that they felt. And I realized we had more similarities than differences. And it was music that I kept outside of my life that brought me back to the person that I was or I was supposed to be.
Transformation in your life happens when you feel lonely and abandoned - first as a teenager when you joined the hate group and then when your wife left you. Are these the driving forces behind every personal change?
After eight years when I decided to leave the movement, it was too late. I lost everything that was important to me already.
Are we always forced to change after we have lost something?
Maybe hitting bottom or losing something that's very important to you, makes you rethink what your priorities are, and makes you look inside. After I lost my wife and children, after I lost my business, after I lost my family that I created, I went through a period of time where I didn't want to get better. I treated other people with respect but I was still dying inside. Because I ran away from my past. I didn't want to tell people. I thought that I could change my life by not telling people. But my life got better when I started to share my story with people. And then I receive forgiveness from them and that was important for me because I had always thought that I had caused all these problems and I was never going to be able to make something good out of it. But receiving forgiveness help me understand that I have to use what I know to help other people.
When was the moment you decided that you should get up off the bottom and to tell your story?
It wasn't me that did it, it was a friend of mine that did it. It was somebody that loved me, that saw that I was in a very bad place and she encouraged me to change my life and I did it. And I got a job and that job changed my life because when I went to work for this technology company, they put me at my old high school - the same ine that I got kicked out of twice, to install the computers. I met a man there who I was very violent to in the past. He was a teacher there. When I saw him, I was scared because I thought: "This is the first good thing in my life and I'm gonna lose it again and I'll go back to that depression". But he accepted me. And this was a man that I hurt. He made me promise that I would tell my story to everybody. That was 20 years ago and I've been telling my story ever since.
What was the lesson from that experience?
He said: Believe in yourself and you have the power, because you created the problem that only you can fix it.
What is easier - to love our to hate? How long is the road between love and hate?
It's easier to hate than it is to love. Because with love you risk losing something. Which is why a lot of people who are scared to love, because maybe they have lost something or maybe because something was taken away from them, it's easy for them to go down the road of hate because it takes the pain off of them and puts it on somebody else, makes them the object of their hate.
The road from love to hate and back is very thin line. And it's a very easy to jump from one to the other if we're not careful. Because we're not used to treating people with compassion, we are taking care of ourselves but we have to learn to walk a mile in somebody else's shoes to feel their pain. Because until we do that, we'll never feel whole ourselves. Because if nobody is happy than I'm not happy too. We all work in the same team all across the world. What happens in the USA affects what happen in Bulgaria. What happens in Bulgaria affects what's happening in Chicago. It's very important that we keep in mind knowing that we are culturally different but we have more similarities than differences.
What's behind the recent rise of populsim and extremism in the USA and in Europe?
Hate is born of ignorance. Fear is its father, and isolation its mother. I think what's happening in the USA and all across Europe is that there's a fear of the unknown, fear of the other. In 1933 we had a Jewish refugee crisis and now we have Muslim refugee crisis. Both times we feared what we didn't understand and we never took the steps to try and understand it so we try to wipe it off the face of the earth.
I think it's all our responsibility to understand that first of all we're all human beings, that have the same needs and that even if we have different color skin or different religion or even different customs, we have that because we are geographically separated. That makes our world beautiful.
I think the arrival of the far-right across Europe and in the USA is due to those fears and isolation. We don't make the attempt to understand what we don't know.
Why exactly now is this rice happening?
Because the world is experiencing some desperation. There's a lack of opportunity in many parts of the world, including the USA and Bulgaria. When people have opportunity, when they can feed their families, when they can feel secure about who they are, when your life is happier, they don't turn to extremism and hate. Hate is a crutch that gives them somebody else to blame. When people feel more stable and people are working, there's no reason to hate anybody, because you don't feel anything is being taken away from you.
I do see a lot of similarities to history repeating itself. We're becoming isolationist and very nationalist. We are talking about a registry and a ban and actually enacting them trough executive orders. It's very scary to me. It's scary because it's happening to people in America, where our country is based on these values of immigrants coming into our country. So it scared me because the reason I love America is because we have these values of inclusion, and when that is taken away from us, it takes away the meaning of America to me. I don't want that to happen and I know there are millions and millions of Americans who don't want that to happen either.