As the one-time leader of one of the most infamous white supremacist groups in America, Christian Picciolini was once so immersed in the hate movement that his name appeared prominently in an ADL report on neo-Nazi activity in Illinois.
Picciolini had swastika and racist tattoos on his arms and led a small empire of violent like-minded racists who churned out racist propaganda and inveighed against the Jews and non-whites who they believed were undermining “white culture.”
But after the birth of his first son, Picciolini began to realize that all of the hate in his life didn’t make sense, and that the targets of his hatred were actually people who had emotions and experiences similar to those of his own. He started to talk to Jews and African-Americans. And he started listening.
And then finally he got out, for good.
The story of his transformation from a racist skinhead to a reformer who attempts to help rescue others lured into the hate movement is the theme of “The Work of Humanity,” a powerful new video produced by the Anti-Defamation League.
The 7-minute video charts the course of Picciolini’s transformation from a young impressionable teenager getting caught up in the hate movement to a reformed extremist who has spent the last 20 years of his life working to get others out of the violent hate movement he was once a part of.
“I was a vulnerable teenage boy who was searching for something,” Piccolini says in the video documentary. “I felt marginalized, and powerless, and weak, and unheard. And all I wanted was to be powerful when I felt the most powerless.”
After leaving the violent hate movement he was part of during his youth, Piccolini began the painstaking process of rebuilding his life.
While working for IBM, Picciolini earned a degree from DePaul University and later began his own global entertainment media firm. In 2010 he co-founded a non-profit dedicated to helping others gain the knowledge necessary to implement long-term solutions that counter all types of racism and violent extremism.
“For the last 20 years I’ve been dedicated to dismantling what I once helped to build,” he says. “I wasn’t raised on racism. I learned it.”
Behind the Scenes at ADL
In 2012, Picciolini was introduced at an event to Lonnie Nasatir, ADL Chicago Regional Director. The two became fast friends. Today, Picciolini works closely with Lonnie and ADL, speaking to audiences cross the country and telling his story to members of law enforcement so that they can learn about the factors that bring people into the hate movement. In all of his appearances Piccolini credits the ADL for working with him to not only to expose hate groups and their activities, but also to convince those who may be tempted to join extremist movements to hear his story before they get lured in.
Piccolini has helped more than 100 people disengage from hate groups and violent ideologies.
In a recent interview, Lonnie Nasatir discussed the project that led to the creation of the video and explained why his office felt it was important to commission an independent filmmaker to create “The Work of Humanity” so that Picciolini’s story could be shared with a broader audience outside of ADL.
Q: Lonnie, what is so unique about ADL’s work with Christian Picciolini?
A: “ADL works hard to expose hate groups and to identify their leaders, so it is unique and unusual for us to partner with someone who actually was once in the movement. We had a dossier on this guy a mile long. And now he’s working as one of us. So everything has come full circle.
“Christian is a powerful speaker who is able to give a perspective of the mindset of somebody who was part of this movement. It also validates the work that we do every day when you hear Christian’s outlook on the world and how he changed.
“As the video shows, he’s come to learn that in life everybody has the same challenges. We are all born of the same God, we all share similar feelings about our kids, we all experience pain at the loss of a loved one and we worry about our future. He’s living proof that people can and do change.”
Q: What is the most important message that Christian brings to audiences?
A: “That kids aren’t born to hate. His story is a reminder that we can help rewire people who get lured into the hate movement and that there is a pathway out. And there’s a lot we can do to help. We can help to rewire people to lead productive lives and get the hate out of their system.”
Q: In Chicago, Christian is an active participant in ADL’s Law Enforcement Advisory Committee. Can you describe how that work and how you use Picciolini’s story to educate local law enforcement?
A: “We train law enforcement on extremist and terrorist threats, so it makes sense to have someone who was once immersed in the movement to tell them about his experiences firsthand. No matter where I put Christian in front of police, they can’t get enough. They want to fully understand the mindset of a racist. Christian talks about extremism, how he got involved, and why he got out, and helps police understand the mindset of a racist. He describes how he was brainwashed, and what it took to change his mind."
Q: How else has Christian been involved with ADL?
A: "Earlier this year, there was an anti-Semitic attack against a synagogue in Chicago where someone smashed the windows and put swastika stickers on the building. We offered a reward in the case and provided some information that led to an arrest. The perpetrator pleaded guilty and, obviously, was someone deeply infected with hate. When the Cooks County State’s Attorney was looking for an appropriate sentence for the perpetrator, we suggested he be required to talk to Christian. So someone who engaged in violent hateful conduct will have a court-mandated 12-month intervention with Christian’s group as part of his plea deal. Poetic justice, I guess.”
Q: How can people learn more about Christian and his work reforming racists?
A: "I have read and endorsed his powerful memoir, “WHITE AMERICAN YOUTH: My Descent into America’s Most Violent Hate Movement – and How I Got Out” (Hachette), which is due out in bookstores next year. It’s a powerful overview and provides more details into his exceptional story."
"Christian has also made numerous appearances on television and radio, including a recent interview with Sarah Silverman. He recently spoke at our “Never is Now” Conference on Anti-Semitism in San Francisco."