In his memoir White American Youth: My Descent into America’s Most Violent Hate Movement – and How I Got Out (Hachette), Picciolini provides a fascinating and disturbing perspective from inside the world of white supremacism. Recruited into the movement at age 14, Picciolini writes about the coercive allure of hate groups and explains how he became a leader of the violent Hammerskin Nation, described by the Anti-Defamation League as one of the oldest hardcore racist skinhead groups in the United States. He writes powerfully not only about his teen-age radicalization, while growing up in Blue Island, Illinois, just outside Chicago, but also about his gradual disillusionment with violent white nationalism, and then his dramatic break from it. Picciolini went on to co-found “Life After Hate,” a non-profit organization that battles racism, and helps people in hate groups extricate themselves from them. Picciolini reflected on his own descent into Hammerskin Nation and his climb out of that world, and his path to anti-hate activist, with The National’s Caroline Kaplan.
Q: Your memoir opens with a dramatic scene from your childhood in which you beat up the classmate who had tortured you for eight years and enjoyed and found respect as the “Bully Slayer” in the grade school social pecking. That experience, you write, led you “to build one of America’s most violent homegrown terror organizations.” Looking back, do you feel there were other alternatives for you?
A: That incident was the first time I ever let my internalized anger out. I was afraid, and I didn’t really have any outlet for inclusion. I felt marginalized and struggled with my identity. After that 8th grade fight, people suddenly saw me differently and began to pay attention. That sudden intoxication with a perceived sense of power led me to pursue it further. I had gone from powerless to “powerful.”
The alternatives, growing up in Blue Island, were fairly slim. Most youthful activities for any given clique included hanging out in alleys and being nuisances. Had someone seen in me, beyond my shy and lonely demeanor, that I was a good ball player, a decent artist, or an ambitious thinker, perhaps their intervention would have been what I needed to feel a sense of identity, community, and purpose, instead of searching for it down more broken avenues. As adults, I think we fail frequently in supporting young people to be happy and included. We’re too prescriptive.
Young people want and need to be heard, not talked to. We should learn to be better guides and “investors” in the passions and ambitions of our youth, among our most vulnerable population. If we want to stem extremism, we need to empower and nurture the future change-makers.
Q: You chronicle growing up in the Chicago neighborhood of Blue Island and the tensions that arose between black and Italian community members. Since then, what kinds of changes - gentrification or otherwise - have you seen play out in communities across the nation and world?
A: Frankly, there wasn’t much tangible tension that I saw. It was unspoken. The Italians had their East Side enclaves, filled with others from the same village in Italy, as well as Latin Americans from Argentina, Germans, and Poles. Mexican families congregated in their own sections of town and African-Americans typically lived along the borders. The more middle-class whites lived uptown on the west side. It was all very segregated, even among classes: The West side of Blue Island was middle class and the East side was seen as lower-middle class. The main strip of Western Ave that separated the east and west sides also separated the immigrants from the “natives.”
While Blue Island is much more integrated now, and largely Latino, Chicago as a city is still one of the most segregated cities in America. I see this in cities across America, even progressive communities are partitioned, and in Europe as well. Part of me wonders if it’s just a matter of cultural comfort and tribalism or unconscious separatism.
Q: Joan Jett provides a foreword to White American Youth. You toured with one another and she describes throwing her arm over your shoulder backstage at a show, how you became friends, and how she helped lead you out of a dark place in your life when you had just left the world of White Nationalism. How did she help you, and was there a period when you were reluctant to share stories of your past with new acquaintances?
A: First, “white nationalism” is a white supremacist marketing term, like alt-right,” that I refuse to acknowledge. That aside, I met Joan in 1996 after leaving the white supremacist/neo-Nazi movement. I had formed a non-political punk band called Random55 and was lucky enough to get a chance to tour with her. I was struggling with depression at the time. I was fresh out and didn’t really know who I was or where I belonged.
Everything I knew from the time of 14 was how to hate and hurt people. I was also terrified to reveal my past because I didn’t want to be judged like I had judged others. I tried to outrun my past for almost 5 years after I left. Joan befriending me was one of the instances when I received compassion from those I least deserved it from. Those were powerfully humanizing encounters, even if she never knew why I was depressed. In a way, she saved my life.
Q: Music is central to your story, in part because it’s a way you found community and identity. What do you listen to now, and what sort of communities do you see forming around music for today’s young Americans?
A. Music is a powerful medium and influencer. I have always loved it and now feel as though it is the greatest form of empathetic expression. Art and music allows us to step into the shoes of the creator. Twenty-five years ago, I saw it differently. I thought of it as a tool to manipulate people through the expression of propaganda and influence how people viewed me. Like anything that is good, it can also be used for bad. As a powerful medium, any form of music influences the formation of communities, the language and aesthetic of the community, the culture, and the actions. Again, it can be used for good or bad. Music is less influential in the white supremacist movement in the US today than it was in the late 80s through the late 90s. Although, it’s still massively popular and an effective recruitment tool in Europe.
Q: Your Nonno and Nonna are proud Italians, and you write fondly of the Blue Island Italian-American community. How do you think, Clark Martell, leader of the Chicago Area Skinheads, tapped into your Italian heritage as a way to reach you?
A: Yes, before they both passed, they lived in this country for 50 years. They never quite shed their old-world traditions nor embraced their new American culture, though they adapted.
Clark Martell, like other savvy recruiters, knew to key in on my vulnerabilities and then offer solutions through fear rhetoric and inclusion. For instance, he recognized at 14 that my Italian heritage was all I knew and that it also served to alienate me in the non-Italian community. He fed my pride and then injected fear that there were those who were trying to diminish or take away that sense of pride.
Then it progressed to encouraging more proactive aggression to eliminate that enemy. It was a progression from instilling pride, manipulating truths through conspiracy theories, injecting fear, and then encouraging action through a sense of “purpose.” We promised paradise, not unlike a group like ISIS.
Q: In your foreword to White American Youth you talk about the specter of American terrorism and the shootings of black Americans in Charleston and the killing of a counter protester at a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville are just two of many examples.
Your story is incredibly relevant to the current state of America, but in the past two years violent racism has come to the front of American life. Would you describe the white nationalist movements of the 90s (in which you participated) as countercultural? Is that different from today’s hate groups? In your eyes, is hate becoming more mainstream, more engrained into the American establishment?
A: The “specter of American terrorism” is a reference to our government’s inability or unwillingness to call white extremism white terrorism. It exists, it dominates in terms of statistics, but it is not recognized as such. That is a problem we need to solve and not calling it by name is minimizing its deadly impact. The movement of 30 years is both different and the same. It’s different in the sense that the packaging and delivery is more normalized and “palatable” from a recruiting perspective. They learned from our mistakes.
We were too edgy, too fringe, too mindlessly violent, whereas they are presenting themselves as clean cut, pseudo-intellectualized, ultra-conservatives. The reality is that beyond the difference in packaging or marketing, it’s the same rotten can of tomatoes. The “white nationalists” and “alt-right” are simply version 2.0 of the neo-Nazi extremist movement of our youth. Their access to technology and their ability to more efficiently spread propaganda through social media is what has allowed them to more effectively penetrate the mainstream than we could.
I think white supremacy has been ingrained in our American society since we stepped foot on this land and took it from the natives, forced Africans to become slaves, and established the institutions and systems of justice, education, housing, and policing. We’ve made progress in increments, but we still have a way to go to make the American Dream one we can all share in an equitable and just way. More recently, the current administration is, whether intentionally or not, empowering the fringe white supremacist movement and thrusting their rhetoric into legitimacy.
Caroline Kaplan is a student of American Studies, English and Creative Writing at Columbia University.