Christian Picciolini: Disengaging White Power Extremists
Christian Picciolini, a former leader in the American white power movement, talks about his past and his current work in extremism prevention.
Christian runs the Free Radicals Project, which is dedicated to extremism prevention and disengagement. His latest book is titled Breaking Hate: Confronting the New Culture of Extremism. Learn more about Christian’s work at christianpicciolini.com and learn about the Free Radicals Project at freeradicals.org. Find him on Twitter at @CPicciolini.
Ken Harbaugh: Burn the Boats is proud to support VoteVets, the nation’s largest and most impactful progressive veterans organization. To learn more, or to join their mission, go to VoteVets.org.
Christian Picciolini: I think it's important that somebody who says that they have been a part of something awful, that they've hurt people, isn't just afforded the ability to walk away from that and say they're sorry. I do think that redemption, without accountability, is just privilege.
KH: I’m Ken Harbaugh, and this is Burn the Boats, a podcast about big decisions. On Burn the Boats, I interview political leaders and other history makers about choices they confront when failure is not an option.
My guest today is Christian Picciolini, a former leader in the American white power movement, who now runs the Free Radicals Project, which is dedicated to extremism prevention, and disengagement. Christian, welcome to Burn the Boats.
CP: Thanks, Ken. It's a pleasure to be here.
KH: Christian, you have described hate as an addiction. Can you tell us about that moment where you were first hooked, in that alleyway in Chicago.
CP: Yeah. It is very similar to an addiction, and it was for me, and it certainly seems to be for the many people I've worked with to help disengage. Specifically, for me, I was a 14 year old kid in 1987, and I had been delinquent for a year or so because I was looking for attention from my parents. On that fateful day, when I was 14, in 1987, I was smoking a joint and a man walked up to me in that dark alley, which ironically was, and I learned this years later, at the corner of Union and Division Streets, if you believe that.
KH: It's poetic.
CP: Yeah. He walked up to me in this alley, and he pulled the joint from my mouth and looked me in the eyes. He said, "Hey, kid, that's what the communists and the Jews want you to do to keep you docile." If I'm being honest, Ken, I didn't know at 14 what a communist was. I didn't know if I'd met a Jewish person. I didn't even know what the word docile meant. It was the first time in my life that I felt someone paid attention to me. At that point in my life, I was really desperately searching for a sense of identity, community, and purpose. I'd felt abandoned by my parents, who were Italian immigrants who came to the US in the mid-60s, and had to work seven days a week, 14 hours a day, so I didn't see them very much. I blamed them for not being around. When this man came up to me in the alley and he promised me this insight, this knowledge, that I hadn't had before, plus a camaraderie and brotherhood, I jumped at it because that's what was the huge void in my life.
KH: You have since broken from the movement, and more than broken from it, spoken out eloquently and powerfully against it. What began your conversion, if you will?
CP: Yeah, I spent eight years in the white power skinhead movement, and the man who came up to me in that alley that day was America's very first Neo-Nazi skinhead leader. I'd been recruited into America's first white power skinhead group that day. I spent eight years as a part of that, until I was 23. Eventually, became a leader. But I have to be honest, I think every day that I was a part of that, I still had doubts because I wasn't raised as a racist. It was against my DNA. My parents, while they worked very hard and at a young age I didn't really understand why they weren't there, I know now that they were just trying to keep the family alive. I'd always been exposed to different cultures. My parents had friends from all around the world, from different backgrounds and religions. So it wasn't part of my upbringing. In fact, they were often the victims of prejudice when they first came to the US. It was something they worked hard against. Every day that I was involved, I always had that underpinning of my family values. There were moments in those eight years where I met people who challenged my perspective of who they were. That really started in 1994, and hit heavy in 1995 when I opened a record store to sell the racist music that I was both making and importing from Europe. I also sold punk rock, and hip-hop, and heavy metal, and rockabilly music. There were people who came in the shop for that, who were Black, and Jewish, and gay. They knew who I was. I was pretty openly selling this white power music, too. They came in and challenged me with compassion instead of being aggressive. It was the first time in my life, selfishly, that I had a meaningful interaction with the people I thought I hated and secretly, it began to change me. Even though I didn't really show that to the group that I'd been a part of, it started to, inside of me, change my perspective. Eventually, it led me away from the movement I'd been a part of for eight years.
KH: I've been thinking a lot about the process of your conversion, and it strikes me that it wasn't as much about dispelling myths, or challenging half-truths and mistruths that you had bought into. It was more about empathy. It was an emotional conversion. Is that fair?
CP: Yeah, I think it is fair, but I also think that in that process, they did challenge my ideology. But if they would have led with that, if they would have debated me, or told me I was wrong, I think it would have been ineffective. Because I had, for eight years, gone to a school that taught me that two plus two was five and the rest of the world knew that two plus two was four. I think it probably would have sent me even further back had that been the attempt. I want to say, it was never their responsibility, people of color or people who could have potentially been my victims, it was never their responsibility to show me empathy, or to have compassion for me. I'm so, so grateful that they did, because that's what allowed my suit of armor of hate to start to fall apart, but it wasn't their job. I could have hurt them. I had hurt them in the past. They still saw something that was worth saving. I didn't even see that in myself. But yeah, it was connecting on humanity versus debating the points of what I believed. Once we connected on the human level, we always had that to go back to. Eventually, if we did discuss things that didn't sit right with me, we might go off track, but we could always come back to that point of connection. Had we started on the opposite ends of the field, we may never have gotten to that connection.
KH: You said you had hurt them in the past. If you'll permit, I'd like to ask you to go into some detail. I know it's hard, and as often as the victims of violence experience the trauma for many years afterwards, so do the perpetrators. But if you would, can you talk about some of the things you did in those eight years, and what you actually mean when you say you hurt people?
CP: I appreciate that. Part of my commitment, once I decided to leave and really reflect on what I had done, was to commit to repairing the damage that I had caused, to repairing that harm. It was somebody that I had hurt in the past who really allowed me to understand that, that that's what I needed to do, to work towards redemption. This individual was somebody who was the Black head of security at my high school, the one that I had been kicked out of twice. In fact, I had been kicked out of four high schools, and one of them twice. At my time during high school, while I was in this movement, and while I had a white power band that was performing around the country, and eventually would go perform overseas, I made this man's life hell. I staged protests in my school, there were fights in the hallways with Black students or anti-racist white students. There were sit ins, there was a physical altercation with this man, Mr. John Holmes, the head of security, in the Principal's office between me and him. I was expelled that day. Years later, years after I had left the movement in 1999, I found myself with a job opportunity, through the referral of a friend, to go work at an entry level job for IBM. It was installing computers at large corporations and universities when they would replace all their computers and somebody would need to come in and install them. I ended up getting the job. Call it karma or fate, or coincidence, but my first job at IBM was to go to my old high school, spend the summer there to replace their computers. I was terrified. Although it was a great opportunity for me, after leaving the movement, it was one of the things that saved my life. It was terrifying to me to think that I would have to go back to a place where people would recognize me only for who I used to be. Knowing I hadn't done anything to really denounce what I had been a part of, I had just moved on after leaving. And the first person I saw when I walked into the school, my old high school that day, the same one I had been kicked out of twice, was Mr. John Holmes, the Black security guard whose life I had made hell. I didn't know what to say to him except that I was sorry. He allowed me to talk for a while, and he listened. I think he was kind enough to extend his hand and shake mine. But he told me that my apology, while it made me feel good, didn't really do a whole lot for people like him, or the people I had hurt in the past. That I needed to really fix what I had broken. He embraced me. He took me in his arms and he said, "I forgive you. You need to figure out what you need to do to forgive yourself and to allow others to forgive you, too." He saved my life that day. He was one of several people I had hurt. I had been in a lot of street fights. But I think more what still lingers today, which is my dark legacy that I've had a difficult time erasing, is the music that I made during those years, because that music is still infecting people, it is still being used to recruit people. It's still putting ideas out into the world that are not only hurting the people it's recruiting, but the victims, eventually, of those people. There's a lot of work to do to repair that harm.
KH: Can you talk about that in more detail, and in particular, its influence on people like Dylann Roof?
CP: Yeah. I think it's a testament to how important, and how powerful, the words are that we use, and how we must really think before we speak, and examine our thoughts before we start to put them out into the world. It turned out that the music that I made when I was a teenager in 1991 and 1992, decades later, would find its way to another young man by the name of Dylann Roof. So Dylann Roof was the man who murdered nine people, at the Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston, South Carolina. He was a white supremacist, many people will call him a lone wolf, but I would say he was a person who was part of a vast network, who was radicalized online by fake news and white supremacist propaganda, and false statistics that blamed Black people for crimes against white people. He walked into a historic African-American church, and he murdered people because of the color of their skin.
KH: After sitting through the service.
CP: Yes, after sitting through the service, after even being offered to be included in the service by the parishioners there, he pulled out a weapon and he murdered them. He was arrested. He's in prison now. It turned out that I was being interviewed for a piece on hate music, because I had made hate music. The reporter at the time, when I was doing this interview, I believe it was 2016 or 2017, showed me a post that Dylann Roof had made in a forum on a hate website, and in that post he asked the community of white supremacists if they had heard of this band. He had posted a set of lyrics that he had seen in a documentary about skinheads. As the journalist was asking me to just comment on how music had influenced Dylann Roof, and showed me this post, and had me read it, I read it. The first time I read it, it seemed familiar. I read it again, and the second time I read it, I felt dread because I recognized that those were the lyrics that I had written years, decades, earlier, that may have influenced him just months before he committed one of the modern times greatest tragedies. I felt very responsible for that, at that moment.
KH: There are people who have observed your conversion, and your transition into an advocate for formers to reform and repent. They see it with some skepticism. How do you respond to the criticism that you're just an opportunist who has found the more profitable side of this cause? You weren't exactly making a ton of money as a front man for a hate group, but you've got a couple of popular books out now.
CP: Yeah. I think that people should be skeptical. I think I appreciate the skepticism and the scrutiny, not just for me, but I think for anybody who calls themselves a former. It shouldn't be an easy thing to shake. When I decided 21 years ago that I was going to repair the harm that I had caused, it wasn't because anybody knew about what I had done. It was a very personal reason, because I knew I didn't want to live my life the way that I had been living, and I also wanted to be responsible for what I had done. When I came out in 2000, we weren't really using the Internet, I wasn't doxxed, nobody was following me. If anybody was following me, it was the people I had been associated with. Nobody was pressuring me to talk about my story. I decided 21 years ago to do that, because I knew it was the first step in a long journey that I'm still not done traveling. But I think it's important that somebody who says that they have been a part of something awful, that they've hurt people, isn't just afforded the ability to walk away from that and say they're sorry. I do think that redemption without accountability is just privilege. I've held myself accountable for 20 years. But I think it's healthy to be skeptical of people who were so invested in damaging the world, their communities, and communities that are so valuable and vulnerable around the world, that they should be accountable for what they've done. I've also been an advocate for that. This isn't something that should just be washed away.
KH: I think one of the reasons for the extreme level of skepticism is the number of folks flipping, right now, who are being sued, almost as a legal strategy they are switching sides. Others who are indeed making a living off of switching sides, it's been described as a cottage industry. But you were quiet for a long time. It was not a financial decision for you, right?
CP: Yeah, no, and maybe I should give a little background on that. From 2000 to now, I've also worked other jobs, I've had other professions. I worked for IBM for eight years. I started my own media company, I managed musical artists for a while, I ran a record label. So I've always supported myself in other ways. I wrote my book, the first version of the book White American Youth, which was called Romancing Violence, I started writing it in 2003 or four. Self published it in 2006, self published it, again, with an updated version a couple years later, then a publisher came along and said, "Hey, we think it's an important story to tell. Can you update it again, and we want to republish it as White American Youth?" So I'd already told my story years before anybody really knew about it. I've also worked as a volunteer in the disengagement world for all of those years, since 2003, even when I was doing it unofficially. I've always put anything I've ever made from my speaking engagements to fund the work. And that's not something I talk about. But I do think now that there is a focus on countering this domestic threat, that there will be government money available. We are going to see a tremendous cottage industry that's full of credible people, grifters, faith healers, deprogrammers, and a mix of good and bad. I think we do need to be very, very careful because this is about people's lives and making sure that communities are safe.
KH: It is also about atonement. You write about that a lot, you speak about that a lot. I think you capture it well in this paragraph, which I'm going to paraphrase, from your latest book, Breaking Hate: "I understand the value of shunning bad behavior as a deterrent and social corrective. We must confront hate wherever we see it, and punish those who have committed violent crimes. But we also must allow space for rehabilitation and growth to occur, or we risk adopting the same type of intolerance extremists are guilty of." I think about the hurt you've caused, the impact on people like Dylann Roof, and then I think about that space for rehabilitation and growth granted to you by people like John Holmes.
CP: Yeah. I think it's important to understand, not everybody who is part of these movements will ever rise to a level of criminality. They'll never even commit a crime. While I do believe there must be a law enforcement component to what we're facing now, like you paraphrased in that paragraph, if they're criminals, they must face justice for their crimes and their victims must have justice. But the large majority of people in these movements, while they think awful, toxic, harmful things, and while they may say awful, toxic, harmful things, we need to figure out what we can do with them. We can't arrest them. We can shun them, and we should, but we also, if we hope to ever get ourselves out of this mess, must create a space to understand them and allow them to change, if they are willing to do the work, right? It's not an automatic thing, it's not a free pass. If we don't give them that space, what alternative do we have but to allow what they're a part of to exist? I think we need to look forward, even beyond that. How do we prevent this in future generations? Yes, we're facing a tremendous task of what do we do with these potentially millions and millions of people who are part of these toxic movements? A percentage of them who are criminals, we know what to do with them. What do we do with the others? How do we prevent this in future generations? I'm adamant about the fact that we have created an ecosystem for this to thrive because of the institutional and systemic racism that exists. We must change that. We must fix that. We have to look at things like truth and reconciliation about what we've done as a society to our people, so that we can ensure that that doesn't happen in the future, and we're not creating this perfect environment for it to thrive.
KH: You have said that the answer is love. On a personal level, I couldn't agree more. I'm wrestling with how to translate that into policy. You wrote, "When I held my child in my arms for the first time, I remembered what it was like to love something instead of to hate, and my priorities shifted." That worked for you. How do we translate that, though, for the thousands of people in this movement?
CP: I think even more so how do we translate that to the millions and millions who are harmed by it? Love, I think, translates to basic human rights. As a system, as a society, as a nation, we must do better when it comes to recognizing and upholding basic human rights. We still don't do that. Young, unarmed Black Americans are still three and a half times more likely to be killed by police officers, to be imprisoned for crimes that are equally committed by young white men. We still are in a world where women and trans rights, and rights for all marginalized groups, Asian hate crimes right now, we're still not grasping, as a society, the understanding of basic human rights, and putting them all on the same playing field and understanding that we still aren't in an equitable place. When I say love is the answer, that sounds really Pollyanna, but I think we have to learn how to love each other and respect each other, to understand where we go from here.
KH: You shared with me before we hit record that you are getting involved in the crafting of policy, in actually doing just what I asked, translating this philosophy into policy. What does that look like? What are the top two or three that you think we need action on?
CP: Yeah, there's been a law enforcement approach, I think, from our government on how to tackle this. Certain folks have reached out to me for input, and just my thoughts on if not everybody is committing a crime and certainly we can't arrest ourselves out of this problem, what can we do about the millions of people who are still sympathizing with these groups but aren't committing crimes? So I want them to understand that, first of all, people aren't finding their way to these movements for the ideology. That's not the primary factor. That might be a pull factor, but it's not a push factor, and I think, we, as a society, need to address what I call potholes. I do that with individuals that I work with. I listen for the potholes in their lives that led them to extremism and potholes is obviously a metaphor, but it's trauma. It is the push factors that have led them there. Is there loss, grief, poverty? Is there even too much privilege that has kept them separate from humanity? Is there abuse? I listen for those things and then, what I do when I work to help somebody disengage, is I try to fix those potholes by surrounding themselves with resilience builders, with therapists and job trainers, and life coaches, and things like that. I think, as a society, as well, we need to fix our potholes as we are desperately searching for our own identity, community, and purpose as a society. Some of the things I'm talking about are ways that we can prevent this in the future. That is really by making opportunity equitable through education, through job opportunities, and things like that.
KH: I'm struck by your observation that it is not principally the ideology that draws people in, it's something else. It aligns with something I observed about people who have been involved in these movements. It's the extremism itself that is the draw. You see that sometimes in formers. They are almost as extreme in their activism after they've gotten out as they were in the movements. That's certainly not a bad thing, but it suggests a psychosocial element is at work much more than a moral one. There's something about the way a brain is wired that draws some people to the fervor of these movements, regardless of what they preach.
CP: I think that certainly could be true, but I would say that most people who are drawn there, are led there by their potholes but they're drawn there by a sense of identity, community, and purpose. They're searching for those. Movements, just like other positive things, offer identity, community, and purpose. The military does a very good job of offering identity, community, and purpose. These toxic movements also do that, and that's obviously not so healthy. I think what they're drawn to, and then the ideology is the glue that keeps them there, is this sense of “who am I, where do I belong, and what am I supposed to do with my life?”. Extremest movements throughout history have always answered those questions in very toxic ways. But to address your point of formers who maybe are extreme after they leave, I think they're probably still searching for a sense of identity, community, and purpose, and have still had difficulty navigating some of those potholes. It is easy to fall into the trap of having really extreme views if you've been used to having them before. It's something I've had to watch myself for over the years, as well.
KH: I'm glad you brought up the military, because that need to fill the hole, that sense of community, identity, and purpose, which you describe so well, afflicts many people who get out of the military. You tell the story of one young man, in particular, Ben, who in his wandering, and his loss of identity upon taking off the uniform, finds himself in one of these extremist views. Can you share with us his path, and why it's particularly concerning that the white power movement is targeting these military veterans?
CP: Yeah, so Ben was an individual that I ended up working with, but he served his country in the military, he served the US proudly. He was in Afghanistan where he experienced the loss of some very close people to him, who he considered his family, his community. Suffered extreme post-traumatic stress disorder because of that when he came home, and had a really hard time adjusting to civilian life again, after having really never dealt with the trauma of losing people that were close, experiencing war, and just the trauma of war itself. Because he struggled to adapt and because of his PTSD, really found himself in circumstances that were not healthy for him, one of which was armed robbery that landed him in jail. When he was in prison, he came across a person who recruited him in prison, a skinhead who turned him onto some books and they filled whatever voids he had lost after leaving the military. That's what he said, the military has a very strong sense of identity, community, and purpose that it fills. This toxic movement that he found in prison, which was a white power movement, seemed to fill that for him, as he was struggling with those potholes that he had accumulated. When he got out of prison, he became a pretty vocal leader within the alt-right, and was involved in organizing, or participating in things like the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville. Had made a pretty infamous name for himself. When he reached out to me, he knew he was at a point where he couldn't do that anymore. He had started to recognize how toxic it was to him, and while he couldn't talk to anybody in the community that he was a part of, felt he could talk to me about some of the doubts he was having and I shepherded him through the process of leaving.
KH: Ben was the valedictorian of his high school. The way you describe him really belies the stereotype that many people have of participants in these movements as ignorant, and unintelligent. The classic mouth breather stereotype does not fit Ben, and probably does not fit most of the people that you worry about.
CP: Yeah. The stereotype is accurate in certain circumstances, those people do exist within these movements. But the vast majority of people are your average, everyday-appearing Americans. They're your dentists, they're your high school students, they're your police officers, in some cases. They're educated, they have means. But again, that doesn't exclude them from dealing with life’s potholes that may have led them there. I think the siege at the Capitol was a really great example of the effectiveness of the mainstreaming strategy that really had been started in the ‘70s and 80s, by people like David Duke. People who were arrested at the Capitol were not skinheads. They were not flag-waving Nazis. They were there. People like the Proud Boys were there and were showing a large percentage of people arrested were Proud Boys, but there were also CEOs. There were nail technicians. There were massage therapists and accountants. People who were arrested, if you were to line them up, would not look like your stereotypical neo-Nazi white supremacist from the ‘80s or 90s. Part of that was because there was a strategy to infiltrate the mainstream because in the ‘80s and 90s, white supremacists found it difficult to recruit because of their extremism. They couldn't get into the spaces where the average American white racist was because of the swastika and the tattoos and the Klan robes. There was a strategy by leaders at that point to really blend in, to tone down the language. Then we saw things like the Tea Party movement, which really influenced a lot of the far-right politics and really made its way into mainstream politics. What people think is a white supremacist extremist, is not what the movies have told us about. Although that does exist, it really is a problem within our own society. These are our neighbors.
KH: The January 6th insurrection was just such a confusing cacophony of groups from most observers, because of what you just described. On one hand, you had the neo-Nazis there, and the people wearing Auschwitz T-shirts. On the other, you had people who said they were there out of love for their country. I'm just trying to reconcile the two. The father, for example, who told his kids that he might not come back, but he was going to storm the Capitol for them. I don't know what to do about that. How do you combat that kind of zealousness?
CP: The vision of America that they're fighting for is one that was promoted to them by extremist groups. The fact that they've been now fooled into thinking that's being taken away is very scary and very real for them. It's important to paint that all those groups that we saw there, while they seem very different, are all very adjacent to each other. Whether we're talking about Q-Anon, or Proud Boys, or Neo-Nazis, or the Oath Keepers, and 3%ers and militia groups, or even the ultra-conservative Trump supporters that were there. They're all adjacent to each other. While they may not believe the same thing that the Holocaust didn't happen, or that the Jews control the world like some of those groups believe, they're starting to overlap now. The sources of their propaganda is very central. It's starting to become much, much better at curating propaganda for those in each group, while allowing them to overlap a little bit. So they don't see a problem standing next to them. You would think, "Why is a Republican standing next to a guy in a Camp Auschwitz shirt and okay with that?" That's because they see themselves not as the same, but as allies in this fight against this corrupt secret government. This is part of the DNA of white supremacists and extremists. It is all eventually leading to the point of trying to attempt the collapse of the government and democracy.
KH: I think it's almost as if what binds these groups is not so much what they believe, but who their enemy is. They are defined by a common enemy.
CP: And fueled by uncertainty.
KH: And fueled by uncertainty. If you draw that out, the inevitable conclusion is that they're defined by hate.
CP: Right. If you ask Q-Anon, or maybe Republicans who is the enemy, they'll say the Deep State. Or Democrats, or liberals. If you ask Nazis who the enemy is, it's that same Deep State, but it's the Jews and the Deep State. Yes, you're correct in saying that it is all about this common enemy, that's now a very general enemy as just the other that's not them. It's always underpinned and fueled by this uncertainty, fake news, propaganda, false facts. Pandemic really fueled that, because now it created an avenue for more uncertain narratives about vaccines and who created it, this and that. Extremism always thrives in uncertainty. Right now, that really is the key ingredient driving all of this.
KH: A lot of folks look at January 6th and they say, "Glad that's over. That was a wake up call. We're going to round these folks up." I assume that's not how you see it.
CP: No, that's not how I see it. I think what the world saw on January 6th was just the very, very tip of a very large iceberg. One that we can't see because we still can't agree on if we have a problem. One that I think is going to really cause the next 10 or 20 years to be very, very difficult for not just the United States, but the world. There is a growing trans-national fascism that is coalescing right now. Whereas, in the past, countries like Poland or Germany had a very nationalistic view, they're now dropping that and seeing their unity as the white race. What's happening across Europe, and what's happening in the United States with all of these adjacent groups coming together under the same enemy, even though you ask a Q-Anon person if they like a Nazi and they'll say no. You ask a Nazi if they like a Q-Anon person, they'll say they're crazy. They're still working together in this common cause. So I think what we're seeing is a very scary rise of extremism and fascism over the next 10 years, that if we're not careful, right this very moment about doing something about correcting it, it's going to be very dangerous for us.
KH: You're not alone in this assessment. What does the FBI say?
CP: The FBI says this is the greatest domestic threat at the moment. They're also seeing a trans-national connection. I would say that historically people within DHS and the FBI, in the past, have also raised this flag as far back as 2006 and nothing was really done about it. The words are great, but I need to see action, that this is actually being taken seriously. Right now, we're still, again, arguing whether white supremacy is a problem or not.
KH: We're going to visit this subject in much more detail in subsequent episodes. This is from Breaking Hate, you wrote, "Extremist movements appreciate a former soldier's weapons training, their unwavering dedication to a cause greater than themselves, enemy ally dynamics, and fierce warrior-like attitudes, which they view as critical components needed to defeat the enemy. The offer veterans leadership roles, knowing in some ways that no one is better qualified to train others for a racial holy war at home than those who have been left behind after surviving similar battles on foreign soil."
CP: Two things about the military. There are white supremacists who go into the military, they get that specific training, and bring it back home and while they're in the process of getting that training, recruiting other people. The military is also a really great pool of vulnerable people to recruit from. Knowing that they have these skills, but they've also faced hardship. They've also been traumatized by the experience, in some cases where they've been to war and fought in theater. They've maybe desensitized themselves to the process of hurting or killing the other. They know that once they leave the military there's going to be a deficit of that very intense sense of identity, and community, and purpose, that the military offered. They're easier, potentially, to recruit, if they come home to deficits of support and things like that. Like law enforcement, like other first responders, some groups, if we're not careful, may be more vulnerable to that type of recruitment.
KH: When you say it's a uniquely vulnerable pool, even if it's only a fraction of a percent, which it is - I'm a military vet, the vast majority of people I served with find that sense of community, identity, and purpose in other ways. But if it's a tenth of 1%, you're still talking about thousands upon thousands of potential recruits.
CP: Sure. Yeah. I want to be clear about that. Certainly, there's not this mass recruitment happening. But white supremacist and recruiters recognize, like other vulnerable communities, that the military is a pool that they can potentially recruit from.
KH: It's interesting to me that you use that exact phrase, “identity, community, and purpose,” because it's what Team Rubicon has been using for 10 years to describe what it builds around the veterans who join its mission of disaster of relief.
KH: I'd encourage you to check it out. Over 100,000 veterans now, redirecting their energies, not in a hateful way, but to help communities clean up after disasters. Two more questions for you, Christian. You still have the tattoos. Why'd you keep them?
CP: I do and I don't. I do still have them on my body, but they've all been covered up with another tattoo.
KH: I didn't know that. Explain.
CP: Yeah, so I actually, I had phrases, I had symbols from my movement involvement, I had swastikas and Celtic crosses that were once tattooed on my body, which I've since now had a suit of armor, literally, tattooed over those. My left arm, my chest, my back, and parts of my right shoulder, are gladiator armor that is now tattooed over my old ink. I did, however, leave one tattoo. It is just on my left forearm, creeping out from under the armor, it is a band of Nordic runes. Nordic runes, while they're not white supremacist in nature, have been co-opted by white supremacists. I left it there because it was a symbolic one for me, when I did my first intervention, unofficially. I was walking through a mall in Chicago in 2002, and I still had my old tattoos. I was walking through with a short sleeve and a guy tapped me on the shoulder. He said, "Hey bro. Nice tattoo. White power." He saluted me. I, of course, had left the movement by that point. We were standing aside and I talked to him for a while. I told him that I'd left and wasn't about that. I was trying to live a better life. This guy was still involved, but he sat there and he talked to me for 20 minutes. When he left, he shook my hand and he's like, "Man, that's cool." Felt he left thinking about something new. I always left that tattoo because it wasn't offensive to anybody who saw it, but it also gives me some credibility when I sit across from somebody who I'm working with who is a Nazi, who understands then by seeing that, that I have been there, that I've been where they are now.
KH: Thanks for sharing that. We end every episode of Burn the Boats with the same question, Christian. What's the bravest decision you've ever made?
CP: I think the bravest decision that I ever made was to be honest with myself about how I was hurting people, and then commit to repairing that harm by being vulnerable with them.
KH: Thanks. It's been an honor talking to you, Christian.
CP: It's been an honor, Ken, and also a privilege. I hope we start to think about more people of color getting second chances like I've been given, because I certainly recognize that it's a privilege for me to be here.
KH: Thanks again to Christian Picciolini for joining me. You can learn more about the Free Radicals Project at freeradicals.org and find Christian on Twitter at @CPicciolini.
Next time on Burn the Boats, I’m talking to Elliot Ackerman, New York Times contributing writer and author of the recent bestseller 2034: A Novel of the Next World War.
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I’m Ken Harbaugh and this is Burn the Boats, a podcast about big decisions.