Christian Picciolini was barely old enough to drive when he was recruited into the country’s first neo-Nazi skinhead gang in Chicago. On Thursday, the former radical described to an interfaith audience at Minneapolis’ Temple Israel synagogue how he now helps others exit a movement he helped build more than 20 years ago.
The son of Italian immigrants who were often away from home working, Picciolini was 14 when he answered the call of a 28-year-old skinhead leader near his South Side Chicago home in the late 1980s. He’s now part of a conversation to fight the influence of extremist groups on a broader level as white supremacism keeps pace with Islamist terror recruiters.
“We need to call it terrorism like it is and stop pretending like only one group of people is capable of terrorism,” Picciolini told an audience of law enforcement, judges and residents from a swath of local faith-based communities.
He said his own recruitment came at the hands of a man who recognized his vulnerability and promised paradise. “I hated who I was, but I hated other people to remove that pain from myself,” Picciolini said.
Picciolini, whose nonprofit Life After Hate is now staffed by former extremists who helped build a network of more than 100 former white supremacists in North America, had planned to speak in Minneapolis months before a spike in anti-Semitic incidents shook the local Jewish community.
Former U.S. Attorney Andrew Luger, a member of Temple Israel’s congregation introduced Picciolini as part of his first public appearance since he resigned earlier this month. Earlier Thursday, Luger said he was not yet ready to discuss his future career plans but that he intended to stay active in attempts to create “off-ramp” networks for people enmeshed in jihadist or white supremacist movements.
“The effort to get people out of this lifestyle is still taking off and it’s been my belief that Minnesota should be at the forefront of that effort,” Luger said. “Much of this will happen independent of the government. It will happen because people who care a great deal about the threat of violent extremism will make it happen.”
Picciolini’s organization may be part of that search, Luger said. Life After Hate was also among 31 groups — including two in Minnesota — selected for Homeland Security Countering Violent Extremism grants earlier this year. That funding is now in question amid reports that the Trump administration will focus federal counter-extremism policy only on Islamist terror recruitment.
But through a confidential online service called Exit USA, Picciolini’s group continues to counsel would-be radicals, relatives or people who recently left the movement. He said he doesn’t consider his team “deprogrammers” who parse ideological points.
“We basically are filling potholes — we’re looking for the things in somebody’s life that cause them to veer off that path,” he said. “Whatever those potholes are, whether it’s a lack of education or poverty or mental health issues or trauma, we want help address those things and help people become more resilient.”
Steve Hunegs, director of the local Jewish Community Relations Council, said Picciolini’s story demonstrated that people enraptured by an extremist movement at a young age can still find a way out.
“It’s important equally not to dismiss people because they’ve fallen victim to racist or anti-Semitic thought,” Hunegs said.