Life After Hate: Former white supremacist recalls recruiting in Indiana

By Jerry Davich

Christian Picciolini clearly remembers driving into Northwest Indiana to recruit new members for his white supremacy movement.

“Hobart, Whiting, Valparaiso and other towns. There was definitely a presence there then,” he recalled. “And there probably still is, if you’re looking for it.”

When Picciolini was 14 and growing up in Blue Island, Illinois, 20 miles west of Hammond, he was looking for a sense of purpose, an identity to believe in and a family to bond with. He found a white-supremacist skinhead leader named Clark Martell, he said.

Or, should I say, Martell found him. And he recruited him.

“I believed I was protecting the white race from extinction,” he told me after his appearance on the “60 Minutes” television show earlier this month. “I really thought I was saving the world.”

In the late 1980s, Martell was a national figure in this country’s neo-Nazi movement as leader of the Chicago Area Skinheads. Picciolini was an adolescent in search of something to become, something to believe in and someone to respect and to fear.

“I wasn’t raised as a racist. Quite the opposite,” he said.

He also wasn’t raised in a broken home or one infected by booze or drugs or neglect.

“It was a very normal upbringing. That’s usually the case with new recruits, and this is what’s happening now in our country,” said Picciolini, whose Italian immigrant parents still live in Blue Island.

During his childhood, they were busy searching for the American dream. He felt abandoned by them and bullied or marginalized by his peers. It was — and still is — the ideal recruiting situation for the white supremacy movement.

“These days, our country is in a state of disarray, causing a lot of teenagers to look for their identity and purpose,” Picciolini said. “It doesn’t always matter that it’s based on broken promises and hateful ideologies. They want to belong.”

Picciolini wanted to belong badly enough as a teenager that he became well versed in racist philosophies, causing fights, recruiting new “skins” and amassing an arsenal of weapons for the upcoming “race war.” Or so he thought.

His ideological mentor, Martell, was arrested and imprisoned for hate-related crimes in 1989, prompting Picciolini to take over as a leader of Hammerskin Nation, he said. He was 16.

“I was brainwashed to give up everything I once had in my life, so there was nothing to go back to,” he recalled. “The same recruiting tactics are used these days.”

Hate is very marketable to young, impressionable minds. I learned this as a teenager growing up in Gary during the 1970s. I recall several of my older brother’s friends selling me racial hatred as a buy-in for their “protection” in high school.

I never had enough hate to pay the dues, I guess. Picciolini did. And then some.

“We’re white! Strong and free! White supremacy! White! We preach the truth!” Picciolini writes in his new book, “White American Youth: My Descent into America’s Most Violent Hate Movement — and How I Got Out.”

He got out at 22 through a series of profound events that eventually showed him how wrong he had been.

“I got to meet the people I thought I hated,” he said. “They showed me compassion and empathy when I least deserved it.”

He also became a father to two children around that time, challenging his priorities in life. His purpose began changing, this time in a positive way. It didn’t come easily or quickly. Redemption can be as elusive as inclusion.

“My wife left me. I nearly lost my kids. And I wasted almost eight years of my life throwing it all away,” Picciolini writes in his book.

It’s a cautionary tale of a normal teenager who went down a dangerous path by believing hate-fueled rhetoric. Its story arc is one of radicalization and demonization, followed by humanization. The introduction’s last line states, “I hope by exposing racism, hate will have fewer places to hide.”

In 2009, he co-founded Life After Hate, a nonprofit group devoted to helping former neo-Nazis and other extremists shed their toxic ideology. In 2016, he was awarded an Emmy for his role as director and producer of an anti-hate video campaign.

In our country today, extremists are feeling more empowered to recruit new members. Teenagers, especially boys and young men, are prime candidates to join their ranks. Hate is a generational epidemic.

We’ve seen dangerous results from this emboldened movement earlier this year with Alt-right, white supremacy incidents in Charlottesville, Virginia, Shelbyville, Tenn. and Berkeley, California.

“It’s a tough time right now to raise teens in our national climate,” said Picciolini, 44, who lives in the west Loop area of Chicago.

“A lot of kids feel broken in some way and they’re searching for an identity,” said Picciolini, whose two children are now 23 and 25. “They didn’t follow down my path, which made my job as a father a lot easier.”

He has advice for parents who may have concerns about their children’s path to find purpose through hate or white nationalist rhetoric. Listen more intently to kids about how they are searching for identity and inclusion.

If parents take anything away from Picciolini’s story, it should be this: if teenagers don’t find their purpose through positive means, a purpose will find them.

Jerry Davich is a writer for the (Merrillville) Post-Tribune. Send comments to [email protected].