Former white supremacists now living Life After Hate
What do you do when you’ve seen the light about white supremacy and racial hatred? In the case of these ex-white supremacist activists, you make amends for your past work in the neo-Nazi movement by forming a group to fight against the hatred you used to stand for.
Christian Picciolini is a co-founder of the Chicago-based Life After Hate, a group founded in 2011 by former members of far-right extremist movements. The organization helps others in similar circumstances—people who recognize that hate is taking over their lives—and helps them to get out of the white supremacy movement before it’s too late. Three of the group’s four founders are veterans of white supremacist groups.
Life After Hate conducts research (with academic partners) about the white hate movement. It provides outreach and education to schools and community organizations with information about the toxic environment of the white supremacist movement and how to counter it. Its Facebook page offers specific advice about how best to engage—and how not to engage—with hate groups.
The group faces an uphill battle. According to a report from the Southern Poverty Law Center, there are 917 hate groups across the United States, up from 784 in 2015 and 892 in 2016, and up from 602 since 2000.
The SPLC has documented an explosive rise in the number of hate groups since the turn of the century, driven in part by anger over Latino immigration and demographic projections showing that whites will no longer hold majority status in the country by around 2040. The rise accelerated in 2009, the year President Obama took office, but declined after that, in part because large numbers of extremists were moving to the web and away from on-the-ground activities. In the last two years, in part due to a presidential campaign that flirted heavily with extremist ideas, the hate group count has risen again.
There’s no need to spell out why hate groups are on the rise. But it’s nice to know that ex-members of those same groups are fighting back.
A recent story in the Chicago Tribune described Picciolini’s journey. (He also told his story in Romantic Violence: Memoirs of an American Skinhead.) Picciolini was recruited as a white supremacist at age 14 in a southern Chicago suburb, standing in an alley and smoking a joint, when a skinhead leader grabbed the joint out of his mouth, saying, “Don’t you know that smoking marijuana is what the Jews and communists want you to do to keep you docile?” Picciolini later said he was attracted to the movement leader’s “confidence, power and message, one that placed the blame for all of his struggles on other people, mostly minorities.”
Picciolini bounced back and forth between schools, moving upward in the hate movement. One high school he attended took out a restraining order against him after he assaulted a black student and a black security guard. But finally, his life changed. According to the Tribune account:
In 1994, Picciolini opened a record store in Alsip called Chaos Records, the only shop of its kind devoted to white power music, which he imported from Europe and sold to customers around the U.S. To make more money off those he called the enemy, he started carrying hip-hop and other genres to draw in black clientele. But getting to know the new customer base changed his life, he said.
“Blacks and Jews showed me compassion and they were the ones I least deserved it from,” he said. By then, his wife and two sons had already left him. “I became so embarrassed.” …
Picciolini launched an online journal to document his journey. Other former white supremacists found their way there and contributed. At a conference in Ireland in 2011, the small group of contributors met and vowed to help others in need of a way out. After that trip to Ireland, Life After Hate was born.
(I had no idea that “white power music” was a thing. I’ve heard of white supremacist rock bands, but I figured they had a tiny following. It’s no surprise that the music didn’t sell all that well.)
The group also was the subject of a profile in the SPLC Intelligence Report. That 2016 piece featured interviews with Picciolini and some of the other co-founders of Life After Hate. This describes the motivation of Angela King, the organization’s deputy director, in finally leaving the world of white supremacy. King spent time in prison for taking part in an armed robbery of a Jewish-owned store that was judged a hate crime, and she described her transformation:
When I was first incarcerated, I went in with the mentality that I was not responsible. I just sat in the car [during the robbery]. But I very much thought I was going to be in there fighting for my life every minute, with my back against the wall.
The most ironic thing happened in there. Women of color, women who I never would have met, who I never would have shown any type of respect or human kindness toward, showed me kindness and compassion even knowing that I was a skinhead and serving time for a hate crime.
Up until that point in my life, I dealt with everything pretty much with anger, aggression and violence. And to be shown kindness, it completely disarmed me. I had no idea how to react to that. Once I started to kind of re-form the bonds of human connection and started actually finding the human being in myself again, the fallacies, the stereotypes, those white lies that are told by the far right, it started to kind of just crumble away on its own.
Kathleen Blee is a professor of sociology and dean of the Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences at the University of Pittsburgh who also was interviewed for the SPLC piece. She explained why the work of groups such as Life After Hate is so important in the fight against white supremacy: “If people are going to successfully leave racist groups, they need people they can turn to for advice, people who have been through the same process, people who can help them build a new set of friends and a new set of supporters outside of that racist world. … One of the reasons [hate] groups hold together is because there’s a sense of invincibility. It’s an us-against-them mentality. Watching people exit can be a really powerful message both to potential recruits and to people in the groups.”
Life After Hate has programs and partners in the U.S. and worldwide. Those include Formers Anonymous, described as “a recovery network of people seeking redemption and freedom from a lifestyle of self-destructive involvement with crime, violence, power, and control through change and recovery”; the Strong Cities Network, a “global network of mayors, municipal-level policy makers and practitioners united in building social cohesion and community resilience to counter violent extremism in all its forms” that was launched in 2015 at the United Nations; and the Against Violent Extremism Network, in which “former violent extremists and survivors are empowered to work together to push back extremist narratives and prevent the recruitment of ‘at risk’ youths.”
As part of Life After Hate, Picciolini is the director of ExitUSA, a program with the slogan, “No judgment. Just help.” As it says on its website:
Our team is made up of people who were part of the white power movement, but got out before it destroyed us. We left, and you can too. We’re here to share with you that it is possible to change and have a better life. … Our team of “Formers” are dedicated to helping you get the support and skills you need to build a new life free from hate.
The site gives opportunities for contact via email or phone, with queries about how best to safely contact those reaching out for help. Picciolini won an Emmy for his public service announcement campaign about ExitUSA:
In January, Life After Hate won a $400,000 federal grant to counteract hate groups from the Obama administration’s Countering Violent Extremism initiative. Naturally, the Trump administration eliminated that grant in June. So the group is hoping to find those missing funds through website donations of tax-deductible gifts. So far, it has reached 70 percent of its goal.
The organization, whose volunteers have helped about 200 people disengage from hate groups, is busier than ever. According to the Tribune story:
Since Donald Trump was elected president, referrals to his group have gone from two a week to five a day, Picciolini said. And since a car plowed into a crowd protesting a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va., last Saturday, killing a woman, those referrals have skyrocketed, he said.
Life After Hate will be featured on an upcoming Full Frontal show in September. Here’s the Samantha Bee preview:
And here’s another video explaining Picciolini’s journey and the group itself.
If we’re lucky and if there’s any justice, the neo-Nazis and white supremacists who wave those Confederate flags and Nazi banners, chant disgusting slogans, and threaten people online and at rallies someday will learn that there’s Life After Hate.
Originally posted on Daily Kos on Aug. 27, 2017.