Monday, December 18, 2017

Rejecting hate, after spending nearly a decade spreading it

Scott Pelley
Dec. 17, 2017

Terrorism has come to mean Islamic extremism. But the fact is, since 9/11, more than twice as many Americans have been murdered by white supremacists. This threat exploded into view this past August when a protest aimed at a Civil War monument in Charlottesville, Virginia ended with one dead and 19 injured. No one understands the white supremacist movement as well as Christian Picciolini. He knows it because he helped build it. This is the story of an American terrorist -- his long journey to redemption -- and his struggle now to lift others from the depths of hate.


Scott Pelley: When you first met this man in the alleyway and then the rest of the skinheads in that town, what was it that they were promising you?

Christian Picciolini: They promised me paradise. They promised me that they would take me out of whatever hell I was living in, whether that was abandonment or marginalization and to a degree they delivered. They did give me a new identity. I was now this powerful person. And they gave me a community that accepted me.

That community was a racist gang with its own culture and its own music. That's Picciolini with a song that he wrote called "white power."

Christian Picciolini: The music gave me very specific focus on what was happening to me and it was trying to give me the answers of why that was happening.

Scott Pelley: And what were those answers?

Christian Picciolini: Those answers were that everybody was against me as a white man that I was being intentionally ostracized and that diversity was a code word for white genocide and that if I didn't protect my proud European heritage that we would be wiped out.


Christian Picciolini: That is me, in 1994, looking very much like somebody who is a terrorist. I am at this point, the leader of an organization of skinheads and the people standing behind me are my soldiers, people that would have done anything for me.

Scott Pelley: And that last picture? Where are you?

Christian Picciolini: I am standing in front of the gates of Dachau Concentration Camp in Germany.

Dachau, where an estimated 41,000 were murdered. Mostly Jews.

Scott Pelley: What are you thinking?

Christian Picciolini: I was thinking that I wanted to burn the world down because I was so angry at it.

The anger led Picciolini to recruit dozens of new members and unleash them on a campaign of assault, vandalism and burglary. The violence reached its peak one night when Picciolini and his 'soldiers' chased a black man out of a restaurant.

Christian Picciolini: We caught that individual and we proceeded to beat him brutally. And at one point when I was kicking him on the ground and his face was swollen, covered in blood, he opened his eyes and they connected with mine. that was the first time I felt empathy for one of my victims. And that was the last time I hurt anybody.

It took years from that moment for Picciolini to turn around. His wife and children left him. He went through five years of depression. But ultimately, he says, his anger began to cool he says as he was confronted by kindness -- blacks and Jews who refused to return the hate.

Christian Picciolini: The truth is, I'd never met or had a meaningful dialogue or engagement with anybody that I thought I hated. And when they took the step to try and reach me, the demonization of them that I had in my head started to crack.


Christian Picciolini: You know 30 years ago we were skinheads. We wore swastikas and shaved heads, and you could identify us pretty easily. So we decided at that time to grow our hair out, to trade in our boots for suits and we encouraged people to get jobs in law enforcement, to go to the military and get training and to recruit there.


Scott Pelley: Since 9/11, the country has been focused on radical Islamic terrorism, but what do the facts tell you?

Oren Segal: The data tells us this, 74% of extremist-related killings in this country in the last ten years have been carried out by right-wing extremists, not Islamic extremists.

Scott Pelley: Including white supremacists.

Oren Segal: Yes. So white supremacists, in particular, have been responsible for a majority of the killings, even in the last ten years.


Christian Picciolini: And it's these types of things that appeal to young people who, frankly, are living in an environment right now where it's tough to find something to believe in.

Today, Picciolini is trying to give white supremacists something else to believe in. He says he's counseled 200 members of the movement.

He's sought out by parents and courts. In Chicago, a man who broke windows and painted swastikas on a synagogue was sentenced to a year of counseling with Picciolini.

Dean Chabot is another neo-Nazi who followed Picciolini out of white supremacy.


Scott Pelley: When you first sit down with one of these young men you're trying to turn around, what do you say to him?

Christian Picciolini: I'm there to listen because they're used to people not listening to them.


Christian Picciolini: I think my biggest regret, aside from the people that I physically hurt, were all the young, promising people who could have had a normal, great life if I hadn't stepped in their way, if I hadn't recruited them. There are many that went to prison, many that ended up dead. And that's my biggest regret.

Scott Pelley: Do you fear for your safety?

Christian Picciolini: I receive death threats-- on a daily basis. But the way I look at it is, for eight years of my life in my youth I was willing to die for something that was wrong. So if I wasn't doing what I was doing to try and help pull people out of this movement, I don't know that I'd be able to live with myself.

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