Christian Picciolini went from having a chance encounter with a leader in a hate group to becoming the founder of a white power band that inspired teens and young adults to embrace the racist and anti-Semitic messages it delivered through a powerful medium: music. But something changed in Christian, and his blind hatred turned to empathy. From the depths of the white supremacist movement he became an advocate for peace and non-violence, and now spends his life trying to help people escape the path he took as a young adult.

Be inspired by Christian’s story at the upcoming “Evening of Unlearning” on Wednesday, March 13, an unconventional night of Jewish learning for young adults.

Take us back to your teen years: You were 14 years old when you were convinced by a leading skinhead to join the movement. What, at that time, appealed to you about it?

It wasn’t ideology that drew me in. I didn’t know anything about politics or racism. My parents were immigrants who came from Italy in the mid-1960s, and when they arrived, they were often the victims of prejudice. It wasn’t something that I learned at home.

I grew up in a lower-middle-class household with a lot of love. However, because my parents were immigrants, they had to work at a small business, seven days a week, 15 hours a day, to support the family. As a young kid, I didn’t really recognize that; I just wondered what I had done to push my parents away. So, I developed what I call “potholes,” these voids that appear in our journey of life and deviate our path and for some people become trauma.

For me, it was abandonment and low self-esteem; I was never really able to fill those potholes. As I got older, I started to act out and become angry. The angriest person I met one day was Clark Martell, a man twice my age [and former leader of the first organized neo-Nazi white power skinhead group in the U.S.]. I was standing in an alley smoking a joint and he walked up to me, pulled the joint from my mouth and told me, “That’s what the communists and the Jews” wanted me to do to keep me “docile.” I was a 14-year-old kid. I didn’t even know what he was talking about—I didn’t know what a communist was, I didn’t know what a Jew was. I didn’t even know what the word “docile” meant, but it was the first time that somebody threw me a lifeline. It felt as though he was pulling me in, even though he came off as aggressive. I bought in because I was searching for identity and community and purpose. He checked all of those boxes, at least with some sort of a false hope.

That’s a really vulnerable age. It must be a time when you are particularly susceptible to that kind of message.

That’s true. A lot of the people I work with and a lot of the folks engaged in this type of hate movement today are precisely that age because that’s when young people are breaking away from their parents’ world. They’re establishing their own sense of who they are and where they belong, and don’t have all the information to make the best decisions. I think that’s partly our fault as parents, educators and adults. We haven’t learned how to be cautiously vulnerable with our children, and because we can’t do that, they can’t do it with us. They can’t find a way to express their confusion or their feelings. It’s created an atmosphere where young people are afraid to seek guidance, wisdom or counseling from adults who’ve lived it.

You gained some notoriety even as a teenager for some videos that made the rounds. What goes through your mind when you see those now?

It’s almost like I have a feeling of empathy for myself while being that person but also being detached from him. I got into hate life when I was 14 and out when I was 22. That’s 23 years ago. And it’s been a long journey since then to establish a new identity, community and purpose. To look back, I see a broken child, not a monster, even though I did monstrous things. I know there are so many other young people today who feel disillusioned and marginalized and are getting sucked into these types of hateful supremacist narratives and given false hope. And once they’re in, it’s so difficult to get out because [they would need to] disengage from that sense of purpose, community and identity, not from the ideology.

What kinds of things were you doing?

What we did was very similar to what they’re calling the “white nationalist” movement, or the “alt-right” movement, which are words I don’t typically like to use because they’re trying to market the movement as less hateful.

For us, it was about spreading this false sense of fear. It was about blaming “the other” for every issue that was happening in the world without ever looking at how we were contributing to them. It was about random acts of violence. It was about being indoctrinated through music. In the ’80s and ’90s, we didn’t have the internet, so we traded racist music. I was into very early pioneer bands making that music. And one of those songs, unfortunately, found its way to Dylann Roof four months before he walked into the Mother Emanuel church in Charleston and murdered nine innocent people because of the color of their skin.


The words we use have consequences even 30 years later, and we need to recognize that we really need each other if we’re going to make it through this. Now, I’m not suggesting that we meet in the middle and endorse any hateful ideologies or appease anybody or not hold them accountable for their actions, but we have to start to recognize that people we disagree with are not monsters; they’re broken, just like we’re broken, and we want the same things in life, generally speaking: safety for our families, an education, good health, an opportunity to succeed. Until everybody gets that, I’m not sure anybody is ever going to be able to really squash the hatred and polarization.

When I say equality for everybody, I’m talking about everybody—people in African-American communities and native people and the LGBTQ+ community. We can’t expect to take rights away from people, human rights, and establish a country of peace or progress or democracy if everybody isn’t represented the same way.

Did you have any personal interactions with Jews or other minorities that shaped your perception and helped you move away from anti-Semitism and other forms of hate?

It was absolutely the compassion that I received from the people I least deserved it from, the people I thought I hated. That was the most powerful contribution to my transformation back to a human being. It certainly wasn’t their responsibility to do that. I opened a record store in late 1994 to sell white power music because I wanted to support my family. My wife at the time wasn’t happy with my involvement in the movement and she wasn’t going to be part of it. I decided I was going to open a record store to still be involved but to pull off the street, so to speak.

To get a business license, I had to sell other stuff, so I sold hip hop, punk rock and heavy metal; I was never interested in speaking to anybody who came in the shop for that music. But they kept coming back, despite knowing who I was and what I believed in. Over time, it was their compassion and ability to not punch me, not break my windows, not threaten me or not tell me I was wrong, but just listen to me and then fill in those potholes I had in my life; I couldn’t demonize them anymore. It humanized them and I couldn’t reconcile my prejudice for them. That really had a powerful impact on me, to meet the people I thought I hated.

You grew up quickly. You had a family, house, business and child in your early 20s, and then you lost it all. What did your failures teach you about how to rebuild and start over?

It taught me that I had a positive identity, community and purpose sitting right in front of me with my wife and two children that I failed to grab because I was too afraid of abandoning the only other identity, community and purpose I had ever known.

I also learned that we have to learn from our mistakes; if we don’t, we probably will repeat them in some other fashion. It’s so important to provide counseling, empathy and compassion for people who are trying to disengage from these movements because if we can’t replace that toxic identity, community and purpose, they’ll slide sideways into something else or they’ll just go back. Because it’s like a drug, it’s comfortable, we know it kills us every day, we know it’s terrible, we know it deep down inside; we never vocalize this, yet we do it because it brings us comfort, it brings us control.

Would the people in the movement acknowledge to themselves that what they were doing was terrible?

I don’t think I’ve ever met a person who didn’t have some doubt about what they were involved in, whether they vocalized it or not. At first, like a drug, it makes you feel great and powerful, but after a while you start to realize it doesn’t make sense. You know it’s destroying you and everybody around you. So, I think it’s safe to say everybody would question that.

We would love to hear about some of the success stories you’ve had in leading teens and other young adults away from the neo-Nazi movement.

I think the most important thing I’ve learned is that in communication, listening is equally important, if not more important, than speaking. I don’t ever argue ideologically, I don’t debate, I don’t tell them they’re wrong, because I know that at 18 or 22 or 14, if somebody would have told me I was wrong, it wouldn’t have changed in my mind; it probably would have pushed me further away.

Some of the people I’ve worked with have their own potholes, from trauma to a history of abuse, a lack of mental well-being or education, poverty and even privilege. Once they’re ready, I introduce them to the people they think they hate. I’ve spent hours sitting with Holocaust deniers and Holocaust survivors, homophobes and LGBTQ+ community members, and Islamophobes, imams and Muslim families.

It’s a slow process; nothing changes overnight. It’s about planting seeds and allowing them to grow. People have to come to their own conclusion that they’re wrong. And so far, I’ve been successful. I’ve helped at various stages of this engagement process around 250 people disengage from various hate groups or hateful ideologies, from American neo-Nazis to former Islamic State fighters who went to Syria and came back.

You’ll be speaking in Boston on March 13. What will your message be to a room full of Jewish young adults?

That I am hopeful. I get messages every day from people who are just starting to really understand what’s happening in the world. I think my message is that if we want to see change happen, we have to participate. We have to have these uncomfortable conversations, we have to vote, we have to learn from others. We have to stop viewing people we disagree with as monsters, and instead view them as broken children, whether they’re 6 or 60 years old. We wouldn’t shame our children, hit them or disown them; instead we would try to teach them and teach through example. So, I hope that we can understand this isn’t going to necessarily be a political battle; this is going to be a battle for what America is in the future, and that’s going to come down to its people.

Learn more and register for the Evening of Unlearning here.