Christian Picciolini was just 16 years old when he rose through the ranks of the Skinhead movement in Chicago to lead one of the country’s most violent extremist groups. By the age of 19 he was a new father and started to question his hate-riddled life. He eventually left the movement and established Life After Hate, a non-profit organization dedicated to helping Skinheads, neo-Nazis and other right-wing extremists leave hate behind.

Picciolini chronicled his descent into extremism and his transformation on the other side in his book, “White American Youth: My Journey Into and Out of America’s Most Violent Hate Movement.” Inspired by Martin Luther King Jr., Picciolini is now a peace activist and dedicated advocate of non-violence. Hachette Book Group will reissue an update of Picciolini’s book in December, which will include his reflections on the aftermath of the presidential election and the events in Charlottesville.


Picciolini recently spoke to JewishBoston in anticipation of his Oct. 19 appearance in Boston.

You write about the vulnerabilities that made you a target for recruitment by Skinheads. Can you speak to some of the warning signs? 

Extremism and radicalization is not about ideology. It’s about a broken search for identity, community and purpose. When someone hits enough potholes in the road to deviate his path—and those potholes can be trauma, addiction, abandonment, mental illness, chronic poverty, even extreme privilege or neglect—he may be unable to find identity, community and a sense of purpose.

Sometimes people end up looking down really dark corridors for those fundamental human needs. Rather than warning signs, we need to start focusing on how to better support our marginalized young people in our inner cities and rural towns—places where they may be forced to go down these dark paths and adopt these extremist ideologies. We have to make it so that people don’t have those voids that need to be filled. We need to identify disenfranchised youth and find a way to make them and their communities more resilient.

You observe in your book that the movement inflated the number of recruits it actually had. How many active domestic Skinheads and right-wing extremists are there?

People thought we were much larger than we were. The attrition rate was very high.  A lot of people came through our doors, but not all of them stayed. Many times they were lucky enough to realize that that life was not for them. Other times their lives may have taken another negative pathway like drugs, gangs or crime. I’d estimate that at any given time there were about 5,000 card-carrying movement people. But the numbers didn’t matter. We wanted to cause the most possible damage that we could. We wanted the hearts and minds of people, but part of the strategy was also to blend in. 

When did your life begin to turn around?

My life began to turn around at 19 when my first son was born. I always had doubts about the movement and internally questioned what I was doing. I wasn’t raised to be an extremist. It wasn’t part of my DNA. Instead the movement fed my ego and gave me a sense of power. Then I ran a record store and was exposed to people that I never had a meaningful dialogue with previously. Suddenly they were very human to me. I realized we were very much the same despite cultural differences. 

You co-founded Life After Hate in 2009 on Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday. What was the significance of that date for you?

Dr. King’s birthday was a very important date for me. It was the day I finally understood that violence wasn’t the answer. Dr. King’s message of non-violence and love is the only thing that can replace hate. My co-founders and I then took the organization in the direction of helping people disengage from hate. We wanted to enable them to find a community of people that were just like them. We wanted them to open up about the trauma they experienced.

How do you counsel people to leave a life of hate?

Life After Hate is a prevention mechanism. We provide a private online community for former extremists. It’s by invitation only so it’s safe. It functions as a support network. We also have an intervention vehicle that’s part of Life After Hate called ExitUSA. We have a website where people can reach out to us confidentially to leave an extremist group or to help someone disengage from one. At the moment our work is just focused on the far right.

Were you surprised after the events in Charlottesville?

I was disheartened, but not surprised. Rallies like that had been happening every month for decades. We just didn’t talk about them and a lot of people didn’t know they existed. In my memoir, I write about a similar gathering I went to in Pulaski, Tenn. Unfortunately it took the tragedies in Charlottesville and Charleston to focus attention on these extremists. Yet we don’t do anything as a society to fix the problem or call it by its proper name—white extremist terrorism.   

Christian Picciolini will be speaking as part of the Anti-Defamation League’s Breaking Barriers Speaker Series on Thursday, Oct. 19. Find more information here. 

This interview has been condensed and edited.