My descent into America’s neo-Nazi movement & how I got out | Christian Picciolini | TEDxMileHigh

My descent into America’s neo-Nazi movement & how I got out | Christian Picciolini | TEDxMileHigh


Translator: Cihan Ekmekçi
Reviewer: Jake Eberts My journey away from violent extremism
began 22 years ago, when I denounced racism and left the American white
supremacist skinhead movement that I had helped build. (Cheers) (Applause) I was just 22 years old at the time, but I had already spent eight years,
from the time I was 14 years old, as one of the earliest
and youngest members and an eventual leader within America’s most violent
hate movement. But I wasn’t born into hate; in fact, it was quite the opposite. I had a relatively normal childhood. My parents are Italian immigrants who came to the United States
in the mid-1960s and settled on the South Side of Chicago, where they eventually met and opened a small beauty shop. Right after I was born,
things got a little bit more difficult. They struggled to survive with raising
a young family and a new business, often working seven days a week, 14 hours a day, taking on second and third jobs
just to earn a meager living. And quality time with my parents
was pretty nonexistent. Even though I knew
they loved me very much, growing up, I felt abandoned. I was lonely, and I started to withdraw, and then I started to resent my parents
and become very angry. And as I was growing up,
through my teenage years, I started to act out to try
and get attention from my parents. And one day, when I was 14, I was standing in an alley,
and I was smoking a joint, and a man who was twice my age,
with a shaved head and tall black boots, came up to me, and he snatched the joint from my lips. Then he put his hand on my shoulder,
and he looked me in the eyes, and he said, “That’s what the communists
and the Jews want you to do to keep you docile.” I was 14 years old, I’d been trading baseball cards
and watching “Happy Days” – I didn’t really know what a Jew was. (Laughter) It’s true. And the only communist that I knew
was the bad Russian guy in my favorite “Rocky” movie. (Laughter) And since I’m here
baring my soul with you, I can reveal that I did not even know
what the word “docile” meant. (Laughter) Dead serious. But it was as if this man in this alley
had offered me a lifeline. For 14 years, I’d felt
marginalized and bullied. I had low self-esteem. And frankly, I didn’t know
who I was, where I belonged or what my purpose was. I was lost. And overnight, because this man
had pulled me in, and I had grabbed onto that lifeline
with every fiber of my being, I had gone from “Joanie Loves Chachi” to full-blown Nazi. Overnight. I started to listen to the rhetoric and believe it. I started to watch very closely
as the leaders of this organization would target vulnerable young people
who felt marginalized and then draw them in
with promises of paradise that were broken. And then I started to recruit, myself. I started to do that by making
white power music. And soon, I became the leader
of that infamous organization that was led by that man in that alley who recruited me that day, who was America’s first neo-Nazi skinhead
and who had radicalized me. For the next eight years, I believed the lies that I had been fed. And though I saw
no evidence of it, whatsoever, I didn’t hesitate to blame
every Jewish person in the world for what I thought was a white,
European genocide being promoted by them
through a multiculturalist agenda. I blamed people of color for the crime and violence
and the drugs in the city, completely neglecting the fact
that I was committing acts of violence on a daily basis, and that in many cases, it was white supremacists
who were funneling drugs into the inner cities. And I blamed immigrants for taking jobs from white Americans, completely neglecting the fact that my parents
were hardworking immigrants who struggled to survive, despite not getting help
from anybody else. For the next eight years, I saw friends die, I saw others go to prison
and inflict untold pain on countless victims
and their families’ lives. I heard horrific stories
from young women in the movement who’d been brutally raped by the very men
they were conditioned to trust. And I myself committed acts
of violence against people, solely for the color of their skin, who they loved, or the god that they prayed to. I stockpiled weapons for what I thought
was an upcoming race war. And 25 years ago, I wrote
and performed racist music that found its way
to the internet decades later and partially inspired
a young white nationalist to walk into a sacred church
in Charleston, South Carolina, and senselessly massacre
nine innocent people. But then my life changed. At 19 years old, I met a girl
who was not in the movement, who didn’t have a racist bone in her body, and I fell in love with her. And at 19, we got married, and we had our first son. And when I held my son in my arms
in the delivery room that day, not only did I reconnect
with some of the innocence that I had lost at 14 years old, but it also began to challenge the very important things that drew me
to the movement to begin with: identity, community, and purpose – things that I had been
struggling with as a young boy. And now, I struggled
with the concept of who I was again. Was I this neo-Nazi hatemonger? Or was I a caring father and husband? Was my community the one
that I had manufactured around me to boost my own ego because I felt self-hatred for myself
and I wanted to project it onto others? Or was it the one
that I had physically given life to? Was my purpose to scorch the earth? Or was it to make it
a better place for my family? And suddenly, like a ton of bricks hit me, I became very confused with who I’d been
for the last eight years. And if only I’d been brave enough
to walk away at that moment, to understand what the struggle was
that was happening inside of me, then maybe tragedy
could have been averted. Instead, I did compromise. I took myself off the streets
for the benefit of my family because I was nervous that maybe
I could go to jail or end up dead, and they would have to fend
for themselves. So I stepped back as a leader, and instead, I opened a record store that I was going to sell
white power music in, of course, because I was importing it in from Europe. But I knew that if I was just
a racist store selling racist music, the community would not
allow me to be there. So I decided I was going to also
stock the shelves with other music, like punk rock and heavy metal and hip-hop. And while the white power music
that I was selling was 75% of my gross revenue – because people were driving in
from all over the country to buy it from the only store that was selling it – I also had customers come in
to buy the other music. And eventually, they started
to talk to me. One day, a young black teen came in, and he was visibly upset. And I decided to ask him what was wrong. And he told me that his mother
had been diagnosed with breast cancer. And suddenly, this young black teenager who I’d never had a meaningful
conversation or interaction with, I was able to connect with because my own mother
had been diagnosed with breast cancer, and I could feel his pain. On another occasion, a gay couple
came in with their son, and it was undeniable to me
that they loved their son in the same profound ways
that I loved mine. And suddenly, I couldn’t rationalize
or justify the prejudice that I had in my head. I decided to pull the white power
music from the inventory when I became too embarrassed
to sell it in front of my new friends. And of course, the store
couldn’t sustain itself, so I had to close it. At that same time, I lost
nearly everything in my life. I used it as an opportunity to walk away from the movement that I’d been
a part of for eight years, the only identity, community, and purpose
that I’d really known for most of my life. So I had nobody. I lost my livelihood
because I closed the store. I didn’t have a great relationship
with my parents, even though they tried. And my wife and children left me because I hadn’t left the movement
and disengaged quickly enough. And suddenly, I didn’t know who I was again, or where I fit in, or what my purpose was supposed to be. I was miserable inside, and I often woke up in the morning wishing that I hadn’t. About five years in, one of the few friends that I had
was concerned about my well-being, and she came to me and she said, “You need to do something
because I don’t want to see you die.” And she suggested that I go
apply for a job where she worked, at a company called IBM. Yeah, I thought she was crazy, too. (Laughter) Here I was, a closeted ex-Nazi
covered in hate tattoos. I didn’t go to college. I’d been kicked out of multiple
high schools multiple times. I didn’t even own a computer. But I went in, and somehow, miraculously, I got the job. And then I became terrified to learn that they’d actually be putting me
back at my old high school – the same one I got kicked out of twice – to install their computers. This was a high school
where I had committed acts of violence against students, against faculty; where I had protested out in front
of the school for equal rights for whites and even had a sit-in in the cafeteria to try and demand a white student union. And of course, as karma would have it, within the first couple of hours, who walks right by me
but Mr. Johnny Holmes, the tough black security guard
I had gotten in a fistfight with, that got me kicked out the second time and led out in handcuffs from the school. He didn’t recognize me, but I saw him, and I didn’t know what to do. I was frozen; I was this grown man now,
years out of the movement, and I was sweating, and I was trembling. But I decided I had to do something. And I decided I needed to suffer
under the weight of my past because for five years
I had tried to outrun it. I’d tried to make new friends
and cover my tattoos with long sleeves, and I wouldn’t admit it because I was afraid of being judged the same way I had judged other people. Well, I decided I was going to chase
Mr. Holmes out to the parking lot – probably not the smartest
decision that I made. (Laughter) But when I found him,
he was getting into his car, and I tapped him on the shoulder. And when he turned around,
and he recognized me, he took a step back because he was afraid. And I didn’t know what to say. Finally, the words came out of my mouth,
and all I could think to say was, “I’m sorry.” And he embraced me, and he forgave me. And he encouraged me to forgive myself. He recognized that it wasn’t the story
of some broken go-nowhere kid who was going to just
join a gang and go to prison. He knew that this was the story
of every young person who was vulnerable, who was searching for identity,
community, and purpose, and then hit a wall and was unable to find it and went down a dark path. And he made me promise one thing – that I would tell my story
to whoever would listen. That was 18 years ago, and I’ve been doing it ever since. (Applause) You might be asking yourself right now: How does a good kid
from a hardworking immigrant family end up going down such a dark path? One word: potholes. That’s right, potholes. I had a lot of potholes when I was a kid. We all had them – you know, the things in life that we hit that invariably just kind
of nudge us off our path, and if they remain unresolved or untreated or not dealt with, sometimes we can get dangerously lost
down pretty dark corridors. Potholes can be things like trauma, abuse, unemployment, neglect, untreated mental health conditions, even privilege. And if we hit enough potholes
on our journey in life, and we don’t have the resources
or the help to navigate around them or to pull us out, well, sometimes good people
end up doing bad things. One such person
who had potholes is Darrell. Darrell is from Upstate New York. He had read my memoir, and he was really upset about the ending. You see, I’d gotten out of the movement, and he was still in. And he emailed me, and he said, “I didn’t really like the way
that turned out.” And I said, “Well, I’m sorry.” (Laughter) “But if you want to talk about it,
we could certainly do that.” And after a couple of weeks
of going back and forth with Darrell, I learned he was a 31-year-old
military veteran who had been injured and was really angry about
not being able to go to Afghanistan to kill Muslims. And one day, on the phone, he told me that he had seen
a Muslim man in the park, praying, and that all he wanted to do
was kick him in the face. I flew to Buffalo the next day, and I sat down with Darrell, and I asked him, “Have you ever met
a Muslim person before?” And he said, “No! Why the hell would I want to do that? They’re evil. I don’t want
anything to do with them.” I said, “OK.” So I excused myself,
and I went into the bathroom and I took my phone out in the bathroom, and I googled the local mosque. I called them very quietly
from the bathroom, and I said, “Excuse me,
imam, I need a favor. I have a Christian man who would really love to learn more
about your religion.” (Laughter) “Do you mind if we stop by?” Well, it took some convincing
for Darrell to go, but, finally, we got there. And when I knocked on the door, the imam said he only had
15 minutes left for us because he was preparing
for a prayer service. I said, “We’ll take it.” We went in, and two and a half hours later,
we came out after hugging and crying and, very strangely, bonding
over Chuck Norris for some reason. (Laughter) I don’t know what it was about, but that’s what happened. And I’m happy to say now
that Darrell and the imam, you can often find them
at the local falafel stand, having lunch together. (Applause) You see, it’s our disconnection
from each other. Hatred is born of ignorance. Fear is its father,
and isolation is its mother. When we don’t understand something,
we tend to be afraid of it, and if we keep ourselves from it, that fear grows, and sometimes
it turns into hatred. Since I’ve left the movement,
I’ve helped over a hundred people disengage from extremist movements,
from white supremacist groups … (Applause) … to even jihadist groups. And the way I do that
is not by arguing with them, not by debating them, not by even telling them they’re wrong – even though, boy, I want to sometimes. I don’t do that. Instead, I don’t push them away. I draw them in closer, and I listen very closely
for their potholes, and then I begin to fill them in. I try to make people more resilient, more self-confident, more able to have skills
to compete in the marketplace so that they don’t have
to blame the other, the other that they’ve never met. I’d like to just leave you
with one last thing before I go. Of all the people I’ve worked with,
they will all tell you the same thing: One, they became extremists because they wanted to belong,
not because of ideology or dogma; and second, what brought them out was receiving compassion from the people
they least deserved it from, when they least deserved it. (Applause) And they were the people
they least deserved it from. So I would like
to leave you with a challenge: go out there today, tomorrow –
hopefully every day – find somebody that you think
is undeserving of your compassion and give it to them. Because I guarantee you, they’re the ones who need it the most. Thank you very much. (Applause) (Cheering)

100 Comments on "My descent into America’s neo-Nazi movement & how I got out | Christian Picciolini | TEDxMileHigh"


  1. Goddamn man, I never had a feeling of hatred for anyone specifically, but this hit me hard. I've always felt lost… I can't say more but I relate so much to this story.

    Reply

  2. We're all human beings, we all feel the same fears.
    All of these barriers are virtual, they only exist because we created them inside our minds. If we overcome this, everyone will prosper.

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  3. I never thought that someone so deep into this would ever come forward and admit what this man has done and been through.

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  4. What a story – it look like this is how all the extremism takes form regardless of it's nature. good to see ppl talk and amaze to see the views and the likes of the videos.

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  5. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”
    ~Martin Luther King Jr.

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  6. He hated immigrants but his parents were immigrants. He hated people for the color of there skin but he looks Mexican.

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  7. Isis recruits from the lonely, outcasts of our society. Yeah, this guy does what serves him best

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  8. These groups aren't like ISIS or street gangs. Growing up in the 90s they were more like cults than the violent groups they have made them seem today. They worked hard trying to get those with a little anger to join them and many gave choices. Fortunately for most people they grew out of the anger long before it was to late and now it's harder to find hate groups today. They prey on young teens it's easy to hate when you are young.

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  9. An iranian immigrant larping as a white guy who was in a gang comparing himself to a political movement.a classic Yiddish trick

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  10. Glad he woke up, we are all humans and the joke is Italians are not white. Anyway he doesn't get a medal for waking up, that's between him and HIS god.

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  11. americans are insane. this guy looks like an pakistani and he was in a group to secure the existence of the white race… what a joke. Americans are delusional about their racial backgrounds. Dude should do a DNA test.

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  12. Favorite line and quote if I may paraphrase" teach them to be able to acquire skills to compete so that they don't blame the other for their misgivings"

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  13. I feel more comfortable around my own race, but damn. This guy took it way to far. You're entitled to your own opinions and feelings, but bringing violence twords others because of how they look isn't ideal.

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  14. I wish all homophones and racists were this open minded… try and get a Polish nationalist to be sympathetic to the LGBT+ movement, or to immigrants…

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  15. They act like predators. They ARE predators. We’re losing our boys to their own minds and it’s dragging the rest of us down with them.

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  16. i think my dad knew this guy when they were kids/teens, they might be friends again now actually I’m not sure. so eloquent and well spoken. really inspires me 2 take the time to educate people more often than I already do

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  17. "the people that you think deserve passion the least, probably need it the most" is the most christian of words one could hear, if i could replace the bible with one line this would be it

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  18. Instead of getting out, making a sappy Ted talks you should of stayed in there and gave up all the names of all your partners to FBI.

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  19. Something I find crazy is that Christians Muslims and Jews all worship the same God. They have the same religious texts. And yet many hate each other. Really boggles my mind

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  20. This is horrible. In my day we had hobbies. Horses, drawing, art, gardening, animals, learning bird species. I cant fathom these teens with their angst. And surprise surprise, they have a kid and suddenly their lives have meaning. Many gang members have changed because of having kids.

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  21. I could whine about my single mom, schizophrenic paranoid mom, and make excuses as to why I didnt have an identity and went wrong. But I didnt. My schizophrenic si gle mom got me into reading, and that got me into almost every other subject in the world, ( except sports, yech). She got us model kits to build and paint by numbers which got me into art, and painting and she just encouraged all hobbies. So there was never this angst.

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  22. Wow! One of the best TED talks ever! Such an inspiration and really needs to be heard by our nation in these perilous times of division. God bless this man, and all of you!

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  23. On the contrary, continue to love your enemies and to do good and to lend without hoping for anything back;m and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, for he is kind toward the unthankful and wicked.n 36 Continue being merciful, just as your Father is merciful.
    Luke 6:35-36

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  24. multiculturalism is a parasite within western society. nobody voted for it. embrace your nation and people.

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  25. I’m from Europe and things here are a bit different than in the US, let me explain. European culture is being deleted and spat on by the hordes coming from the east, how should anyone have empathy for them? Society here is radicalizing, I’d say for the better.. there are examples of people kissing their wives in public and muslim groups swearing at them.. it’s just insane.. if anyone wants to talk about it give it a go in replies, it is pretty unbareable at this point.. not that we hate them for their religion but their hatred towards our culture and country which they live in.. have a good one lads

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  26. imagine saying imigrants and white americans in the same sentence… makes no sense, if you don´t talk about white "americans" being the imigrants

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  27. whites are a minority, mass immigration we cant control is real, and our futures seem hopeless and meaningless. change my mind.

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  28. Great story, decent speaker. Unfortunately through his interactions with Sam Harris he's revealed himself as unstable, and seemingly still incapable of using logic and reason.

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  29. Mans came to speak at my school what a G taught me a lot about forgiving myself and admitting when I'm wrong

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  30. What I'm extremely afraid of is that we're doing the exact opposite of this as a society, instead of understanding what is going so wrong in these people's lives that they're joining and forming such movements.. we're labeling them as monsters and isolating them more..

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  31. 16:13 This is a story I've heard countless times before. This is something that absolutely baffles me. What is it that happens in the minds of some of these young men that, suddenly, all they want to do is join the military, go overseas and kill? I'm not being a "bleeding heart" anything. I'm genuinely confused as to why someone with a relatively comfortable life would choose to go overseas and destroy the lives of those (who are perhaps less comfortable) different from themselves. I ask because this was also the expressed motive of a soldier being interviewed in 2008 who explained why he had joined the "Oath Keepers". To me, his anger and indignation about not being able to go overseas and kill because of an injury he'd incurred was baffling. It was all he could think about – not getting to go and kill those people. What happened? I don't know if I'll ever understand.

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  32. He put it very nicely. The origin of such feelings toward other peoples is FEAR and ISOLATION. It really takes courage to come out and admit you were wrong.

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  33. tldr; he changed his life because he got married and had a kid. so his priorities in life changed. that is all.
    so – with the decline in marriage rates / decline in birth rates / increase in divorce rates that we are seeing in our society, men will not have this powerful incentive to "change their ways". how will this effect society? NOT WELL. historically, unmarried men are most at risk for dangerous / risky behavior. and our society is doing nothing but provoking this behavior now. NEEDS TO CHANGE.

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  34. When he couldnt pull any more money out of the WN movement he pulled off his wolfs cloak and joined the other side. He only wanted money

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  35. Imagine admitting, to not only yourself ,but to others that you helped someone (unintentionally) commit mass murder. Christian Picciolini, you have my respect.

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  36. Imagine awaking from the drone state most Americans and westerners reside in and deciding to go back to sleep.

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  37. Ok are we still going to ignore the fact that most jews are communist and do control a disproportionate amount of wealth and power

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  38. I didn't realize that truth is hatred. However, you are responsible for your actions no matter how you feel.

    Reply

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