He helped build the modern white supremacist movement. Now he's trying to tear it down.
Peace activist and founder of Life After Hate Christian Picciolini has a surprising past: He used to be a neo-Nazi.
After getting kicked out of four high schools, Picciolini became involved with Chicago Area Skinheads, the first neo-Nazi skinhead organization in the U.S., during his teens.
By the time he turned 16, Picciolini had already taken on a leadership role within the organization, helping shape the modern white supremacist movement in the U.S.
"They promised me paradise," he says. "They promised me that the bullies would go away, that my life would get better, that I’d have a family that I was looking for, and that I would have a sense of purpose."
So what made Picciolini change his mind and turn his back on the neo-Nazi movement?
His journey from extremist to activist for peace began with conversation. In the mid-1990s, Picciolini ran Chaos Records, a Chicago record store known for its collection of white power music. It was there that he first began to have meaningful interactions with some of the same people he'd spent years of his life hating. The more he spoke with them, the harder it was to justify his hateful beliefs. Soon after, he abandoned the white supremacist movement and began making amends.
Now Picciolini spends his days trying to help others leave the movement he helped create.
Through his work with Life After Hate, a group he co-founded, Picciolini helps others leave extremist movements and leave behind lives of violence and hate. For him, it's all part of an effort to right the wrongs he's committed and to make up for the harmful ideology he helped craft.
But even decades removed from his contributions to the neo-Nazi movement, some of his influence can't be undone.
Despite his efforts, Picciolini's past beliefs live on in a number of forms, including the "alt-right" movement.
The name may change, but the ideology of white supremacy remains largely the same. Even worse, these ideas that were once seen only in fringe elements of society are creeping into the cultural mainstream. That's by design, and no one understands this better than Picciolini, who says that the "alt-right" movement has a plan to bring its ideology into the mainstream. And — horrifyingly — it's working.
"Don’t get tattooed, don’t shave your head, stop wearing a Klan hood, don’t wave a swastika flag," Picciolini says of the alt-right's strategy for creating a more palatable white supremacy movement. "Wear a suit and tie, go to college, blend in and mainstream the ideology. And in fact, that’s what we’re seeing now."
That's why it's important that we collectively continue to push back against hatred in all its forms.
It's important to remember that no one is truly beyond help. Picciolini's story of ongoing redemption can teach us all a lot about what it means to own up to the mistakes of your past and to help build a better world. Hatred might live on in America, but Picciolini's story should give us hope that it can be defeated.
To learn more about Picciolini's work, you can check out Life After Hate or read his 2015 book "Romantic Violence: Memoirs of an American Skinhead."