About 300 people arrived for a synagogue event last week despite organizers intentionally keeping word of the event limited. Extra police officers were on hand for security.
The draw? Christian Picciolini, a one-time white supremacist. Picciolini left that violent life behind more than two decades ago and has since founded Life After Hate, one of the only organizations in the country working to rehabilitate white supremacists. Even now, he receives death threats daily for having turned on his family in the far right. Hence the cops.
This burly, heavily tattooed son of Italian immigrants captivated the mostly Jewish crowd at Temple Rodef Shalom in Falls Church on Sept. 6. Picciolini has given a version of this talk about 100 times this year alone by his count — and the year’s not over. But to this audience, it was a fresh story.
Picciolini, at 14, was smoking a joint one day on the streets of Chicago, when a man grabbed it away from him. “Don’t you know that’s what the Jews and communists want you to do to keep you docile?” he admonished the teenaged Picciolini.
The man was Clark Martell, who in 1987 started Chicago Area Skinheads. Through Martell and his group, young, disaffected and vulnerable Picciolini found what he craved — a place to belong.
Two years later, Picciolini was not only a full-throated believer, but when Martell went to prison for beating nearly to death a woman who had left the group, he became the group’s leader. He fronted white power bands and opened a record store where white power music was, he said, about 75 percent of his business.
“It fed my ego and I wanted more and more,” he said about his time as a leader in the white supremacist movement. “Suddenly, this was everything for me. It became my identity.”
But Picciolini started to have doubts. He married a woman who hated his white power involvement. And he became a father. Holding his kids, he said, was the beginning of the end of his time in the white supremacist community.
“Was I this [white supremacist] leader or a father and husband?” he said. “Was my community the one I had manufactured around me or the one I had literally given life to?”
Though his record store was known for its white power music — skinheads would come up from as far as California and Texas to buy albums in those pre-internet days — “I got a little bit greedy,” Picciolini said. “I didn’t just want to take money from my friends and family, but from the enemy as well.”
And so he suddenly was interacting with the people he was supposed to hate. And, as he got to know them, that became harder and harder.
“Those customers showed me compassion when I least deserved it,” he told his audience. “And from the people I least deserved it from.”
By age 22, Picciolini had left the white supremacist movement. But he had already lost his wife and kids and, after he stopped selling white power music, he lost his store as well.
He got a job at IBM. On his first day he was sent to his old high school where he had been expelled after he punched the security guard, a man who was African American. That security guard was on duty the day Picciolini returned.
Not knowing what else to do, Picciolini followed the man to his car and apologized for attacking him. To Picciolini’s amazement, the man forgave him and asked him to do one thing: tell his story.
So Picciolini did, if slowly, which led him to start Life After Hate in 2010 with another former neo-Nazi. Now, he not only seeks to help those in the movement leave, but to educate others, like the Rodef Shalom audience, on what makes white supremacy attractive.
As a leader in the movement, Picciolini took credit — and blame — for helping to set in motion the recent strategy to “trade boots for suits” and make white supremacists look more like the average person.
The suited white supremacists were among those at the deadly rally in Charlottesville last month. “While it may be the first we’ve heard about it, it’s nothing new,” he said.
Charlottesville was the reason Picciolini and his audience were there, said Michelle Sandler, the synagogue’s communications director.
Rodef Shalom had already been planning an event focused on hatred and bigotry for the spring of 2018. “And then Charlottesville happened and everyone went, ‘We have to do something now,’” said Sandler. “We decided we wanted Picciolini.”
They contacted Picciolini’s agent, found he had only a couple open days left in September and snapped one up, putting together the event in a few weeks. Fairfax police asked the synagogue to limit publicity, due to Picciolini’s notoriety.
Asked about “the Trump effect,” Picciolini said the president’s election has emboldened the white supremacist movement. Calls to ExitUSA, a program through Life After Hate, have gone up from two or three per week before the election to 15-20 per week, he said.
Audience member Kay Flick Elfant, of Silver Spring, said Picciolini’s “work is really vital and his approach is so special.”
David Aponte, an activist who works with the Anti-Defamation League and the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, agreed.
“It was, as I hoped it would be, a totally different perspective,” he said. “I thought it was challenging, but hopeful at the same time.”
Picciolini ended with a challenge for the audience: Find someone who doesn’t deserve your respect or compassion and give it to him. You don’t have to give his views a pass, Picciolini said, but no Nazi ever renounced his views by being punched in the face.
“We know they don’t become radicalized by ideology,” he said. “They become radicalized by that broken search for belonging.”