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White American Youth
My Descent into America's Most Violent Hate Movement -- and How I Got Out
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Raw, inspiring, and heartbreakingly candid, White American Youth explores why so many young people lose themselves in a culture of hatred and violence and how the criminal networks they forge terrorize and divide our nation. The story begins when Picciolini found himself stumbling through high school, struggling to find a community among other fans of punk rock music. There, he was recruited by a notorious white power skinhead leader and encouraged to fight with the movement to “protect the white race from extinction.” Soon, he had become an expert in racist philosophies, a terror who roamed the neighborhood, quick to throw fists. When his mentor was sent to prison, sixteen-year-old Picciolini took over the man’s role as the leader of an infamous neo-Nazi skinhead group.
Seduced by the power he accrued through intimidation, and swept up in the rhetoric he had adopted, Picciolini worked to grow an army of extremists. He used music as a recruitment tool, launching his own propaganda band that performed at white power rallies around the world. But slowly, as he started a family of his own and a job that for the first time brought him face to face with people from all walks of life, he began to recognize the cracks in his hateful ideology. Then a shocking loss at the hands of racial violence changed his life forever, and Picciolini realized too late the full extent of the harm he’d caused.
“Simultaneously horrifying and redemptive” (AlterNet), White American Youth examines how radicalism and racism can conquer a person’s way of life and how we can work together to stop those ideologies from tearing our world apart.
*An earlier edition of this book was published as Romantic Violence
Praise for Romantic Violence: Memoirs of an American Skinhead
"Christian's journey exemplifies how hate and violence are unsustainable, and tolerance, forgiveness, and love are the only way forward. If Christian can change, there is hope for all humankind—a compelling and extraordinary story."
—Jane Rosenthal, Co-Founder, Tribeca Film Festival
"Romantic Violence takes the reader into the depths of the hate movement and sheds a valuable light on the mindset of those who can be lured into this dark world. Christian's astonishing change of heart is a testament to our endless capacity for personal transformation."
—Lonnie Nasatir, Regional Director, Anti–Defamation League
"Romantic Violence is a very hard book to put down. Though the tale often takes the reader into disturbing territory, the storyteller's voice is filled with a beautiful, unwavering honesty. There have been countless sociological texts and documentaries devoted to the exploration of American neo-Nazi skinhead culture, but this book starts at the very beginning. Christian Picciolini was one of the first foot soldiers (and eventual leaders) of that movement, and though he has long since renounced those racist beliefs, there is a riveting emotional immediacy to his depiction of the process and mindset that led him down the white power path. The issues and events dominating today's headlines are reminders that the roots Romantic Violence exposes are eminently germane. This memoir is not, however, merely a one-of-a-kind historical account. It is, first and foremost, the story of a human being who looks back on his earlier self with shock and horror, but it is told from the vantage point of one who refused to let his past define him. Though he will be forever haunted by deeds he cannot change, he lives with the joy of one who now understands the preciousness of every life—including his own."
—Don De Grazia, author of American Skin
"Upon reading Romantic Violence, you will learn and understand how the average person—even your next-door neighbor—can be drawn into a hate movement. At the same time, reading this book will make you wish that you were lucky enough to have someone like Christian Picciolini as that neighbor. Romantic Violence by Christian Picciolini is powerful, honest, and insightful. A no-holds-barred look into how nearly a decade of hate transformed a man and allowed him to create a life of strength, love, kindness, and tolerance."
—Frank Meeink, author of Autobiography of a Recovering Skinhead and Founder, Harmony Through Hockey
"Like a skinhead Goodfellas, Romantic Violence takes us along on a young man's journey to the dark heart of a distasteful organization, somehow making the narrator's descent every bit as understandable and compelling—and all the more tragic. It's a powerful and moving memoir that brought tears to my eyes."
—Gerald Brennan, author of Resistance, Zero Phase, and Public Loneliness
"Romantic Violence is a coming-of-age story about a relatively average all-American kid who finds himself at the center of organized hate. Christian Picciolini's memoir underscores how the search for universal needs such as identity, excitement, and belonging can influence adolescents to embrace extremism. Maybe most important, Picciolini's transformation from hatemonger to compassion advocate is an essential reminder of the human capacity for change and redemption."
—Pete Simi, author of American Swastika: Inside the White Power Movement's Hidden Spaces of Hate
"If it's disturbingly easy to embrace the white power ideology, it's not as easy to leave behind. Christian's experiences in Romantic Violence will shock you, but it's his escape and transformation that will inspire. His honest, often brutal memoir charts a journey from hopelessness to redemption. A profoundly important book, and a riveting read."
—John Horgan, author of The Psychology of Terrorism
"Christian Picciolini's Romantic Violence is a raw and honest memoir of his life as an early activist and white power singer in the American neo-Nazi skinhead movement. A cautionary tale about how even a smart kid from a stable home can get pulled into a world of violence and hate, it is as much a redemptive story of his journey out of that world and into a new life as co-founder of Life After Hate, an important anti-racist organization."
—Mark Potok, Senior Fellow, Southern Poverty Law Center and Editor, Intelligence Report
"Picciolini takes us from a lonely childhood spent daydreaming in his Italian immigrant grandparents' closet in Blue Island, Illinois, to an early adulthood leading 'Heil Hitler' chants from a stage at a neo-Nazi concert in Weimar, Germany. He pulls no punches in showing how a need to belong and excel can lead a kid so far astray, while also showing a path towards redemption and atonement. A necessary book for our fractious and broken times."
—Dmitry Samarov, painter, writer, and author of Hack: Stories from a Chicago Cab and Where To? A Hack Memoir
Copyright © 2017 by Christian Picciolini
“White Power” lyrics by Ian Stuart Donaldson/Skrewdriver. © 1983. All rights reserved.
“The Way It’s Got to Be” lyrics by Ian Stuart Donaldson/Skrewdriver. © 1985. All rights reserved.
“Chicago Gangsters” lyrics by Clark Martell/Final Solution. © 1985. All rights reserved.
“White American Youth” lyrics by Christian Picciolini/White American Youth. © 1991. All rights reserved.
“Ball and Chain” lyrics by Samantha Brown and Michael Ness. Sony/ATV Tunes, Rebel Waltz. © 1990. All rights reserved.
“Vanguard” lyrics by Christian Picciolini/Final Solution. © 1993. All rights reserved.
“White Pride” lyrics by Christian Picciolini/White American Youth. © 1991. All rights reserved.
“Open Your Eyes” lyrics by Christian Picciolini/White American Youth. © 1991. All rights reserved.
Excerpts from The Turner Diaries by Andrew MacDonald. © 1978. All rights reserved.
Excerpts from W.A.R. Newsletter by Clark Martell. © 1985. All rights reserved.
Cover copyright © 2017 by Christian Picciolini
Hardcover design and illustrations by Nick Colella / Great Lakes Tattoo, Chicago, Illinois (www.GreatLakesTattoo.com)
Paperback and e-book cover design by James T. Egan / Bookfly Design LLC (www.BookflyDesign.com)
Photography (author headshot) by Mark Seliger (www.MarkSeligerPhotography.com)
Hachette Book Group supports the right to free expression and the value of copyright. The purpose of copyright is to encourage writers and artists to produce the creative works that enrich our culture.
The scanning, uploading, and distribution of this book without permission is a theft of the author’s intellectual property. If you would like permission to use material from the book (other than for review purposes), please contact email@example.com. Thank you for your support of the author’s rights.
Hachette Book Group
1290 Avenue of the Americas
New York, NY 10104
Originally published in paperback and ebook by Goldmill Group in April 2015
Hachette Books is a division of Hachette Book Group, Inc.
The Hachette Books name and logo are trademarks of Hachette Book Group, Inc.
The publisher is not responsible for websites (or their content) that are not owned by the publisher.
To contact Christian Picciolini for speaking engagements:
www.ChristianPicciolini.com / Twitter: cpicciolini
Print book interior design by Christian Picciolini
Interior layout by James T. Egan / Bookfly Design LLC
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data has been applied for.
ISBNs: 978-0-316-52290-8 (trade paperback); 978-0-316-52291-5 (ebook)
To my Buddy, my boys, and my Britton
Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius—and a lot of courage—to move in the opposite direction.
—E.F. Schumacher, Small is Beautiful
TABLE OF CONTENTS
Foreword by Joan Jett
Chapter 1—Rights of the Abused
Chapter 3—Hail Victory
Chapter 4—White Power
Chapter 5—Skinhead Pride
Chapter 6—Fourteen Words
Chapter 8—White Revolution
Chapter 9—Hear the Call
Chapter 10—White Pride
Chapter 11—Odin's Court
Chapter 12—White American Youth
Chapter 14—Go Away
Chapter 15—Police Oppression
Chapter 17—Happy Death
Chapter 18—Victory March
Chapter 19—Open Your Eyes
Chapter 20—AmeriKKKa For Me
Chapter 21—Final Solution
Chapter 22—Organized Chaos
Chapter 23—Walk Alone
Chapter 25—Sins of the Brother
About the Author
Christian Picciolini and Joan Jett, 1996
FOREWORD BY JOAN JETT
The universal struggle for identity and belonging is what binds us all together. It is this search, ultimately, that makes us human; that makes us, especially as children, vulnerable.
When I was in The Runaways, the first American all-female rock band ever, in the 1970s, as a woman I experienced all types of prejudice and bigotry. Sometimes it was all I could do to not give up altogether. But my guitar, along with my pen and my voice, led me out of that hollow fear and into a long and successful rock and roll career—one that, thankfully, I am still riding the powerful wave of today.
Thanks in large part to Kenny Laguna, my producer, manager, close friend, and lifetime confidante, I have arrived at this level of commercial success and have been able to carve out a life of music. Kenny was then and still is very much a mentor to me. Without his direction and aid, I would not be where I am today. He believed in me when most others didn't.
I met Christian Picciolini in 1996 while on tour in Chicago. I did not know about Christian then what I know now. We needed an opener and when I saw his punk band, Random55, warming up on stage, I saw something special in their style and knew from some place deep inside that they were the right ones. I approached Christian, who seemed down and withdrawn, backstage after the set. He seemed sad for some reason, and I talked with him for a little while, throwing my arm around his shoulder, trying to assuage his fears. Like me as a struggling teenager, I sensed that Christian, too, was in a dark place searching for identity and belonging—acceptance. He needed someone to believe in him.
Random55 ended up going out with us on the road that year, becoming our opening act for a string of shows. Christian and I had many more meaningful conversations, and I like to think that some of what I had to say helped him cope with whatever he was going through. I will always recall his dedication to music and his drive. I could tell, at that time, that he was seeking something from life, from his soul. And now he has written this incredible memoir, detailing and forcing out the truth, after all these years. And in doing so, he has hopefully released his inner demons for good.
Compassion is an important human quality, and we all have the ability to tap into it. I have it for Christian's former, younger, troubled self. He was not a bad kid, but a kid trying desperately to belong to a group; to do something that mattered; to understand his loneliness and sense of rejection and abandonment. Hating the LGBT community, non-white minorities, Jews, and others when he was involved with the white power skinhead movement is tantamount to a disgusting and blind allegiance to hatred. And yet, Christian was able to pick his head up from the muck of that ideology and see the error of his ways, to steer the ship in the other direction, and to get out. He not only left and at last denounced the movement in the late '90s, he became an active voice against hatred, forming the nonprofit Life After Hate, in 2010.
Romantic Violence: Memoirs of an American Skinhead is Christian's testament to how frighteningly easy it can be to find yourself down the wrong rabbit hole with no way out. It is his tale of redemption, his Hero's Journey, his descent into hell and his return, ultimately, to the land of the living. I admire him greatly, not because he once hated, but because he once hated and he fought hard against his own mired determination and discovered that his prejudice and hatred were paper-thin lies. We all have to discover life on our own path, find our truth. Christian writes his book to expose his truth, and we can be grateful in at least some small part for his sacrifice, of running for a while on the dark side and then breathlessly sprinting for the light at the end of the tunnel. The result is a cautionary tale that furthers and educates us all.
In the end, we all need guidance, direction, and help along the road of life. We all need a mentor. For many, music is a major influence, and that can be used for good or bad. I was able to find myself through music, and, in a way, so did Christian. That night after the gig, throwing my arm around his shoulder was my way of showing empathy, compassion. Telling him that whatever he was feeling, like so many others, I'd been there too. Taking his band on tour was my handing of trust over to him. Like Kenny with me, I hope I was able to lead him, if only for a moment, out of the deep fog hovering around him. Christian pursued music in other capacities after that tour, and he maintained contact with Kenny and me through the years. I am so incredibly proud of his life's work since he left the movement in 1995, and I can see the real change and transformation he has made.
So, if you want to practice empathy—or if you just want to experience one hell of a redemption tale—come along for the ride and find out how it all started, where it went, and why it ended. Take the journey with Christian, and let yourself fall down alongside him. Feel the anger, violence, and rage as he climbs the rungs of the American white power movement. Feel his fear and depression as he finally exits. Feel his sadness and hollowness after the battering waves have at last ceased. And, beautifully, watch him change and grow, evolving into a fine human being who accepts all people, including himself.
Watch him turn into the man he always, deep down inside, wanted to be. Watch him make you proud to be a part of his experience, a part of this diverse global community, a part of this world.
Watch yourself change along with him.
Christian Picciolini, 1976 (Photo by Maddalena Spinelli)
I am not my father.
Nor my mother.
Not my grandparents.
I am neither my brother nor my friends.
My life is my own.
The actions and decisions of my youth and early adulthood were not determined by anyone who came before me.
I am my own invention, shaped both by my imagination and ambition, and it wasn't until my two sons were born that I began to understand my responsibilities and connection to others.
But I'm getting ahead of myself.
And you deserve an explanation, a glimpse into the lives of those people I claim not to be—a claim that does not imply any lack of love on anyone's part.
One thing that distinguishes me from my immediate family is that I am the first born in the United States. When my mother tells the story of my birth, her warm Mediterranean eyes light up and her voice, normally steady and sure, quickens. She laces the story with Italian phrases when she recounts it to someone in Blue Island, the working-class neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago that her Italian family immigrated to when she was sixteen. When she chronicles the tale of my birth to family and friends, she peppers her story with frequent references to the notion that everybody, Italians and Americans alike, loved me.
If I could recall my entry into the world and tell the story myself, I suspect it would be a bit different than hers. While she was pushing and straining for nearly twenty-four hours to get me out, I was impatiently wriggling my way down the birth canal ready to take charge, or so I imagine, in a rush to see what was ahead of me. I may have been annoyed that I hadn't been given ample warning, but as I felt the first blast of air fill my lungs, I would have already been calculating the best way to handle the situation.
To the attending doctor I was yet another little miracle, a slippery, mucus-covered newborn like all the rest of his deliveries. He was so intent on making sure I took my first breath and verifying that all parts were there that he missed the clear signs I had been born alert, brave, and ready to take on the new reality into which I had arrived.
Blinking rapidly, my eyes impatient to adjust to the cruel bright lights, I was eager to take in everything that was going on. Had I been able to talk, I would have asked the nurse to step back, pleaded with my mother to calm down, and warned the doctor to think twice before slapping me again. I would have objected to their tests, and insisted that I didn't want to be compared, labeled, charted, or measured in any way.
I was swaddled in a soft, warm blanket. The unmistakably warm love my mother bestowed on me when the nurse put me in her arms set me up for life with the patent knowledge that love and attention were clearly well worth pursuing.
I came equipped with a desire to live life fully, to explore the unknown, and to have my existence count for something. For many years, I thought this meant being an instrumental member of a group undertaking a significant mission. Considering how vitally having a place in the world defined my actions throughout my childhood, youth, and early adulthood, I have to believe that I came hardwired with those desires.
From as early as I can recall, I wanted to be the game-winning athlete who was carried off the field on my team's shoulders after hitting an upper deck grand slam to win the championship series in the bottom of the ninth inning; to be the hero who tackled the gun-toting hijacker; to have a national holiday named after me for my contributions to the human race. I didn't always care how I achieved greatness, but that hunger for glory was what made me tick.
I went to great lengths to try to fulfill that dream, and some of the actions I took still fill me with dread and regret. For more than two decades I have searched my soul, wondering how I could have strayed so far off-track, committed such vile acts of hatred, and advocated for the annihilation of people based solely on the color of their skin, who they loved, or the god to whom they prayed.
In trying to reconcile my actions, I have come to believe that at the root of my motivations lies a basic human necessity. Far stronger than my overwhelming desire to achieve prominence was the profound, essential human need to belong—a force I could not have articulated at the time, but one which propelled me to actions both good and bad, harmless and treacherous, self-fulfilling and self-destructive. This need, coupled with my tendency toward ambition, defined my actions and led me down a troubled and dark path to prejudice, racism, and violence.
What follows is my story. Because I cannot recall conversations verbatim, I have taken some liberties in recreating scenes to capture events and portray the people in them as closely as I can remember. Memory colors things, and I fully admit that others may have perceived events differently. However, I have been careful to report as truthfully as my memory serves me, with the intention of accurately revealing what took place. I have also deliberately changed many of the names to protect the privacy of the individuals involved.
Though I wish I could rewrite a significant part of my life, I have been honest. I have not sugarcoated my past, even though the bitterness of my convictions during my troubled years was brutal and immense. My reservations about my hateful actions were also true at the time, and I haven't changed them to fit a retrospective view. If anything, I hope the reader despises my duplicity as much as he or she abhors my deeds. It is worse to have acted as I did when I knew better, and I include my doubts to emphasize, not relieve, my guilt.
My hope in writing this book is that others will read it and heed how disturbingly easy it is for someone without prior inclination toward prejudice or violence to enter a world laden with unadulterated hate; that others may see the desire to belong—if taken to the extreme and not addressed early enough—can have repugnant results, and that the promise of power is sometimes so seductive, an impressionable mind can be persuaded to commit atrocious acts in its pursuit.
I write this book with optimism that others will search for identity, belonging, and acceptance in healthy, inclusive communities and will have the strength to walk away from empty promises, and that people will listen to those who encourage them to be compassionate human beings instead of finding a place among those who prey on the insecure and exploit their loneliness, fear, confusion, and feelings of worthlessness.
I hope that by exposing racism, hate will have fewer places to hide.
Christian Picciolini, St. Damian eighth grade yearbook photo, 1987
RIGHTS OF THE ABUSED
Jake Reilly picked me randomly that soggy April afternoon to be the target of his malicious playground taunts, insulting me for anything he could think of. He was the quintessential class bully—"Goliath" as we had secretly referred to him since the first grade—and he took great pleasure in routinely tormenting his less fortunate eighth grade classmates at St. Damian Elementary School.
Today, for what seemed the millionth time, he chose me.
"Fuck you!" I fired off. I instantly wished I could take back my words as I spun around straight into the puffed-out chest of the grinning Goliath, who I realized had just rifled the handful of frozen grapes at the back of my head.
The whispering chatterboxes in plaid smocks and pigtails and the skinned-knee jungle gym rats who were gathered around various puddle clusters on the playground wasted no time sensing the fresh blood in the water. Like hungry sharks smelling chum, they closed in around us in a flash.
"Oh look, isn't Pick-my-weenie tough?" Jake snickered while jabbing me hard in the chest with his chubby index finger. He loved to mangle my foreign last name and never ran out of creative ways to do so. How I longed for a normal name like Eddie Peterson or Dan Cook or Jimmy Mayfair. Anything but the impossible-to-say Christian Picciolini—pronounced "Peach-o-lee-nee"—which made for all kinds of god-awful rhyming nicknames. Pick-my-weenie. Suck-my-weenie. Lick-my-weenie. Basically, anything-weenie. "You gonna sic your greasy Blue Island dago friends on me?" he mocked, making fun of the largely Italian neighborhood just outside of Chicago where my parents had moved us from before landing in this suburban hellhole of Oak Forest, Illinois. "After school, cheese dick, I'm kicking your slimy Eye-talian ass back to the ghetto where you belong."
Jake didn't flinch at calling another student an "ass face" or a "dick with ears" whenever he felt like it. And he never lied about delivering a beating. But no one had ever dared challenge him with a "fuck you" before. Even if it had escaped my mouth by regrettable accident. I was a dead man, and everyone knew it. Certainly was nice of him to suggest I had friends, though.
"And if you don't show up again this time, pussy," he sneered, reeling me in close by my hood strings, "I'll fucking kill you."
- "Christian Picciolini offers a vivid illustration of the path to extremism...a strange, toxic inversion of the American Dream."—New York Review of Books
"Fascinating and timely....Written with first-hand knowledge and authority...White American Youth not only tells Picciolini's gripping story, but it is filled with rare insights that put today's rise of white nationalism in perspective."
—Ali Soufan, former FBI special agent and New York Times bestselling author of The Black Banners: The Inside Story of 9/11 and the War Against al-Qaeda
"Describes the importance of empathy--how receiving it from others at a time when [Picciolini] felt he least deserved it was lifesaving, helping to pull him out of extremism."
—New York Times Book Review
- "Simultaneously horrifying and redemptive."—AlterNet
- "White American Youth takes the reader into the depths of the hate movement and sheds a valuable light on the mindset of those who can be lured into this dark world. Christian's astonishing change of heart is a testament to our endless capacity for personal transformation."—Lonnie Nasatir, regionaldirector, Anti-Defamation League
- "Chilling...What we have in Christian Picciolini is something of an informant. He asks us to understand, yes, but not with the intention to excuse--rather the hope to dismantle. He is an unabashed truth-teller, and a willing weapon against hate and bigotry all over the world."—Rooster Magazine
"Christian's journey exemplifies how hate and violence are unsustainable, and tolerance, forgiveness, and love are the only ways forward. If Christian can change, there is hope for all humankind--a compelling and extraordinary story."
—Jane Rosenthal, Co-Founder, Tribeca Film Festival
"If it's disturbingly easy to embrace the white power ideology, it's not as easy to leave behind. Christian's experiences in White American Youth will shock you, but it's his escape and transformation that will inspire. His honest, often brutal memoir charts a journey from hopelessness to redemption. A profoundly important book, and a riveting read."
—John Horgan, author of The Psychology of Terrorism
"Like a skinhead Goodfellas, White American Youth takes us along on a young man's journey to the dark heart of a distasteful organization, somehow making the narrator's descent every bit as understandable and compelling--and all the more tragic. It's a powerful and moving memoir that brought tears to my eyes."
—Gerald Brennan, author of Resistance, Zero Phase, and Public Loneliness
- On Sale
- Oct 24, 2017
- Page Count
- 336 pages
- Hachette Books