Life After Hate
I heard a fascinating radio interview the other day that I haven’t been able to shake. With all the discussion about hate groups, the perspective that this interview offered not only gave me a better understanding of how humans operate, but specifically how people who don’t fit into the boxes built by society operate. Not only how they operate, but how many outcast youth can stand prey to evils that most don’t even consider.
Christian Picciolini, a reformed white-power skinhead, was interviewed on the NPR program, Fresh Air, by Dave Davies on January 18, 2018 as I went about my work day as a dog-walker. I had accidentally tuned in on the car radio while en route to pick up some pooches and was so compelled, I pulled out my phone and got tuned in that way, as to not miss a thing, as I ran into each home to retrieve their dogs.
Piccolini had been first indoctrinated into the white-power skinhead community at the age of 14. And he explained something that I think not only applies to young men that get recruited by hate groups like this but to youth gang involvement, terrorist groups, and a trove of other types of ideologies and organizations, including American politics.
He explained that we have three basic human needs. Three human needs that are more conceptual and abstract but somehow more important that any physical needs we yearn for. Not food, water and oxygen, but community, identity and purpose.
It starts as acceptance for someone who has felt alone and has never felt part of something greater than themselves. Someone who’s never felt a part of their family, their school community, society at large, well this is a person at their most vulnerable. And there are a great many individuals out there that feel this way right now as you are reading this. Acceptance into a group, no matter how hateful or backwards their ideologies may seem, is still being accepted. And if it’s for the first time, the euphoria is as powerful as any drug and ten times more addictive.
For Piccolini, his involvement with the white-power skinhead movement started with, “a lifeline of acceptance.” Clark Martell, a former leader of the Chicago Area Skinheads, primed him by first appealing to a sense of pride in his European culture. Once primed, the fear rhetoric could then mold this young man's membership using paranoia, telling him certain types of people were threatening his way of life, trying to take away his culture, his pride.
Right from the beginning, hate group leaders spot the vulnerabilities like deep craters of potential and fill those holes in with perceived power and pride in one’s self. They wrap them up in community like a security blanket. Now the person feels whole, surrounded by this new community, ready to pursue a common purpose. To continue to feel those surges of power and accomplishment as part of a family.
This new purpose grows roots within a person and they begin to act as their maker, their master, recruiting in the same manner, filling the voids of all the lonely and the angry souls searching for their purpose. I don’t think it is much different than what occurred during Donald Trump’s campaign for the U.S. presidency. His rhetoric targeted the grievances of an enormous group of people, filling their voids with promises of some vague paradise awaiting them. It spoke to the angry poor while also speaking to the rich somehow. It spoke to every variety of hate group imaginable. It wrapped them all up in a bright red Make America Great Again security blanket and they all felt whole and powerful together. United and emboldened, combatting a perceived threat to their country as their common purpose, Trump accepted them all.
Piccolini, as a young skinhead, started one of the first American white-power bands, White American Youth (W.A.Y.), as his way to further the movement as his purpose grew within him, and on the program, Davies played a clip of the music for Piccolini. The music “brings back a lot of shame, because I know that I put words out in the world that still today are affecting people and hurting people,” Piccolini responded.
He went on to talk about how the strategies of the white supremacists of the '80s and '90s have taken hold today and I found his theory fascinating. In Piccolini’s eyes, the movement realized that they were missing out on the average American white racist due to their far-right extremist approach and radical appearance. The leaders of the time sat down to brainstorm ways to make their identity appear less jarring, less hateful, more reasonable, more palatable, changing their look and carefully crafting terms like “white nationalist” and “alt-right.” With the updated look, this new branding of white-supremacists hit college campuses to recruit, enlisted in the military and worked to get jobs as police officers and even run for office in hopes of pushing a white-supremacist agenda on a grander scale.
After eight years as part of the white supremacist movement, Piccolini finally decided to get out and create a way for others to do the same. He began a non-profit peace advocacy organization called Life After Hate, which is one of the only organizations of its kind. Nearly $400,000 in grants were awarded by the Obama administration to give opportunities to individuals who wish to leave a life of hate and violence. Inspiring to say the least. But here comes the thing that I couldn’t seem to shake days after hearing the interview.
All of these grants were promptly rescinded by President Trump after taking office.
Luckily, Samantha Bee featured Life After Hate in a segment on her show, Full Frontal, shortly thereafter, generating enough crowd-funding to help the organization continue its admirable work.
"Many of the reasons why people join ISIS are the same reasons people become neo-Nazis," Piccolini told Bee in an interview. And he’s right. Many of these same reasons are why people continue to back the actions of our President and even sing his praises.
Racism and bigotry were once ideologies held by outcast groups on the fringes of society, and as an optimist, I hold out hope that this is still true. While these outcast groups' vulnerability was once their hate, now it’s their power, stoked by the media and carefully manipulated by the statements of this administration and the president himself. But a sad reality that I’ve been forced to acknowledge is that there is still a lot of that low-grade hate perpetuating some of the old ways that just need to die. Low-grade hate right in the middle, not on the edges like the people you’re shown in the media. And that’s where the true shift has to occur.
I hate hate. It’s the dark poison that seeps into the empty cracks of human beings that have never had anyone, never felt accepted. The invisible people who never had a place in their community. It’s what their fear of the unknown turns into. It comes from living in bubbles, many of which are self-imposed. We need to pop our bubbles and the bubbles of others and experience what’s outside and between them. If this group of reformed Neo-Nazis and skin heads can be doing their part to make the world brighter, the least we can do as individuals is pop a few bubbles.