Former Neo-Nazi Gang Leader To Speak At Temple Israel

Chicago is known for many things, but one thing that originated there that is less renowned is the modern neo-Nazi skinhead movement. It’s also the birthplace of an organization that is trying to pull people out of the ideology of hate.

Christian Picciolini, the co-founder of Life After Hate – a one-time leader of that movement – will speak at Temple Israel on March 30 from 7-9 p.m. in a discussion with former U.S. Attorney for Minnesota Andy Luger. The event is co-sponsored by Temple Israel and the Jewish Community Relations Council.

Luger said he had attended several conferences in his time as U.S. Attorney on the subject of radical ideology, radical violent ideology, and violent extremism.

“Life After Hate has presented at a number of those conferences and I made it a point to get to know the founders while I was attending them,” Luger said. “The last time I saw Christian, I asked him if he ever talked at synagogues, and he lit up. He asked if we could arrange that.”

JCRC executive director Steve Hunegs said Luger has been a vital partner of the JCRC.

“We appreciate his efforts to raise awareness of the pernicious dangers of hate groups,” he said. “Andy provided valuable guidance and expertise over the years to the Jewish community relating to our community’s safety as well as the importance of reporting hate incidents to law enforcement.”

Said Luger: “As we started to see the number of anti-Semitic incidents rise in Minnesota and elsewhere, along with the work we’re doing to prevent radical terrorism in Minnesota, I thought why not bring together the people working on those to hear from someone who knows how [extremists] get recruited in and how to get out.”

Picciolini got recruited into the movement as a kid out of the working-class suburb of Blue Island, Ill. The son of Italian immigrants, he said he spent a lot of time on the streets as a lonely, bullied, and marginalized 14-year-old.

“I was standing in an alley at 14 years old in 1987,” Picciolini said. “[Clark Martell] drove up in a car, and I was smoking a joint. He pulled the joint out of my mouth and said ‘Don’t you know that’s what the communists and Jews want you to do to keep you docile?’

“I didn’t really know what a communist was, or had met a Jewish person. I hardly knew what ‘docile’ meant. I was looking for something, just like every teenager looking for an identity, a community, and a sense of purpose. This man seemed to give it to me.”

Picciolini was in for 8 years, but has spent the last 22 years trying to understand – and more importantly, dismantle – what he helped to build. Since the starting Life After Hate in 2009, Picciolini estimates the organization has helped more than a hundred “formers” across North America. Many of those people have been trained to help others who are trying to extract themselves from the hateful ideology they find themselves in.

“I had doubts almost every day about what I was doing because I didn’t come from a family of racism,” he said. “My parents were immigrants and they were often the victims of prejudice. It’s almost like the racism was secondary. It was the identity and community and focused purpose that attracted me.”

After Martell – the gang’s founder – was sent to prison, Picciolini stepped up to be the leader.

“I stepped in at a very early age into his shoes. It was an interesting dynamic from going to someone powerless to ‘powerful,” he said. “But it wasn’t true respect or power; it was fear.”

Picciolini got married at 19-0years-old, and his wife gave birth to their first son. That moment changed his priorities.

“I know it sounds clichéd, but it was magic. I reconnected with the innocence I lost at 14 years old and suddenly, I realized that all I wanted to do was to protect my family,” he said. “They weren’t part of the movement and I knew how dirty the movement was, so I wasn’t interested in getting them dirty. It was tough to leave, even though the ideology came into question.”

Christian Picciolini in 1992 (left, center) and today.

Picciolini opened a record store in the Chicago area that specialized in white-power music – one of only a few such shops in the country. But in stocking music like hip-hop, heavy metal, and punk, he met people that challenged his narrative.

“They challenged what my perception of them was, and it really humanized them,” he said. “When the black kid came in and was sad because his mother passed from cancer, I knew it was the same kind of pain that I felt when my grandmother was diagnosed with cancer. When I saw the gay couple holding and loving their son, it was the same love I felt for my son.

“It was those connections, it was receiving compassion and empathy from the people I least deserved it from when I least deserved it, that really completed my transformation.”

Getting out wasn’t quick and easy – which led to his wife and kids leaving him. But it also meant losing everything that he abandoned his old life for.

“One of the reasons I decided to co-found Life After Hate is because I wanted to be that support network for people who were previously in that life to help transition out,” he said. “We know motivates us to get in, and we know what motivates to stay in. But we’ve all been through the process of getting out, and we want to use the experience to help others and provide a support network.”

Luger has seen first-hand how hateful ideologies impact families in the Twin Cities.

“Early in my tenure I saw the rise in ISIL recruiting and how many young members of the Somali community were being targeted,” he said. “I studied recruitment techniques, met with families of young people who have died fighting, and learned about both in terms of investigation and outreach to the Somali community. From there I met Life After Hate and started seeing how recruiting into white supremacist and neo-Nazi groups are quite similar. The efforts to get people out of that world had to take place across ideological lines.

“As painful as it is to listen to someone like Christian speak – because as a Jew, it’s very hard to sit in the audience and listen to a former Nazi – it’s important that we do so.”

For more information or to RSVP, e-mail [email protected].