Many of us have our own personal love affairs with music. It’s so important to us and so close to our hearts it can be hard to remember just how often it’s been used as an art of misinformation, bigotry, and hate.
Christian Picciolini, my coffee date this afternoon, knows all too much about music’s potential dualities. Picciolini is a family man, activist, author, and three-time regional Emmy-nominated music industry professional with a warm, funny, and charismatic demeanor. With so much positive energy around him these days, it’s all the more shocking to learn that starting in the late-1980s he spent seven years at the helm of one of America’s most notorious extremist movements.
The son of Italian immigrants, Picciolini had a rather uneventful, if somewhat lonely, childhood in the Chicago suburb of Blue Island, Illinois, until by chance he met Clark Martell, the first American neo-Nazi skinhead and founder of the Chicago Area Skinheads (CASH). His early captivation with the group turned into participation and at age 15, he became its unlikely leader. Over the next several years, he attended KKK rallies, stockpiled weapons, and committed acts of violence. He was at the meeting that birthed the Hammerskin Nation and became actively involved in growing the ranks of racist skinheads in Chicago and beyond. Music became central to his mission. He fronted a band called White American Youth (W. A. Y.) and his next band, Final Solution, became the first American White Power skinhead group to play Europe.
By 21, Picciolini was having serious doubts about the movement’s massively flawed ideology, causing him to question his identity. Around the same time, his family left him and he fell into a deep depression. Ironically, music, the same weapon he had used to instill so much hate in others, helped him permanently break away from extremism and begin anew.
After losing his younger brother to violence, Picciolini was motivated to go public with his story in hopes of creating positive change. He eventually co-founded peace advocacy and consultancy group, Life After Hate, where he and other former extremists work to counter violence before catastrophe strikes. In 2011 he participated in the international Summit Against Violent Extremism, presented by Google Ideas and the Tribeca Film Festival.
In April, Picciolini will release Romantic Violence: Memoirs of an American Skinhead, his account of his time as a racist skinhead and how he eventually changed his ways for good. He’s raised money through a Kickstarter campaign to pay initial publishing costs and plans to donate a copy to every Chicago public library along with a number of prisons and youth organizations. For now, pre-orders are available through his website, www.romanticviolence.com.
Picciolini offers no excuses for his past, though he is continually haunted by the lasting impacts of his actions. That, in turn, provides more fuel for his activism. As we talk over coffee, Picciolini shares more about his story and sheds some light on music’s transformative capabilities, both positive and negative.
Noisey: In your book you write about how before you got into neo-Nazi skinhead music you were into Minor Threat, The Clash, the Beastie Boys, and Dead Kennedys, “Nazi Punks Fuck Off.” How from there did Skrewdriver turn out to be the favorite? Would you have gone the route you did if you hadn’t been exposed to Carmine [an older neighbor] and Clark Martell?
Christian Picciolini: I listened to a ton of punk and skateboard music when I was a kid, before I joined the [racist] skinheads. Even when I joined at 14 and I got into Skrewdriver, I didn’t know anything about politics or race. I was smoking a joint in the alley and like something out of the movie, Clark and Carmine (which isn’t his real name) rolled up. Clark grabbed the joint out of my mouth and said, “Don’t you know that’s what the capitalists want you to do to keep you docile?” I had no idea what a capitalist was or even what “docile” meant, but I was enamored by the lifestyle and the fashion and the music, and just the way people would move to the other side of the street when they walked down the street. For somebody looking for an identity and a place to belong, it was really attractive. Clark, who was much older than I was, was one of the first adults outside of my family to really show me he cared about me enough to tell me to not do something without just saying, “That’s wrong. Stop doing it.” He backed it up with a reason. It was the first time an adult used his authority not in a generic way.
At first, I didn’t really understand or care about the politics. The music was really exciting because it was like punk rock, but it was different. It was easy to fall into. Not a whole lot of people in the world were doing it, right? Clark Martell was the first American White Power Skinhead. Blue Island had the first American White Power Skinhead crew. So, I fell into it across the alley from where I was growing up. It was partly wrong place, wrong time, but it was partly because Carmine was someone I really looked up to and emulated. He was older and he was a family friend. If it was good enough for him it was good enough for me. It spiraled really quickly.
Much of the book is written in flashback. You went from “That guy’s cool. That other one, I don’t know about him,” to excitedly describing an  episode of Oprah that featured racist skinheads though your 13- or 14-year-old eyes.
The Oprah and Geraldo shows were probably the first time White Power skinheads came out of the scene publicly. By that time, there were pockets forming in places like Dallas and Milwaukee, but there was maybe a handful—less than 100—racist skinheads in the country. My perspective at 13 was, “That’s awesome. These people are heroes.” I wanted to be able to talk to adults like I didn’t care. I saw them as strong, tough, and misunderstood.
My parents are entrepreneurs and maybe they instilled something in me. I saw it as a business opportunity, believe it or not. I thought I could get involved at the ground level and influence it. Within a year Clark would end up going to jail and a lot of the skinheads would end up running from the cops, moving away, and growing their hair out. So at 15, I was left with this infamous group. The cops weren’t onto me, I wasn’t considered a threat, but I inherited this infamous organization that was known throughout the country and I became the leader almost overnight. There was a point where we recruited so many people almost every kid in Blue Island was either a racist or non-racist skinhead, or they were part of the Latin Kings or something.
What was it like to leave Blue Island and go to other parts of the city? It seems like you’d have to turn off everything other than what you were a part of.
I definitely created this very, very small bubble that I had to live in. I wouldn’t eat in places where food was prepared by minorities. It was so ridiculous and stupid it didn’t make any sense. There were a lot of skinheads in Chicago, both racist and anti-racist. Blue Island was known as the epicenter for racist skinheads but we had friends all over. We noticed the anti-racist skinhead scene started to grow, too, possibly as a direct result of what we were doing. So there was a lot of conflict. When we left Blue Island, we had to be careful, but we were pretty aware of it.
You write about this combination of power and other people’s fear that kept you going. If you had a scale and that’s on one side and neo-Nazi ideology is on the other, which was driving you more?
Most of what drove me was the intoxication I had from the position of power. From the very beginning, I had doubts about the ideology. Some of it just didn’t jive 100% with me but it made more sense than trying to understand unemployment or gang violence—we still can’t figure that out—so I would blame that on blacks.
For a 15-year-old kid who a year-and-a-half before was hanging out in a closet and had no friends, suddenly having 40 guys who would do whatever you wanted was intoxicating. It was an industry that was growing really, really quick. It was like a startup business during internet times. It was almost a war to grow faster. It was more about getting people to join your side before it was about trying to indoctrinate the masses under an ideology.
So you weren’t thinking about a national race war?
We were definitely thinking about that. Because I started a band and I was from Chicago, my job was more on the marketing side; make music, get kids to come to shows, get kids to buy records, get kids to become skinheads. I definitely believed a race war was coming and we needed to have guns to protect ourselves from the government. I definitely believed that Jews ran the media and I definitely believed they ran the banking system. I was so passionate about what I was doing that it was almost impossible to be logical about it.
At that point, you’re believing this stuff enough to do things like and steal a guy’s coat at gunpoint or rough up some kids because they were black. At what point did you turn that around?
A lot of things allowed me to exit. One was the fact that I had a good family. They weren’t racist and didn’t teach that at home. I take full responsibility for that period, but I still to this day don’t think that was who I truly was. I think I did it as an opportunity for something else, not necessarily an opportunity to change my ideology even though that’s what it became. I never deny that I was a neo-Nazi skinhead or a racist because I absolutely bought in full bore, but I credit my parents for always having something else there.
Leaving took several years. Being there when my kids were born and being taken out of the bubble I had created, for even a moment, made me realize that it wasn’t somewhere I really belonged. Having kids and being in full bore means I’m going to indoctrinate my kids, but I wanted to keep my wife and kids so far separate from that stuff, even though I was still in it. I couldn’t reconcile the difference in my mind. I was making rules, guiding policy, meeting people from all over the world and I was one of the prominent leaders at the time. To have those doubts at the same time was such a struggle.
How did it all slowly melt away?
I opened a record store in 1994 called Chaos Records. I wanted to be a good businessman and before I opened the store I said, “I don’t have to like everyone but I’m going to talk to everyone, because that’s what good business people do.” Probably 75% of what I was selling was White Power music, even though I kept it behind the counter. People came from all over to buy it.
[Through the store] I had the opportunity to interact with people I wouldn’t have otherwise; black people, gays, Jewish people… and because of music, we started to talk. They’d ask questions about bands, and I’d talk about rockabilly and punk rock, or I’d turn them on to a death metal band. And they’d come back. They knew who I was, and they showed me a lot of compassion at a time when I don’t think I really deserved it. After getting to know these people, I started to realize that I had a lot in common with them and I realized I couldn’t justify the feelings I was having anymore. They weren’t making sense. I got out of the bubble and opened my eyes.
In a kind of ironic sense, being a White Power record distributor at 15 years old set you up with a career path, so music has been a common thread throughout your life. How did it help you get through this?
As I was getting out, it really gave me something to hang on to. I didn’t have anything else. My wife left me and took the kids. I lost my friends, lost my job, lost my passion. All I had was music. All I could do was commiserate with Social Distortion, or listen to Iggy Pop or Bad Religion. I think it was the one consistent that saved me even though everything else in my life was exploding. Music was the only thing that stayed in my life and allowed me to stay grounded and not forget who I was. What I listened to changed, but music was still there. I still had somebody to talk to, even if I was just listening, because a lot of times they were talking about things that I was feeling.
Did you regret what you could have been exposed to as a teenager if you hadn’t been part of the movement?
Yes, of course I wish I would have used my time better. But I also think having gone through that made me who I am today, and if I hadn’t gone through that maybe I wouldn’t be helping today.
The thing that bothers me the most about my involvement is that I planted so many seeds of hate everywhere. I’m still cutting down those weeds and pulling those weeds every chance I get. I still get emails from people who say, “Hey, I listened to your music. It used to make me want to go out and beat people up and I actually did that.” There were so many people I touched in a negative way at that time and that’s my biggest regret. If it had just been me, I could find a way to get through it, but the fact that a guy like Wade Michael Page who went into a Sikh temple in Wisconsin two years ago and shot six people listened to my music. He was in a band, and because I was in one of the first bands to play that in this country I have to believe he was influenced by what I did. That’s the hardest part. That’s the thing I deal with every day.
As I’ve been researching, I’ve been seeing your name come up on sites like Stormfront, and some list your personal information. Do you believe there’s a credible threat towards you and your family every day because you left?
Yes. Do I choose to live my life being beholden to that threat? No. There are crazy people, so you have to pay attention when they say something like that. At the same time, I know my mission is much stronger than just me. I’m no martyr or hero. If I die, nothing changes, there will be one less person to talk about it. It’s something I worry about but it’s not at the top of my mind. I’ve learned that if you argue with racists, it just fuels their fire. So what if they have my information out there? That’s fine. Maybe they’ll reach out and maybe I’ll reach more people that way. Some of the people are probably having the same doubts that I did. How do you argue something that can’t be true?
One thing that’s been perpetuated about racist skinheads is about their music as a marketing tool.
I believe very, very strongly that music is one of the best marketing tools for anybody to influence kids, not just white power groups. We see it every day. Fashion and lifestyle have a big influence on kids and music is both of those things. With the white power movement, it’s probably the most powerful tool they have. It’s aggressive, it’s informative, it’s insightful (with a “c” and an “s”) and it’s unifying. Music is the most important part of the skinhead scene, racist and non-racist. Resistance Records knew that from the very beginning. That’s why they started a record label and became one of the best tools to recruit people by the early 90s. The energy is there regardless of what music you’re listening to. It’s the message you have to pay attention to. All popular and underground music is playing at something with a kid, whether it’s an emotion, or a fear, or romance.
We knew music was a propaganda tool to recruit people, so we made it for that reason. We also made it because it was a status tool. If you want to be in a punk band and be a superstar, there are a million other punk bands out there. If you’re a white power skinhead and you want to be in a white power band you only have to compete against 30 to 40 other people to be a star. We don’t always do things for the right reasons. Maybe some of the musicians were art kids and couldn’t make it in the real music or art world. If you had a halfway decent skinhead song you were a star.
What are the lasting effects of having been in the movement? Have you run into people who you’ve been violent towards or their family members?
Yeah I have. Surprisingly enough, almost every single one of them has accepted me. I’m probably friends with more anti-racist skinheads now than I was friends with racist skinheads when I was a racist skinhead. Most of the support I’ve gotten for this book is from some of the same people I was not nice to back then. I can’t say that there is any one person I was friends with at the time that has supported the book, even though they’re out.
One of the scary things nowadays is people ask me if the movement has died out and say, “You don’t see them anymore.” What you have now is the people with the same ideology who’ve decided they don’t want to be seen. I always say the biggest threat that America faces is from within its own borders. It’s from the extremists who live here and want to destroy what America stands for. And they’re everywhere.
Jamie Ludwig is on Twitter - @unbornwhiskey