When I was 18 years old, I stood on stage in a cathedral in Germany, cries of "Heil Hitler!" punctuating the roar of thousands of European neo-Nazi skinheads who were also shouting the name of my band.
At that very moment, I was responsible for the electricity in the air, the adrenaline coursing through throbbing veins, the sweat pouring down shaved heads.
Absolute devotion to white power pulsated through the crowd on that misty March night in 1992. I was leading the first American white power skinhead band to ever venture outside of US soil to play in the Fatherland, in all of Europe even. History was being made. I imagined then it must have been how Hitler felt when he led his armies on a mission to dominate the world.
I sang about how laws favouring blacks were taking white jobs, and how whites were overburdened with taxes used to support welfare programmes. I believed that neighbourhoods of law-abiding, hardworking white families were being overrun with minorities and their drugs. Gays – a threat to the propagation of our species – were demanding special rights. Our women were being conned into relationships by minorities. Jews were planning our demise. Clearly, the white race was in peril.
Or so I was taught to believe.
It all began in 1987, when I was barely 14. I yearned to feel something more, to do something noble. I sought a deeper meaning for my life, outside of the mundane existence I witnessed many of the working-class adults in my neighbourhood struggling with. Rather than succumb to the doldrums of comfort, I wanted to matter. And a twist of fate presented me with a convenient way to fulfil those needs.
My youthful innocence screeched to an abrupt halt the night I met Clark Martell.
I stood in my alley zoning out, high on weed, when the shotgun roar of a car bursting down the backstreet broke the calm. A primer-black 1969 Pontiac Firebird screeched to a skidding halt in the gravel beside me. With the amber glow of the streetlamp lighting the car from above, the passenger door snapped open, and an older dude with a shaved head and black combat boots headed straight towards me. He wasn't unnaturally tall or imposing physically, but his closely cropped hair and shiny boots smacked of authority. Over a crisp white T‑shirt, thin scarlet suspenders held up his bleach-spotted jeans.
He stopped just inches from me and leaned in close, his beady, ashen eyes holding mine. The whites surrounding his granite pupils looked old, timeworn, intense. Barely opening his mouth, he spoke softly, with a listen-closely-now attitude. "Don't you know that's exactly what the capitalists and Jews want you to do, so they can keep you docile?"
Not knowing exactly what the hell a capitalist was, or what "docile" meant, my nervous instinct was to take a swift draw from the joint and involuntarily cough smoke straight into his face.
With stunning speed, this guy with the penetrating grey eyes smacked the back of my head with one hand and simultaneously snatched the spliff from my lips with the other, crushing it with his shiny black Doc Marten boot.
I was stunned. Only my dad had ever hit me like that.
The stubbly, sharp-jawed man straightened up and gripped my shoulder firmly, drawing me in toward him. "I'm Clark Martell, son, and I'm going to save your fucking life."
Frozen, I stood there and admired him in terror – the man with the shaved head and shiny tall boots who was going to save my life. This man was America's first neo-Nazi skinhead gang leader , and before my eyes, the white power skinhead movement was being born – right there, in the same dirty suburban Chicago alley I'd ridden my bike down a thousand times.
As quickly as he'd arrived, Martell climbed back inside the roaring beast and tore off down the alley like a burning phoenix, leaving me surrounded by a cloud of exhaust and wonderment.
It didn't take me long for me to decide that I wanted to trade my teenaged, low self-esteem and weakness for power. A month later, I was pedalling home from a pickup baseball game and three black kids from the other side of town stopped me and beat me up. They stole my brand new black and red Schwinn Predator with mag wheels that I'd just bought a few weeks before with my birthday money. I don't remember much from that day except that I was angry and disappointed in myself for not doing more to protect my new bike from them. Rage swept through me that someone could come into my neighbourhood and take what belonged to me.
And, like a lion, there was Martell again to pick me up. To save me. When he invited me come to a "party" soon after, I leapt at the opportunity, fresh black eye and all.
Close to 30 people, most of whom were in their early twenties, had already packed the cramped apartment by the time I arrived: skinheads from Michigan, Wisconsin, Texas and Illinois. Several people from the neighbourhood, whose faces I vaguely recognised, were also there, but I was the youngest by far at 14.
Somebody handed me a cold can of Miller High Life. I was already high on the thrill of being there, but even if I was underage, I wasn't about to say no to this display of acceptance. Everywhere I looked were shaved heads, tattoos, boots and braces. Nazi battle flags doubled as window curtains. Armbands with swastika insignias were plentiful. Some tough-looking girls hung on to the arms of some of the bigger guys, making it easy to tell who the key players were.
Before I finished my first beer, a muscular skin with a pockmarked face and a thick swastika tattooed on his throat brought the meeting to order. Rising, standing in the corner of the living room, he offered a simple statement, one I would know by heart by the end of the night – a creed I would live by for the next seven years of my life.
"Fourteen words!" his voice thundered.
Immediately, everyone in the room turned to him, stopping mid-conversation to yell in one voice, "We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children."
All around the room, arms shot out in Nazi salutes. I haphazardly threw my own arm out, too.
For over an hour, my heart pounded with purpose as I stood mesmerised, listening to fiery words I would soon be able to recite in my sleep.
An upside-down and partially charred American flag hung on the wall beside the speaker as he gripped a beer can firmly and spoke loudly. "Our traitorous government would have you believe racial equality is advanced thinking, brothers and sisters – that all races should live in peace and harmony. Bullshit! Take a look around. Open your eyes and refuse to be fooled. What do you see when niggers move into your neighbourhoods? You see drugs and crime pour into your streets, not equality. Your gutters fill with trash. The air starts smelling foul because these porch monkeys don't do anything but sit around and smoke crack and knock up their junkie whores all day. Can't bother to clean up.
"Only thing they're cleaning up on is all that hard-earned money you and I pay in taxes. Living off welfare. Unemployment. First in line for every handout the government can offer. Section 8 housing. Free lunch programmes at school. The only reason those little nigger babies go to school is to get those free lunches and welfare checks. All paid for by us white people – by hardworking white Americans who'd never dream of having our kids eat free meals because we take care of ourselves.
"And while you and me work our fingers to the bone, these racially-inferior scumbags are out selling drugs to your little brothers to make them stupid. Selling them junk so their teeth will rot and they'll look 60 by the time they're 16. Getting caught in gang crossfire and dying at the hands of these criminals.
"Making them dependent on drugs so our innocent Aryan women will fuck them for a taste of whatever vile substance they've hooked them on. You think they're selling this garbage just to get rich and buy their Cadillacs and gold chains? Get your heads out of your asses, brothers and sisters. They're selling this poison to make white kids as stupid as their mud kids. They want our people to become so dead inside they'll smoke and snort everything in sight. Shoot drugs into their arms and between their toes. They want to see our people destroy their brain cells and end up in jails where they'll get violated by wetback gangbangers who are locked up for murdering and raping innocent young white women.
"And who is leading these degenerate animals in the destruction of our race? The Jews and their Zionist Occupation Government. That's who!" The speaker launched into a tirade against Jews that I'd hear at every rally I attended from that moment on, but never with as much fervour. The cords on his neck looked ready to tear, spit foamed in the corners of his mouth. His eyes were ablaze with anger. Self-righteousness. Indignation. Truth.
He ended as he began. "Fourteen words, my family! Fourteen sacred words."
On our feet, we shouted those 14 words over and over and over.
Adrenaline burned through me like fire, nervous sweat extinguishing it, spreading from head to foot as the caustic smoke of racist rhetoric filled the room. I was ready to save my brother, parents, grandparents, friends and every decent white person on the planet. How could white people not see what absolute and utter despair they were facing? It was going to be up to me and those like me. It was a huge mission, but I had no doubt where my loyalty would be.
While that night was the most alien and intense thing I'd ever experienced, I was instantly hooked. This white power skinhead culture appealed to me, even though I knew I wasn't exactly like the others in the room. I didn't come from a family down on its luck. I hadn't been brought up to hate people different from me or with any us-against-them mentality. But my heart beat hard in my chest. More than ever, I wanted to be part of this. It was overwhelming.
For the next seven years, I became a recruiting wunderkind, indoctrinating crop after crop of young white extremists. I started two white power bands – White American Youth and Final Solution – and music became my primary propaganda tool to lure more soldiers.
It took little skill to spot a teenager with a shitty home life. Somebody without many friends. Picked on. Marginalised. Feeling lonely. Angry. Broke. A crisis of identity. Looking like he – or she – had never had any luck. Strike up a conversation; find out what they were feeling bad about. Move in.
"Man, I know exactly how that is. If your dad hadn't lost his job, it wouldn't be like that. But the minorities get all the jobs. They catch all the breaks. Move into our neighbourhoods and start getting handouts. Our parents go to work every day to put food on the table while the lazy blacks and Mexicans are cashing welfare checks in their sleep."
When I look at old photographs of my former self, I see a hollow shell of a man – a stranger – filled with all of those same noxious elements, staring back at me.
Because I was so blind, too wrapped up in my own bloated ego to pay attention to my own basic emotional needs, I ended up blaming others – blacks, gays, Jews and anyone else who I thought wasn't like me – for problems in my own life they couldn't possibly have contributed to. My unfounded panic quickly, and unjustly, manifested itself as venomous hatred – I became radicalised by those who saw in me a lonely youngster who was ripe to be moulded. And because I was so desperately searching for meaning – to rise above the mundane – I devoured any crumbs I was fed that resembled greatness, made them my identity, overshadowing my own character. The same one that I'd grown weary of as a kid. Through my misguided animosity, I'd become a big, fat, racist bully – morbidly obese from the countless lies I'd been fed by those who took advantage of my youth, naïveté and loneliness.
For one-third of my life, almost every single one of my formative teen years, I chewed and swallowed gristly bits of each one of those twisted beliefs. And when I finally found the balls to realise that every single "truth" I'd been fed – and, in turn, force-fed to others – was a complete and fucked-up lie, all I felt like doing is jamming my fingers down my throat and vomiting them all up into the nearest toilet.
Even now, 20 years after I left the hate movement I helped create, memories of those seven dark years still flash through my mind and make me angry. When I look at old photographs of my former self, I see a hollow shell of a man – a stranger – filled with all of those same noxious elements, staring back at me. But because infected weeds are still sprouting from the many toxic seeds that I planted all those years ago, I've made it my duty to yank 'em as I see them begin to germinate.
Like most people who are caught up in someone's charisma, when I was told these "white lies", I looked for evidence that my recruiter was right, not wrong. When I look back on that time, I can barely breathe. How could I have been so stupid? So gullible? So unfeeling about the pain I so readily inflicted on innocent people? I'd traded my natural empathy for acceptance. I confused hate and intimidation with passion, fear with respect.
Once I finally made this stark realisation, it was the beginning of a new life for me. Once I reached the point of finally letting go completely of all the lies I'd let in, that's when change began to take hold. When I reconnected with the empathy I had as a child and accepted compassion from others when I probably least deserved it, the hate disintegrated and my warped ideology stopped making sense. After seven years of not being honest with myself, I grew too tired to juggle the lies and hide the fears. It was time to face the real truth. So I stepped hard on the gas and drove off that metaphorical cliff. I floored it, content that the demons inside of me were falling to their death. And only then, when I finally allowed that painful, symbolic death to occur – the rusted hunk of my former self burning on the sharp rocks below – could I stand and watch the renascent phoenix raise itself up from the wreckage and spread its wings.
Adapted from Romantic Violence: Memoirs of an American Skinhead by Christian Picciolini. Picciolini is a former neo-Nazi skinhead extremist turned peace advocate. In 2010, he co-founded the nonprofit Life After Hate, which educates individuals and organisations on issues of racism, extremist radicalisation and de-radicalisation . Follow him on Twitter.