There may be no greater American taboo than neo-Nazism. It falls into the same tier of universally accepted evils as infanticide or child molestation. Institutional, garden-variety racism is an ordinary evil, but thoroughbred white power is far more profound. It's enough to turn the term "skinhead," originally a scene for roughhouse kids nursed on rocksteady and ska, into a term worthy of universal, Kanye West–ordained derision.
You probably know the gist already. Some skinheads aren't racist, but hate remains the lifeblood of plenty. For those skins who repent, who repudiate their white-power ideals, achieving any sort of atonement is a lengthy journey. That's as it should be: A community dedicated to the eradication of alleged inferiors ought to be treated with a healthy disrespect. But many former Nazi wannabes are dads and husbands now, their corrosive racism left in the mists of some ugly teenage years. As backward as it might seem, it's hard not to feel some small measure of sympathy for those whose lives are stuck in an endless cycle of remorse.
It's a thought that reminds me of a picture of a semicircle of British neo-Nazi skins, heads hung in despair, as they digest the death of Ian Stuart Donaldson. Donaldson was the lead singer and songwriter of Skrewdriver, one of the ugliest and most prolific of the wave of white-power skin bands throughout the 80s and early 90s. He died in a car accident in 1993, provoking a litany of postmortem tribute pieces. His music was hateful, ignorant, and horrifically naive, but there's something odd about all those pained faces. United in destruction, but still united—a faint echo of humanity in the corners of their eyes.
Can they be saved? Should we even try? And no matter how grave their injustice, is it fair to let a stage of someone's life haunt them forever? For Christian Picciolini and his Life After Hate organization, the answer is no.
Picciolini, after all, was a good kid—or at least that's what he says at the top of every interview. Born to Italian immigrants in ethnically diverse Blue Island, Illinois—a small suburban area outside of Chicago—he didn't come from a racist linage, and mostly kept to himself until he met a man named Clark Martell.
"I was 13 and smoking a joint in an alleyway with this kid I had met in the neighborhood, and then this '71 Firebird comes screaming down the street, and out steps this guy in Doc Martens, braces, and a shaved head," Picciolini recalls. "I'd never seen anything like that before. Most people in America didn't know what a skinhead was at that point.
"I took a drag off this joint and started coughing smoke into his face, and he just smacked me and said, 'My name is Clark Martell and I'm going to save your life.'"
At that time, Martell was the leader of the infamous Chicago Area Skinheads ( CASH). The organization ran a mail-order service called Romantic Violence, which at the time was the only way to get Skrewdriver records in America. Picciolini was infatuated with the 26-year-old's power, politics, and music, and by 1988, at the age of 15, he was a full-blown white-power skinhead.
Picciolini talks about his relationship with Martell like a seduction. This is how a well-meaning teen slowly gets indoctrinated into a world of radical backward politics.
Martell had a cult of personality, from his street proselytizing to his leather jackets, spelling out his ideology in big, bold letters.
"All of a sudden I was part of this cool group. when we'd walk down the streets, people would cross the other way," recalls Picciolini. "Twenty years later I realized what he was telling me wasn't true, but at the time it really made sense."
Martell was also capable of great violence. In 1984, he served a year in jail after firebombing an Hispanic household. In April of 1988, Martell, along with six conspirators, kicked his way into a woman's home and severely beat her before painting a swastika on the walls with her blood. She was a former member of CASH, and had been spotted with a black man on the streets. Martell was sentenced to 11 years in prison.
At the time of Martell's incarceration, Picciolini had gone from enterprising kid hanging with the wrong crowd to CASH's legitimate second-in-command. Simply put, Christian Picciolini was Clark Martell's understudy. At only 15 years old, he found himself in command of one of the most prominent neo-Nazi hate groups in America.
"I inherited the organization, and I started to do what I saw the guys do. I made flyers, set up a PO box, [and] before I knew it I had this army of kids. It seemed like every 13-, 14-, 15-year-old kid in town was either a white-power skinhead or an anti-racist skinhead," reflects Picciolini. "I served as one of the first leaders of the American White Power Movement until I was twenty-one."
Picciolini's resolve wavered as he matured, as he couldn't rationalize why he didn't want his wife and kids to be associated with the group. Eventually, he owned a record store, one of the only ones in the nation selling white-power music, and he credits his diverse patrons for salvation—reminding him that he had a lot more in common with people of color than he thought. He formally buried his beliefs in his early 20s, leaving the movement behind him. Picciolini was only a skinhead for seven years.
Since those days, he's managed bands, he's worked with Threadless and JBTV, he's got two kids and a wife, but he's still unable to escape the guilt. Those seven years are just too heavy. He played in bands called Final Solution before his rebirth, and he knows those records are still being sold today. He preached hate, and although he's never killed anyone, he still feels like there's blood on his hands.
"Sometimes it's hard, sometimes it's ugly, sometimes it's no fun, but that's the cross I bear," says Picciolini.
In 2009, Picciolini founded Life After Hate, an outreach/activist group made up of former white-power skinheads. The organization stays in touch with at-risk youth in the Chicago area, keeping them from joining gangs or extremist groups, as well as providing a landing pad for those receding from their angry pasts. It's founded on the principle that we can have empathy, that all is not lost, that everyone can change.
Picciolini tells me that he's seen 40-something KKK members renounce their beliefs, so why not stay optimistic? Don't they need our help? He knows that it's frustrating, but he pleads for us not to give up.
"Getting out was one of the hardest things I've ever gone through and has shaped everything since," says John Harrelson, a former white-power skin from Albuquerque. "My whole identity was skinhead. I had plans to move after high school to prospect for a big national gang, with nothing beyond that."
Harrelson is only 23, and he's certainly still dealing with the shame, but figures like Picciolini helped him envision a future. He needed that compassion to make it through.
"I went to this really good high school and a lot of teachers saw what I was and wanted to kick me out. Luckily, a few of them saw past it and realized I wasn't an evil kid—I was just very angry and insecure," Harrelson tells me. "If they hadn't stuck up for me, I would be screwed right now. I knew a lot of really smart and ambitious skinheads—easily as many as I knew who were scumbags. It's not fair to say that because they've been misled or taken a bad path that we just write them off. That's essentially a death sentence for being a dumb kid, and that's not OK."
Whether or not it deserves to be a death sentence depends on your personal limits of forgiveness, and it's difficult to tell those who clashed with skinheads to bury the hatchet.
"He's only Christian Picciolini now. Back when I first knew him, it was Chris Pikolini and Clark Martell," says Ryan Tallon, who ran with the anti-racist skins in Chicago against CASH in its heyday. "Clark was infamous, and Chris was his pit bull. They were always the bad guys. So years later, when I saw his name in my tattoo shop, I was just like, Fuck. I haven't been in this shit for so long. It was a tense situation for me because we were the guys throwing bricks at the same Klan rallies he was speaking in."
Almost by fate, Tallon found himself tattooing someone he used to be terrified of. They shared war stories—two men diametrically opposed in their youth—mellowing back to the mean in maturity.
"Chris said, 'Man, that was a lifetime ago,' and I was like, 'Yeah, it kinda was, wasn't it?' And he told me that he wasn't like that anymore," Tallon says of Picciolini. "So we kinda hit it off because, you know, I had to readjust to normalcy, too. Us anti-racist guys were just as violent, but on a different playing field. You let it go. It happens across the board. There was something super sincere about him. He was calling shots when we were younger, but he was just as earnest about telling me he wasn't into that stuff anymore. Twenty years is a long time."
Tallon's thesis, as it were, is that young, angry men want to belong—they want power—and sometimes they can end up on the wrong side. He was lucky enough to find himself in a defendable anti-racist position, but Picciolini, that semicircle around Donaldson's grave—they weren't so lucky. Skinhead culture should be a stupid youth movement for antagonistic kids who let their politics get out of hand, but it's not easy explaining that to the people they terrorized.
"I did a lot of apologizing for a lot of years, I did a lot of nasty stuff, but it's a short sliver of your life..." Tallon's voice trails off. "Although he was super good at it, it's still a short sliver."
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