Former White Supremacist Explains Why Young White Men Join Extremist Groups10:54
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James Alex Fields Jr., second from left, holds a black shield in Charlottesville, Va., where a white supremacist rally took place. Fields, who was the driver in a deadly car attack at the Charlottesville rally, was sentenced to life in prison. (Alan Goffinski/AP)
James Alex Fields Jr., second from left, holds a black shield in Charlottesville, Va., where a white supremacist rally took place. Fields, who was the driver in a deadly car attack at the Charlottesville rally, was sentenced to life in prison. (Alan Goffinski/AP)

Young white men have been responsible for many of the most recent mass shootings in this country.

Minutes before he killed 22 people in El Paso, Texas, the suspected gunman posted on an online forum, warning of a "Hispanic invasion” of Texas that would push out white Americans.

Former white supremacist Christian Picciolini says he used to believe those types of hate-filled statements as well.

“The rhetoric that I'm hearing today in our society is very similar to the rhetoric that I used to say 30 years ago that was part of our white supremacist neo-Nazi movement. Everything from the words ‘invasion’ to the idea that people are going to replace whites,” he says. “Those are all ideas that I used to spout when I was a neo-Nazi in the ‘80s and ‘90s.”

Now, Picciolini, founder of the Free Radicals Project, travels around the world, using intervention strategies and outreach work to help young, predominantly white men leave racist and violence-based groups — both in real life and on online chat boards. He says he’s a “bridge builder” between them and the resources they may need to deradicalize.

“It really is just identifying vulnerable young people and then amplifying their passions [and] trying to fill those voids in their life, because I've never met a happy white supremacist,” he says. “I've never met one with positive self-esteem.”

But he says he’s not making excuses for them.

“I still hold people accountable in many of the same ways I've held myself accountable for 23 years,” he says.

Interview Highlights

On what led him to become a neo-Nazi

“I came from a loving family that I knew cared about me a lot, but because they were immigrants they also had to work extremely hard and they were gone seven days a week, sometimes 14 or 16 hours a day, just trying to make ends meet. So I grew up really without my parents around and I felt very abandoned by them, even though I was surrounded by love. So I went searching for a sense of family elsewhere and also a sense of identity and purpose.”

On what it was like being in a white supremacist group

“It absolutely provided camaraderie that I hadn't found in real life until the age of 14 years old. I grew up fairly alienated and bullied. It empowered me at first. It was the first group of people that accepted me as a family, that filled me with a sense of purpose. Fourteen is a really magical age when it comes to extremism or radicalization. And that's for far-right groups or whether it's ISIS or even gangs in inner cities. It's the time when young people are really trying to develop that sense of identity, community and purpose. They're breaking away from their parents for the first time. And if young people are feeling marginalized or maybe they're vulnerable and they get detoured by what I call ‘potholes,’ the things in life that we encounter, things like trauma or mental health issues or poverty or joblessness or even privilege which can keep us in a bubble. Those types of things detour people as they're searching for identity, community and purpose. On the fringes there is always somebody with a narrative, ready to give it to you and [to] certainly blame somebody else for the pain that you're feeling.”

On his first interaction that made him question his white supremacist beliefs

“It was really the first time I had a meaningful interaction with the people that I thought I hated. I opened this record store to sell racist music that I was making and importing and what I didn't expect to happen was that people would come into my store to buy the other music that I was selling, and those people were black and Jewish and gay. And suddenly, I was faced with this humanization that was replacing that challenge. I bonded with that black teenager because my own mother had been diagnosed with breast cancer and it was something that we shared, aside from everything else that was filling my head.”

On racist white men and boys knowing and interacting with people of color

“I would certainly never put the burden on people of color to make that happen, nor would I encourage people who are traditionally victims of racist violence to make that leap. But I can tell you that receiving compassion from the people that we least deserve it from — at times maybe when we least deserve it — is often the most powerful thing. In fact, it might be the only thing I've ever seen truly break hate to overcome that demonization.”

On radicalization in young people

“I think we're failing young people. You know, radicalization does not start when somebody finds an ideology. I think that the pre-radicalization stage starts the day we're born, when we start to hit those potholes in the road. And if we can't fill them, we get detoured to very dangerous, kind of fringe areas. And I think that we are failing young people in the sense that we are not serving their needs. We're not amplifying their passions. We're not finding the areas to refocus their energy before they find these ideologies. Nobody is born racist. And while we certainly see the results, the monstrous results, of the things that these racists do, in my work I have to believe that at some point that person was pure and maybe couldn't find their way. That's my job to see the child and not the monster because I have to believe that there are other people like me that were intercepted at times when they were vulnerable and ultimately could find the right path.”

On how many people are doing intervention work with far-right extremists

“There aren't very many people doing it, and I think that part of the barrier is that most people think that they can't do this work. There needs to be an infrastructure of psychologists, of job trainers, of life coaches, mental health professionals and mentors who can take over the aftercare with these people. People from their communities who can interface with them one-on-one. I'm a bridge builder but I certainly can build that bridge, but I can't build the road after that. That's up to people and the people in their communities to really step in and help. But one of the problems with this is that there has been no focus on far-right extremism in our country ever, and in recent times any effort to try and analyze the problem has been defunded. It's very difficult to be able to do this work without being able to train other people to help them understand what some of the strategies can be to do this intervention work with people who are at risk of violent extremism.”

On Trump’s “very fine people on both sides” comment after the Charlottesville “Unite The Right” rally turned violent

“I had an issue as well as most people do with what President Trump said when he said there were very fine people on both sides. But there may be people there that it was their first time meeting another white nationalist [or] that maybe the experience wasn't what they expected. And in fact, I've had many people who attended the Charlottesville rally reach out to me afterward because they wanted to not be associated with that. It wasn't something that they felt they believed anymore or at least they were questioning what they believed because of what happened. Now there were absolutely people there who were intending to cause violence, to cause mayhem. And certainly they're accountable for their actions. But in my work trying to ensure that people don't go further down that route, I have to provide escape routes for people who are intentioned on changing and not just trying to skirt the issue."

On escape routes for people trying to leave white supremacist groups

“I do a lot of listening and I listen for those potholes. I try and introduce them to the people that they think that they hate because oftentimes they haven't had those interactions, where somebody goes into a room thinking that they hate somebody else and walking out knowing that they have so much more in common with that person than they have different. It's a very compelling moment to witness.”

On what white parents can do to deradicalize their children, or stop them from getting there in the first place

“That's a really great question and people tend to think that what I do is very specialized. And certainly because I am a former extremist, I have a certain credibility talking with people who are still extremists, but I think all parents, all psychologists, all teachers, can do what I do. It really is just identifying vulnerable young people and then amplifying their passions [and] trying to fill those voids in their life, because I've never met a happy white supremacist. I've never met one with positive self-esteem. Everybody in these movements are there because they are broken to a certain degree and they're looking to project their pain onto somebody else. And I just see my job as kind of a bridge builder to the services that they need, and that's not making excuses for them. I still hold people accountable in many of the same ways I've held myself accountable for 23 years.”


Ciku Theuri produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Todd MundtSerena McMahon adapted it for the web. 

This segment aired on August 9, 2019.

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