The nonprofit was born from Picciolini's own experience as a neo-Nazi in the 1980s and 1990s. But now, he's making what he calls the difficult decision to shut the project down at the end of the year — even as he acknowledges racist extremism remains a major threat.
After 20 years of working one on one with hundreds of people trying to leave hate movements, Picciolini is calling for a shift in focus.
“If we don't switch focus to focus on prevention, the process of radicalization is quickly overcoming us,” he says. “And we're seeing too many people line up at our door for help disengaging when we really should be focusing much more heavily on prevention so future generations aren't moved toward that movement.”
Young people are most at risk for radicalization because they’re searching for “a sense of identity, community and purpose” — but older generations need help too, he says.
People in the U.S. need to get to the source of what’s pushing people toward extremism and shut off what he calls the “bigot spigot,” he says.
“Until we fix that,” he says, “there's no amount of de-radicalization or disengagement work that can put a dent in the number of people that are becoming radicalized.”
Trauma — which Picciolini refers to as life’s “potholes” during speaking engagements — leads people to find toxic identities and communities, he says.
Social media campaigns won’t fix this deeply ingrained cycle, he says: People need resources like access to mental health care, education and job security to fill these voids instead of finding harmful alternatives.
When people deeply immersed in hate groups approach Picciolini for help, he connects with professionals in the communities such as therapists, counselors, life coaches, teachers or even parents, he says.
“We have to learn to utilize the professionals that already exist in our communities,” he says.
Since announcing the end of the Free Radicals Project, Picciolini says he’s received support because people understand the need for a shift toward prevention to cut off the pipeline to radicalization.
“But also, people recognize that doing this work is traumatic,” he says. “Sitting in front of people to discuss their traumas, the things that happen to them in life, can also be a traumatizing effect on the people who listen.”
“Always focus on self-care, even as you're helping other people perform their own care,” he says.
The Free Radicals project accepted some donations as a nonprofit, but Picciolini says many people don’t know that he self-funded the organization for most of the last 20 years through speaking engagements and social media projects. Now, he doesn’t know what he’ll do with that money going forward.
For the first time in the last two decades, Picciolini believes people are starting to understand society’s problems. He thinks the Biden administration is trying to combat extremism.
“What I worry about, though, is that we are going to treat this problem of white supremacy almost the same way that we treated the war on drugs, where we are going to criminalize it and only go after the people who are ‘addicted’ to the ideology like they were addicted to a drug,” he says. “And we won't go after the traffickers. We won't go after the propagandists who are enabling this and who are furthering people becoming radicalized.”
The Biden administration wants to combat white supremacy by calling for more aggressive hiring at intelligence agencies to try to screen government employees for ties to hate groups. Veterans and members of police departments participated in the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection, for example.
Picciolini points out that the events of Jan. 6 didn’t occur in a vacuum — but rather represent the tip of an iceberg that’s been stirring for years.
“I think that as they pursue the Jan. 6 insurrection, holding people accountable at the highest levels is going to be very important to really putting a stop to this movement that is growing exponentially in recent years,” he says.
People in positions of power need to be better vetted, Picciolini says.
Back in the ‘80s and ‘90s, white supremacist leaders encouraged members to blend in with society and get jobs in law enforcement, prisons and local government, he says.
“I do think that we are at a moment where we have to hold people accountable because I do believe that redemption without accountability is just privilege,” he says, “especially in terms of people who are coming out of these hate movements who are trying to in some cases launder their image.”
This segment aired on December 6, 2021.