Ex-supremacist warns of growing white nationalism movement: 'We are seeing a surge in it'

It was the summer of 1987 when Clark Reid Martell, the leader of the Chicago Area Skinheads (CASH), approached 14-year-old Christian Picciolini, who was smoking a joint in an alleyway. At the time, Picciolini, the son of Italian immigrants, was somewhat of a loner — he had spent much of his life growing up in a rough neighborhood in the south side of Chicago, where he was often picked on. For a moment that night, the joint gave him a high that he needed.

Martell, however, was having none of it. Although he wasn't physically intimidating, he spoke with authority. With one swift move, he pulled the joint from Picciolini's mouth and shared a few words that would lead the teenager down a dark path for the next eight years — one that would contribute to an incredibly publicized movement today that he himself did not envision. 

"He said, 'That's what the Communists and Jews want you to do to keep you docile,'" Picciolini recalled in an interview with In the Know. "I have to be honest with you. I didn't even know what a Communist, a Jew or even what the word 'docile' was."

Though he was skeptical of Martell, Picciolini said he was sure of one thing that night: He wanted a sense of identity, community and purpose, and Martell seemed to offer all three.

"As soon as I started hanging around these guys, bullies stopped picking on me, and all the girls started coming to me," Picciolini said.


Photo: Courtesy of Christian Picciolini

Two years later, after Martell was sentenced to 11 years in prison for beating a woman who wanted to leave CASH, Picciolini took charge of the group. He stockpiled an arsenal of weapons, from an AK-47 to a sawed-off shotgun, and would frequently get into fights with people of color. One day, believing that one of his victims was out to get him, he grabbed his shotgun and flung a curtain open, only to find himself mistakenly pointing the barrel directly at his mother. Still, that episode did nothing to convince him to reconsider the life he was living.

In an effort to spread CASH's message, Picciolini formed one of America's first "hate rock" bands in the early 1990s and even performed in Europe. That music would later find its way to Dylann Roof, who, on the evening of June 17, 2015, shot nine people to death at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, in South Carolina. 

One day, when Picciolini was 19 years old, he and several members of his crew had been drinking when they walked into a McDonald's and spotted several black teenagers. Drunk and angry, they told the teenagers to leave before a heated altercation ensued. One of the teens fired a pistol at Picciolini and his gang before they caught up to him. As Picciolini kicked the teen, something suddenly hit him. 

"We made eye contact, and I felt empathy," he recalled. "I think that was the last time I committed an act of violence."

Although Piccolini started to have his doubts about his involvement in CASH, he wasn't sure how to leave. After all, he was the group's leader and didn't want to tip his fellow members off. It took him three more years before he left the gang for good. 

"It was a rough eight years," he said. "A lot of violence, a lot of heartbreak."

Photo: Courtesy of Christian Picciolini

Picciolini has since been trying to make up for his past mistakes. Last year, he founded the Free Radicals Project, a nonprofit that "aids individuals, and their families or communities, in exiting hateful and violence-based radicalization" not just at home in the U.S. but overseas as well. In many of those cases, extremists, who have been slowly questioning the organizations they joined, have approached him for counseling. Picciolini's also written a couple of memoirs detailing his descent into one of the world's most violent hate movements.

"I’m not about forcing ideas on anybody," he said. "It’s not an ideological process, it’s about repairing their resilience as a human being."

Yet, despite Picciolini's work, white nationalism has gotten stronger and become more visible, especially in the years following President Trump's election, in 2016.

"As white nationalism goes, we are seeing a surge in it," Picciolini said. "We’re at a time right now in society where there's a lot of confusion. Usually, when it's like that, it's pretty ripe for nationalism. When people have grievances, they're looking for solutions. We're being pushed to opposing cliffs."

Last year, the Southern Poverty Law Center identified nearly 150 white nationalist hate groups, several of which were in incredibly ethnically diverse cities such as Atlanta, New York and San Francisco. That same year, the FBI noted that hate crimes jumped 16 percent between 2016 and 2017. Over 50 percent of the offenders in the 2017 cases were white. Some have latched onto the anti-immigrant rhetoric espoused by Trump, who enjoys wide support from those on the alt-right.

"It's becoming more acceptable part of the mainstream," Picciolini said. "We're now starting to hear politicians — a significant number of politicians — who are parroting the same kind of conspiracy theories."

The now-reformed white supremacist said that the state of white nationalism is more troubling today. 

"Nothing I said [back then] was mainstream," he said. "To hear those words being said right now, on the national discourse, for somebody like me who's been there, it's like PTSD. For somebody who's still in the movement, it's like PCP. They are now hearing the words that they were saying for so long being said by more people. They feel that the bar has changed. Now, it's about being more extreme."

Photo: Courtesy of Christian Picciolini

Those extremes have come in the form of what was once unimaginable violence. In 2017, for instance, James Alex Fields plowed his car into a group of people who were peacefully protesting against a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Va. Fields, who killed civil rights activist Heather Heyer in the process, was sentenced to life in prison earlier this year. 

In March, Australian gunman Brenton Tarrant targeted Muslims in Christchurch, New Zealand, and killed 51 people who were attending prayers. And, more recently, Patrick Crusius opened fire in a shopping area in El Paso, a city with a large Hispanic population, killing 22 people and injuring 24 others. In both cases, the shooters wrote xenophobic manifestos that referenced both Trump and French white nationalist conspiracy writer Renaud Camus.

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El Paso shooting leaves 20 dead, more than two dozen injured
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El Paso shooting leaves 20 dead, more than two dozen injured
Law enforcement from different agencies work the scene of a shooting at a shopping mall in El Paso, Texas, on Saturday, Aug. 3, 2019. Multiple people were killed and one person was in custody after a shooter went on a rampage at a shopping mall, police in the Texas border town of El Paso said. (AP Photo/Rudy Gutierrez)
Law enforcement work the scene of a shooting at a shopping mall in El Paso, Texas, on Saturday, Aug. 3, 2019. Multiple people were killed and one person was in custody after a shooter went on a rampage at a shopping mall, police in the Texas border town of El Paso said. (AP Photo/Rudy Gutierrez)
Police tape strung across an intersection behind the scene of a shooting at a shopping mall in El Paso, Texas, on Saturday, Aug. 3, 2019. Multiple people were killed and one person was in custody after a shooter went on a rampage at a shopping mall, police in the Texas border town of El Paso said. (AP Photo/Rudy Gutierrez)
An El Paso police officer talks to a store employee following a shooting at a shopping mall in El Paso, Texas, on Saturday, Aug. 3, 2019. Multiple people were killed and one person was in custody after a shooter went on a rampage at a shopping mall, police in the Texas border town of El Paso said. (AP Photo/Rudy Gutierrez)
Law enforcement officers make their way along a walkway to the scene of a shooting at a shopping mall in El Paso, Texas, on Saturday, Aug. 3, 2019. Several people were killed in the shooting Saturday in a busy shopping area in the Texas border town. (AP Photo/Rudy Gutierrez)
People walk out of an elementary school after family members were asked to reunite following a shooting at a shopping mall in El Paso, Texas, on Saturday, Aug. 3, 2019. Multiple people were killed and one person was in custody after a shooter went on a rampage at a shopping mall, police in the Texas border town of El Paso said. (AP Photo/Rudy Gutierrez)
An El Paso police officer checks vehicles along a roadway near the scene of a shooting at a shopping mall in El Paso, Texas, on Saturday, Aug. 3, 2019. Several people were killed in the shooting Saturday in a busy shopping area in the Texas border town. (AP Photo/Rudy Gutierrez)
Ambulances stage in the parking near the scene of a shooting at a shopping mall in El Paso, Texas, on Saturday, Aug. 3, 2019. Several people were killed in the shooting Saturday in a busy shopping area in the Texas border town. (AP Photo/Rudy Gutierrez)
U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers stage along a street near the scene of a shooting at a shopping mall in El Paso, Texas, on Saturday, Aug. 3, 2019. Several people were killed in the shooting Saturday in a busy shopping area in the Texas border town. (AP Photo/Rudy Gutierrez)
U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers gather near the scene of a shooting at a shopping mall in El Paso, Texas, on Saturday, Aug. 3, 2019. Multiple people were killed and one person was in custody after a shooter went on a rampage at a shopping mall, police in the Texas border town of El Paso said. (AP Photo/Rudy Gutierrez)
People walk into an elementary school to look for loved ones near the site of a shooting at a shopping mall in El Paso, Texas, on Saturday, Aug. 3, 2019. Several people were killed in the shooting Saturday in a busy shopping area in the Texas border town. (AP Photo/Rudy Gutierrez)
A law enforcement officer walks near the scene of a shooting at a shopping mall in El Paso, Texas, on Saturday, Aug. 3, 2019. Multiple people were killed and one person was in custody after a shooter went on a rampage at a shopping mall, police in the Texas border town of El Paso said. (AP Photo/Rudy Gutierrez)
Law enforcement officers arrive near the scene of a shooting at a shopping mall in El Paso, Texas, on Saturday, Aug. 3, 2019. Several people were killed in the shooting Saturday in a busy shopping area in the Texas border town. (AP Photo/Rudy Gutierrez)
A police officer stands outside a home in Allen, Texas, believed to be associated with a mass shooting at a busy shopping area in the border town of El Paso, Saturday, Aug. 3, 2019. (AP Photo/Jake Bleiberg)
Agentes de varias corporaciones se presentan en el lugar donde se registró un tiroteo en un centro comercial de El Paso, Texas, el sábado 3 de agosto de 2019. (AP Foto/Rudy Gutierrez)
Agentes de varias corporaciones se presentan en el lugar donde se registró un tiroteo en un centro comercial de El Paso, Texas, el sábado 3 de agosto de 2019. (AP Foto/Rudy Gutierrez)
Edie Hallberg, left, speaks with police officers outside the Walmart store as she's looking for her missing mother Angie Englisbee, 87, who was in the store during the mass shooting in El Paso, Texas, Saturday, Aug. 3, 2019. Multiple people were killed and one person was in custody after a shooter went on a rampage at a shopping mall, police in the Texas border town of El Paso said. (AP Photo/Andres Leighton)
Edie Hallberg cries while speaking to the police outside the Walmart store as she's looking for her missing mother Angie Englisbee, 87, who was in the store during the mass shooting in El Paso, Texas, Saturday, Aug. 3, 2019. Multiple people were killed and one person was in custody after a shooter went on a rampage at a shopping mall, police in the Texas border town of El Paso said. (AP Photo/Andres Leighton)
Texas state police cars block the access to the Walmart store in the aftermath of a mass shooting in El Paso, Texas, Saturday, Aug. 3, 2019. Multiple people were killed and one person was in custody after a shooter went on a rampage at a shopping mall, police in the Texas border town of El Paso said. (AP Photo/Andres Leighton)
An El Paso Police officer stands guard outside a Walmart store in the aftermath of a deadly shooting in El Paso, Texas, Saturday, Aug. 3, 2019. (AP Photo/Andres Leighton)
From left, Melody Stout, Hannah Payan, Aaliyah Alba, Sherie Gramlich and Laura Barrios comfort each other during a vigil for victims of the shooting Saturday, Aug. 3, 2019, in El Paso, Texas. A young gunman opened fire in an El Paso, Texas, shopping area during the busy back-to-school season, leaving multiple people dead and more than two dozen injured. (AP Photo/John Locher)
People embrace during a vigil for victims of the shooting Saturday, Aug. 3, 2019, in El Paso, Texas. A young gunman opened fire in an El Paso, Texas, shopping area during the busy back-to-school season, leaving multiple people dead and more than two dozen injured. (AP Photo/John Locher)
People attend a vigil for victims of the shooting Saturday, Aug. 3, 2019, in El Paso, Texas. A young gunman opened fire in an El Paso, Texas, shopping area during the busy back-to-school season, leaving multiple people dead and more than two dozen injured. (AP Photo/John Locher)
Melody Stout and Hannah Payan comfort each other during a vigil for victims of the shooting that occurred earlier in the day at a shopping center, Saturday, Aug. 3, 2019, in El Paso, Texas. (AP Photo/John Locher)
People gather in Juarez, Mexico, Saturday, Aug. 3, 2019, in a vigil for the 3 Mexican nationals who were killed in an El Paso shopping-complex shooting. Twenty people were killed and more than two dozen injured in a shooting Saturday in a busy shopping area in the Texas border town of El Paso, the state’s governor said. (AP Photo/Christian Chavez)
People gather in Juarez, Mexico, Saturday, Aug. 3, 2019, in a vigil for the 3 Mexican nationals who were killed in an El Paso shopping-complex shooting. Twenty people were killed and more than two dozen injured in a shooting Saturday in a busy shopping area in the Texas border town of El Paso, the state’s governor said. (AP Photo/Christian Chavez)
From left, Samuel Lerma, Arzetta Hodges and Desiree Quintanar attend a vigil for victims of the deadly shooting that occurred earlier in the day at a shopping center Saturday, Aug. 3, 2019, in El Paso, Texas. (AP Photo/John Locher)
People gather in Juarez, Mexico, Saturday, Aug. 3, 2019, in a vigil for the 3 Mexican nationals who were killed in an El Paso shopping-complex shooting. Twenty people were killed and more than two dozen injured in a shooting Saturday in a busy shopping area in the Texas border town of El Paso, the state’s governor said. (AP Photo/Christian Chavez)
People gather in Juarez, Mexico, Saturday, Aug. 3, 2019, in a vigil for the 3 Mexican nationals who were killed in an El Paso shopping-complex shooting. Twenty people were killed and more than two dozen injured in a shooting Saturday in a busy shopping area in the Texas border town of El Paso, the state’s governor said. (AP Photo/Christian Chavez)
A police officer stands in the doorway to a Walmart where a gunman opened fire in a shopping complex Saturday, Aug. 3, 2019, in El Paso, Texas. (AP Photo/John Locher)
A woman sits next to a sign with a message that reads: ¨No More Guns! Make Love¨, in Juarez, Mexico, Saturday, Aug. 3, 2019, where people are gathering for a vigil for the 3 Mexican nationals who were killed in an El Paso shopping-complex shooting. Twenty people were killed and more than two dozen injured in a shooting Saturday in a busy shopping area in the Texas border town of El Paso, the state’s governor said. (AP Photo/Christian Chavez)
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More concerning is the fact that both the FBI and Justice Department have been slow in identifying crimes that fall under white nationalist domestic terrorism. In July, a report by the Brennan Center for Justice noted that while terrorism investigations are the FBI’s "number one priority," the policies of the Justice Department "de-prioritize far-right terrorism as a national security threat, ranking it behind cases it labels 'international' terrorism.'"

"There is no group whose task it is to stop every white supremacist," Picciolini said. "The violence angle scares me. On the cyberspace angle, we are completely behind on it. There are foreign actors that are bolstering it. There are still Americans who are going to Eastern Europe to get trained in these partisan camps. I don’t see any indication of it not spreading."

American white supremacists have also stepped up their propaganda efforts at home, according to the Anti-Defamation League. Last year, there were 1,187 reported incidents in which such individuals used "explicitly racist images and words" and distributed "racist, anti-Semitic and Islamophobic fliers, stickers, banners and posters" — an increase of 182 percent of similar incidents the year before.

Even if Trump — whose name many on the "alt-right" have referenced in their campaign —  loses in the 2020 presidential election, Picciolini said he believes a majority of those who strongly identify with white nationalism will remain steadfast in their mission to start a global race war.

"True-believer types will work harder," he said.

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