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WASHINGTON — Christian Picciolini, a former neo-Nazi leader who now helps deradicalize white supremacists, was looking forward to expanding his efforts with funding from the federal government, authorized in January.
But in June, Picciolini learned the Trump administration had rescinded the $400,000 grant for his Chicago-based group, called Life After Hate, after then-Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly reviewed the list of organizations receiving money under a program to counter violent extremism in the United States. Kelly said the review was to ensure “taxpayer dollars go to programs with the highest likelihood of success, that support the men and women on the front lines of this fight, and that can be self-sustaining into the future.” Kelly rescinded funding for 12 groups and added seven others.
Picciolini, however, wonders whether his group’s focus on white supremacism, rather than extreme radical Islam, may be behind the decision, though he stresses he doesn’t know — he never heard back from the department about why Life After Hate was excluded. A program at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill that countered recruiting messages from both jihadi and white supremacy groups was also cut from the DHS grants. White House official Sebastian Gorka is against countering violent extremism programs, and HuffPost reported that his wife, Katharine Gorka, an official at DHS, lobbied against giving funds to Life After Hate.
“After we won, they changed the rules of the game,” Picciolini told Yahoo News.
A spokeswoman for the Department of Homeland Security pointed out that 16 of the 26 recipients of funding are working to fight “all forms of violent extremism,” including racially motivated domestic terrorism. Many of the awardees are police departments or other law enforcement agencies.
But the final list did not include any groups that exclusively focus on white supremacism, a decision that is receiving fresh scrutiny after a white nationalist at the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville allegedly rammed his car into a crowd of counterprotesters Saturday, killing one and injuring more than a dozen.
“It is ultimately shortsighted, and it shows a remarkable lack of imagination to cut such programs,” said John Horgan, a professor at the Global Studies Institute and department of psychology at Georgia State University. “Anyone who has been paying attention to the threat landscape in the U.S. over the past 10 years knows that the threat of extreme right wing violence is dramatically increasing.”
Indeed, a U.S. intelligence bulletin obtained by Foreign Policy warned of that threat, finding that white supremacists “were responsible for 49 homicides in 26 attacks from 2000 to 2016 … more than any other domestic extremist movement.” Another count, by national security expert Peter Bergen, says jihadi-inspired terrorists have killed 95 Americans since 9/11, while far-right terrorists have killed 68 Americans.
“I can’t tell you how many people, how many parents I speak to who are in the exact same situation as [the family of] the guy who drove that car,” Picciolini says, referring to 20-year-old James Alex Fields Jr., a white nationalist who is charged with murdering a counterprotester with his car last Saturday.
“‘My son is marginalized, he hasn’t made new friends, he’s reading Mein Kampf,’” he says, characterizing the calls he gets every day from parents describing a child who is withdrawing from society and becoming radicalized.
Picciolini believes that many of the same factors that lead a troubled young man to be attracted to the violent imagery of the Islamic State could lead others to embrace extreme white supremacy.
“When you ask them why they joined, none of them will tell you ideology: It’s about belonging,” he says of the people he treats. “It’s about community, a sense of purpose.”
Picciolini went down the same path 30 years ago as a lost and lonely teenager in Illinois. In the 1980s, he joined a skinhead group in Chicago and then eventually became its leader and merged it with another neo-Nazi group called Hammerskins. It wasn’t until the mid-1990s, after he had a son and opened a record store to sell white power music, that he began to question his beliefs.
“When my son was born, it challenged my narrative,” he recalls. “Was I a skinhead or was I a father? Who was my community? What was my purpose: to save the white race or to support my family? In the first time in my short lifetime I had something to love instead of something to hate.”
White power music had a limited customer base, and Picciolini began to sell punk and hip-hop, which brought a whole new clientele of people he thought he hated to his store. He interacted with customers who were Jewish, gay, black — and found he didn’t hate them.
“I received compassion from people I least deserved it from when I least deserved it,” he says.
Now, Picciolini tries to re-create that experience for young white supremacists who contact him, or whose family members contact him. He introduces them to people they think they hate — whether it’s a gay couple or a Muslim family. Arguing with them doesn’t work and only makes them angrier. Exposure to the objects of their prejudice sometimes does.
“Nine times out of 10, they’d never met or have a meaningful interaction with people they hate,” Picciolini says.
He also has a network of about 100 former neo-Nazis or white supremacists who offer private, nonjudgmental support to those thinking of leaving the movement. He planned to use the government grant to train some of the people in his network to do the face-to-face interventions he does around the country.
The face of white supremacism has changed since Picciolini shaved his head and covered himself in neo-Nazi tattoos. In Charlottesville, many of the marchers — including Fields — wore khaki pants and polo shirts.
“We recognized with our swastikas, our shaved heads that we were turning away the average American racist that we wanted to recruit because they were turned off by it,” Picciolini says of his former skinhead group. “We said you know what, let’s grow our hair out, let’s wear suits, let’s go to college, let’s get jobs, let’s run for office, and here we are 30 years later.”
With the new look come new challenges to deradicalizing youth swept up in the movement.
“There’s so much propaganda online, it’s a little harder to prove to them that what they’re reading is fake because there’s so much of it,” Picciolini said.
Gone are the days of a few white power pamphlets and books — the internet provides endless sites promoting white supremacy. And with many white supremacists no longer waving swastika flags, some of the social stigma has evaporated as well.
“It’s a little bit harder because it’s a little bit more acceptable these days,” Picciolini says. “I hate to say this, but we’re living in a country right now where people aren’t afraid to say that stuff anymore. They feel like they have a president who backs them up.”
Picciolini referenced former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke, who said last weekend’s rally was about fulfilling “the promises of Donald Trump.” On Monday, Trump specifically denounced racism and the KKK, after originally sticking to a general denunciation of hate on “many sides.”
“They feel like he’s tied into their ideas and policies,” he said. “I don’t think we’ve seen anything like this where white supremacists felt so emboldened since the 1950s.”
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