WASHINGTON (CN) – Thirty-two years ago, Christian Picciolini was recruited into America’s first neo-Nazi skinhead group. On Wednesday, he came before Congress to warn lawmakers that silence in the face of white extremism is deadly, ambiguous rhetoric is dangerous and inaction is untenable if the U.S is ever to escape the yoke of white supremacy.
Picciolini was 14 when he was first recruited into hate. The son of Italian-American immigrants who worked seven days a week, 16 hours a day, he was often alone.
His parents loved him, he told members of the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on international terrorism Wednesday, but he was an immature, “idealistic kid” looking for identity, community and purpose.
For eight years, he was a skinhead mouthpiece who recruited teenagers and wrote racist music for fellow white supremacists in the white power bands Final Solution and White American Youth.
He was de-radicalized in 1996 through what he described to lawmakers as ‘the compassion of the people he least deserved it from” including black and Latinx Americans, Jews, Muslims and the LGBTQ community.
“I had never had that but it was not the responsibility of people of color or victims to do that,” he said.
Their compassion launched his escape from extremism and ever since, he had confronted white extremism head-on. He founded the Free Radicals Project, a program countering hate narratives that provides support for those entrenched in white extremism.
“I do a lot of listening rather than debating. What I learn about are the potholes in a person’s life: trauma, poverty, joblessness, even privilege can be a barrier. I fill those potholes in with help and we build human resilience first without addressing ideology. Then, I address the ideology by immersing them with the people they hate,” he said.
Picciolini, as one man, can do only so much.
Since he gave up extremism, white terrorism has increased. Picciolini told lawmakers Wednesday, he was broken in 2017 when he learned that Dylann Roof – who walked into a Charleston, South Carolina, church and murdered nine black worshippers – had, just four months before the shooting, asked in an internet forum about the inflammatory lyrics Picciolini had written decades earlier. Some of those lyrics even appeared in Roof’s manifesto.
Far right terrorists were linked to every extremist domestic event in 2018, the most ever since 1995, according to the Anti-Defamation League. The Southern Poverty Law Center reported a 50% increase in the formation of white nationalist groups between 2017 and 2018. Since 2014, at least 81 people have been killed under the banner of white extremism.
Events like 9/11 changed the way America deals with fundamentalist terrorism at home and abroad but the bulk of federal resources focus solely only on Islamic–based terror.
White extremism surveillance, reporting, arrests, indictments, investigations – all of it has failed to keep pace, Cynthia Miller-Idriss, director of international training and education at American University, said.
In June, the FBI reported to congress that 80% of its agents focus on international and Islamic extremism, leaving 20% of its resources to stopping domestic terrorists, including white supremacists.
In the last year, 70% of Islamic terrorist activity was stopped, according to the FBI, but only 29% of white supremacist attacks were thwarted. The KKK remains a threat, and, despite attempts by companies like Facebook to deplatform them, they adapt.
“They migrated to a Russian platform, VKontakte. When they were banned there, they moved to Ukraine. When banned in Ukraine, they came back to Facebook in the U.S. but this time, using Cyrillic letters. Single platform banning doesn’t always work, it can make it worse,” Miller-Idriss said before emphasizing that Congress will not stop white extremism if it treats it like a temporary problem that can be solved by waving money at it.
“Racism has moved more into the mainstream, social media amplifies it and the rhetoric from political leaders and the media has legitimized and reinforced those words,” Miller-Idriss said.
Necessary changes will be systemic and institutional, Picciolini said.
“De-radicalization is only a band-aid. I can treat the sick but we have to inoculate the population through systemic change or we just have a factory where we churn out racists all the time,” he said.
Texas Democrat Representative Al Green, one of the first lawmakers to call for President Donald Trump’s impeachment, asked the experts if they believed whether the “tone or tenor” on a subject like white nationalism must be set “from the top.”
Trump’s comments after the white supremacist attack in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017 came to Green’s mind first.
“Were there any nice or ‘very fine people’ in that group that screamed ‘blood and soil’ and ‘Jews will not replace us?’” Green said.
“I have to believe there were nice people there because it is my job to try and pull them out. But I think the statement of ‘very fine people’ was a dangerous one because it equivocated two things that were not equal,” Picciolini said.
Solutions could start with preventative programs that stomp out extremism early. Those who testified Wednesday said that the federal government cannot do all that work alone, and would need the support of state and local officials, and school board.
“We have to start teaching history the right way. We’re teaching the Civil War different in different places of the country, some places, its [origin] is taught as coming from Northern aggression, others it’s about slavery” Picciolini said.
After all, the former skinhead told Congress, people are not born Nazis or racists.
“They learn it,” he said. “They can unlearn it but it takes repairing their foundation and building human resilience to do that.”