Kristen Mcqueary, Tribune News Service
To the oblivious eye, the tattoos colouring Christian Picciolini’s arms resemble intricate artwork — a colour-by-number masterpiece from shoulder to wrist. But to the knowing, the ink thicket telegraphs something more sinister. White power.
For most of his teen years and into young adulthood, Picciolini, who grew up in Blue Island, led a white supremacist movement that attracted a global audience. He recruited other members, wrote and sold white power music, encouraged acts of violence against African American and Jewish people, got kicked out of several high schools, including Marist and Brother Rice on the Southwest Side, and admired and emulated Adolf Hitler. He began tattooing his body with white power symbols and quotes, now a permanent and painful reminder of his past.
Right-leaning Fox News talk show host Tucker Carlson, following the Aug. 3 mass shooting at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, claimed white supremacy was a “hoax” perpetuated by Democrats and liberals to divide the country. Because he never met a white supremacist, Carlson concluded they don’t exist. Huh.
Carlson, meet Picciolini.
As founder of the nonprofit organisation Free Radicals Project that counsels radicalised individuals and groups, a reformed Picciolini is inundated with pleas for help. Requests for speaking engagements, advice and intervention have increased under the Trump administration. Some days, Picciolini can’t keep up with the calls and emails. Does that mean President Donald Trump is responsible for inciting acts of violence? No. Is our president a white nationalist? No. But his tweets, his remarks during interviews and at rallies, and his sluggish and insufficient responses to racially motivated violence feed “people on the fringes,” Picciolini says.
He would know. He was one.
“Of course not every Trump supporter is a racist, a Nazi or a white nationalist,” he says. “Racism is nothing new. It has always existed. But the rhetoric out of this administration, and specifically the president, at times mirrors almost identically what I used to say 30 years ago in the movement. Religious-based bans, the way immigrants are demonised, things like ‘s---hole countries,’ words like ‘animals’ and ‘invasion.’ They were the exact words of the neo-Nazi movement.”
Chicago-based Picciolini and his group currently are juggling more than 400 cases and requests for help from white supremacists, reformed supremacists who feel shamed and traumatised, family members concerned about a loved one, colleagues worried about a co-worker — you name it. Picciolini’s group works with and trains law enforcement and also counsels and engages with hate group members to try to pry them free. He does it with understanding and compassion, not disgust. How? He imagines each hater as a child, both visually and metaphorically. No one is born latched onto racist ideology, he says. But they often hit “potholes” in life — loss, addiction, isolation — and seek out a sense of community and purpose. “As ugly as it is to think about Dylann Roof, at one point he was not a Nazi monster. He was some kid who over time found that path,” Picciolini says of the South Carolina mass shooter who killed nine worshippers, all black, attending a prayer service.
Federal funding for Picciolini’s organisation through the US Department of Homeland Security has been drying up, prompting him to launch a grassroots fundraising campaign this week at www.freeradicals.org to help his outreach expand. The feds remain focused on extremism, not domestic. But domestic terrorism through white supremacy ideology is a public safety threat. Law enforcement authorities thwart potential attacks routinely. We just don’t hear as much about it.
“The number of people reaching out to us for help is staggering,” Picciolini says. “I get national security threats sent to my inbox. I’m the first (contact) for people who don’t want to go to law enforcement right off the bat.”
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