First seen in Montana Kaimin / Photo by Daniel Duensing
The shooting of 11 people in a synagogue last week, pipe bombs delivered to others, and the shooting of a black couple in Kentucky – all acts of terrorism influenced by white supremacy – laid the scene for an ex-white supremacist to speak at University of Montana’s DiverseU conference on Nov. 1, 2018.
Christian Picciolini called on white people to stand up against racism and white supremacy. He made it clear he was not another former racist who had washed himself of his transgressions. He has been allowed a second chance after falling into white supremacy, he said, to tell his story to create change. The second chance he received as a privileged white man is one many people of color are not afforded, he said.
A local rabbi introduced the speech with a prayer remembering Jewish victims of the shooting in Pittsburgh last week. The 13th DiverseU keynote speaker followed past years’ national civil rights and Black Lives Matter activists, Shaun King and Patrisse Cullors. DiverseU is an annual two-day event held at UM.
Picciolini made clear that white supremacy is alive and thriving in America, though its men and women look less obvious than the swastika-covered skinheads he resembled thirty-years ago when he became part of the burgeoning movement. Picciolini said he was part of the planning to tone down rhetoric in the white supremacist movement and make its image more palatable in the ‘90s, so members could move from “boots to suits,” into mainstream America.
Picciolini highlighted the need for white people to work to dismantle the racist system they built and still support, and that people of color are not responsible for dismantling it. He said he receives 12 requests per week from people who are trying to find their way out of the white supremacist movement. He said that number spikes after highly public hate crimes and massacres, such as the synagogue shooting.
The only way to fight white extremism, according to Picciolini, is through compassion and love, arguing does not work.
He said people do not join white supremacist movements unless they are searching to fill holes. For him, he was a dorky, bullied Italian kid who spent most of his time drawing in his grandparents’ closet.
After joining one of the first American skinhead gangs in Chicago at 14 years old, Picciolini spent the next 13 years of his life immersing himself in and leading the white supremacist group. He found identity, community, and purpose within the skinhead gang. He also found racism and ideology that cemented white supremacy and white power at the expense of other minorities.
“It became my world because it was feeding my identity,” he said.
He started a white power record store, but he sold other records which brought different races into his store. Eventually the exposure to the people he had labeled the “other” weakened his beliefs of white superiority. Picciolini left the white-supremacy group he ran, and has spent the last twenty-three years making amends for his actions.
Picciolini talked about Atomwaffen, a white supremacist group responsible for five people’s deaths since 2017. He also talked about women’s roles as the mouthpiece of the movement, Richard Spencer, Russian bating and controlling of the white supremacist movement, and the online recruiting of at-risk communities, including the mentally ill.
“This is not a fringe movement,” Piccolini said. We will continue to see the shootings and hate crimes until people are held accountable, he warned the audience.
Picciolini spends his time running Free Radicals, a program focused on providing members of hate groups resources for exiting the groups.
“There are people who are Americans who still don’t have the same rights or safety that I have,” Picciolini said, adding that is the privilege he has as a white man. White people need to become comfortable with being uncomfortable talking about race, he said. Picciolini acknowledged interpersonal racism that he addresses does not fix the larger systemic and institutional racism of America.
Zikomo Nahoopii, a 19-year-old sophomore biology student, introduced Picciolini’s speech. Nahoopii said he was happy to see the speaker honestly take responsibility for his past actions, though it was a controversial thought to bring an ex-white supremacist to speak at DiverseU.
Nahoopii said it is tokenizing for everyone to expect him to answer questions about race as the only person of color in many of his classes at UM.
“It is something you can educate yourself and acknowledge,” he said of white people’s responsibility to educate themselves on race issues. “It is not my responsibility to fix something that was placed upon me,” Nahoopii said.
Picciolini hopes to give the current youth generation the tools to defend the democracy.
“We are still Americans, we still have a lot of things to learn, and we still have a lot of work to do,” Picciolini said.