A former neo-Nazi who works to counter violent extremism warns that hate groups’ recruitment efforts are growing more sophisticated, and they’re having success luring troubled youth. Christian Picciolini, who spent eight years in the skinhead movement, spoke at St. Cloud State University Tuesday. It was part of a series of listening sessions on white nationalism organized by Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison.
Ellison’s forum comes a month after the Minnesota Department of Human Rights, abruptly called off a public discussion on hate crimes in St. Cloud over what officials said were safety concerns. It also followed a New York Times story last summer that focused on longstanding tensions between white and Somali-American community members.
Before the event, Ellison emphasized to reporters that he is not implying that St. Cloud is a white nationalist hotbed, noting that he hosted a similar listening session last week at a Minneapolis synagogue.
“How can we say the problem is in one place and not another? It’s everywhere,” Ellison said. “And we need to build a strong, cohesive bond amongst each other. We need to talk to each other. We need to listen to each other.”
To drive home that point, Ellison invited Picciolini as the evening’s main speaker. Picciolini joined a white power skinhead group at age 14, rose through the ranks quickly, and helped the organization grow. He quit more than 20 years ago. Since then, he’s helped others leave the movement, and has dedicated his life to stopping white supremacists’ recruitment efforts.
Picciolini says the work continually poses new challenges because social media amplifies hate groups’ ever more sophisticated messaging.
“I know that their plans are to overthrow the government even though that’s not what they say in public. I know that they’re against democracy, even though they wave the American flag and say that they’re patriots. Trust me, this is a marketing plan.”
White supremacy is the fastest growing youth movement Picciolini has seen. He calls the phenomenon terrifying.
Despite all he’s experienced, Picciolini remains convinced that people are not born racist, but are drawn to racism out of disaffection, loneliness, and self-loathing. And he said recruiters target people with those feelings.
“I started to take my own self-hatred and project it onto other people, my own self confidence issues, my own feelings of inadequacy and of not fitting in. I started to take those and put those on other people. And when I did that, it was like a drug,” he said.
Picciolini received a warm reception from the audience of about 250. But he also heard pushback. Jane Conrad of Richmond — who says she’s experienced severe anti-Semitism in her life — found Picciolini’s self-hatred hyphothesis offensive.
“The way I feel when I hear that is ‘that’s not my problem.’ My problem is to keep myself, my family, and my LGBTQ child safe at all costs,” she said.
Picciolini said he’s not trying to minimize the fact that white supremacy is extremely harmful, but he countered that he sees self-loathing is the common denominator among recruits, and most have never met the people they purport to hate.
Toward the end of the gathering, the DFL attorney general recognized a half dozen elected officials in the audience, including Paul Brandmire, a St. Cloud City Council member.
Brandmire, a Republican, has publicly expressed opposition to the resettlement of Somali refugees in the community. In the New York Times story last June, he compared it to the famous feud between the Hatfield and McCoy families. That led some here to call for Brandmire’s resignation.
But Brandmire argued against linking legitimate concerns about assimilation and what he calls disorganized resettlement efforts, to violent white supremacy.
“Taking a step back and looking at it anecdotally, and logically and intellectually, if it had happened more orderly, more slowly, I don’t think that we would have had the resistance that we have had,” Brandmire said.
Muhyadin Ali, president of the Islamic Center of St. Cloud, said there are some residents who are not welcoming, but overall, the climate is better.
“We are moving [toward] building a better community. But we also have a few challenges and a few groups that are working against building a better community,” Ali said.
Attorney General Ellison is scheduled to hold his next forum on hate crimes and white nationalism in Rochester on Dec. 3.