Photo by Meredith Goldberg
Christian Picciolini has owned a record store, run his own label, Sinister Muse, and managed bands like Flatfoot 56 and The Briggs. What many never knew until recently is that Picciolini—a friendly, generous guy who has done plenty to help the punk rock world—spent years of his life as a member of the White Power Movement. He recorded and toured the globe with a White Power band, and was a major figure in recruiting for the hate group.
Having long since left that world behind, Picciolini cofounded the group Life After Hate, a nonprofit consultancy and speakers’ bureau dedicated to helping communities and organizations learn long-term solutions to counter all types of violent extremism. A few years ago, he decided to write about his ugly past. Months ago, with the book finally written, he set up a Kickstarter campaign to print his memoir “Romantic Violence: Memoirs of an American Skinhead.” He hit his fundraising goal in two days, ultimately raising $15,000. With the extra money, he’ll donate copies of the book to all of the Chicago public libraries as well as youth homes and prisons throughout Illinois.
How did you first get involved with these hate groups.
I’ll just start from the very beginning. My parents came to this country in the mid 1960s, so I’m a kid of Italian immigrants. For the first 14 years of my life, I was a pretty lonely kid. My parents came here and they worked hard. They were trying to chase the American Dream. Because of that, they were working all the time and I was pretty much raised by my grandparents, so I had to struggle for an identity for the first 14 years of my life.
We lived in a southwest suburb of Chicago that, at the time, was kind of an upper middle class neighborhood. We weren’t an upper middle class family, but that’s where we lived and what they were working towards. So, I grew up with these pretty vanilla kids whose parents were doctors and lawyers, and I was this Italian immigrant kid who didn’t look like them and my parents hardly spoke English. Every day after school, I was taken to my grandparents’ neighborhood, which was this lower middle class immigrant neighborhood. The kids in my school didn’t want to have anything to do with me and neither did the kids in my grandparents’ neighborhood.
You didn’t have many opportunities to connect with other kids?
Exactly. So, at 14, I met this stoner kid down the block. I was smoking a joint with him in the alley—probably the first time I ever smoked pot—and down the alley comes roaring this ‘69 Firebird, spitting out gravel. It screeched to a halt and this guy steps out, and he’s got a shaved head and boots and jeans rolled up. This was 1987, so I [didn’t]—and really no one—knew what a skinhead was. He gets really close to me, smacks my head and says, “Don’t you know that’s what the Communists and the Jews want you to do to keep you docile?”
I didn’t know what a communist was, I barely knew what a Jew was, but it struck me at the time that an adult said something to me that actually had some meaning behind it. I ended up becoming infatuated with this guy, and it turned out he was Clark Martell and he was infamous for starting the first American White Power Skinhead gang.
So, that meeting was your first step toward joining a hate group?
For the next seven years of my life. I became enamored with everything about them. I didn’t know anything about politics or race. My parents weren’t racists, in fact, they were victims of racism because they didn’t speak the language and were foreigners. It was not anything I was raised on, but I became enamored with the fashion of the skinheads, because it looked tough and I wasn’t tough. So, I started to mimic them, shaving my head, listening to their White Power music.
You went on to become a part of the group and start your own skinhead band. How did you end up leaving?
I got married and had two children, and started to have doubts about my involvement. When I had my children, there was something that kept me from getting them involved. There was also something that kept me from recruiting my wife, as well. [The movement] felt dirty to me. I wanted to be the buffer between them and the movement. I would bear the brunt of the violence and the ugliness so that it wouldn’t touch them.
Your sons from that first marriage are older now. Were you afraid to have them read this book and see the things you did when you were younger?
They were the first two people I had read my initial draft. They were 14 and 16 at the time, and they were the first people I asked to read it.
What was their response?
When they were old enough, I decided I would talk to them about it. I always made sure I talked about the differences in people and how those differences are important, so they were probably pretty surprised by the details in the book, but not the overall topic, because I’ve been pretty open to them. My intention was for them to know I was being completely open and honest, and I wanted them to hate who I was so that they would never be like the person I was.
Pick up the memoir at www.christianpicciolini.com.