Christian Picciolini – where to start? Ex-member of the notorious Chicago Area Skinheads (C.A.S.H.), ex-frontman of bands whose names left little to the imagination: White American Youth, Final Solution. More recently, however, an established author, TED talker and anti-hate campaigner.
Recently reading his first book White American Youth, which told a brilliant tale of tragedy, belonging and identity crisis, inspired our own Gareth Postans to ask him some questions. Enjoy the interview, where Christian touches on the Chicago scene in the eighties, his family, his white power distro, his bands, his love of punk, his friendship with Joan Jett… and some exclusive info on a famous metal musician!
Hello, mate. First of all, thank you so much for taking the time out to talk with me. Briefly, could you explain who you are?
Well, thank you for your interest in my story. I’m a 46-year-old ex-white power skinhead – more accurately, a bonehead – who found his way out of that life in 1996. Since 2000 I have been speaking openly against hate, their tactics, and trying to help stop people from being recruited by white nationalists. I was originally recruited myself at 14 years old in 1987 into America’s first neo-nazi skinhead gang, Chicago Area Skinheads (C.A.S.H.).
Having read your first book White American Youth, I can see a lot of people could easily go down your path. A big fish in a small pond looking to be part of something. In your eyes, how did you go from just having scraps in gangs to it becoming racial violence?
In fact, I was a very small fish in a very small pond on the south side of Chicago. The scraps were sort of the ‘price of admission’. The more you did, the more respect you seemed to receive. Of course, it wasn’t real respect, it was bravado. When it stopped having an impact, then finding a new community and a greater ‘high’ from that respect became important.
But I have to say, the violence was not natural to me. Every instance of it was a struggle followed by immense internal guilt. It’s not an excuse to the victims, who most of the time were white anti-racist skins and not people of colour. I hold myself accountable, but it was against my DNA, and it eventually got overwhelming and too great a burden to carry. I’m immensely ashamed for what I did, and I spend every day trying to repair the damage I’ve caused.
Your commitment to the cause alienated your family and made you a target. Did your friends in the movement become your family due their understanding of your views or because you just felt more relaxed and valued around them?
Yes, I surrounded myself with people that I thought respected me because I had felt abandoned by my parents as a young boy. They didn’t actually abandon me, but as Italian immigrants, they had to work seven days a week and 14 hours a day, so I didn’t see them much. The movement became like my family, and I found identity, community and purpose there. Or so I thought at the time. When my wife and I had our first son when we were 19 and our second at 21, that’s what started the process that first challenged the sense of identity, community, and purpose that I found in the white power scene.
You mentioned that once Skrewdriver started releasing records on Rock O Rama, the movement grew much bigger and stronger. No doubt your tape, record and CD distro for white power records helped spread the message globally. Do you think these records were popular more for their shock value rather than the racist tones?
Yeah, I think once Skrewdriver records were more available in the US, it helped drive part of the skinhead scene in a dangerous direction. Once bootleg tapes were made, you could then give them to anyone. I was involved in the second wave of C.A.S.H.’s ‘Romantic Violence’ mailorder, where we sold music and tapes, flags, etc in the late 1980s. Some kids loved the shock value of bands like Skrewdriver, or even harder-core shock value, maybe or maybe not tongue-in-cheek bands like White Pride. But I would argue that opened them up to the harder drugs that came with the ideology and comradery of hate.
Initially, you were a huge punk fan? Can you tell us more about that?
My dark secret since I was 12 and through my nazi years was that The Clash was my favourite band of all time. The only band that matters, if you will. Of course, I never admitted it, even when I fronted my own bands White American Youth and Final Solution, but I was probably always a secret leftist because of Joe Strummer [winks].
You mentioned a large group of anti-racist skinheads that you were always scrapping with. Were these around since you first became a skinhead, or were they more a reaction to your gang?
Chicago had a long history since the earlier 1980s of various skinhead groups: anti-racist, racist, white, black, Latino, punk, etc. The groups we mainly scrapped with were SHARP and ARA. Before that, when I was just starting out, it was groups like SHOC (Skinheads of Chicago).
It seems you often got the better of them. Were there ever members which crossed over or switched from both groups, and what were the numbers on each side?
I wouldn’t say we got the better of them. Each side held their own, at times each side fought dirty, fought fair, or sometimes even drank beer together – awkwardly. Some people crossed sides, but most didn’t. I’d say both sides also had good numbers. Locally, in the 60s or 70s of people. Nationally, when I was interim director of the Northern Hammerskins from 94-95, maybe 500.
Your band White American Youth were actually musically good – aside from the horrible lyrics. Do you think this is what makes RAC or white power music particularly dangerous to youngsters?
Thanks, I cringe when I listen now for an interview. I think it’s awful. Music is just powerful in general. Punk and Oi and rap music is anthemic, and like white power/RAC music it’s repetitive, bold, it can sometimes reinforce stereotypes people are already comfortable with, and it also speaks to the people and their supposed problems, so it comes off as authentic based on that. It’s accessible music that paints things clearly – or in the case of white power music misrepresents things ‘clearly’. It provides answers.
How do you feel it compares to, say, gangsta rap in its message?
I don’t think gangsta rap compares to white power music. It may have some lyrics that are ignorant – for example, Ice Cube called out ‘Jews’ in songs – but I don’t think it’s ideological or meant to recruit people to a movement. I think gangsta rap then was a social statement and is now a money play.
You famously played with Bound For Glory in Germany, which at that time you were really proud of. Did you feel the movement in Germany and Europe generally felt bigger or closer?
Yes, I think Europe always had a more authentic skinhead scene: racist, non-racist, anti-racist and anti-fascist. America was a poor copy and was co-opted by our own ignorant racism.
Are you still in touch with Big Ed from Bound for Glory, despite your political differences?
I’m not in touch with him, though I suspect Bound for Glory is still somehow active. I remember Ed being smart and a loving father more than anything. It’s too bad if he’s still involved
You played a number of gigs across the US. Seems like it kicked off occasionally. Any particularly scary incidents?
There were many gigs interrupted by anti-fascists that resulted in fights, some broken up by FBI, or at least surveilled by them, and one that ended in a friend being killed. It was eight years I regret on many levels, but still find that it made me who I am today, one who is committed to dismantling what he helped build.
The death of your brother was really sad. I appreciate this is an extremely emotional question to ask, but do you feel he was, in a way, looking for a cause or something to belong to, similar to yourself? Also, do you think if you hadn’t joined the WP movement he might not have gone down that path?
Yes, I think so. I think he was looking for my approval more than anything and I didn’t see it soon enough. He never joined the white power movement, he started hanging around with Latino gang members. Either way, he was looking for me, and for a long time I blamed myself for that. I’m glad you asked.
Living in your parents’ basement must have been quite surreal as they didn’t agree with your lifestyle but were obviously quite afraid of you. Being in such a small space, were you ever attacked, or did your family ever become victims?
There were many close calls. Their home was never attacked, but my vehicle was. I kept guns close, so I think most people were not going to take the chance. I was paranoid and one time I almost accidentally pulled the trigger and shot my mother, who was on the side of the building near my window one night. I didn’t know it was her and thought it was an intruder. Luckily she screamed before I opened the window. It was a very dark time for me.
The record store you opened really helped start your path away from the white power and RAC movement, even though it started as a way to spread the white power and RAC message selling those type of records. As everyone knew you, did you have any protests or publicity around the shop?
Yes, it’s where I met people that challenged my point of view, not with aggression but with humanity. I never experienced a protest even though I sold white power music and I was a nazi. Instead, people came in to challenge me with compassion – regular folks and anti-racist skinheads alike. It was like magic. Seriously, not that simple, but it was what I needed to feel connected to them.
What were your top sellers of any genre in your shop, and how did you feel about the rap, reggae and anti-racist type records you were also selling?
Skrewrdiver and the Resistance Records catalog were the top sellers. I sold punk, rockabilly, psychobilly, ska, anti-racist Oi, death metal, black metal, and rap. When the store was open, only the non-racist stuff played on the speakers. I listened to it all and day I grew to love much of it – except the black metal, which I still hate and don’t get.
One of the funniest stories in the book is that black anti-racist skinhead with the swastika on his head who ends up buying all your Skrewdriver records. What was this character like? It sounds like you were initially quite scared of him.
His real name is Sonny and he’s a Chicago skinhead legend. We were never really scared of each other. It was mutually cautious respect…with a tucked away handgun most times. I think he’s still around somewhere, though not Chicago.
Moving forward, slowly you met people of different ethnic backgrounds and sexualities in your shop. And you started to have major doubts about the movement. How did you feel having these thoughts?
I think I had major doubts about the movement from the first day I was recruited at 14 years old, every day for nearly eight years until I finally walked away. It was incredibly difficult feeling guilty about my actions while reaping the rewards of them: fake respect, power within my group, even some celebrity. I felt I sold my soul and every day was an internal battle of guilt and shame while wearing a shiny suit of armor of hate. When I quit I didn’t do it in a noble way, I kind of disappeared and left my crew that I was leading. I tried to move on, change places, jobs, but I had never dealt with my past head on. I didn’t decide to do that until 2000. And it was a black man, the security guard at my old high school, who made me realise I needed to confront my past and repair the damage I’d caused. I have been doing that now for the last 20 years.
Did you ever foresee the RAC/white power scene becoming as big as it did?
No, never. Frankly, I never thought I would see white nationalism as a whole in the mainstream like it is now. I knew it would grow as a subculture because it is attractive to powerless whites who want to blame someone – and with the disappearing middle class, folks are looking for ghosts to blame if they could. But I never thought we’d have an American president openly spouting the same garbage I foolishly did at 17.
It’s weird some of those records are collector’s items. Do you still listen to any of them as guilty pleasures?
Nah, I don’t listen to any of it. It sort of gives me PTSD. Certainly not the NS black metal stuff, that just gives me a headache.
Is this scene still big in the US?
I think it’s mostly dead in the United States. Where I see a big resurgence is in Eastern Europe, Ukraine and Russia.
I read in an interview online with Bound for Glory that some ‘mainstream’ acts are fans of their band. Maybe it’s more mainstream than we realise?
I’ll give you an exclusive. Seth Putnam, the singer for Anal Cunt – also singer for Vaginal Jesus, a white power grindcore band – once gave me a demo tape of Phil Anselmo’s (Pantera singer) side project hardcore band called Relentless Minority Executioners. Phil played bass in RME. That makes the ‘Phil Anselmo supports nazis’ and sieg-heils on stage rumors make more sense, I imagine. There were rumors of support from members of the band Tesla and some death metal bands from Florida.
You reckon Seth Putnam was a nazi or just joking?
Seth is dead. He was a nice guy but I think he was early trolling maybe.
What are your thoughts on George Burdi, the ex-vocalist of RaHoWa? Left the movement, became ‘Mr Multicultural’, then suddenly returned claiming he had never actually changed his beliefs – despite having an Indian wife!
George is an old friend who I never believed to be genuine about anything. He left the movement because he was on the family payroll. He sold insurance with his father. Then he met a girl, we all had dinner once. I believe they got divorced. George stayed quiet until the alt-right blew up, which is when he made an appearance again, this time following more Savitri Devi 1960s occult Hindu nazism.
He’s lost. Still living in that world while trying not to live in that world. Same as he’s always done.
You, on the other hand, must be so proud of your campaigning work and your writing.
I am proud of the work I’ve done but I’m also exhausted. It’s not anything I would wish for anyone really. If anyone knows me, they know I would rather live on an island by myself than be in the spotlight. I do the work because I feel partly responsible for what I am seeing today, and it is my way to repair the harm I’ve caused. It also brings with it a world of sifting through people’s trauma, which is heavy, and making sure the voices of the victims, not the victimisers, is always the priority.
Ironic that without drifting into the far right and then out of it, you wouldn’t be as well-known as you are now. Right?
Ironic in the sense that this is my purgatory, so to speak – sure.
How is your friendship with Joan Jett and what happened to your punk band Random55? She definitely saw something in you, which must have been nice when you felt ignored and misunderstood.
She’s a mentor and someone I respect very much for her work to raise important issues. And she’s a pretty amazing rocker and pioneer. It was nice that she took Random55 a bit under her wing and liked what she heard. It’s a shame not many other folks did [grins]. We only lasted a few years and life got in the way.
How has Covid affected your writing and spoken word work?
I had about a dozen speaking engagements cancel immediately and have none planned for the remainder of 2020. A few virtual things, but it’s not the same telling such an intimate story. It’s a shame, because I use 100% of the funds I received from speaking to fund the disengagement work I do through my organization Free Radicals Project, and that money has stopped. Other than that, I have been self-quarantining with my wife at home since March and trying to do our part and wear masks and social distance and stay home. As far as the disengagement work, it has gone up and it is all virtual now.
Is Trump handling this well?
Trump is a disgrace and a global threat. Full stop.
Do you think Covid and paranoia have helped normalise the far right? I’m thinking anti-maskers, anti-isolation, anti-vaxxers, and so on.
Uncertainty fuels extremism. And fear rhetoric, conspiracy theories, and polarising language online drive uncertainty. We are now dealing with uncertainty on a scale none of us have seen before: pandemic, unemployment, businesses closing, death, protests, and a very high-tension election. And we are dealing with information flow, and indeed disinformation flow, at a scale we’ve never seen. We’re all looking for answers, unfortunately there are too many out there for us to latch on to, and not all of them are true.
To return once more to White American Youth, do you think you would have become more famous as an anti-racist or non-racist band? Labels like Pirates Press, Contra and Rebellion have put non-racist Oi back on the map.
I doubt it, but I wish I had chosen that route either way. I think the Pirates Press folks are doing amazing work, and I’ve had the pleasure of working with them before. They are good people. I think there is a hunger for genuine music. Oi is genuine music from the people. It can be in its bubble of white working class, but many of the issues can cross over and speak to the struggles of others.
Finally, what music do you listen to nowadays?
Punk, of course, but I also love all sorts that embody the same ‘punk’ spirit: Marley, Dylan, Jay-Z, Lordz of Brooklyn, Riverboat Gamblers, and the only band that matters…The Clash.