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Redemption Song

Christian Picciolini was one of the first on America’s racist skinhead scene. But now he’s singing a different tune.

Redemption songs play over and over in Christian Picciolini’s head.

The first American-born son of hardworking Italian immigrants, Picciolini wasted much of his adolescence and young manhood angry and racist in a blue-collar suburb just south of Chicago. He became something of a white power pioneer. He was the front man for the first American neo-Nazi skinhead band to play in Europe.

The name of the band was Final
Solution.

But these days Picciolini sings a much different tune. When he opens his mouth, he sounds like the 21st century version of a 19th century black woman — abolitionist Harriet Tubman. Like Tubman, the 41-year-old Picciolini wants to lead people to freedom, guiding them away, in his case, from the bondage of racial hatred, anti-Semitism and the romance of violence that consumed his life for seven years and nearly cost him his family and his future.

The map he plans to use is the story of his own escape. The coordinates to his destination are etched in the tattoos that cover much of his body and written on the pages of his soon to be self-published raw and honest memoir, Romantic Violence: Memoirs of an American Skinhead.

“My hope in writing this book,” he states in the introduction, “is that others will read it and heed how easy it is to enter a world laden with prejudice and unadulterated hate; that others may see the desire to belong can have repugnant results, and the promise of power is so seductive an impressionable mind can be persuaded to commit atrocious acts in its pursuit.”

“I hope,” he adds, “that by exposing racism, hate will have fewer places to hide.”

The hows and whys of the way he got drawn into the twisted world of white supremacy, he says, are not all that different than the reasons an inner-city kid of today might get suckered into a street gang, or, perhaps, a suburban youth might be lured into the ranks of wannabe violent religious fanatics. “I was a lonely teenage kid, searching for an identity,” Picciolini tells the Intelligent Report. “I was always looking for a place to belong. And I was angry. I resented my parents, especially my father, for not being around more.”

Picciolini’s life in hate dates back to the early days of neo-Nazi skinheads in America, who first burst into the national consciousness in the mid-1980s. Picciolini became a white power skinhead at 14, when he was personally recruited into the violent racist scene by Clark Martell, the violent, charismatic, ex-con, Charles Manson-like founder of one of the nation’s first neo-Nazi skinhead gangs, Chicago Area Skinheads, or CASH.

“Clark was an Aryan Johnny Appleseed,” Picciolini says. “He was a very smart sociopath.”

At 16, with Martell locked up in prison for at least the second time, Picciolini became the leader of the gang. He eventually merged CASH with the notoriously violent Hammerskins after a drunken organizing meeting just outside Chicago that was held in a small shabby apartment crammed with as many as 30 skinheads from Wisconsin, Michigan, Texas and Illinois. “Nazi flags draped the walls,” he writes. “Armbands with swastika insignias were plentiful. Some tough-looking skinhead girls hung onto the arms of some of the bigger guys, making it easy to see who the important players were.”

Arno Michaelis, a neo-Nazi skinhead from Milwaukee, was at the meeting and was impressed by Picciolini. “Christian was ridiculously good-looking back then,” says Michaelis, who is now a dedicated anti-racist and peace advocate. “He was very outspoken and articulate. When we met kids like that, we’d say this guy is going to be a great leader.”

At 18, Picciolini stood on a stage in what used to be a cathedral in Weimar, Germany, with, as he writes, Hitler’s spirit and ideas “pulsating through my arteries, pumping my heart to one hundred times its natural human size.” At his steel-toe-booted feet was a roiling sea of 3,000 neo-Nazi skinheads, gathered not far from the Buchenwald concentration camp for a concert of white power bands, including Picciolini’s Final Solution.

Final Solution had traveled all the way from Chicago to perform in a kind of racist international cultural exchange and bridge-building program. Picciolini was the singer, songwriter and star. That night in Weimar — “veins popping” on his tattooed arms, “muscles rippling, sweat flowing down” his face and neck — Picciolini raised his fist, the signal for his bandmates to start filling the old stone church with the sounds of white supremacy.

“The holocaust was a fucking lie


Because six million Jews could never die!

There’s white pride all across America

White pride all across the world

White pride flowing through the streets

White pride will never face defeat!”

‘I’m Clark Martell’

Picciolini wants to make one thing absolutely clear. He did not learn his hate at home. “I wasn’t raised to be a racist,” he says as he drives through his hometown of Blue Island, a southern suburb of Chicago. “My parents weren’t racist. They were great, hardworking people. They’re still married.” 

His parents came to Chicago from small towns in Italy and settled in a suburban parish filled with family and friends from the old country. They owned a unisex hair salon and later a restaurant. They worked day and night to make their American Dream come true for Christian and his younger brother, Alex. They bought a house across the street from Picciolini’s grandparents, where young Christian spent much of his time, waiting for his folks to come home from work. Then the family moved to a more upscale suburb — bigger house, better schools. But they missed the old neighborhood and the grandparents were slowing down, so they returned to Blue Island.  

Growing up, Picciolini says he never felt completely at home anywhere. He was constantly on the lookout for someplace to be somebody. As a pre-teen, he threw himself into sports, playing football and Little League baseball. He also began hanging around with a group of tough white kids from the neighborhood. They called themselves the High Street Boys. But neither Picciolini nor his crew gave much thought to race. Beefs were about turf and girls, not skin color.

 That all changed when Picciolini was 14. He was smoking a joint with a buddy in an alley in Blue Island when a car roared to a stop in front of the boys. The passenger door flew open and “this dude with clenched fists and anger emoting from every pore,” Picciolini writes, “headed straight toward us.”

Picciolini was afraid and fascinated at the same time. He had never seen anything like the angry man, not up close, not in real life. The dude’s head was clean-shaven. He was wearing black combat boots and oxblood-colored suspenders held up his jeans. He looked scary, dangerous and cool — super cool — like someone other scary, dangerous guys would cross the street to avoid.

“I wanted to be just like him,” Picciolini says.

The man must have been 26, 27. He got right into the kid’s face about smoking pot.  

“Don’t you know,” he said, “that’s exactly what the Communists and Jews want you to do so they can keep you docile?”

Picciolini didn’t know what a Communist was and as far as he knew had never met a Jew. All he knew was he didn’t want to get punked by some bald dude in an alley on his turf. So, he took a long drag on the joint and blew a cloud of smoke in the man’s face.

In a flash, the man snatched the joint out of Picciolini’s mouth and smacked him on the back of the head — hard.

“I’m Clark Martell,” the man said, “and I’m going to save your life.” 

Romantic Violence

Martell was a founding father of the American neo-Nazi subculture. Like Picciolini, Martell lived in the suburb of Blue Island, about 20 miles south of Chicago, a city with a long history of racial strife and segregation. “Chicago was always pretty stratified about where people lived and that made it easier for people to be racist,” says Tiffini A. Travis, co-author with Perry Hardy of Skinheads: A Guide to an American Subculture.

“To create CASH,” Travis and Hardy write, “Martell targeted disenfranchised teens who were eager to hang out with anyone accepting of them; he would invite them over to his apartment and introduce them to racist ideology.”

He also introduced them to hate music, a depressingly effective recruitment tool over the years. “He’s a neo-Nazi,” one of Martell’s crew from the neighborhood told Picciolini. “But people hear Nazi and get all freaked out, so he’s using music to get the message out.” Martell performed in a band called Romantic Violence and was one of the first American distributors of Skrewdriver records, the soundtrack for white power skinheads around the world.

“Clark was a magnetic recruiter,” Picciolini says. “That is what he was born to do. When I met Clark, I became really drawn into the movement and the subculture, not necessarily the politics, because I didn’t understand the politics.”

But Picciolini was a quick learner. “The politics of race pumped me up,” he writes. “I was involved in something far more important than things other kids my age cared about. I’d become part of a new brotherhood, a cool world that was so brand new it scared people to death even though they didn’t know much about it. And here I was — all of fourteen years old, in at the ground level, with a real chance to make a difference, to demonstrate my courage, dedication. My leadership skills.”

Martell used his skills to wreak havoc. Before he became a skinhead gang leader, Martell was a violent neo-Nazi. In 1979, when Martell was a member of the American Nazi Party, he was sentenced to four years in prison for attempting to firebomb the Cicero, Ill., home of a Latino couple and their five children. He served 30 months.

Upon his release, he went to work luring young Christians into his racist den. When he first started recruiting for CASH, there were likely fewer than 200 racist skinheads in the U.S. By 1989, when he was convicted of home invasion, aggravated battery and robbery and sentenced to 11 years in prison, there were more than 3,000.

The Problem of His Reality

Picciolini had nothing to do with Martell’s legal troubles. After Martell’s fall, a lot of the older skinheads in the crew grew out their hair and fled the scene. The kid was more than happy to step in and fill the vacuum. “Becoming a leader of the new wave of skinheads took little serious effort,” Picciolini writes. “Blue Island was a natural place to recruit. Kids and their families were lower middle, working class [and] they lived in neighborhoods that were rapidly changing. … Kids were into music and could easily be made to relate to the message I was spreading.”  

His romance with violence was kicking into gear. He writes that “skinheads and the word fear became synonymous, some people considering skinheads racial terrorists. Terrorists. I liked the sound of that. The power behind it. But people had it wrong. Skinheads were patriots, not terrorists.”

He beat up black kids in the street. He got into fights at school. Sitting across from the African-American principal in her office after a fight, he called her “nigger.” He was kicked out five times from four schools in four years. Once he was led out of school in handcuffs. He felt proud as police officers walked him past his classmates and placed him in the backseat of a squad car.

Yet, when he managed to stay in school longer than a few months, he was named the captain of his high school football team, playing alongside black and Latino teammates. By then he had several white power tattoos, including two swastikas. He paid for one of his tattoos with $60 in quarters he stole from his parent’s laundry stash. Yet the moment the coach blew the whistle for practice or a game, the only thing that mattered was football. “In the locker room,” he says, “there was an unspoken bond.” His time on the gridiron was precious to him. The brutal sport was his tenuous connection to a normal life.

“Most kids involved in this stuff [white supremacy, street gangs, etc.] aren’t fully in,” he says. “There is always that real you just underneath. I didn’t set out to be a racist. I just wanted to belong. It just so happens that the first group that came along was the first white power skinhead gang in the country.”

He wouldn’t admit it to his crew, but Picciolini was getting tired. When he wasn’t fighting black kids, he was fighting anti-racist skinheads — white and black. His parents were on his case, especially his mother. She hated his tattoos and Nazi flags. She pleaded with him, saying if he needed a homicidal maniac to look up to, why not Al Capone? Anyone was better than Hitler, even the notorious gangster.

And then Picciolini met a girl. She was pretty and smart, headed for college. She wasn’t a racist, but nobody’s perfect. He dropped to one knee. She said yes. They got married and he started pulling back from the street brawls and the hate talk, at least at home. He also got a job with a construction crew. Most of his co-workers were black and Latino. “We were a crew,” he writes. “We worked together, watched each other’s backs; got the job done without letting politics screw things up.”

Still, he attended neo-Nazi rallies and marched with the Ku Klux Klan through the streets of Pulaski, Tenn., widely considered the KKK’s birthplace. Anti-racist demonstrators far outnumbered the hoods and the swastikas. As the rally started, Picciolini writes, the protesters were waving “peace flags and love everyone banners.” But before too long, the protesters were “literally ripping up pieces of concrete from the sidewalk to pelt us with.”

Picciolini was stunned at the level of hate he and his comrades had inspired in the protesters. “I felt as if someone had landed a solid blow to my chest,” he writes, “but instead of air, my commitment was knocked out of me for the first time, and I clearly saw there was a problem with my reality.”

Atonement

Picciolini’s life began to change for good when his wife gave birth to their first child, a son, in 1992, and their second child, another boy, in 1994. She wanted him out of the movement. She did not want his hatred to consume their children. Picciolini was not ready to quit. But he needed to make more money to support his family. He opened a record shop and called it Chaos Records.

White power music was his “bread and butter.”  But he also carried hard-to-find punk, rockabilly and heavy metal; and he made a business decision to treat everyone who came in — black, white, Latino, even anti-racist skinheads — with respect. Green was the color that most interested him now. “My livelihood depended on it,” he writes. “And because it did, I started becoming more tolerant of people whose views didn’t jive with mine.”

He started meeting and being civil to Jews for the first time. Latinos and blacks came in, too. And after a while he hoped they wouldn’t notice the white power music he kept in a glass case. “Our conversations were brief,” he writes. “Guarded at first, but slowly we got to know each other through our shared interest in music.” He found himself liking them and thinking, “These are good people.”

Although his marriage was falling apart, Picciolini gradually let go of his “biases” and his racist crew. “I could no longer in good conscience vilify anyone based on the color of their skin or religious beliefs,” he writes. “…And I was fucking exhausted. Spending seven years willfully denying the truth of humanity and compassion drains an incredible amount of energy. I simply didn’t have the strength anymore to continue to engage in a constant battle with my conscience.”

When he decided to pull racist music from his inventory, sales plunged.

He had to close the store.

Today, Christian Picciolini is married to his second wife. The swastika tattoo on the back of his neck is covered over by an image of Jesus Christ and the words “Love/Pain.” The swastika on his left bicep has been blackened over and a jukebox covers a white Skrewdriver fist holding a lightning bolt. In 2010, he co-founded, with Michaelis, the former skinhead from Milwaukee, Life After Hate, a nonviolent anti-racist organization. His Wikipedia entry lists his occupation as peace advocate, entrepreneur, business executive, television producer, music executive, visual artist, author and musician. He’s working with a group of fellow “formers” — former white supremacists — on developing a so-called Exit program to help current white supremacist, gang members and even jihadists leave their violent movements. He plans to donate a copy of Romantic Violence to every library in Chicago.

A few years ago, Picciolini was reunited with some of his old racist friends for the first time in years. They came for the funeral of his brother, Alex, who had been shot to death. Alex was riding in a van with three friends, including a black man and woman. They were in a tough part of Chicago, hoping to buy some marijuana. Apparently, a group of drug dealers got nervous about a possible drive-by and opened fire, killing Alex.

“My brother was killed because he was in a car with people whose skin color threatened a bunch of ignorant kids,” Picciolini writes. “My brother’s death was on me.”

At the funeral, his old friends urged Picciolini to seek revenge. He said no. He was finished with violence, finished with hate.

“My brother had paid for my sins,” he writes. “I would spend the rest of my life atoning for them.”