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Ex Neo-Nazi Sheds Light On Alt-Right & 'Life After Hate'

Mark Seliger / lifeafterhate.org
Christian Picciolini

Christian Picciolini used to be a neo-Nazi. He was raised by Italian immigrants in Blue Island, a Chicago suburb. He says he didn't grow up with hate ideologies at home, but as a teenager he wanted the community and sense of purpose white supremacists promised him. He went on to lead white supremacist bands and become a large part of the movement.

There's a point that he and other former white supremacists want to make very clear. It has to do with a group calling themselves the alt-right. The term was coined in 2010 by Richard Spencer, who started a website with the name. Spencer doesn't like being referred to as a white supremacist, yet quotes Nazi slogans and calls for "peaceful ethnic cleansing." He and his followers reject mainstream conservatism and call for "white nationalism."

Trump administration chief strategist, Steve Bannon, used to be executive chair of Breitbart News, a website that Bannon has called a platform for the alt-right. While the terminology is relatively new, especially for the majority of Americans, people like Picciolini say the alt-right is nothing more than a freshened up version of the sort of ideology he used to subscribe to: "There's really no difference other than the packaging that it comes with. (White supremacists) have learned ... that if they toned it down to be slightly more palatable to the masses, and focus on people who have an underlying grievance, then they would be able to infiltrate and convert more people onto the cause. And we're seeing that today, certainly they're feeling a lot more emboldened." Picciolini says he believes the election ignited the long existing hate in the country to new proportions. 

"What changed us was receiving compassion from the people we least deserved it from, when we least deserved it." - Picciolini

In this interview, Picciolini tells us many are surprised to hear just how violent these hate groups can be. He is the co-founder of Chicago nonprofit Life After Hate, which helps people leave hate groups like he did. He says what's crucial in breaking through to people is empathy. Picciolini says insecurity is what many white supremacists feed off of. "What we do with our organization is very important because not only are we former (hate group) members who understand the mentalities of the people we work with, we also understand that what changed us was receiving compassion from the people we least deserved it from, when we least deserved it."

Rachel Otwell of the Illinois Times is a former NPR Illinois reporter.
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