Despite modern America having made some progress addressing the vast abuses and injustices of our past, the darkness of white supremacy that has been our nation’s scourge from its founding — and the violence that is its constant shadow — still grows.
Racist embers were stoked during the 2016 presidential campaign and subsequent election of Donald Trump. Trump’s rhetoric, hateful tropes and “dog-whistle” talking points provided oxygen for a resurgent American hate movement, led by members of the alt-right and white nationalists.
But while racial tensions feel particularly dangerous right now, it’s important to remember that they are not new. Trump may be helping to fuel the fire, but he did not start it.
I should know. Thirty years ago, I was complicit in spreading similar seeds of intolerance. For eight years of my life — and despite the fact that I was not raised in a racist environment — I was a hateful and violent white supremacist.
Thirty years ago, I was complicit in spreading similar seeds of intolerance. For eight years of my life — and despite the fact that I was not raised in a racist environment — I was a hateful and violent white supremacist.
I led America’s first skinhead hate group, after first being recruited into it in 1987 at age 14. At 17, I fronted one of America’s earliest white power bands — we eventually travelled to Europe the better to widely spread our racist message through music.
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But my life took a sharp turn when I fell in love at 19 and married a “normal” girl. We quickly had two sons together, but throughout our four years together, I repeatedly chose the movement over my family and she took our children and left. By 22, I’d reached bottom and struggled there for several tough years. I finally managed to escape the white power movement but emerged as a young man still dangerously adrift: Divorced, alone and broken.
There was no helping someone like me — a former Nazi, a “monster.” Even though my heart and disposition had changed, it took me years of painful and earnest self-reflection to even find the courage to make amends and seek forgiveness — and to undo the pain I’d caused.
Since turning my back on white supremacy, I have worked hard to fight against the thing I once helped build. What I’ve learned from my own journey through hate now helps me combat it. I found my way out of the same violent movement that threatens us today and have since worked to understand how and why I ended up there — by putting myself back in the eye of the storm.
For better or worse, my experiences gave me a true insider’s perspective — the rare ability to analyze hate from multiple angles. I don’t say this with pride or ego, but with trepidation, because it forces me to once again face my past and reflect on how it may have contributed to our current situation.
Contrary to how radical extremists win our hearts and minds through the manipulation of our fears, the goal of my film “Breaking Hate” is to win back those same fearful hearts and minds through radical empathy.
However you might interpret my use of empathy to counter hate, it’s not an endorsement of anyone’s beliefs or absolution for their deeds. But it’s only fair to tell you, empathy and compassion are the only things I’ve ever seen truly break the cycle of hate.
It’s also what saved my life.
“Breaking Hate” is premiering on August 12 on purpose — it commemorates the day, exactly one year ago, when a young woman named Heather Heyer died after a white nationalist rammed his car into protesters in Charlottesville, Va. Heather decided that silence in the face of violent white supremacy was no longer an option. And she ended up sacrificing her life for that belief. As her mother, my dear friend Susan Bro, stated at Heather’s memorial, “They tried to kill my child to shut her up. Well, guess what? You just magnified her.”
Today, I hope America remembers Heather Heyer and everyone else who has spoken out in the face of injustice. But I also hope that we will use the Charlottesville anniversary to reflect on what may potentially heal these dangerous divides: We are all human, all broken, and all need each other in some way. If we can acknowledge that about each other — and ourselves — then maybe, just maybe, we’ll make it through this dark period. America: this is your intervention.
Christian Picciolini is an Emmy Award-winning director and producer, author, TEDx speaker, peace advocate and reformed extremist. In 2009, he co-founded Life After Hate, a nonprofit countering racism and is currently leading the Free Radicals Project. His memoir "WHITE AMERICAN YOUTH: My Descent into America’s Most Violent Hate Movement — and How I Got Out" came out in 2018.
Watch "Breaking Hate" on Sunday, August 12 at 9pm Eastern on MSNBC.