Music, Movies & Moods is a regular free-form column in which Matt Melis explores the cracks between where art and daily life meet. This time, as white supremacist groups prepare to march on the one-year anniversary of the Charlottesville tragedy, he looks back on his conversations with two prominent former neo-Nazi skinhead musicians who left their hateful ideologies long ago and now help others do the same.
When I phoned an ex-neo-Nazi skinhead for the first time several months ago, the prefix “ex-” somehow meant everything and nothing at the same time. In one sense, like the act of speaking over the phone, those two little letters and hyphen created distance, suggesting that the words following them and all they signify are in the past. And yet, part of me couldn’t quite shake the idea that, “ex-” or not, I was about to speak to a man who, a couple decades earlier, had subscribed to a white supremacist ideology every bit as hateful, violent, and repugnant as the scenes still fresh in my mind from the then-recent ugliness in Charlottesville, Virginia.
That ex-neo-Nazi skinhead was 49-year-old Chuck Leek. After we had spoken for a few minutes, my nervousness dissipated. Leek came across as soft-spoken, thoughtful, and warm. We joked together, and he described attending Dead Kennedys shows in the mid-‘80s in San Diego and forming a band to, among other things, get girls and burn off excess frustration. In many ways, it was like talking to an uncle or stepping through the DIY pages of Michael Azerrad’s Our Band Could Be Your Life. I almost forgot that I was speaking to a former prominent member of multiple high-profile hate groups (including White Aryan Resistance and The Hammerskins), a man whose violent, antisocial past had once sent him to prison for assault with a deadly weapon.
Towards the end of our conversation, Leek asked me to wait a moment. He was digging for his only copy of the lone studio record by Battle Axe, the San Diego white power band he fronted in the ’90s. “It’s one of the few remnants I’ve kept,” he told me. I asked him how he reconciles a creative accomplishment from his youth – after all, not everyone has recorded an album – with the fact that it’s forever embalmed in such hateful ideology. “I keep the CD as a reminder of how disappointed I am in myself,” he explained, startling me with his frankness. “It’s not a memento of a positive time. There are a few things I still have to remind myself of the terrible choices I made. It’s been a while, but now and then, I listen to a bit of it and cringe.” In those few seconds, especially when imagining him hate-listening to his own angry songs from a lifetime ago, it became clear just how important the prefix “ex-” also is to a man like Chuck Leek.
One phone call to a former hate group member doesn’t make a thing like that old hat, of course. The following afternoon, I sat down to call another. I knew more about Christian Picciolini going in. In 2011, he had co-founded Life After Hate, a non-profit dedicated to helping people leave hate groups; Leek is in the program’s network. Picciolini had also penned a memoir in 2015, Romantic Violence: Memoirs of an American Skinhead, which has since been re-titled and updated. But even common threads — both of us are Chicagoans, writers, DePaul alumni, and we even know some of the same people within Chicago music and media circles — can feel tenuous when compared to the robes, patches, and flags that signify the ideological fabric of white supremacy.
Picciolini spoke matter-of-factly, like a writer might. He knows his story, has told it on many occasions, and has clearly taken the time to get on his hands and knees, crawl around, and shine a light into the nooks and crannies of his past. One story he’s told many times, in both writing and during talks to various groups, finds him alone as an alienated 14-year-old smoking a joint in a dead-end alley at the intersection of Union and Division Streets in Chicago. (The irony isn’t lost on him.) He described himself at that time as ambitious but angry, with feelings of loneliness, abandonment, and confusion as the son of Italian immigrants struggling to find a sense of identity or belonging in both his grandparents’ Italian neighborhood and the white Chicago suburbs that his family lived in. The story continues with a muscle car ripping down that alley and coming to a screeching halt in front of him. A man with a shaved head and boots gets out of the car, pulls the joint from Picciolini’s mouth, stares into his eyes, and says: “Don’t you know that’s what the communists and the Jews want you to do to keep you docile?”
The man who took an interest in Picciolini that day in 1987 was Clark Martell, credited as America’s first neo-Nazi skinhead and the founder of the Chicago Area SkinHeads (CASH). Suddenly, after a childhood of feeling abandoned on the margins, there was a mentor figure and community to build Picciolini up and fill in, however crudely, what he now refers to as the “potholes” in his life. For a kid in Picciolini’s position, it wasn’t difficult to fall in line. “I wasn’t racist at the time,” he explained, “but I swallowed it and learned it and believed it because I wanted to belong so badly. I never had had anything to belong to.” Before long, Martell’s talk of Picciolini’s proud Italian heritage got doused in fear rhetoric about others out to snatch away what was his, which finally turned into the violent precept of striking others before they strike you. Picciolini joked that if he had lived next to a ballet school, he might be a great dancer today. But because Martell found him first, feeling abandoned and resentful, he instead channeled all his ambition, energy, and potential into the American skinhead movement.
Both Leek and Picciolini cite music as a major driver behind their getting entrenched in the white power movement. For Leek, the mosh pits at local punk shows like Dead Kennedys, The Circle Jerks, and Black Flag were where he met those who would introduce him to the ideology that would sanction his rage and violent tendencies — behaviors he now credits to unresolved anger from an abusive childhood. Eventually, Leek and friends followed through on plans to start a white power band. “In the Nazi skinhead scene at the time, lots of people were idolizing bands like Screwdriver, Brutal Attack, and Bound for Glory, so being in a band felt like being at the pinnacle of the movement,” Leek explained. “I had always been a thinker and a Christian, so this was my platform to push my ideas about Christian identity.” At its mid-’90s peak, that platform included Battle Axe releasing their only record on Warlord Records, playing small shows (50-100 people) to a loyal San Diego following, and traveling to regional Aryan fests (200-500 people), including opening for Bound for Glory in Las Vegas.
Music acted as an even stronger draw for Picciolini. “I fell in love with the music — the lyrics and message — before the politics of the movement,” he explained. “Music was definitely my radicalizing factor: It was my purpose, my community, and my identity. For me, it checked off all of those boxes that drive people.” The teenager would soon start the white power band White American Youth and sign with Rock-O-Rama, the same record label legendary UK white supremacist rock band Screwdriver called home. When that band dissolved, Picciolini started Final Solution. The teen who had once felt neglected now began to feel the intoxication of spreading his message on tour to skinheads across America and, at the group’s apex, to a crowd of 4,000 in a cathedral in Weimar, Germany, where they became the first American white power band to play in Europe.
Looking back, Picciolini understands why the movement’s music captivated him. “The message in the music gave me a reason to feel like that’s why I felt pushed out,” he reflected. “It gave me somebody to hate at a time when I hated myself, so taking my own self-hatred and projecting it onto other people eliminated my ability to feel my own pain.” Now, he worries that the same music that numbed him might still be recruiting new generations for the white power movement. “I still feel bad that my music is out there infecting people,” he said. “All those seeds of hate I planted years ago … I’m still pulling up those weeds every time a Dylan Roof, Wade Michael Page, or that guy in Charlottesville do what they do. I feel personally responsible for that, even though I don’t know them. I know the things that I said, the ideas that I put out into the world, and the music that I made are still out there and flourishing.”
It’s all part of Picciolini’s complicated relationship with music. “It [music] almost killed me, and then it saved me.” In 1994, Picciolini, now a husband and father, stepped back from the front lines of the movement and opened up Chaos Records, the nation’s go-to white power music shop thinly disguised by some miscellaneous punk rock and hip-hop records mixed in. It was in his record shop that Picciolini, a known skinhead, began getting to know customers from the same walks of life that he believed were poisoning this country: blacks, Jews, gays, Asians, Latinos. “They treated me with compassion when I least deserved it,” Picciolini recalled. “It allowed me to humanize them. Eventually, it broke me down … I couldn’t reconcile the hate and prejudice anymore because, until then, I had never had a meaningful interaction with anyone I thought i hated.” Having realized that he shared more in common with these customers than skinheads, Picciolini left his hateful mindset behind for good.
Of course, leaving something behind that accounts for your “purpose, community, and identity,” as Picciolini puts it, isn’t simple. Leek admitted that “it probably was a process of 10 years and walking away from all those people for my heart and mind to actually change.” It’s a transition that saw him torn from family in the process. After removing white power music from the Chaos Records shelves, which accounted for 75% of his business, Picciolini was forced to close his store. It was the beginning of a dark five years for him — a period that saw him not only lose his record store but his family. However, music eventually came to the rescue once again. In the mid-’90s, Picciolini formed the non-racist punk band Random55 and got the opportunity to open for Joan Jett on tour. The chance gave him a new outlet to vent his frustrations and find balance and peace within himself. Jett would not find out that the man she had helped save had once been a skinhead until years later when Picciolini asked her to pen the foreword to his memoir.
And now comes the part of the story where I become more than just the writer on the phone asking questions.
I’ve sat on these interviews for nearly a year now. Occasionally, I play back these conversations, maybe for the same reason that Leek reaches for his band’s old record — to remind myself that some things shouldn’t be forgotten. I try to remember why I thought it so important to talk to Leek and Picciolini last summer after Charlottesville. Donald Trump’s cowardly “very fine people on both sides” nod to a new brand of tiki torch-carrying and khaki-clad hatred had definitely embroiled me. The only thing worse than seeing swastikas on parade in small-town America is to witness it being condoned by those who are charged to provide moral leadership in times of public confusion.
I also remember seeing two siblings and their friend — all young black girls who live one building over — riding bikes outside my office window the evening after Charlottesville — all smiles, high-pitched giggles, and long braids — sweetly oblivious to the ugliness on display a few hundred miles east. If asked, I might tell you that I set aside these interviews out of sadness for those children and an innocence they would soon need to leave behind. If pressed, though, I’ll tell you the truth: I didn’t want to be that messenger.
So, as Heather Heyer’s parents grieved after having buried their daughter — the 32-year-old protester murdered when a white supremacist plowed his 2010 Dodge Challenger through a street full of anti-fascist marchers — I shelved these interviews. A week after Charlottesville, the city of Boston marched and shut down what was meant to be an alt-right momentum builder, and, despite our president’s inability to unequivocally denounce hatred, violence, and fascism, it appeared that Bostonians and local law enforcement had restored order for the time being and sent the cockroaches scattering back to their dark corners.
I was off the hook.
But while those who wore hoods, carried shields, and hoisted flags with the insignia of history’s hateful losers had been defeated, things didn’t quite return to normal after Boston. The months since talking to Leek and Picciolini have seen black athletes attacked for peaceful protesting, more black men killed by police officers, and doing anything while black become a 911 matter. Brown children have been torn from their parents and locked in cages, thousands of Puerto Ricans (Americans, by the way) have died in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, a Muslim ban has been implemented, and attacks on immigrants have reached a fever pitch. All while our president retweets alt-right videos from overseas or, as both Leek and Picciolini contend, uses the same type of hateful, scapegoating language that they once used to recruit members to the skinhead movement.
And then I read that Jason Kessler, the organizer behind last year’s Charlottesville Unite the Right Rally, planned on staging a march on the rally’s anniversary weekend outside the White House. That gall was enough to send me back to my conversations with Leek and Pucciolini looking for answers. But what I wanted more than answers was understanding, something seemingly nobody had to offer when we first double-taked at the terrifying sight of hundreds of polos, khakis, and tiki torches marching across a campus last August. Something had been awakened, something old and ugly but now donning a new wardrobe and willing to appear and be seen in broad daylight or at least by torch light. As neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and the alt-right prepared for round two this weekend, I chose to go back to my interviews in an effort to offer not rage, not contempt, but what I desperately needed a year ago as I saw the face of hatred take on that disturbing form: understanding.
“People just want to be accepted,” Picciolini explained near the end of our conversation. “The reason why you saw all those kids in Charlottesville marching together, looking like each other, and chanting those terrible things is because that’s been the only group they’ve been able to find that’s taken them in. That acceptance is more important to them than anything else, and they’ll say what they need to to believe what they need to. And they’ll think that they are saving the world and not see that they are just destroying themselves.
“It’s easy to see them as monsters, and that’s how they see us, but we can’t play their game,” he continued. “We have to treat them like broken children because they are broken children. If you dig deep enough, there’s a trauma there. They weren’t born racist. We can’t shoot them. We can’t put them in jail for what they believe … but we can change them. And the only way to bring them back is to not push them away any further.”
Like Picciolini, Leek understands what it takes for hardened hearts and stubborn minds to actually change. “I’d encourage them [alt-right marchers] to examine within themselves what’s directing them down this path. If they’ve been hurt or are holding something against somebody, they need to learn to forgive both those who have hurt them and themselves. That’s the single greatest thing they can do for themselves — learn that forgiveness is essential to living without misery.”
“It’s all about getting compassion from the people that you don’t really deserve it from,” stressed Picciolini, pointing back to how his record shop customers once treated him better than he deserved. “The way that we save them is by showing them that they’re accepted, that they’re good people inside, and that we see something better in them than they see in themselves. That’s what works.”
As protesters prepare to oppose the alt-right this weekend outside the White House — as well they should — they might do well to understand that compassion and forgiveness could ultimately be more effective tools than signs, bullhorns, or chanted insults. After all, the victory over hatred won’t be earned by out-arguing, out-shouting, or out-muscling but by methodically thinning the opposition’s ranks. It might be another day of ugliness like we saw a year ago, but it could also be the beginning of a life after hate for a handful of broken children.
After all, Leek and Picciolini are living proof that that’s possible.