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Want to empower neo-Nazis on campus? Former skinhead says keep screaming at them

There are fruitful ways to break through to young white supremacists, and there are ways that backfire.

The preferred methods on college campuses – screaming, demonization and violence – always backfire, and it’s time students and campus communities try “compassion” in action, according to a former skinhead.

Christian Picciolini, co-founder of Life After Hate and author of the memoir White American Youth, tells The Chronicle of Higher Education that young people drawn toward white supremacy are “marginalized” too.

He spent his teens and early 20s promoting white supremacy to impressionable kids in America and Germany, including through his band Final Solution, and said they aren’t drawn toward the ideology:

They’ve hit a wall, they felt marginalized. They’ve had a grievance, whether it’s real or perceived. They feel bullied. They feel like something’s been taken away from them and then they go and search for what they are unable to find anywhere else, which are identity, community, and purpose, which everybody is looking for.

His former fellow travelers are targeting colleges now because students there are searching for the same things, “looking for something to believe in,” according to Picciolini, the child of immigrants.

He warned that giving extremists “violence and silence” is exactly what they want, but demonstrating compassion will neutralize their bitterness:

They came in looking for violence, and that allows them to use that as a victim narrative for themselves and say, “You see, we were out here just marching for free speech,” which is what they always claim because it’s hard to argue with that. They use that intentionally, because they know people are so angry at them that they will attack. …

When I was at rallies in the ’80s and ’90s, it didn’t make me want to not be a Nazi if somebody were to punch me. It would have made me an angrier, more violent Nazi. But what did affect me were the people that were there to protest, who were saying: “We understand. You’re a person. We acknowledge you. We just want you to know that we don’t agree with you.”

That always stuck with me. And that was always really powerful and frustrating for me at the same time. We need to start having these rational discussions about what works in countering this.

Read the interview.

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