“I myself committed acts of violence against people solely for the color of their skin, who they loved or the god that they prayed to.”


At 22 years old, I was already embedded in one of America’s most violent hate movements. I was recruited into the group by the leader himself when I was just 14 years old, becoming one of the earliest and youngest members. I helped to build the group into what it became. The man at the helm of it just happened to be America’s first neo-Nazi skinhead, and when he went to prison for the second time, I became the leader of the movement at just 16 years old.

Before I had been recruited, I was flailing in life. I didn’t know who I was, where I belonged, or what my purpose was. I was lost, which made me an easy target for certain people. Over the years I helped to recruit other vulnerable, young people with false promises of a paradise that could never be delivered on. I eventually founded two hate bands and used white power music to reach a wider audience. One of those bands was the first American white power skinhead group to ever perform in Europe. I created music that, decades later, still exists on the internet. This kind of music helped inspire a young white nationalist to walk into a sacred church in South Carolina and carry out a senseless act of violence that ended in the massacre of nine innocent people.

I wasn’t born into hate. In fact, it was quite the opposite. I had a relatively normal childhood. My parents immigrated separately to this country from Italy in the 1960s. They arrived in the U.S. as strangers, but they found one another, and started to build their own family. They were entrepreneurs who worked tirelessly to establish businesses on the south side of Chicago – this was what the American Dream was all about. Once I was born things got more difficult. Running a business was hard enough, but with the added responsibility of a child, things got even harder.

This strain often meant that they worked 14-hour days, seven days a week, just to make ends meet. There were often periods of time where it was necessary for my parents to take on second, even third jobs just to earn a meager living. With my mother and father working around the clock, quality family time was pretty non-existent. Even though I knew they loved me very much, I felt abandoned and lonely.



This period of time is when I really began to withdraw into myself. I resented my parents for not being able to spend more time with me. I was turning into a very angry young man. I began to act out in an attempt to get my family’s attention. I had low self-esteem and, frankly, I didn’t know who I was, where I belonged, or my purpose. I was lost.

I was 14, and standing alone in an alley smoking a joint, when a man who was twice my age approached me. He was an intimidating sight, with a shaved head, and wearing tall black boots. He took the joint from my lips, put his hand on my shoulder, looked me straight in the eyes and said, “That’s what the Communists and the Jews want you to do to keep you docile.”

I was just a kid. I had been busy trading baseball cards and watching “Happy Days”. I didn’t really know what a Jew was. The only Communist that I knew was the bad Russian guy in my favorite Rocky movie. And, since I’m bearing my soul to you, I’ll admit that I didn’t even know what “docile” meant. However, what was important was that this man in the alley had offered me something that I needed desperately at that time – a lifeline.

I grabbed ahold of that connection with every fiber of my being. I basically went from Joanie Loves Chachi to full-blown Nazi, almost overnight. I quickly started believing the rhetoric that the group espoused… I didn’t hesitate to blame every Jewish person in the world for what I was told was a “white European genocide.” I blamed people of color for all of the crime, violence, and drugs in the city. With the constant acts of violence that I was committing myself, this was hypocritical at the very least.

I blamed immigrants for taking jobs from white Americans, while conveniently ignoring the fact that my own parents were hard-working immigrants. For eight years I believed the lies that were fed to me, although I had personally not seen any real evidence to support their claims. I started to watch very closely as the leaders of my organization targeted vulnerable young people, who, much like me, felt marginalized and alone. I participated wholeheartedly for many years, but then my life changed.


When I was 18, I met a girl who was not involved in the movement, and I fell in love. We got married and had our first son. When I held him in my arms, I began to question the things that had drawn me to the movement. Was I a neo-Nazi hate-monger, or was I a caring father and husband? Was my purpose to scorch the earth, or was it to heal and make a better place for my family?

I made a compromise. I took myself off of the streets for the benefit of my family. I stepped back as a leader, but I did not leave the group entirely. I opened a record store to sell white power music, but I knew that in order to stay in business, I would need to sell other kinds of music as well.

Along with the diversity in inventory came a mix of customers that were well outside of our organizational standards. These people came around and eventually, they started to talk to me. I found myself able to connect with them and I could no longer rationalize or justify the prejudice that I had spent years building up in my mind.

It was during this same time, however, that I lost nearly everything in my life. I lost my livelihood because I closed the store. I didn’t have a great relationship with my parents, and my wife and children left me because I hadn’t left the movement quickly enough. When I finally walked away from the organization – the only identity, community, and purpose that I’d ever really known – I had nobody.



Five years later, a friend came to me and said that she was concerned about my well-being. She suggested that I apply for a job at IBM, where she worked. Miraculously, they took a chance and hired me. I was terrified to learn that they were placing me at my old high school to install their computers – the same high school that I had been kicked out of twice all those years ago. Almost immediately upon entering the building, I saw Mr. Johnny Holmes, the security guard that I had started a fist fight with, which ultimately ended with me being thrown out of school for the second time in handcuffs.

He didn’t recognize me, but I was frozen. I quickly decided that I couldn’t let this opportunity pass, and I chased after Mr. Holmes in the parking lot. I tapped him on the shoulder and when he turned around, he recognized me and took a step back because he was afraid. I didn’t know what to say except “I’m sorry.” In that moment he chose to embrace and forgive me. He made me promise that I would share my story with whoever would listen. That was 18 years ago, and I’ve been doing just that ever since.


Since leaving the movement, I’ve helped over 100 people disengage from extremist activities, ranging from white supremacists to jihadists. I don’t argue with people or debate them, or even tell them that they’re wrong, I just listen and help to figure out what their potholes are. Potholes are the things that we hit that, invariably, nudge us off of our path, and we all have them. These bumps in the road can be trauma, abuse, unemployment, neglect, untreated mental health conditions, or even unchecked privilege. If we don’t have the resources to help pull us out, or avoid such potholes entirely, good people can end up doing some very bad things.

I don’t push away these people. I draw them close, I listen, and then I begin to help them fill in their specific potholes. I try to make people more resilient and self-confident. I also attempt to help them find the skills necessary to navigate the world so that they don’t look to blame “the other.”



It is our disconnection from each other that is the real problem. Hatred is born of ignorance – fear is its father and isolation its mother. When we don’t understand something, we tend to be afraid of it, and if we keep ourselves isolated then that fear grows and often turns into hatred. In some of my intervention work, I introduce people to those they think they hate.

All of the people that I’ve worked with will tell you the same thing: they became extremists not because of their interest in the ideology or dogma, but because they wanted desperately to belong. What brought many of them out of that dark hole was receiving compassion from the people they deserved it from the least. I encourage you to give compassion to those you encounter, even if you think some people are undeserving of it. I guarantee that they are often the ones who need it the most.

I was one of America’s first neo-Nazi skinhead leaders, but now, I am a pothole filler.