Finding forgiveness for a racist

This week on 60 Minutes, correspondent Scott Pelley interviews Christian Picciolini, a reformed white supremacist who now works to rehabilitate those who are still hypnotized by hate.  

Picciolini says isolation drove him to become a white supremacist. As a child, he had been relentlessly bullied and felt as though he never fit in. That is, until he met a neo-Nazi whose group promised him what he had been looking for — acceptance. By the time he was 16 years old, he became the head of the Chicago Area Skin Heads.

"I went from a place of complete powerlessness at 14 to now somebody who felt he had all the power in the world," Picciolini tells Pelley.

Christian Picciolini in high school Personal Photo

But he certainly didn't have all the power at Eisenhower High School, where he clashed with school administrators after he assaulted a black student. When he was taken to the principal's office, he was confronted by the principal and the school security guard, Johnny Holmes, both of whom are black.

"And that's when all hell breaks loose," 60 Minutes producer Michael Radutzky tells 60 Minutes Overtime in the video above.

Johnny Holmes was the security guard at Eisenhower High School Personal Photo

Picciolini called the principal the n-word, then jabbed Holmes in the chest while continuing to hurl racial slurs and threats of violence. Holmes physically subdued Picciolini until the police arrived and arrested him. The school expelled him and was granted a restraining order to keep him away.

Years later, Picciolini renounced white supremacy and began to rebuild his life. In his first job outside of the movement, he worked as a computer technician, and by chance, he was assigned to work at Eisenhower High School. He encountered Holmes, who was then still the head of security, and Picciolini said simply, "I'm sorry."

Holmes embraced him.

"That conversation changed my life because this man who I had tormented — he didn't torment me back," Picciolini says. "He showed me compassion when I least deserved it, and he was the person I least deserved it from."

Johnny Holmes and Christian Picciolini today Personal Photo

Holmes says the decision to forgive Picciolini was easy.

"When that happened, I saw Chris as a punk teenager, wet behind the ear, who had been brainwashed," Holmes says of their fateful encounter in the principal's office. "I was above that nonsense. I was a mature adult with five kids of my own. I want to see all the kids succeed. And so Chris didn't know what he was doing. He thought he knew. So I didn't hate him."

Picciolini says Holmes' forgiveness wasn't just mercy from someone he hurt.

"It was also forgiveness for myself," Picciolini says. "He taught me that I had to forgive myself for what I had done."

Today, Picciolini is making amends in a lot more places than a high school hallway. He has spoken at a United Nations peace conference in Geneva, and he trains police forces, the FBI, and Homeland Security in the mindset and tactics of the white supremacist movement.

Christian Picciolini now speaks out about the threat of neo-Nazi groups

Producer Michael Radutzky says his willingness to help others stems from that redemptive conversation with the security guard he once hurt. "I'm pretty sure that he would not have had the self-confidence and the will to reach out to others if he hadn't been accepted by Mr. Holmes first."

The video above was produced by Ann Silvio and Lisa Orlando. It was edited by Lisa Orlando. 

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