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Rejecting hate, after spending nearly a decade spreading it

An American Terrorist
An American Terrorist 13:20

Terrorism has come to mean Islamic extremism. But the fact is, since 9/11, more than twice as many Americans have been murdered by white supremacists. This threat exploded into view this past August when a protest aimed at a Civil War monument in Charlottesville, Virginia ended with one dead and 19 injured. No one understands the white supremacist movement as well as Christian Picciolini. He knows it because he helped build it. This is the story of an American terrorist -- his long journey to redemption -- and his struggle now to lift others from the depths of hate.

Scott Pelley: You hated black people.

Christian Picciolini: I thought I did.

Scott Pelley: You hated Jews.

Christian Picciolini: I thought I did.

Scott Pelley: You wanted to kill them.

Christian Picciolini: At that time, I did.

Christian Picciolini speaks with correspondent Scott Pelley CBS News

Christian Picciolini was not born to hate. He was taught. His education began in the Chicago suburb of Blue Island. He was 14, at odds with his Italian immigrant parents and lost.

Christian Picciolini: I had been bullied and picked on for, you know, everything from my name to my short stature, to my parents not being able to speak English very well. And I just never fit in.

And one of Picciolini's neighbors was a national figure in the neo-Nazi movement.

Scott Pelley: When you first met this man in the alleyway and then the rest of the skinheads in that town, what was it that they were promising you?

Christian Picciolini: They promised me paradise. They promised me that they would take me out of whatever hell I was living in, whether that was abandonment or marginalization and to a degree they delivered. They did give me a new identity. I was now this powerful person. And they gave me a community that accepted me.

That community was a racist gang with its own culture and its own music. That's Picciolini with a song that he wrote called "white power."

Christian Picciolini: The music gave me very specific focus on what was happening to me and it was trying to give me the answers of why that was happening.

Scott Pelley: And what were those answers?

Christian Picciolini: Those answers were that everybody was against me as a white man that I was being intentionally ostracized and that diversity was a code word for white genocide and that if I didn't protect my proud European heritage that we would be wiped out.

"The truth is, I'd never met or had a meaningful dialogue or engagement with anybody that I thought I hated."

By the time he reached Eisenhower High School he had turned to violence. On his last day there he beat up the same black student twice.

Christian Picciolini: And I was brought down to the office, and to the principal's office who was also a black woman. And in that office, I got in a very heated physical argument with the security guard, Mr. Holmes.

That's security guard Johnny Holmes, who has never forgotten what he saw in the principal's office that day.

Johnny Holmes: She put her arms around Chris, he said, "You black bitch. Get your filthy hands off of me."

Christian Picciolini: There were some words that I said to the principal that were not very kind. In fact, they were disgusting and very racist.

Johnny Holmes: Then he turned from her to me. And he started to poke me in my chest like this. And he went on to say that how he lived to see the day where a n----- was hangin' from every light pole in Blue Island.

Christian Picciolini: And he really got in my face to try and stop me and subdued me until the police came. And the police arrested me.

Christian Picciolini and Johnny Holmes CBS News

Picciolini was expelled for the sixth and last time. Which only made him more committed.

Christian Picciolini: That is me, in 1994, looking very much like somebody who is a terrorist. I am at this point, the leader of an organization of skinheads and the people standing behind me are my soldiers, people that would have done anything for me.

Scott Pelley: And that last picture? Where are you?

Christian Picciolini: I am standing in front of the gates of Dachau Concentration Camp in Germany.

Dachau, where an estimated 41,000 were murdered. Mostly Jews.

Scott Pelley: What are you thinking?

Christian Picciolini: I was thinking that I wanted to burn the world down because I was so angry at it.

The anger led Picciolini to recruit dozens of new members and unleash them on a campaign of assault, vandalism and burglary. The violence reached its peak one night when Picciolini and his 'soldiers' chased a black man out of a restaurant.

Finding forgiveness for a racist 06:07

Christian Picciolini: We caught that individual and we proceeded to beat him brutally. And at one point when I was kicking him on the ground and his face was swollen, covered in blood, he opened his eyes and they connected with mine. that was the first time I felt empathy for one of my victims. And that was the last time I hurt anybody.

It took years from that moment for Picciolini to turn around. His wife and children left him. He went through five years of depression. But ultimately, he says, his anger began to cool he says as he was confronted by kindness -- blacks and Jews who refused to return the hate.

Christian Picciolini: The truth is, I'd never met or had a meaningful dialogue or engagement with anybody that I thought I hated. And when they took the step to try and reach me, the demonization of them that I had in my head started to crack.

Christian Picciolini speaking about the white supremacy movement CBS News

20 years later, 44-year-old Christian Picciolini is making amends. He participated in a United Nations Peace Conference in Geneva. In the U.S., He trains police, the FBI, and Homeland Security in the mindset and tactics of the white supremacy movement.

"The data tells us this, 74% of extremist-related killings in this country in the last ten years have been carried out by right-wing extremists, not Islamic extremists."

Christian Picciolini: You know 30 years ago we were skinheads. We wore swastikas and shaved heads, and you could identify us pretty easily. So we decided at that time to grow our hair out, to trade in our boots for suits and we encouraged people to get jobs in law enforcement, to go to the military and get training and to recruit there.

Which is why it was hard to spot the racists amid the violence of Charlottesville.

Oren Segal: So Charlottesville is a seminal moment in this country for hate.

Oren Segal tracks the white supremacist transformation as director of the Center on Extremism at the Anti-Defamation League. The ADL trains law enforcement officers in 250 agencies.

Oren Segal: You know, look no further than Charlottesville. One of the lasting impressions people have are these white kids with polo shirts and khaki pants. Almost looked like a fraternity scene. But they're holding tiki torches, and they're talking about how the Jews are responsible for the ills of this country. They're racist. They're anti-immigrant. They're misogynist. But they look like our kids. That's the changing face of hate in this country.

Scott Pelley: Since 9/11, the country has been focused on radical Islamic terrorism, but what do the facts tell you?

Oren Segal: The data tells us this, 74% of extremist-related killings in this country in the last ten years have been carried out by right-wing extremists, not Islamic extremists.

Scott Pelley: Including white supremacists.

Oren Segal: Yes. So white supremacists, in particular, have been responsible for a majority of the killings, even in the last ten years.

It is social media that propels the movement's momentum. Posts promoted the Charlottesville protest which drew people from 35 states. It was the largest white supremacy rally in 15 years. The most common hashtag for racist tweets now is "white genocide."

Christian Picciolini: And it's these types of things that appeal to young people who, frankly, are living in an environment right now where it's tough to find something to believe in.

Today, Picciolini is trying to give white supremacists something else to believe in. He says he's counseled 200 members of the movement.

He's sought out by parents and courts. In Chicago, a man who broke windows and painted swastikas on a synagogue was sentenced to a year of counseling with Picciolini.

Dean Chabot is another neo-Nazi who followed Picciolini out of white supremacy.  

Scott Pelley: Dean, do you consider yourself to be out, or do you consider yourself to be in the process?

Dean Chabot: I am completely out. Actually, doing this interview is the final step.

Scott Pelley: How so?

Dean Chabot: Once this airs there's no going back. If you try to go back in, someone's gonna kill you.

This interview wasn't truly his final step.

Scott Pelley: Dean, would you mind showing me these tattoos?

Dean Chabot: Yes, sir.

Scott Pelley: And how old were you when you got these?

Dean Chabot: I was about 15 to 17.

Scott Pelley: And when you got the tattoos you thought what?

Dean Chabot: I just thought that it was complete. I finally have my ink.

Scott Pelley: Finally have your ink. You were all in, indelibly in the movement.

Picciolini arranged for a plastic surgeon to erase the last traces of Chabot's former life.

Dean Chabot: The reason I am doing this is to end a chapter of my life, getting the hate off my skin.

Scott Pelley: When you first sit down with one of these young men you're trying to turn around, what do you say to him?

Christian Picciolini: I'm there to listen because they're used to people not listening to them.

Dylann Roof's letter to Picciolini

His hardest case is the most notorious white supremacist of our time. In 2015, Dylann Roof murdered nine African Americans during bible study in Charleston, South Carolina.

Dylann Roof: I had to do it. Because somebody had to do something because black people are killing white people every day.  

Picciolini wrote to Roof in the hope that Roof would express remorse. Roof responded this way to Picciolini's letter.

Christian Picciolini: Well, starts off with; "Traitor, you've really cashed in, haven't you? I know you won't be, but you really should be ashamed of yourself. I hope you know that you are 100 times worse than the Jews you've surrounded yourself with."

Scott Pelley: What does that tell you?

Christian Picciolini: That tells me he is completely indoctrinated by these alternate sets of facts, these conspiracy theories, this rhetoric that's pushed by the movement that puts all the blame on -- Jewish people and that he's so entrenched in that information that he's been fed that that's become his reality.

Redemption comes to those who face the evil they have done. Christian Picciolini's first job after white supremacy was as a computer technician. And by chance, he was sent to work at a high school -- Eisenhower High School -- where he apologized to Johnny Holmes, who was then still head of security.

Johnny Holmes: I knew it was genuine, and he was emotional. And it was a very, very special moment, that exchange.

Christian Picciolini: I am forever, forever grateful and that's really important for me to communicate.

Johnny Holmes: Well, I'm so happy for you. And I'm so glad that it happened.

Christian Picciolini: Thank you. Thank you.

Johnny Holmes: You're welcome.

Christian Picciolini: I think my biggest regret, aside from the people that I physically hurt, were all the young, promising people who could have had a normal, great life if I hadn't stepped in their way, if I hadn't recruited them. There are many that went to prison, many that ended up dead. And that's my biggest regret.

Scott Pelley: Do you fear for your safety?

Christian Picciolini: I receive death threats-- on a daily basis. But the way I look at it is, for eight years of my life in my youth I was willing to die for something that was wrong. So if I wasn't doing what I was doing to try and help pull people out of this movement, I don't know that I'd be able to live with myself.

Produced by Michael Radutzky. Associate Producer, Lucy Boyd.

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