This week on Reveal, the mixed signals the Trump administration is giving on racial discrimination and violence, and the message they send to extremist hate groups. We explore why Charlottesville, Virginia, became a flashpoint, and whether more race-based clashes are on the way.

In the wake of the violence in Charlottesville, President Donald Trump has come under fire for not immediately and clearly condemning American racists. It’s not the first time. Reveal reporter Will Carless describes how Trump and those close to him have often played down the threat of violence committed by white supremacists across the country.  

One of the most prominent white supremacists in Charlottesville was Richard Spencer. He has made it pretty clear that the violence last week will only galvanize his movement further. We revisit Al’s interview with Spencer in which they discuss whether the rhetoric and the actions of his movement for a white ethnostate are inciting violence.

The Trump administration frames terrorism in America as a problem perpetuated by radical Muslims and as such, ignores the dozens of instances of terrorism committed by radical right-wing groups. We revisit Al’s interview with terrorism expert Daryl Johnson who explains that right-wing extremists are responsible for nearly twice as many domestic terrorism incidents as those who claim to act in the name of Islam.

Finally, Reveal host Al Letson talks to Christian Picciolini who co-founded Life After Hate – a nonprofit organization that helps members of white nationalist organizations leave behind a life of violence. Picciolini was a skinhead for eight years, but was able to extricate himself from the group. He talks about how young people are recruited by hate groups and warns that while many white supremacists have learned to put on a “media friendly face,” the discussions behind closed doors remain very violent.

Dig Deeper

  • Read: Charlottesville underscores how homegrown hate is going unchecked
  • Explore: Domestic terror incidents across the US


Support for Reveal is provided by The Reva and David Logan Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and Mary and Steven Swig.


Reveal transcripts are produced by a third-party transcription service and may contain errors. Please be aware that the official record for Reveal’s radio stories is the audio.

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Al Letson:From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson. Last week, we saw Charlottesville erupt. Racial tensions that have plagued this country from its foundation spilled out onto the streets, leaving three people dead, including 32 year-old Heather Heyer, who police say was run over by a Unite the Right protestor. Since then, President Trump has offered wildly different statements about what happened. Here’s what he said on the day of the protest.
President Trump:We’re closely following the terrible events unfolding in Charlottesville, Virginia. We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry, and violence on many sides, on many sides.
Al Letson:Now, the president was criticized for that statement, which seemed to put the counter-protestors on the same plane with white supremacists. It’s worth noting, these white nationalists had surrounded a church the night before with torches and chanted racist slogans.
Speaker 3:You will not replace us.
Al Letson:The next time President Trump spoke, he seemed to take a different tone.
President Trump:Racism is evil, and those who cause violence in its name are criminals and thugs, including the KKK, neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and other hate groups that are repugnant to everything we hold dear as Americans.
Al Letson:Then a day later, the president again seemed to put white supremacists and counter-protestors on equal footing. Here’s a couple exchanges from that press conference.
Speaker 4:Senator McCain said that the alt-right is behind these attacks. He linked that same group to those who perpetrated the attack in Charlottesville.
President Trump:I don’t know. I can’t tell you. I’m sure Senator McCain must know what he’s talking about, but when you say the alt-right, define alt-right to me. You define it, go ahead.
Speaker 4:I’m saying as Senator-
President Trump:No, define it for me. Come on, let’s go. Define it.
Speaker 4:Senator McCain [inaudible 00:02:01].
Al Letson:Then Trump brought up reports that some counter-protestors responded to the white supremacists with violence.
President Trump:What about the alt-left that came charging at them? Excuse me. What about the alt-left that came charging at the, as you say, the alt-right? Do they have any semblance of guilt?
Speaker 4:This is Senator McCain’s statement.
President Trump:Let me ask you this. What about the fact that they came charging with clubs in their hands, swinging clubs? Do they have any problem? I think they do. As far as I’m concerned, that was a horrible, horrible day.
Speaker 5:Mr. President, are you putting what you’re calling the alt-left and white supremacists on the same moral plane?
President Trump:I’m not putting anybody on a moral plane. What I’m saying is this. You had a group on one side, and you had a group on the other, and they came at each other with clubs, and it was viscious, and it was horrible, and it was a horrible thing to watch. But there is another side. There was a group on this side, you can call them the left, you’ve just called them the left, that came violently attacking the other group. You can say what you want, but that’s the way it is.
Speaker 6:On both sides, sir? You said there was hatred, there was violence on both sides.
President Trump:Yes, I think there’s blame on both sides. You look at both sides, I think there’s blame on both sides, and I have no doubt about it, and you don’t have any doubt about it either. If you reported it accurately, you would say that.
Al Letson:David Duke, the former Imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, immediately praised Trump’s remarks on Twitter. The president’s mixed messages about the extreme right echo what many of the people around him say. This year, I’ve interviewed some of Trump’s key advisors including Sebastian Gorka, the president’s deputy assistant. He debated me on whether white supremacy even exists in America.
Sebastian Gorka:Historically, it existed. My issue is this. What is the utility of mentioning that today?
Al Letson:Can I respond to you? Go ahead.
Sebastian Gorka:Hang on a second, two things. How are you helping bridge the divisions by using phrases like white supremacism, because white supremacism is a conscious decision. It’s the individual who is denying the other their civil rights. I do not see as a nation systemic persecution based on skin color.
Al Letson:Let me respond, and then we’re going to move on because I think you and I could talk about this all day. Then there was Roger Stone, the man who takes credit for masterminding Trump’s campaign. He was even more adamant.
Roger Stone:There are no white supremacists, my friend. This is a tiny microcosm of the United States. The Ku Klux Klan today is funded by the federal government. Those are all informants.
Al Letson:Hold on, hold on, hold on, hold on, hold on, hold on, hold on. Let’s rewind a little bit. Let’s rewind. Let’s both of us take a deep breath because I want to have a conversation, to an argument with you.
Roger Stone:I can’t let you just say things that aren’t true. Go ahead.
Al Letson:You just said that there are no white supremacists.
Roger Stone:There are virtually none. The whole notion that there’s some giant constituency of white supremacists in the country is a joke.
Al Letson:What message is President Trump sending to white nationalists? Will Carless covers extremism for Reveal and started our weekly newsletter, The Hate Report. He joins me now. Hey, Will.
Will Carless:Hey, Al.
Al Letson:You just published a piece saying the Trump administration has downplayed white supremacy in America. Tell us, what do you mean by that and the impact that Trump’s action or his inaction has had on the white supremacist movement.
Will Carless:Basically, Al, this comes down to three things. Number one, you’ve got the Trump administration officials working really hard to paint terrorism in America as being something that’s only Islamic-based, there’s no such thing as white supremacists terrorism out there. As such, they’re just ignoring the dozens of instances of terrorism that are committed by radical right wing groups like these white supremacists. The second thing is you’ve got key figures in the Trump administration saying that basically that white supremacism isn’t a problem. Thirdly, it’s what Trump doesn’t say. You mentioned he took two days to come out with this disavowal. Within those two days, a lot of people in the far right and the racists communities were crowing about what a big victory Charlottesville had been. That’s a big part of it is what he doesn’t say.
Al Letson:Were you surprised at the scale of the protests on Saturday, and did you expect it to turn violent?
Will Carless:I wasn’t surprised at all, Al. Anybody who covers this who’s paying attention to this is seeing the action on Twitter and on social media. A lot of people were really hyped up about this. A lot of really noted people on the far right and the far left were encouraging their supporters to show up. I think the only thing that surprised me was that more people weren’t hurt. You’ve got heavily armed groups on both sides of the political spectrum showing up to these events. I’m frankly surprised that A, it hasn’t gotten this violent before, and that B, it wasn’t more violent on the day.
Al Letson:The protest was billed as a way to unite the right. Who showed up, and what are the main points that they were trying to make?
Will Carless:Basically, you’re looking at groups that run the gamut from the real hardcore neo-Nazis, the sort of people who are not ashamed to wear swastikas, to walk around sieg heiling and doing salutes, to people on the alt-right or alt-light, these people who bill themselves as conservatives who are merely concerned about race politics. Generally speaking, race was the defining issue here, and it was people from the far right to the right of the political spectrum.
Al Letson:Can you explain this to me because you’ve been studying these guys for a while. The thing that I hear a lot is the idea that white people are under siege or that there’s a race war, that they’re going to be extinct. Where does that come from?
Will Carless:It comes from all sorts of things. It comes from people like the conspiracy mongers, the Infowars of this world who talk about the feminization of America and the pressure that white men are under. It also comes from the philosophies of Hitler and other known fascists that have never really gone away, are still simmering out there. Ultimately, this comes down to bog-standard blame it on somebody. It’s scapegoating.
Al Letson:What do these white supremacists hear and see from the Trump administration that makes them feel like it’s okay to come out of the shadows now?
Will Carless:Silence, which we talked about earlier, but I really think a key character was this guy Steve Bannon, who has of course now just been removed from the White House. This guy was a really, really key character because a lot of the white supremacists, a lot of the racists in the country really saw him as their inside guy. He was right there at the highest echelons of power. There are still some other characters left. You still have Steve Miller, other people that the white supremacists are fans of, but Bannon was really a central character.
Al Letson:Maybe you can clarify this for me. I’ve asked Richard Spencer, the white nationalist, at least three different times, and I’ve never got a satisfactory answer. As someone who’s been watching these groups and seeing what they do, what’s the difference between a Nazi, a Klansman, and the alt-right? It seems like they all want the exact same thing. I don’t understand why we have to parse out these words.
Will Carless:You’re asking the wrong guy if you want a clarification for that. Frankly, I think there’s very little difference between them. If you look, for example, at Charlottesville, and you’ve got people like Richard Spencer now in the days after coming out and saying, “WE’re not …
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Will Carlos:-Richard Spencer now, in the days after coming out and saying, “We’re not really racist. We’re not really Nazis, we don’t really believe that stuff.” Look, everybody knew that what was going to happen on Saturday was being organized by and was going to be focused around the Neo-Nazis and the very, very racist people in this country. If people like Richard Spencer and the people who support him don’t want to be involved with those people, don’t show up. Don’t show up to Charlottesville on Saturday. So, they could very easily have had a different rally somewhere else, I mean there’s unquestionably a connection there. Frankly, I think the difference is a semantic one and it’s in terms of how blatant these people want to get and how willing they are to stand up for what they truly believe.


Al Letson:Let me tell you, my friend. As a Black man in America, if I see any of them, they are radicals to me. So moving on, let’s talk about the counter-protesters now. The extreme ones are being called the Antifa movement. Who are these people? I’ve heard that phrase a lot, I’m not quite sure exactly who they are.


Will Carlos:Well, you and a lot of people in America. I think we need to be cautious about even talking about something that is the Antifa movement. Now I spent the last couple of months going and interviewing as many so-called Antifa as I could and most of them would kind of look at you when you talk about Antifa and say, “Well, I’m anti-Fascism, but I don’t really regard myself as an Antifa.” So I don’t think this is an organized movement. I think it’s more sort of a collective term that’s being used to describe anyone who’s really upset with the fact that these guys are out there chanting Nazi slogans and saying these hurtful things and want to fight against what they genuinely see as kind of creeping fascism in the United States.


Al Letson:I have read some reports that have said that basically a lot of the Alt-Right or whatever you want to label them that were in Charlottesville, many of them, their identities have been revealed and they are losing their jobs. I wonder if that will put a chilling effect on these people coming out and being a part of these type of movements.


Will Carlos:Well interestingly, what the Antifa, for what it’s worth, what they do is they’ll cover up and they wear masks and they wear bandanas for partly that reason. Partly because they don’t want to be identified by law enforcement, but I think what you’re likely to see in response to what’s going on to these type of revelations and people losing their jobs is that these Alt-Right guys are going to start showing up in masks too. I mean, they’d be kind of stupid not to, I guess, unless their work already knows who they are and their neighbors already know who they are. I think you’re going to see more bandanas on the right as well as the left.


Al Letson:So these rallies are breaking out all over the country. What’s your prediction for them? Are we in the new normal? Will we see Charlottesville repeated all over the country?


Will Carlos:I think it would be too much to say we’re going to see Charlottesville repeated across the country for two reasons. Number one, because any time these far right groups get out in numbers, the local police, the Federal police are going to be all over them. They’re going to be right out there in force to try and do a better job frankly of policing it than they did in Charlottesville and the previous rallies before that. And also, frankly people are scared. When people see all of this violence going on, yeah I mean some of the more hard-core people are going to keep on showing up, but I’m not sure if you’re going to see the sorts of crowds still showing up. Having said that, there are still going to be protests going forwards, both of these sides are very energized and you’re still going to be seeing people showing up. I just don’t know if it’ll be as big as Charlottesville.


Al Letson:Will Carlos is a reporter with Reveal covering Extremism and Extremist groups in America. Thanks Will.


Will Carlos:Thanks, Al.


Al Letson:For White Nationalist Richard Spencer, Charlottesville is not over.


Richard Spencer:We are going to make Charlottesville the center of the universe. We are going to come back here often. Your head’s going to spin at how many times we’re going to be back here. We are absolutely never backing down.


Al Letson:Coming up, I’ll talk to Spencer about the connection between his movement and violence. You’re listening to Reveal, from the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX.


Cole Goins:Hey folks, it’s Cole Goins here. I’m the Director of Community Engagement at Reveal. As you’ve heard in this episode, President Trump has been widely criticized for his statements in response to the violence in Charlottesville. Now we want to hear what you think. In light of Trump’s comments, what’s your personal statement on Charlottesville? Leave us a voicemail with your thoughts on the rally and how it may have affected the way you think about race in America today.


We’ll feature some of your voices on our website. The number to call 510-422-0287. Again, that’s 510-422-0287. We look forward to hearing your thoughts.


Al Letson:From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson. In today’s show, we’re looking at what led to the violence and tragedy in Charlottesville, Virginia where White Supremacist groups clashed with counter protesters. President Trump was criticized for not immediately speaking out against the extreme right. But when he did, some White Nationalists accused him of placating the left. This is from an Alt Right radio show, called “The Political Cesspool.”


Speaker 5:There’s no limit to my fury that I have for these people, from the President all the way down. There’s no limit to the hatred I have. I hope you people out there will see, you have no government left anymore, people. You have no President, you have no Senators, you have nothing. You have no representation whatsoever.


Al Letson:Then, the President seemed to walk back his comments when he criticized what he called the Alt Left. This drew praise from White Supremacists, including Richard Spencer. He’s the one who coined the term, “Alt Right,” Made it pretty clear that what happened there will only galvanize his movement further.


I’ve interviewed Richard Spencer twice since Donald Trump was elected. The second time back in March. We talked about a lot of things that really came to the surface in Charlottesville, including whether the words and actions of his movement for a White nation or Ethno-state were inciting violence. Richard told me he was getting a lot more donations for his group, The National Policy Institute, but also facing a lot more criticism. Mainly because of something that had happened at the group’s annual conference in Washington, DC. It was less than two weeks after Trump was elected and he was giving the keynote speech.


Richard Spencer:And it was a really great speech, but on the bombastic side.


“To be White is to be a striver, a crusader, an explorer and a conqueror. We build, we produce, we go upward.”


And at the end of the speech, I did want to end it with a bang and, you know, this is again, it was a week after the election and I said, “Hail Trump. Hail our people. Hail victory.”


Obviously, that was highly provocative. And I raised a glass. I had a glass of whiskey that was there on the podium there with me. It was getting late and some of the people in the audience jumped up and gave Roman salutes. This of course created a passive outrage because it was recorded and a video went viral and I think it was terribly misunderstood.


Al Letson:Let me pause you there. What’s a Roman salute?


Richard Spencer:A Roman salute is probably … You would probably … It’s better known as a “Hitler Salute,” is when you hold your arm straight out in the air.


Al Letson:Right, so can you understand why there was a big ruckus about all of this? You are … I don’t know if you describe yourself as this, but I would describe you as a White Nationalist. Do you agree with that?


Richard Spencer:That’s … The term White Nationalist is fine, yes. That’s an accurate term.


Al Letson:So you’re a White Nationalist. You say, “Hail Trump,” which goes back to “Hail Hitler.”


Richard Spencer:Well, it goes, “Hail to the Chief.” [crosstalk 00:18:23]


Al Letson:Yeah, but how should people say that? I mean, come on. That’s-


Richard Spencer:I was being provocative. The fact is, I have been photographed giving a straight-arm Communist salute with a clenched fist, multiple times. In Vanity Fair actually and everyone [crosstalk 00:18:36]


Al Letson:I’m not disagreeing that you’re being provocative, I’m just saying that like if you’re being provocative and you are a White Nationalist and you do the type of salute that the Nazis use, people are going to label you a Nazi.


Richard Spencer:You know, two things on that. I think first off, the term “Nazi,” has been over-abused to this extent where it’s becoming ridiculous. It is kind of the other “N word.” It is a way of ritualistically humiliating someone. By calling them a Nazi, you’re basically putting someone out of the bounds of humanity.


Al Letson:So I think that when you talk about a Nazi as a White Nationalist and someone who is bad, I think that that term applies. When you’re talking about someone as, especially like a White person in America is talking about a Black person and calling them the N-I double G-E-R term, that’s a whole different ball of wax. So, all your beliefs, and correct me if I’m wrong, because I think that this is the one thing that I didn’t get clear from you the last time we talked. I don’t understand what the difference between White Nationalist and what you believe is different from what Nazis believe, is different from what the Ku Klux Klan clan believe.


Richard Spencer:Oh come on …


Al Letson:No, I’m genuinely asking you man to clear it up for me so I can understand. Because I would say that you’re a Nazi, but if you don’t feel like you are, please explain it to me. I’m open to hear what you have to say.


Richard Spencer:Okay. Let me start from-


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Speaker 1:I want to hear what you have to say.


Richard Spencer:Okay. Let me start from a point of common ground.


Speaker 1:Okay.


Richard Spencer:Whenever anyone engages … Any white person engages in an identity movement, identity politics, we are always called a handful of terms. “You are literally Hitler. You’re a Nazi.” That’s the big one. “You’re the Klu Klux Klan. You’re a Southern Confederate.” It goes on and on. “You’re segregationist,” et cetera. We are labeled. We are dehumanized by eing labeled Nazi and so on.


Now, I would say this. In terms of who I am, my raising a glass and saying, “Hail Trump,” I think of people … Look, sure, white people freaked out or were offended, but I think actually at the end of the day, even my fiercest critics more or less got it. I was being highly provocative celebrating this euphoric moment that we’re all experiencing.


Speaker 1:Let me ask you this. So you said that in that meeting, and I really want to move off of this, but keep coming back to this. You said in that meeting you were being provocative. People had been drinking. You gave this rousing speech and at the end, you raised your glass, and that was being provocative, but doesn’t that provocation have consequences?


I mean, if you look in the country right now, hate crimes are up significantly. It’s a clear line from like the type of stuff that you’re talking about to violence showing up. Like I don’t think that you are advocating …


Richard Spencer:Come on.


Speaker 1:Hold on. Let me say this. I don’t think that you are specifically advocating for violence. I don’t believe that you are in front of audiences telling people to go out and do something crazy, but I believe that when you start talking about when you look at the world through a White Nationalist lens, and you are gathered in a group of young White Nationalists, and you are getting everybody amped up, and you’re raising your glass and you’re saying, “Hail, Trump,” and people are giving you the heil sieg signal, there are direct lines from that type of behavior into the violence that manifests in other parts of the country.


Richard Spencer:I actually fundamentally disagree with you and I would actually say that the opposite is the case. The fact is, when people have a suppressed identity, and I’m referring to white people. When they are not allowed to express their sense of themselves, their sense of their family …


Speaker 1:Who’s suppressing white people in America?


Richard Spencer:Their extended family and so on in the real world.


Speaker 1:Who is suppressing white people in America?


Richard Spencer:I can imagine them.


Speaker 1:I don’t see like … As an African American man, like everywhere I go, I see white people. In everything I do, I see white people. In every interaction I have, I see …


Richard Spencer:I see white people.


Speaker 1:I’m not saying that in a bad way.


Richard Spencer:I’m sorry. That was a little bit of a joke. I get what you’re saying. This is a white country.


Speaker 1:It is a majority …


Richard Spencer:It was.


Speaker 1:At this point, this is a majority white country, but what I’m saying is that when you look at the power in the United States, the power is consolidated with white people.


Richard Spencer:Which direction is that pointed? Look, I always try to find common ground with people that I get in a debate with. I agree with you unquestionably. White people have a tremendous amount of power. We still benefit from it. We still have plenty of wealth. We still have plenty of influence, but we are bringing about our own demise. I don’t really blame black people for this.


I really blame ourselves. We are bringing about our own demise. We are removing ourselves from cultural and social power. You know, if you say, “White people have accumulated a lot of wealth,” where is that arrow pointing? Which direction are we headed? It is towards the loss of power for my people in North America and around the world. So, yes, this was our country. That’s why it feels pretty white, but where is it going?


Speaker 1:That’s just a small sliver of my interview with Richard Spencer back in March. You can listen to more from the interview, including a discussion of how Richard Spencer gets his funding on our website. As you can hear, I couldn’t really get an answer from Spencer about who was suppressing white people in America, but after the protests in Charlottesville, Spencer said those protests were the first time he had felt oppressed by his own government.


How is the federal government treating white supremacists these days? How about when it comes to violence from White Nationalist groups and the extreme right? Attorney General, Jeff Sessions called the car attack in Charlottesville, “An act of domestic terrorism,” but the next day, the president had this to say to the press.


Speaker 3:Two questions. Was this terrorism and can you tell us what you’re feeling about your Chief Strategist?


Donald Trump:Well, I think the driver of the car is a disgrace to himself, his family, and this country. That can be called terrorism. You can call it murder. You can call it whatever you want.


Speaker 1:Words matter. Trump and his advisors have routinely failed to call out the domestic Right-Wing terrorism.


Speaker 5:There’s no such thing as a lone wolf, you do know that? That was a phrase invented by the last administration to make Americans stupid.


Speaker 1:That’s White House aide Sebastian Gorka. In an interview on MSNBC just a few days before James Alex Fields drove his car into a crowd of people.


Speaker 5:There’s never been a serious attack or a serious plot that was unconnected from ISIS or Al Qaeda.


Speaker 1:There’s a problem with that statement. It’s simply not true. We examined the numbers behind the attacks on US soil in collaboration with our partners at the Investigative Fund. Here’s what we found. In the nine years we studied, Right Wing extremists were responsible for nearly twice as many domestic terrorism incidents as those who claimed to act in the name of Islam. This is terrorism expert Daryl Johnson.


Daryl Johnson :I’ve got 25 years of working in the US government as an intelligence analyst looking at counter-terrorism issues and specifically 15 plus years looking at domestic terrorism.


Speaker 1:We spoke to Daryl for a show we did earlier this year. What he told us is even more potent now than the context of what happened in Charlottesville.


Daryl Johnson :Typically during Republican administrations we see kind of the far right dialing back on its activities and the group counts decreasing. Just the opposite is happening this time around and this is the first time where I’ve seen the far right continuing its high level of activities that was built up during the Obama administration and continuing it during the Trump administration. So far, 2017’s been a very active year.


Speaker 1:Why should we be more focused on domestic terrorism here when we see the threat of Islamic extremists just over the horizon?


Daryl Johnson :I don’t want to diminish the threat from ISIS and Al Qaeda. My point is the number of resources at the federal government deploys to domestic non-Islamic extremism pales in comparison to the amount of resources being devoted to foreign terrorists either coming here or those who are radicalizing within the United States that affiliate with ISIS and Al Qaeda.


I just think that the resources are out of balance. I think that our national leaders as well as federal law enforcement, particularly the FBI, does not call out a terrorist act by a white person as often as they do for a Muslim individual. So they kind of diminish the threat by not recognizing it and not talking about it. Not devoting enough resources to it.


The level of activity is increasing and the number or deaths have piled up and we still haven’t really made much headway as far as, you know, at least recognizing that these acts are ideologically motivated violence. That it’s terrorism. A lot of times, people just dismiss it as the act of a crazed gunman or diminish it by saying it’s just a hate crime.


Not saying that hate crimes aren’t, you know, serious crimes but when you say that, you don’t use the terrorism word. You don’t label it as terrorism so people don’t think that it is terrorism.


Speaker 1:So you’ve been looking at this stuff for a really long time. Tell, what’s the picture in your head of domestic terrorists? Like who does it tend to be?


Daryl Johnson :Well, here in America we have some uniquely American extremists that have established movements. People know about the Klu Klux Klan. You’ve heard about the militia movement. We also have, you know, the Army of God. It’s basically an anti-abortion terrorist group. So they’re primarily white males. We do have some females that are in the movements, but it’s primarily a white male movement. People in their, you know, 20’s/30’s. That tends to be kind of the primary demographic we’re talking about.


Speaker 1:If I’m an American citizen, is the threat bigger for me from Islamic extremists or is the threat bigger for me from right wing extremists?


Daryl Johnson :If you live in a big city like New York or Washington DC, you’re probably not going to come across too many domestic non-Islamic terrorists. Those cities are, you know, rank high on the target lists for ISIS and Al Qaeda. So the police that are there need to be on the lookout for those types of threats. A vast majority of Americans live around small cities or even larger cities that are, you know, surrounded by miles and miles of rural farmland like Kansas City, Missouri.


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Daryl Johnson:Thousand miles of rural farmland, like Kansas City Missouri, where the threat there is more likely to come from a domestic terrorist that’s not associated with Islam. It’s interesting too that in 2015, Duke University conducted a survey among law enforcement agencies across the country to say, “Which threat keeps you up at night? What threat is the one that you’re most concerned about?” Overwhelmingly, police departments across the country said, “It was the anti-government extremists,” was what they were most worried about in their jurisdiction.


Al Letson:What do you think needs to change in how we as a country respond to domestic terrorism?


Daryl Johnson:Well, the first thing we need to do is understand what the threat is and to recognize it when it happens. This is very important, not only for educated the American public and developing policies and strategies to protect the American public, but it’s also important for people in government, analysts like myself or police officers, so that they can truly understand what the threat is, and to learn more about it, and learn how to mitigate it. That’s one thing we can do.


The second thing is, I think there needs to be a lot more training for state and local law enforcement agencies about these types of groups and threats from domestic terrorists. There was a pretty good program that was put together in the aftermath of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing called, SLATT. It’s called State and Local Anti-Terrorism Training. This was like the preeminent law enforcement training to learn about domestic terrorist groups. Unfortunately, in the fall of last year the Department of Justice pulled the funding for that program and so there is this void in knowledge out there.


Al Letson:What about from the top? What does Trump need to do to help this?


Daryl Johnson:Well again, our national leaders from the President on down to the department heads that cover terrorism issues, they need to recognize this threat and when we have an incident to condemn it and call it out as an act of terrorism.


Al Letson:Is this the continuation of the Obama era policy, or is this something new?


Daryl Johnson:This is something new. At least Obama recognized the threat, even though I think many of his cabinet members looked at Muslim terrorism as the only threat, but at least when they had their summits on countering violent extremism they tried to talk, or at least include other forms of extremism. Here, you just have an outright rejection and failure to even acknowledge that there is a threat. President Trump wanted to rebrand the countering violent extremism efforts by labeling it countering Muslim extremism. All that does is by changing that brand, is you’ve basically acknowledged that you’re going to be looking at Muslim extremists at the expense of other types of threats.


Al Letson:Daryl, thank you so much for coming in today. We really appreciate you.


Daryl Johnson:Hey, you’re welcome.


Al Letson:Daryl Johnson was a Senior Analyst at the Department of Homeland Security and now runs DT Analytics, a private firm that monitors domestic terrorism for law enforcement and academics. As we’ve heard, domestic terror groups often fill their ranks with young White men in their 20s and 30s. Most of them find it difficult to leave behind their life of violence. Coming up, we meet one who did.


Christian P.:I’d never met a Jewish person and had a conversation with them. I’d never had a meaningful dialog with an African-American. It was easy to hate the people that I didn’t humanize, but once I began to humanize them and realize that we had more similarities than differences, well, I just couldn’t reconcile the hate or the prejudice anymore.


Al Letson:Next, on Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX. From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson. Most of us have only seen White supremacist’s groups from a distance. Now, we turn to a man who’s seen it from the inside. In fact, he lived it for years until he had a change of heart. Christian Picciolini, runs a group called Life After Hate, which works with individuals who want to leave behind a life of hate and violence. In particular, former White supremacists. Christian says, “He wasn’t raised racist. He’s the son of Italian immigrants who moved to Chicago in the mid-1960s. As a teen who was bullied and didn’t have friends, he didn’t feel like he had much of a family or an identity.”


Christian P.:One day at 14 years old in 1987 I was standing in an alley and a man came up to me and he essentially promised me paradise. He promised me that I wouldn’t feel powerless anymore.


Al Letson:That man was Clark Martell, founder of the Chicago area skinheads.


Christian P.:He promised me that I had something to be proud of and that if I were to join him, that I could leave a mark on the world and find my purpose.


Al Letson:He said, “That he promised to show you the world and you wouldn’t feel alone,” and those type of things. Did he deliver on that promise?


Christian P.:At first, he did. At first, the bullies would stop bullying me. In fact, they started to cross the street when I would walk by, so they were afraid of me after I shaved my head and wore my boots.


Al Letson:By the age of 16, Christian was a leader of the Chicago area skinheads and he merged them with a group called Hammerskin Nation, which he says, “Is still the most violent and deadly skinhead organization in the world.” What was it like being a part of that group? I mean, how did you … Did it feel like a family? I mean, what’s the day-to-day there?


Christian P.:It did. At first, it felt like a family. There was a lot of acceptance. I mean, here are a bunch of broken people who enjoy each other’s company because we’re all broken in some way. Very, very quickly it turned into a very dysfunctional family. It was really kind of an every person for themselves movement after a while, because there was no loyalty. There were only people with an agenda that they wanted filled and they would use other people as pons.


Al Letson:Christian was a skinhead in the late 80s and early 90s and over that time he saw the movement start to change. Guys didn’t want to stick out in society as much. They wanted to blend in, so some stopped shaving their heads and got rid of swastika tattoos. They started wearing suits and going to college campuses. He says, “That’s where the White supremacist movement is today,” but it’s only changed in public. Behind closed doors, it’s still the same.


Christian P.:It starts out very benign. It starts out as something about pride, pride in our people, and pride in our heritage, but I can tell you, behind closed doors and I’ve had this conversation, it is very violent. What it turns into very, very quickly is that not only should we be proud, but we have to eliminate the enemy.


Al Letson:Christian was a skinhead for eight years before finally getting out. It took a series of wake up calls before he could make the break. This was one of the first.


Christian P.:When I was 19 years old with some friends drinking late one night, we walked into a McDonald’s restaurant and there were a couple of Black teenagers in line. When I walked in, I screamed, “That it was my McDonalds and that they had to leave.” Of course, because there were more of us and we were intimidating, they ran out and we decided to chase after them. When we chased after them, one of the Black teenagers, as he was running across the street, pulled out a gun and started to fire at us. Didn’t hit us and the gun jammed eventually, but when we caught this individual, we proceeded to kick him, and beat him almost to the point where we were certain he was dead. At one moment, and this is a difficult thing to talk about because it’s still really fresh in my memory even 25 years later.


At one moment, as I was kicking him, his swollen eyes opened just barely and they connected with mine. I remember thinking to myself as I was kicking this individual that I was able to humanize him for just a second. I thought that it could be my brother, or my mother, or my father, and I saw in his way that he was pleading for his life without saying a word. I would say that that’s probably the last incident of violence that I had as part of the movement and the first shock to my system where I was able to connect with somebody who was one of my victims and it’s a moment that I’ll never forget.


Al Letson:How old were you when you finally got out?


Christian P.:I was 22 years old when I finally got out. I had been married and had two children at that point and I decided that my family was important to me and that the movement was something that was broken and didn’t fit with my values anymore.


Al Letson:Do you remember the moment you quit? How did that work? I mean, I don’t know much about how skinheads work, but I know with gangs getting out is pretty difficult.


Christian P.:Yeah, it was difficult and it was difficult both because it was unsafe to leave, and if you leave, you not only leave with nothing, but you leave with the stigma of being this racist person, even though you may have begun to have a change of heart, and you may have begun to understand people and that your prejudices were misunderstood even within yourself. For many, many reasons it’s very hard, and that’s actually one of the reasons why I co-founded the organization, Life After Hate, was to be able to help people disengage from hate groups and hateful ideologies with the help of people who’ve been through it. We actually have 100 people that we’ve helped disengage who are part of an online private community, functions as a support network.


 Section 4 of 5          [00:30:00 – 00:40:04]
 Section 5 of 5          [00:40:00 – 00:51:54]
(NOTE: speaker names may be different in each section)


Christian :Part of an online private community functions as a support network that’s very active everyday, and things are discussed in this room that people don’t feel comfortable discussing with anybody else.


Al Letson:How do you pull somebody away from that life? How do you open somebody’s eyes?


Christian :My advice would be is we need to find a way to common ground. We all have common ground, even the most vile Nazis have common ground with somebody who’s interested in social justice, we’re all Americans, we all want security, we all want happiness, we want to be able to support our families, and we need to start there. By the way, these are all things that we do at Life After Hate, when we work with somebody, we’re not arguing with them ideologically, I’m listening. I’m listening for what the potholes are in their lives that made them deviate their path from their intended one, and it’s poverty, it’s unemployment, it’s mental illness, it’s trauma, and abuse, and addiction. What I do is I start filling in those potholes, I work on the person, I make them more resilient, I give them the skills that they need to compete so that they don’t have to blame the other for what they feel is being taken away. Now that they can go and get it themselves, there’s nobody to blame but themselves if they don’t get it.


Then, what I do is to challenge the narratives, I’ll introduce them to people that they may have marginalized, or they may think that they hate, or they’ve kept outside out of their social circle. I may introduce a Holocaust denier to a Holocaust survivor, or an Islamophobe to an [inaudible 00:41:32] or a Muslim family, which they might have dinner with, or somebody who is a homophobe to an LGBTQ couple, and it’s a pretty transformative experience to be able to make those connections and humanize the people that oftentimes you never really had a chance to have a dialogue with in the first place.


Al Letson:How do we do the type of work that you’re doing in mass? How do we transform what we saw Charlottesville into something else?


Christian :Well, I think we can start by not judging the people that we feel are wrong. Now, I’m not saying that what they’re saying is not wrong, it is absolutely wrong. Let me be very, very clear about this. What Richard Spencer and the outright and the neo-Nazis are doing and saying is wrong. It is heinous and it’s abhorrent, but I think that to solve the problem, we can’t punch our way out of it. I don’t know in the history of the world, if any racist has ever been punched and all of a sudden changed their views. In fact, it’s probably pushed them deeper in the hole and causing them to hate more.


What I think we need to do is learn critical thinking, we need to learn how to build bridges between people that we may have completely opposite views with, and we need to learn to also not use the same tactics that maybe some of the Nazis are using where it’s really easy to just say “we hate them” without understanding that maybe they’re just as broken as we are and that we might be able to find a way to penetrate that if we just pay attention. Often times, what we do in Life After Hate, we’ve worked with hundreds of people, we employ the same method over and over, where we’re just trying to listen, build resiliency, and we’ve seen change over and over and over again. I’m not talking from 17, 18-year-old kids, I’m talking about hardened criminals who have done jail time, grand dragons of the KKK, skinheads with swastikas tattooed on their face, and also the 17-year-old girl who looks she could be a cheerleader for the football team. It’s all done through promoting compassion, and empathy, and sometimes biting our tongue when we want to reach across and shake the life out of somebody.


Al Letson:How does the organization get its funding?


Christian :Well, that’s a good question. Up until this point, we’ve been completely self-funded and we’ve relied on the donations of people. Last year, we applied for our first government grants with the Department of Homeland Security because we wanted to scale the amount of people that could service the growing need of people that were coming to us for help, so we applied for grants and we actually won it in January just before President Obama left office. It was a $400,000 grant. Then, we were notified after the transition and the Trump administration took office that our grant was actually being pooled, and of the pool of 33 organizations that were awarded this grant that we were one of, we were the only organization, both that was rescinded the grant and also the only organization that focused on white extremism.


Al Letson:I’m sorry, I’m just taking all that in. Wow. As Trump was campaigning, as someone that has seen that the dark side of white supremacy, so to speak, did you hear dog whistles when Trump was campaigning? Did you feel like there’s trouble coming here?


Christian :Yeah, I heard dog whistles all throughout the campaign and even as recent as two days ago. We were hearing things … And to somebody who’s been there and understands it very well, it was loud and clear to me. When they were talking about globalists, we knew that that was just their new word for what they considered the global Jewish conspiracy. When they were pointing fingers and attacking the liberal media, we knew that they were talking about the Jewish media because they’ve learned to just massage the message, change the words, make them just a little bit more palatable to the masses.


Al Letson:How big is this problem? I interviewed Sebastian Gorka, and he basically made light of the fact that white supremacy is happening in America, I interviewed Roger Stone, and Roger Stone told me that, basically, there is no white supremacists, there’s just fringe people, it’s not a lot of people. My question is, how big is it?


Christian :I would love Sebastian Gorka to call the families of the nine people who were killed in Charleston and explain to them that white racism doesn’t exist, or to call the family of the young woman who was run over in Charlottesville and tell them that white supremacy doesn’t exist in our country, or to call and talk to the families of the people who were killed in the Sikh Temple shooting in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, or the hundreds of other unreported or under reported hate crimes that happen in our country every day and explain to them that racism doesn’t exist in the United States, when in fact our country, from the very beginning, was built on white supremacist ideals. Many of those same systems exist today in our law enforcement, and in our justice system, and in our prisons, and in our education system. For somebody to say that white supremacy doesn’t exist in our country, would tell me that they’re complicit in that white supremacy.


Al Letson:Last question for you and, again, thank you so much. What are the type of calls that you’re getting now to get out … Who’s reaching out to you?


Christian :We’ve got so many different types of people that are reaching out to us, young and old, male and female, Alt-Right and KKK, but one thing I can tell you that I think you’ll find interesting is that before the election, we were getting maybe one to four requests a week for people for help, and after the election we started almost immediately getting four or five a day. That’s tapered off just a little bit, but we are still at a clip level of about two or three a day that we’re receiving from people and, certainly within the last couple of days. It’s like [inaudible 00:47:43].
Al Letson:Are these family members?
Christian :It’s coming to thirds, I would say, about a third is people asking for help for themselves. The other third, the other bucket is family members or bystanders, could be coworkers, friends, loved ones of somebody that they’re concerned about, and then the third is the former, the person like me who managed to find their way out but has never been able to talk about it, and for years maybe has thought they were the only person in the world who is going through this. What we do for them is provide a really amazing support network of other people who are just like them so that they can, oftentimes, for the first time in their lives talk about this period that is traumatic to them. It’s really an amazing group of people that we’ve assembled.
Al Letson:All right, my friend, well, listen, thanks for the work you do.
Christian :My pleasure.
Al Letson:Christian Picciolini is a former skinhead who now runs a group, Life After Hate. It seems like ancient history now, but when Donald Trump was running for office, we here at Reveal, like a lot of other people, began to notice a trend, Trump wasn’t just igniting the Republican base, there was a darker side rising to the surface, white supremacists, the Alt-Right, whatever the latest title they’re using, but this is nothing new, they’ve always been there. After Trump won, I started doing these one-on-one interviews to understand America in the age of Trump, and in those conversations, time and time again, we come back to race because in America it always does, it’s just that some people have the privilege to not see it or to acknowledge it.
Charlottesville isn’t the first clash that forced the nation to pay attention to race, but what may be different this time is the man in the White House whose rise to power emboldened the white supremacist movement. The president says both sides are to blame, but that is a false equivalency. One group came armed to the teeth with torches and an ideology of hate, that wants America to become a white ethnostate, and others like Heather Heyer, were there to take a stand and say, “This is not the America we want.” Now, there’s a stark difference between these two, and if the president of the United States cannot make that distinction, then it’s the responsibility of citizens like you and me to do it for him.
Today’s show featured excerpts from an occasional series I’ve been doing called Al Letson Reveals. Now, these are one-on-one interviews between me and people making news. You can check them out by subscribing to our podcast at Also, if you have ideas about who I should talk to next, hit me up on Twitter, I’m al_letson. Our show today was edited by Taki Telonidis, Kevin Sullivan and Cheryl Devall. It was produced by Neena Satija, Michael Schiller, Fernanda Camarena, and Emily Harris, with help from Aaron Sankin and Mwende Hahesy. Our sound design team is the wonder twins, my man, Jay Breezy, Mr. Jim Briggs and Claire C-Note Mullen, with help from Catherine Raymondo. Our head of Studios, Christa Scharfenberg, Amy Pyle is our editor in chief, Susanne Reber is our executive editor, and our executive producers Kevin Sullivan. Our theme music is by [inaudible 00:51:16]. Lightening, support for reveals provided by the Reeve and David Logan foundation, the Ford foundation, The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight foundation, the Heising-Simons foundation and the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation. Reveal is a coproduction of the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX. I’m Al Letson, and remember there’s always more to the story.
 Section 5 of 5          [00:40:00 – 00:51:54]

Hannah Young is the former the Director of Audience at Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting, leading Reveal’s digital and social efforts. Using human-centered design, she and her team work to find new ways to expand the reach of Reveal’s journalism and engage more meaningfully with audiences across platforms.

Previously, Hannah was a Butler Koshland Fellow at Reveal focusing on creative engagement approaches in public journalism. Before that, Hannah worked at Code for America, where she led the Brigade program and grew it to a network of more than 50,000 civic tech volunteers in more than 80 cities across the U.S. During her time there, Brigade was responsible for nearly two thirds of total growth in the civic tech community in the country.