We're very proud of being Irish. Proud of being working class. And it was a tough neighborhood. A lot of drugs and alcohol were really bad in our neighborhood. Decisions were made in our neighborhood at the Catholic church or in the bar. On how attending a predominantly African-American middle school influenced his later racial hatred. Growing up in South Philly, where we just had this Irish pride thing, I never really thought of the other races or the other races who lived around us as inferior or as much trouble because most of the kids — and most of the fistfights you got into — were with other Irish kids.
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We all knew each other. So it wasn't this big 'I hate them. Once I got out there and noticed that the 'us' was very, very small and the 'them' was very, very big — and there was no one helping me — and I think that's where it started. I went up to the Lancaster, Pa. And I was very close with all of my cousins. My cousin that lived in the Lancaster area was very into punk rock, very into skateboarding.
And I couldn't wait to get up there that summer and live there all summer. That was the summer I was getting out of that [middle] school.
So I get up there, and he's not a skateboarder anymore. He's not a punk rocker anymore. And in his room, there's a swastika flag and stories about Adolf Hitler and stories about skinheads. And I knew of skinheads, but I didn't know of their beliefs or anything yet. And he kind of introduces me to it. He says, 'You know, this is what it is. And they'd always give me a couple beers. I was the young kid to the group. You know, they're all , , year-old guys who are cool to me.
And they gave me a beer, and they start talking 'multiracial society will never work. When I asked, they would say about blacks and whites not getting along, and I understood what they were talking about. And we're sitting around, and they'd say, 'Oh, you went to school in Philadelphia.
And for me, when I look back on that now, that was finally someone saying to me, 'How is your life? How are you doing? How is your school? For once, someone's asking me how my life is. And it just kind of happened, where someone said, 'You are the face of our movement. They liked me because basically I looked like a nut, so they wanted me on their other shows, and, you know, swastikas on a young kid's neck sells TV shows, so now I did a couple shows like that, and I kind of made a name for myself.
And then when I [moved] to Illinois, I wasn't doing much media press, but I was really trying to get this thing started, so I got my own cable access show. So everyone got to know me from this talk show and it went on from there. What I'd do to recruit kids from that show — I mean, it was easy — I'd go on, say this is what I'm into, then the media would pick up on it. And him, me and my roommate kinda had a falling out. My roommate didn't like him. I didn't like him. And I didn't like mainly his political beliefs. So I [told him], 'Come over to our house on Christmas Eve for a Christmas party,' and when he came over, there was no Christmas party.
It was just me and my roommate waiting for him. And we kidnapped him and we randomly beat this other human being for hours and videotaped the whole thing as a joke. And that's eventually what got me put in prison. Maybe I need to start looking at things. But I still always thought my purpose in life [was] God wouldn't have put me in this purpose of being an Aryan Christian soldier if he didn't want me here.
So I'm still trying to say, 'There's something going on but I need to stick with this because that's where I am. This is my team. He's seen all my tattoos. Me and him start talking about prison life, about how we get away with things, how we sneak things away from guards and sneak food out, and just prison talk.
So he gets off and he says, 'Hey man. Real nice to meet you. You're really down to Earth. So he gives me a pound and I get off and I walk off to this skinhead meeting that night. And these are all old recruits of mine in Philadelphia. These are all guys I got into this. And I'm sitting at this party and I'm drinking And he doesn't know half of us are Italian in the Philly crew, and I say, 'Hey, buddy.
I'm half Italian, what do you think of that? So then we're sitting there and everyone starts talking again about it, and I say, 'How 'bout my daughter? My daughter's probably more than 75 percent Italian. Are you saying she's not white? And I get everyone off of me and I say, 'I'm outta here. And I remember looking up at God and saying, 'God, maybe there's something wrong.
Maybe on the black, Asian and Latino issue, maybe we are all equal. And I never will. So all youse who knew me then, relax. This book ain't about you. Cold sober, my dad can read the trail of another fighter's hooks and jabs as well as any Boy Scout can read a map. Of course, it had been a lot of years since my dad had really been sober.
Still, I knew he wasn't going to buy, "It happened in hockey. If I'd confessed the truth at that moment, my dad might have gone after John. I like to think he would have, if only I'd told him, but I didn't. How in the hell could I tell my dad the truth? That every precious afternoon he'd ever let me have with him at the bar had been a total waste of his time?
That I hadn't put even one of his lessons into practice to save my own ass? That I hadn't looked to see where somebody might be hiding? That I'd turned tail and run like a fucking pussy? That I'd let John corner me? That I'd let John attack me with my own goddamn lamp?
How in the fuck could I tell a 68th and Buist boy that his only son had let himself be a prisoner of war for nearly three years and a punching bag for two? He took me down to the bar with him. Cha-Cha, Fat Mike, and the other guys sensed something was up; they left us alone in a corner booth. I sipped a Coke in silence while my dad worked his way to the bottom of a pitcher. I didn't expect much of a response from my dad, maybe not even any response at all. What could he say? He didn't know what John had really been doing to me.
He didn't know John. Hell, he barely even knew my mom.
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So I wasn't expecting him to give me some mind-blowing insight. That's all he said, but it was enough. It knocked the wind out of me. It was so raw, so brutally, undeniably true, that it cut to the heart of all the abuse I'd suffered. My dad knew my mom after all. He knew her better than I did. And he knew I needed to see her for what she really was if I was going to make it through even my first night without her. After my mom left him, my dad spent several years playing the field.
His binge of one-night stands resulted in the birth of one child, one that we know about anyhow. Then he married a woman named Sally, who he met at his bar, and became the step-father to her three sons. The night I moved in, I didn't have a clue about how many different drugs my dad was on, or how much he was using of each one, or how he had to use one to bring himself down from another so that he could move on to the next. But after a few days, I saw enough to know, without doubt, he was an addict. I saw the white powdery residue on the table, the empty pill bottles by the sink, the little bags in the trash can, the cut straws on top of the nightstand where he always stashed his gun.
I wasn't an idiot. I think the adults in that house actually tried to hide the hard stuff from us kids, but they were too fucked up to pull it off. They didn't even bother to hide their drinking or their pot-smoking. Beer was their water; joints were their Marlboros. Cha-Cha out-smoked my dad and Sally combined. He started in on pot first thing every morning, rolling a doobie while his coffee brewed.
He'd sit out on the back stoop with Smudge, his enormous white cat, and toke himself into the new day. Every few drags, he'd lower the joint down to Smudge, who'd do that open-mouth inhale thing most cats do when you give them catnip. Smudge could've given a fuck about catnip; he was a full-blown pot-head by the time I moved in. Thanks to my parents' example, the whole idea of getting high made me sick. Within hours of my dad getting me registered as a transfer student at Pepper Middle School, I saw deals going down in the hallways.
At least one kid in each of my classes was totally whacked out on something.
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Most of the others were too stoned to care. I still don't know what went wrong when my dad signed me up at Pepper, but I somehow managed to jump from seventh grade to eighth on my bus ride across town. I had no clue what was going on in any of my classes, but I didn't care. I had a bigger problem. Pepper Middle School is pretty far from my dad's house, too far to walk, and there are only two bus stops anywhere near it. One is right in front of one of the worst housing projects in Philly; the other is by the strip mall around the corner. I rode the bus each morning with some of the other Italian kids from my dad's neighborhood.
If we got off at the first stop, we had to run for our fucking lives through four blocks of projects controlled by the gang called the Black Mafia. We'd run in a pack, hoping there was truth in that old saying about safety in numbers. The Black Mafia got at least one of us every damn morning. I was usually pretty lucky. I was pretty fast. But not always fast enough. It wasn't any better if we stayed on the bus until the second stop, the one by the mall. The mall itself was no big deal; the tangle of trees and brush behind it was the problem.
The City of Philadelphia called the area a "nature preserve. One morning, they taught us what happens to little boys who get lost in the woods on their way to school. Whether we braved the projects or the nature preserve, we always had to run one last gauntlet before the first bell rang. The Bartrum Ninth-Grade Center sits in front of Pepper Middle School, and for reasons I will not live long enough ever to figure out, some moron school official thought it would be a good idea to have the Bartrum Center start classes about fifteen minutes later than Pepper.
As a result, the meanest ninth-grade gangsters in Philly were loitering outside, looking for recruits and fights, when us seventh- and eighth-graders went filing past. Let's just say I never got an offer to join the Junior Black Mafia. Some days I got busted on with a lot of smack-talk.
Other days I got my face busted up pretty good. I hate to admit it, even to myself, but I came to appreciate John in a weird sort of way after I transferred to Pepper. After two years in the ring with a full-grown boxer, I knew how to take a punch. Short of stabbing me or shooting me, there was nothing the gang-bangers could do to me that I hadn't already survived at least once before.
When they came after me, I fought back with everything I had. After a couple weeks, I stopped getting my ass kicked on the way into school.
Nazis Go To School
But I still never felt safe inside Pepper. I knew one of the neighborhood's gang wars could break out at any moment, in any hallway, and I could be caught in the cross-fire. So I started carrying a switchblade with me, even though it was no match for my classmates' guns. The only place I actually felt comfortable was on the softball field. I joined a youth-league team that practiced on Pepper's diamond after school each day.
Softball didn't thrill me like hockey, or even football, but it served its own purpose. I was a pretty good player, good enough that I had a hunch my teammates would keep me from getting killed, in a pinch, at least until after our season was over. One day after practice, I went back inside the school, hoping to God the boys' bathroom would be empty. There had been so many attacks in there over the years that the authorities had removed all the doors from the stalls.
At Pepper you only got to drop a deuce in private if you were the only one in the john. Since it was nearly five o'clock, I figured I'd have the place to myself. The hallway door no sooner thudded shut behind me, when a voice growled, "There's another one. One of them was glaring at me.
When he started moving toward me, I caught a glimpse of the kid on the floor. From the looks of things, the JB Mafiosos had wedged the kid against the toilet to keep him from sliding away when they kicked him in the face. What was left of his face was unrecognizable to me. In fact, if it hadn't been for this one wisp of straight, brown hair that wasn't matted in blood, I wouldn't have even known the kid was white. The JBM dude was almost on top of me when another voice echoed from the back of the stall: DeShawn Cooper emerged from the stall with a big smile on his face.
We looked like twins in our matching softball uniforms. I knew what he meant. He meant, you aren't going to tell anyone what you're seeing, are you, Frankie? I glanced down at the kid on the cold tile floor. He was shaking violently. Through the blood and the bruises and the swelling, his eyes were just begging me to do something, to get somebody, to do anything I could to save him. I looked back up at DeShawn. I kept my eyes on DeShawn and his friends as I backed out of the bathroom.
I walked slowly down the hallway, trying to look cool, in case they were watching me. But when I threw open the front door of the building, I bolted. I ran faster than I'd ever run before in my life. I shot through the dealers' district like a bullet. Just behind the mall, I dove into a bush and dropped my pants. It was like my whole insides had just liquified. My ass was still squirting when I jerked my pants back up and took off running again.
I ran all the way back to my dad's house. I snatched off my filthy uniform, and climbed into the shower. I reeked of sweat and shit and something worse. As the hot water rained down on my body, I knew I'd never be able to scrub off the stink of how rotten I felt for leaving that kid laying there on that disgusting bathroom floor.
I knew I would never be able to wash away the memory of how fucking degraded he looked when he locked his desperate eyes on mine. We both had known then that I wasn't going to go get help, because we both knew I couldn't. I had to be cool, or I'd be lying on that floor in a pool of my own blood the next day. I did not go back to Pepper the next day. I never went back again. My dad never noticed that I dropped out. Most mornings, I'd grab my skateboard and take the bus back to my mom's neighborhood.
I'd snag my cousin, Jimmy, before he went into his school. He was always up for ditching with me. We'd head over to South Street. By then, we were old enough to try to scam on the punk chicks. They just laughed us off, though. To them, we were still just "the little skater kids. If Jimmy wasn't around, I'd kill time in Finnegan's Park. It wasn't far from my dad's house, and the other guys who hung out there were older, so they never had any trouble scoring booze. And they were never stingy with it. Whenever they broke out the forties, they'd always toss a few my way. Those guys thought it was freaking hilarious that I had managed to drop out of the eighth grade when I was actually a seventh-grader.
It was pretty funny. The whole situation was so royally fucked up I could hardly believe it was real. In less than three-months time, I'd gone from being a seventh-grade prisoner of war to being an eighth-grade drop-out free to roam Philadelphia twenty-four hours a day. Freedom got real boring real fast, though. So in early June, just a month after my fourteenth birthday, I called Nick's parents to see if I was still welcome at the farm.
A few days later, Uncle Nick drove into the city to get me.
Stories of hatred, forgiveness, and redemption as the Charlottesville anniversary nears
Aunt Catherine was the only one home when we pulled in the driveway. She mauled me with hugs, then told me to take my stuff to Shawn's room, where I'd be bunking. My cousin had redecorated since my last visit. The plain curtains that once covered the sliding glass doors had been replaced by two flags: Newspaper clippings about skinheads wallpapered the room.
I knew all about skinheads. There were skinheads on South Street. Every time Jimmy and I went down there, he warned me to watch my back around the skinheads. They were really hard-core street fighters, and they didn't like skaters, especially long-haired skaters like us. I'd seen the South Street skinheads around enough to know that you couldn't tell who they were just by their hair. I almost forgot that I was speaking to a former prominent member of multiple high-profile hate groups including White Aryan Resistance and The Hammerskins , a man whose violent, antisocial past had once sent him to prison for assault with a deadly weapon.
Towards the end of our conversation, Leek asked me to wait a moment. There are a few things I still have to remind myself of the terrible choices I made. The following afternoon, I sat down to call another. I knew more about Christian Picciolini going in. Picciolini had also penned a memoir in , Romantic Violence: Memoirs of an American Skinhead , which has since been re-titled and updated.
But even common threads — both of us are Chicagoans, writers, DePaul alumni, and we even know some of the same people within Chicago music and media circles — can feel tenuous when compared to the robes, patches, and flags that signify the ideological fabric of white supremacy. Picciolini spoke matter-of-factly, like a writer might.
He knows his story, has told it on many occasions, and has clearly taken the time to get on his hands and knees, crawl around, and shine a light into the nooks and crannies of his past. The story continues with a muscle car ripping down that alley and coming to a screeching halt in front of him. I never had had anything to belong to. Picciolini joked that if he had lived next to a ballet school, he might be a great dancer today.
But because Martell found him first, feeling abandoned and resentful, he instead channeled all his ambition, energy, and potential into the American skinhead movement. Both Leek and Picciolini cite music as a major driver behind their getting entrenched in the white power movement. For Leek, the mosh pits at local punk shows like Dead Kennedys, The Circle Jerks, and Black Flag were where he met those who would introduce him to the ideology that would sanction his rage and violent tendencies — behaviors he now credits to unresolved anger from an abusive childhood.
Eventually, Leek and friends followed through on plans to start a white power band. Music acted as an even stronger draw for Picciolini. It was my purpose, my community, and my identity. For me, it checked off all of those boxes that drive people. When that band dissolved, Picciolini started Final Solution. I know the things that I said, the ideas that I put out into the world, and the music that I made are still out there and flourishing. It was in his record shop that Picciolini, a known skinhead, began getting to know customers from the same walks of life that he believed were poisoning this country: It was the beginning of a dark five years for him — a period that saw him not only lose his record store but his family.
However, music eventually came to the rescue once again. The chance gave him a new outlet to vent his frustrations and find balance and peace within himself. Jett would not find out that the man she had helped save had once been a skinhead until years later when Picciolini asked her to pen the foreword to his memoir. And now comes the part of the story where I become more than just the writer on the phone asking questions. I try to remember why I thought it so important to talk to Leek and Picciolini last summer after Charlottesville. The only thing worse than seeing swastikas on parade in small-town America is to witness it being condoned by those who are charged to provide moral leadership in times of public confusion.
I also remember seeing two siblings and their friend — all young black girls who live one building over — riding bikes outside my office window the evening after Charlottesville — all smiles, high-pitched giggles, and long braids — sweetly oblivious to the ugliness on display a few hundred miles east.
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