WASHINGTON — Christian Picciolini, a former neo-Nazi leader who now helps deradicalize white supremacists, was looking forward to expanding his efforts with funding from the federal government, authorized in January.
But in June, Picciolini learned the Trump administration had rescinded the $400,000 grant for his Chicago-based group, called Life After Hate, after then-Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly reviewed the list of organizations receiving money under a program to counter violent extremism in the United States. Kelly said the review was to ensure “taxpayer dollars go to programs with the highest likelihood of success, that support the men and women on the front lines of this fight, and that can be self-sustaining into the future.” Kelly rescinded funding for 12 groups and added seven others.
Picciolini, however, wonders whether his group’s focus on white supremacism, rather than extreme radical Islam, may be behind the decision, though he stresses he doesn’t know — he never heard back from the department about why Life After Hate was excluded. A program at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill that countered recruiting messages from both jihadi and white supremacy groups was also cut from the DHS grants. White House official Sebastian Gorka is against countering violent extremism programs, and HuffPost reported that his wife, Katharine Gorka, an official at DHS, lobbied against giving funds to Life After Hate.
“After we won, they changed the rules of the game,” Picciolini told Yahoo News.
A spokeswoman for the Department of Homeland Security pointed out that 16 of the 26 recipients of funding are working to fight “all forms of violent extremism,” including racially motivated domestic terrorism. Many of the awardees are police departments or other law enforcement agencies.
But the final list did not include any groups that exclusively focus on white supremacism, a decision that is receiving fresh scrutiny after a white nationalist at the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville allegedly rammed his car into a crowd of counterprotesters Saturday, killing one and injuring more than a dozen.
“It is ultimately shortsighted, and it shows a remarkable lack of imagination to cut such programs,” said John Horgan, a professor at the Global Studies Institute and department of psychology at Georgia State University. “Anyone who has been paying attention to the threat landscape in the U.S. over the past 10 years knows that the threat of extreme right wing violence is dramatically increasing.”
Indeed, a U.S. intelligence bulletin obtained by Foreign Policy warned of that threat, finding that white supremacists “were responsible for 49 homicides in 26 attacks from 2000 to 2016 … more than any other domestic extremist movement.” Another count, by national security expert Peter Bergen, says jihadi-inspired terrorists have killed 95 Americans since 9/11, while far-right terrorists have killed 68 Americans.
“I can’t tell you how many people, how many parents I speak to who are in the exact same situation as [the family of] the guy who drove that car,” Picciolini says, referring to 20-year-old James Alex Fields Jr., a white nationalist who is charged with murdering a counterprotester with his car last Saturday.
“‘My son is marginalized, he hasn’t made new friends, he’s reading Mein Kampf,’” he says, characterizing the calls he gets every day from parents describing a child who is withdrawing from society and becoming radicalized.
Picciolini believes that many of the same factors that lead a troubled young man to be attracted to the violent imagery of the Islamic State could lead others to embrace extreme white supremacy.
“When you ask them why they joined, none of them will tell you ideology: It’s about belonging,” he says of the people he treats. “It’s about community, a sense of purpose.”