Days after the deadly white supremacist rally in Charottesville, Virginia, a remarkable letter was published in a local newspaper in Fargo, North Dakota. The letter was written by Pearce Tefft about his son, Peter Tefft, who was photographed attending Saturday’s deadly white supremacist rally in Charlottesville. Pearce Tefft wrote, “[N]one of his beliefs were learned at home. We do not, never have, and never will, accept his twisted worldview. [Peter] once joked, 'The thing about us fascists is, it's not that we don’t believe in freedom of speech. You can say whatever you want. We’ll just throw you in an oven.’ Peter, you will have to shovel our bodies into the oven, too. Please son, renounce the hate, accept and love all.” Democracy Now! recently spoke with another member of the family, Jacob Scott, Peter Tefft’s nephew, along with Christian Picciolini, co-founder of Life After Hate, a nonprofit helping people disengage from hate and violent extremism. He was a leading neo-Nazi skinhead gang member and far-right extremist in the ’80s and ’90s.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we continue our special broadcast. Days after the deadly white supremacist rally in Charottesville, Virginia, a remarkable letter was published in a local newspaper in Fargo, North Dakota. The letter was written by Pearce Tefft about his son, Peter Tefft, who was photographed attending Saturday’s deadly white supremacist rally in Charlottesville. His father, Pearce Tefft, wrote, “[N]one of his beliefs were learned at home. We do not, never have, and never will, accept his twisted worldview. [Peter] once joked, 'The thing about us fascists is, it's not that we don’t believe in freedom of speech. You can say whatever you want. We’ll just throw you in an oven.’” Well, his father went on, “Peter, you will have to shovel our bodies into the oven, too. Please son, renounce the hate, accept and love all.”
Those are the words of Pearce Tefft, the father of white supremacist Peter Tefft, who marched in Charlottesville. Well, I recently spoke to another member of the family, Jacob Scott, Peter Tefft’s nephew. In addition to Jacob, I continued our conversation with Christian Picciolini, co-founder of Life After Hate, a nonprofit helping people disengage from hate and violent extremism. Christian Picciolini was a leading neo-Nazi skinhead gang member and far-right extremist in the '80s and ’90s. I began by asking Jacob in Fargo about what's happening to his family.
JACOB SCOTT: Peter had, for a long time, been a bit of a bully and kind of unstable. And my cousin and I had long wanted there to be some kind of reaction to this from the family, you know, some kind of repudiation. It was after Charlottesville, after he was involved in a demonstration that killed a person, that we were kind of finally able to get the rest of the family on board with us.
And we had been kind of forthcoming to the community. We had—there had been posters that had been put up around Fargo by some other people who had encountered him and who had dealt with his hate, kind of saying—with his picture on them, saying, you know, “This is Pete Tefft. He’s a Nazi. He’s not welcome in this community.” And when these posters started coming up, people started talking to me and my cousin, and we were like, “Yeah, he’s a Nazi. You should disassociate with him if you know him.”
But, you know, going to what the guy who founded Life After Hate said, I do think his ideology comes from something deeper than just, you know, the facts or the values. You know, he really—I feel like there’s something broken about him as a person, and he’s often very—he’ll get very, very emotional, very, very suddenly, if you get him flustered. And he’ll get violent. I mean, there was an incident where he attempted to assault my other cousin. So, I definitely do agree with the idea that this comes from something more deep-seated.
AMY GOODMAN: How did his white nationalism happen? Did you see it as you were growing up? Are you about the same age, even though he’s your uncle?
JACOB SCOTT: I’m a little younger than him. I’m the oldest of my generation. He’s is the youngest of his generation. So, even though we’re uncles, we’re closer to age. We’re more like cousins, but—
AMY GOODMAN: And what does it—what does it mean to say that his father has disowned him?
JACOB SCOTT: What was that?
AMY GOODMAN: What does it mean to say that his dad has disowned him, his family has disowned him?
JACOB SCOTT: Well, it means that he’s not welcome at family gatherings anymore. It means that pretty much nobody in our family would welcome him into our homes.
To answer your first question, he–you know, our whole family, I mean, we’re all progressives. We’re all feminists. But around 2012, around the time of the Ron Paul presidential campaign, Peter started getting off into these sort of fringe internet spaces, like 4chan and Infowars and the like, and he started kind of swallowing up that whole mythos. And once he got inundated in that, he just kept moving further and further and further right. And this all happened kind of behind our backs. He became a men’s rights activist. And then, a couple years ago, he showed up to a family gathering and started ranting about the Jews. And I asked him if he identified as a white nationalist, and he said, “Yeah, I’m a fascist.”
AMY GOODMAN: Talk about what it means now that your family has come out, the letter has been published in the paper. He has been outed as one of the white supremacists at the rally in Charlottesville.
JACOB SCOTT: You know, thousands of people came, when Yes, You’re Racist outed him, and were flooding his Facebook page with comments and various denunciations. There was a little bit of friendly fire, so to speak. There were a few kind of—there were a few people, amidst the thousands, who were coming after other members of our family. And, you know, some people have been trying to say that these anti-fascists are just as bad as the fascists, and they’re—you know, they’re employing the same tactics. But, ultimately, I mean, considering the thousands of people that went after my uncle, it was really just a few bad apples that were attempting to harass certain members of my family. And there were other people who were suggesting that we only—we only disowned him, and we only publicly disowned him, to prevent—to save ourselves, so to speak, to absolve ourselves of guilt. But again, like my cousin and I had been pushing for this for some time. We do not believe that a Nazi should be welcome in our family. And we long wanted him to be excluded from family events. We don’t think that accepting a Nazi into a family—into the family, allowing a Nazi to go to our family events, is a morally right thing to do. It condones Nazism. It says that it’s OK for him to be a Nazi and that he’ll still be welcomed into the family. And so, we were very glad that we were finally able to get the rest of the family on board with this.
AMY GOODMAN: So, I was wondering if Christian Picciolini could respond to Jacob—Christian Picciolini, the former neo-Nazi and co-founder of this group, Life After Hate. If you could talk about what you’ve just heard and how Jacob’s family has now come out to also out his uncle, the white nationalist Peter Tefft, who was part of the rally in Charlottesville? What do you think can be done in this case? I mean, you’ve been through this a lot now, people who, like yourself, were a white supremacist and then started to change.
CHRISTIAN PICCIOLINI: You know, I agree with Jacob that we have to hold people accountable for what they say and what they do. However, I don’t agree with the tactic of public shaming or calling somebody out with the intention of pushing them further away. And I know that wasn’t the intention. The intention was to try and make a statement so that Peter knew that his family cared about him and would welcome him back if he renounced his views. But what happens and why people join these types of movements is because they already feel ostracized, because they already feel marginalized and disenfranchised. And pushing him farther away and not giving him the support of a family structure, I fear, will actually push him further into this movement, because he went searching for something. He went searching for a community or a family and an identity. And if the family, the real family he has, is pushing that away even further, the chances of him coming back because he feels remorse about what his family said are slim to none, in my opinion.
AMY GOODMAN: Jacob, if you could talk about what it would mean to welcome Peter back and any efforts you’ve made, as he increasingly turned to white supremacy, to reach out to him before this final disavowal?
JACOB SCOTT: Well, I understand what Mr. Picciolini is saying. In this—and I would agree with that in the general case, if a family out there has somebody who’s starting to fall into the white supremacist kind of mind trap. But in Peter’s individual case, I have to think that he’s simply too far gone. You know, before the break, I was talking about how he’s—as a person, he’s a bit unstable and a bit unhinged. You know, part of the reason why my cousin and I wanted to have him kind of formally disowned from the family, formally barred from family events, is because, frankly, we do fear him. Like I said, he gets very, very emotional, very, very suddenly, if he’s even slightly flustered. And he’s very muscular. He’s very strong. And a lot of family members just don’t feel safe around him. So, while there is the consideration of, you know, how best can we deal with him in such a way that he’ll feel that he can still come back to us, there’s also the consideration of, you know, in the meantime, could he potentially hurt us? Would it be more healthy for us to make sure that he’s not in our presence, at least until he, on his own, can find his way back?
AMY GOODMAN: Christian, any words of wisdom here? I mean, not only did you move away from white supremacy, the neo-Nazi movement, but I am—in your group, if you could tell us stories, Life After Hate, of other people? And what are the most effective approaches, through specific anecdotes and stories?
CHRISTIAN PICCIOLINI: Sure. Well, you know, our approach is to work with people in a compassionate and empathetic way and to listen to what they have to say, instead of arguing with them ideologically or pushing them further away. And what I listen for are these things that I call potholes—what existed in their path that deviated it. And then, my job becomes to fill those potholes, whether it’s job training or life coaching or tattoo removal or mental health therapy. And what happens inevitably is, when people are more equipped, understand what they’re dealing with internally, they don’t necessarily need to blame somebody else for what they feel is being taken away from them, because now they’re more resilient and they’re more able to compete and they’re more self-confident. However, I do challenge their ideology, as well, but not by debating. What I do is I introduce them to people that they think that they hate. And I’ve introduced Holocaust deniers to Holocaust survivors, Islamophobes to imams and Muslim families to have family dinner. And it’s those types of connections, those opportunities to humanize, that really bring people back, because people join these groups because they’re out searching for something that they’re not getting in their real life.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go to your uncle, Peter Tefft, who recently spoke to the local station WDAY TV in Fargo, North Dakota, where you, too, Jacob, live. Peter defended the term “fascist” and said he doesn’t blame his family for speaking against him publicly.
PETER TEFFT: Fascism is just loving your family and doing what’s best for your nation. I don’t hold anything against them for what they had to say about me, because it’s the safest thing to do in this political climate. “Nazi” is a racial slur towards white people.
AMY GOODMAN: Jacob, as you listen to him, your thoughts?
JACOB SCOTT: I mean, he says things like that: Fascism is about loving your family, and “Nazi” is a racial slur against white people. I mean, it’s like he’s so far gone down the rabbit hole that you can’t even reach him to bring him back. Obviously, I hope that’s not true. But, ultimately, that’s the case that we find ourselves in. You know, he—I consider myself pretty far left. I consider myself a democratic socialist. And he’s talked to me about how he and I, and my people and his people, should team up, because we’re both fighting against the same establishment, the same globalists. And, you know, I say to him, “You know, you believe in racial separation. I believe in racial reparation. There’s no similarity between us.” And he and lots of Nazis think that they’re fighting against the establishment. But racism is the establishment, you know? I mean, capitalism is built on racism from the ground up. And so, when you have this worldview that kind of looks at everything upside down and backwards, it’s—I just—I don’t know how to reach him and how to prevent him from doing the things that he says he’s going to do.
AMY GOODMAN: Christian Picciolini, when you hear Peter speak, Jacob’s uncle, what are your thoughts?
CHRISTIAN PICCIOLINI: Well, from what I heard from the clip from Peter and what I heard from Jacob is that what Peter is saying is straight out of, you know, the manual. He’s repeating all of the things that he’s been taught.
And, you know, I want to just give the viewers a little bit of hope. And when Jacob says, you know, he’s too far gone, I don’t believe that anybody is ever too far gone. I’ve worked with, you know, grand dragons of the KKK who have been in for 40 years and recognize the error of their ways and suddenly now realize, you know, that’s not what they want to do anymore and that they’ve wasted, you know, their lives. You know, I, myself, have a very checkered past. When I was involved in the movement, I was invited to Libya by Muammar Gaddafi to receive money to start a revolution against the Jews. I committed acts of violence that nearly killed many people. I stockpiled weapons to prepare for what I believed was an inevitable race war. So, you know, to that, I would say—and I’ve worked with people in prison who have murdered people of color because of their racism. And while they were in prison, they found a way to disengage from that, which is probably the hardest environment to do that. So, you know, just to give some hope, I’ve worked with some very tough people who, you know, most people would never think would change, and it’s really that compassion that you show them, because that’s what’s been lacking both within themselves and from the people around them as they get frustrated with, you know, their loved ones’ beliefs.
So what I would say to Jacob is, don’t give up. If you care—and it’s apparent that the family cares about Peter; otherwise, they wouldn’t have said the things that they did—but don’t give up.
AMY GOODMAN: Jacob, did Peter text you after the Klan march on Friday night, the torch—the torch march, where hundreds of white supremacists marched through the University of Virginia campus, leading to one of the counterprotesters having a stroke, as he was hit by these tiki torches in front of the Thomas Jefferson statue at the University of Virginia? But did he text you after the rallies on Friday and the attack on Saturday?
JACOB SCOTT: Yes, he actually texted me after I was on CNN yesterday. He was texting me, convinced that I was—that I was secretly on his side and that I was somehow helping him by giving publicity to this rally that he wanted to hold.
I’m hoping that he’s—that he’s delusional about this and that he doesn’t actually have the clout to be able to organize the rally, which may very well be the case. But if he holds his rally, he says he wants to hold it in October. And if that’s the case, then we will hold our counter-rally. And we hope that people would come to Fargo and help us, because, you know, we have a thriving progressive community here in Fargo, and I’m sure that there will be lots of people here who want to counterprotest, but, you know, if Peter does have a large national profile—and it’s seeming like he might be developing one because of this whole incident—he might be able to bring in, you know, who knows how many Nazis, and they might be able to outnumber us, the way we saw in some of the pictures from Charlottesville, where there were, you know, just a small ring of counterprotesters and then just a sea of tiki torches around them. That’s not a situation that I want to see here in Fargo. So if he does end up doing something, I would hope that we could get some people from outside of town to come and help us.
AMY GOODMAN: The leader of the Vanguard America neo-Nazi hate group that rallied in Charlottesville, Dillon Ulysses Hopper, was a Marine Corps recruiter. Now, this is very interesting. It’s believed that this information led the Marine commandant, the head of the Marines, to issue a statement. General Robert Neller, Marine Corps commandant, tweeted, “no place for racial hatred or extremism in @USMC [the U.S. Marine Corps]. Our core values of Honor, Courage, and Commitment frame the way Marines live and act.” And it wasn’t only the Marine commandant who tweeted, but it seems that almost every general of the Joint Chiefs of Staff have now made statements, and it may well be in part because of President Trump’s unhinged, fiery, bellicose news conference that took place on Tuesday. I wanted to play for you part of what President Trump said on Tuesday about the deadly Charlottesville white supremacist rally.
REPORTER 1: You said there was hatred, there was violence on both sides. Are the counterprotesters to blame—
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Well, I do think there’s blame—yes, I think there’s blame on both sides. You look at—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. And—and—
REPORTER 1: But only the Nazis—
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: And—and if you reported it accurately, you would say.
REPORTER 2: One side killed a person. Heather Heyer died—
REPORTER 1: The neo-Nazis started this. They showed up in Charlottesville. They showed up in Charlottesville—
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Excuse me. Excuse me.
REPORTER 1: —to protest the removal of that statue.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: They didn’t put themselves down as neo—and you had some very bad people in that group. But you also had people that were very fine people, on both sides.
AMY GOODMAN: “Very fine people.” Christian Picciolini, co-founder of Life After Hate, the nonprofit that helps people get away from right-wing extremism, leave groups like the neo-Nazis, the Klan, what are your thoughts, the role that President Trump is playing? There are groups like the Anne Frank Center here in New York that say Twitter should close his account because he is inciting hatred and violence.
CHRISTIAN PICCIOLINI: I believe that Donald Trump is the internet’s biggest troll. I think his account should be shut down, because in the process of his rants and his daily tweets, you know, maligning everybody from disabled people to women to people of color, and supporting organizations like the “alt-right” and retweeting white nationalists, this is not appropriate action for somebody who holds the largest and most powerful office in the world.
The FBI published a report recently that showed that there is a massive amount of recruiting happening within the military and within law enforcement. And, in fact, it was a concerted strategy of ours 30 years ago, when I was involved in the movement, when we recognized that the shaved heads and the swastika flags and the Klan hoods were turning away the average American white racist that we could recruit, but they were too afraid to join because, you know, of how edgy we were. So we decided at that point, 30 years ago, that we were not going to shave our heads. We were going to trade in our boots for suits. We were going to go enroll in college and recruit on campuses. We would get jobs in law enforcement, go into the military to get training and to be able to recruit there, and then even run for office. And here we are 30 years later with that dream—or that nightmare—realized. Now, you know, they’re wearing polos and khakis, and they blend in. They look like our doctors, our mechanics, our teachers, our nurses. And it’s hard to distinguish them, aside from the words that they say and the actions that they take, which oftentimes, in public, when they’re alone, they won’t do.
So I think that the movement now is much, much bigger than it is, because it has become normalized. It’s infected the average American, who normally, you know, would only say things like that behind closed doors or to people that they trusted, now feel very emboldened because of the words and the actions and the policies of the president, that they feel they have a commander-in-chief who gets them, who understands their ideology and is willing to stand up for them and fight for them. And at that press conference, in fact, that’s what he did, by equating both sides and saying that there were good people on both sides and, you know, not specifically calling out the “alt-right”—I should mention this. He denounced the KKK. He denounced neo-Nazis and white nationalists. But what he specifically left out was the “alt-right.” And then he later went on to defend them, saying, “Well, they had a permit, and the other folks didn’t.” As far as I’m concerned—
AMY GOODMAN: And talked about the “alt-left,” the other folks.
CHRISTIAN PICCIOLINI: Yeah, and talked about the alt—there is no “alt-left.” There are Americans, and then there are Nazis. And let me just say, the people that didn’t have a permit there, the people who were there to counterprotest the Nazis, well, the U.S. Constitution gave them a permit to do what they did, so they didn’t need one. And as far as I’m concerned, that’s one of our most important American values, is the ability to protest what we see as damaging to our core American values, which still, frankly, need a lot of work.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to a new Trump tweet. He just wrote, “Sad to see the history and culture of our great country being ripped apart with the removal of our beautiful statues and monuments. You can’t change history, but you can learn from it. Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson–who’s next, Washington, Jefferson? So foolish! Also the beauty that is being taken out of our cities, towns and parks will be greatly missed and never able to be comparably replaced!”
CHRISTIAN PICCIOLINI: Amy, let me just jump in.
AMY GOODMAN: The words of the president of the United States. Christian Picciolini?
CHRISTIAN PICCIOLINI: Let me—yeah, let me just jump in. Let’s take the statues down, however we need to take them down. Let’s put them in Confederate cemeteries, so people who do genuinely believe in the heritage, even though I disagree with that, can still pay homage to their idols and to their family members who lost their lives in the Civil War. However, I think we need to replace those statues with civil rights heroes, true Americans, who did give their lives to fight for justice and the American dream. And especially the Robert E. Lee statue that is in Charlottesville, I would propose that a statue goes up in its place to honor the three people who died that day, you know, because those are true Americans. These are people that we need to look up to. These are the values that we hold dear as Americans—not politicians or military generals who promote war, who promote slavery, who owned slaves. That’s not what America is about anymore. We’re moving forward, and we need to move forward with the values that we hold dear and that we want our children to be able to benefit from. So, let’s take them down, and let’s replace them with something that represents who we are and who we want to be.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s Christian Picciolini, co-founder of Life After Hate, a nonprofit helping people disengage from hate and violent extremism. He was a leading neo-Nazi skinhead gang member and far-right extremist in the '80s and ’90s. He's the author of Romantic Violence: Memoirs of an American Skinhead. We were also speaking with Jacob Scott, the nephew of Fargo, North Dakota, native Peter Tefft, the white supremacist who was part of the recent hate rally in Charlottesville.
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