MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — A conversation about hate crimes, and how to stop people from getting recruited by hate groups, drew hundreds of people in St. Cloud Tuesday night.

Attorney General Keith Ellison hosted the listening session at St. Cloud State University, one of several he’s held across the state.

He was joined by Christian Picciolini, a former white nationalist who has since turned his life around and leads the Free Radicals Project, a “global extremism prevention and disengagement network,” that has helped hundreds of people change from their hateful ways.

“We want Americans, we want Minnesotans to solve their differences of opinion through the ballot box and through civil discourse, not other ways,” Ellison said. “It’s really the people in this room that are going to build that community trust.”

In the crowd was St. Cloud resident Anne Hill, who was curious to hear from the keynote speaker, especially since she’s not exposed to discrimination that others experience.

“You got to keep an open eye, got to keep an open ear, and maybe it’ll make me a better person myself,” Hill said.

Gary Mankfort wanted to learn what motivates someone to become part of a hate group.

“I mean, how can they support somebody like Hitler, for God’s sake?” Mankfort said.

Christian Picciolini (credit: CBS)

Picciolini explained to the crowd how he was recruited to a neo-Nazi group at age 14 while living in Chicago. He said he wasn’t raised to be hateful, but joining the group have him an identity, community and a purpose.

“I started to take my own self-hatred and project it onto other people,” Picciolini said. “It was like a drug. It made me feel high. It made me feel powerful.”

A combination of his wife and child leaving him, along with finding commonalities with the people he hated, helped turn his life around. But he uses his experience, such as the recruitment process, to educate others.

“It’s not necessary for somebody to come up to you to recruit you. You can find your own radicalization if you want to, or frankly if you don’t want to,” he said.

He referenced the digital tools of forums, blogs and even video games on the internet.

“If you stumble onto this, stumble onto propaganda, recruitment materials online, well the internet thinks you want more of that, so it starts to feed you more, and your feeds become full of it, so it leads you down a rabbit hole,” he said.

Attendees were encouraged to ask questions, including one woman who asked Picciolini what type of wording recruiters use to attract youth. He said they are changing the words to sound more palatable and less hateful.

“That’s why I don’t like to use terms ‘alt-right’ and ‘white nationalist’ because I know that those are their terms that they came up with to sound less racist,” he said.

Ellison says recruitment to hate groups is a top concern he’s heard from parents across the state. It’s why he hopes sessions like this one will give people the knowledge they need to identify and stop it.

“If you have some 14-year-old kid who’s being recruited online by some neo-Nazi group, I can’t stop that. I hope that that never becomes a police matter. But the people in this room might be able to say to that kid, ‘Hey look, we do care about you, you need to be on the basketball team, not running around with those guys,’” Picciolini said.

A hate crime forum was supposed to be held at the St. Cloud Public Library last month, but it was postponed due to safety concerns. A protest against the forum went on as scheduled.

The next hate crime listening session hosted by Ellison will take place December 3 in Rochester, with the location yet to be determined.

Jeff Wagner