On Monday, Nov. 12, reformed Neo-Nazi Tom “T.J.” Leyden spoke to WCU students in an event called “Escape the Hate” in the Asplundh Theater. Sponsored by Contemporary Issues, the Philosophy Department, LGBTQA, CALYPSO, AFRISA, Sisters United, Holocaust and Genocide Studies, BSU, Association for Women’s Empowerment, SAC, Greek Life, Men In Action, and Hillel, the event was brought to campus by Leyden’s business STRHATE Talk Consulting.
Leyden told his life story to students. He grew up in an Irish-Catholic family in Fontana, Calif. His parents divorced and at 15 years old, he moved to Redlands, Calif. There he became involved with white supremacists and attended many punk rock, slam-dancing concerts, which he said were “strictly about violence,” and he formed his own group of skinheads. His parents’ divorce allowed him to easily lie and sneak around with his new group of “friends.” He described the skinheads’ mantra by saying, “We hate everybody who isn’t white,” although he said that 90 percent of his victims that he assaulted were “white kids” and “rich fags.”
“I was taught hate. I was taught prejudice. Violence, to me, was love,” Leyden said.
Leyden described the skinheads’ “tear down and rebuild” method in which members would belittle, make fun of, and abuse each other but then provide positive reinforcement and a sense of belonging to keep them in the group. Leyden noted that this method is also used in the United States military.
In his young adult life, Leyden was in and out of county jail numerous times. At 21 years old, he joined the United States Marine Corps, which allowed members of hate groups to enlist at that time as long as they were “passive members.” (Later in the lecture, Leyden talked about his transgender brother wanting to re-enlist with the Marines, but he could not. “My brother couldn’t re-enlist because he is transgender. I, as a racist, could,” Leyden said.) While in the Marines, Leyden became a more active member of the white power movement. He was influenced by reading materials such as Hitler’s “Mein Kampf” and “The Turner Diaries” by William Luther Pierce, the latter of which Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh had read while he was in the United States Army at the same time Leyden was in the Marines.
Leyden said that while he was in the Marines, he was, “drinking as much as I weighed and fighting constantly.” He was eventually sent to a treatment program in Rhode Island but left shortly after.
He began recruiting children in middle schools for the white power movement because before puberty, children are easier to mold. Leyden explained that media with white power messages also influences youth. He provided the following statistics about media and white supremacy: The white power movement targets children as young as nine years old with video gaming; In 1995, there was one racist hate-group website on the Internet, but there are over 14,000 websites today; there are more than a dozen white power clothing lines in the United States. He added that Geraldo Rivera’s “Skinhead Brawl,” which first aired on television on November 10, 1988, recruited many white surpremacists. He also explained that even after many complaints, iTunes still sells music with racist lyrics.
“And music is the most powerful recruitment tool in the world,” Leyden said.
Leyden told a story about when two of his five sons were young, and one of his sons shut the television off because there was a black man on it. Although he was proud at first, Leyden began to wonder what his sons were going to be like when they grew up. He said that his two oldest sons had “turned the lights on” for him, and he eventually began to change his views.
“Your outside life permeates inside your family,” Leyden said.
The first person Leyden told that he was changing his lifestyle was his mother. He divorced his white supremacist wife, who was legally allowed to take her sons to any white power events as long as she supervised them, and he turned over all of his racist propaganda and was debriefed by the United States government for two and a half weeks.
After 15 years of promoting racism and hate, Leyden left the white power movement. He worked for the Task Force Against Hate at the Simon Wiesenthal Center, was invited by former President Bill Clinton to speak at the White House, has trained thousands of professionals and students on hate crimes, and has been featured on several television shows and thousands of publications. In 2008, he co-authored his autobiography, “Skinhead Confessions: From Hate to Hope,” which is available at strhatetalk.com.
Leyden advised students to be positive mentors because that was something that his life had lacked. He also told students to be active anti-racists, which includes not telling any seemingly harmless racist jokes.
“Any joke that perpetuates hate or bigotry feeds into the system, feeds into racism,” Leyden said.
Carol Fritz is a fourth-year student majoring in communication studies. She can be reached at CF716022@wcupa.edu.