A Turned Around Life
By Stacey Kennelly
This article was published on 11.12.09.
Former skinhead TJ Leyden used to recruit kids into the white-supremacy movement. Now, as an anti-racism activist, he teaches children about tolerance.
PHOTO BY TJ LEYDEN
Combatting hate: TJ Leyden’s lecture was sponsored by the Paradise Center for Tolerance and Nonviolence. Visit www.pctn.org for info on upcoming events. He also spoke last week at Chico State.
To learn more about Leyden, visit www.strhatetalk.com.
One day, while watching a Nickelodeon show featuring black actors, TJ Leyden’s younger son haughtily walked up to the television. The boy pushed the power button and turned around to scold his father.
“Daddy, no nigger-watchin’ in the house,” the 3-year-old chided.
Leyden, who was then a member of the white-supremacy movement, at first reacted with a mix of humor and surprise. However, as he continued to mull what the toddler had said, he couldn’t help but think about his many stints in jail, the time he was stabbed at a party, and his cousin who is serving a life sentence at San Quentin State Prison for stabbing someone more than 60 times.
“If I didn’t want my boys to be that or be me, what was wrong with me?” Leyden recalled asking himself. “What was wrong with my beliefs?”
That startling confession is just a glimpse into Leyden’s transformation from violent bigot to anti-hate activist. Co-author of Skinhead Confessions: From Hate to Hope, the 43-year-old commanded the attention of more than 60 people for nearly two hours Sunday evening Nov. 8, at the Paradise Elks Lodge during a community forum called “Turning Away From Hate.” His story was one of a violent adolescence and a shameful adulthood spent recruiting young men into the white-supremacy movement.
His foray into that world began in the late 1970s. Leyden, who grew up in the Southern California city of Fontana, was a punk-rock kid known for his extreme aggression. Back then, he explained that the scene focused on violence, anarchy and a “might makes right” attitude.
When Leyden’s parents divorced in 1980, he sought further refuge in this subculture. He began spending more and more time on the streets and at punk shows, where he turned increasingly violent. His behavior attracted attention of the worst kind—from older men who were skinheads.
“The older kids saw, and they liked my violence,” said the bespectacled Leyden, whose tattooed forearms showed below a short-sleeved plaid shirt.
Around the same time, skinheads began breaking into two factions: The SHARPs (Skinheads Against Racial Prejudice) and the neo-Nazis. Leyden and his white middle-class friends created one of the first neo-Nazi skinhead gangs in Southern California, and began terrorizing others in nearby Redlands—for reasons ranging from race to physical appearance.
Leyden described feeling “intolerance for anyone, even the white kids,” and engaged in beatings of anyone who rubbed him the wrong way. He rattled off a list of gruesome stories involving humiliation, degradation and mutilation of those who resisted recruitment into the gang or offended members in any way. The group used steel-toed boots and other weapons against their victims.
His described himself as “a hood ornament for the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department” during that period of his life. On nearly 20 occasions he spent time in jail—a place that only perpetuated his separatist ideology and racism.
Leyden took all that he had learned with him when he joined the United States Marine Corps, which he claims permitted passive racism. He recalled passing out copies of The Turner Diaries to fellow soldiers, sharing with them the racist and anti-Semitic novel written by physicist and ’80s-era white separatist leader William L. Pearce.
“While I was passing out the book in my Marine uniform, someone else was passing out The Turner Diaries in an Army uniform—Timothy McVeigh,” Leyden said, eliciting a gasp from the audience.
His role in the military also allowed him to begin working with separatist groups. He affiliated with the organization The Order (also known as the Silent Brotherhood), a white nationalist revolutionary group that declared “war” on the U.S. government for being controlled by a group of conspiring Jews.
“Seriously, it’s not a game,” Leyden assured the audience. “They think of it as a war.”
Leyden said he was never approached by military officials about the blatant “A” (for Aryan) tattoos, swastikas and other neo-Nazi symbols that littered his body, including an obvious symbol tatted on the side of his neck. He had “earned” many of these adornments through race altercations and hate crimes. Eventually, the military sent him to rehabilitation and then discharged him a year early due to violent behavior and drinking.
He married a white-supremacist woman and had his first child after leaving the military. He also hit the streets in an effort to attract young men to the skinhead lifestyle. His recruitment tactics were manipulative and methodical; he focused on boys who showed signs of violent behavior, exploiting their vulnerabilities and malleable senses of self-identity and belonging. Leyden explained how he attended parties filled with young people, where alcohol-fueled violence and a “tear-down-and-rebuild” technique of humiliation and affirmation drew in youngsters afraid of being victimized by skinhead violence.
Leyden remained in the movement for 15 years. The turning point was the day his 3-year-old uttered that racial slur. He left the movement a year and a half later.
His reformation took place with the help of his mother, who lived out of state. Leyden turned over all his racist propaganda to the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles and debriefed officials about his past. He also reluctantly met with rabbis—with his mother at his side for support—who eventually encouraged him to speak out against his friends in the white-power movement. The decision has made him a target for retaliation.
Leyden made his first appearance at a Bakersfield middle school in 1996, and has since spoken in front of more than 850,000 school kids about tolerance and is active in efforts to remove racist Web sites from the Internet and create stricter hate-crime laws. California ranks No. 1 in the nation for the most hate groups, with 88 active.
He and his second wife, Julia, founded StrHATE Talk Consulting, an organization that fights against intolerance and discrimination through education. Leyden called on the audience to “fight with their minds” to become active anti-racists, and not to engage in the perpetuation of stereotypes in local communities. He noted the positive impact volunteering with organizations such as the Boys & Girls Club has on young people, and how mentors can deter children from adopting a lifestyle of hate.
“Help this world stop creating people like me,” he pleaded.