October 6, 2010
Former skinhead recounts path to reform
California native uses his experience to promote tolerance at SUNY Cortland talk
Bob Ellis/staff photographer
Tom “T.J.” Leyden, once a white supremacist who now opposes racism, speaks on Tuesday at Brown Auditorium on the SUNY Cortland campus. “I realized hating someone for who they were was ignorant,” he said.
Speaking quickly and pacing the stage at Old Main on SUNY Cortland campus, T.J. Leyden, a former white supremacist, told a rapt audience of about 200 Tuesday night of his violent and rage-filled life up until 14 years ago when he learned to stop hating and turn his life around.
Leyden, who grew up in a white neighborhood in Fontana, Calif., was exposed to skinheads and swastika symbols from an early age. He remembers the Ku Klux Klan being active in his neighborhood and his family never denouncing the activities. Leyden recalls his father being friendly with swastika-wearing members of the Hells Angels motor cycle gang.
In 1981 at the age of 15, Leyden joined the white supremacy movement through the Boot Boy Brotherhood, eventually joining ranks with the Western Hammerskins, the largest skinhead gang in the world.
The decision brought only a slight sign of misgiving from his father, who warned him not to go to jail. His mother did not allow racial slurs to be spoken at home.
The street life offered him the only type of love and acceptance that he experienced as a child, said Leyden.
“I lost every fight until I was 11 years old,” Leyden said. His father, who bet on his fights losing money continuously, was always disappointed.
Then one day Leyden beat his cousin in a fight and he heard his father tell him he loved him for the first time in his life.
Leyden’s parents divorced in 1980 and he started getting in fights at punk rock concerts, earning the respect of gang members.
The gang life became an extension of his father, he said.
“Every time I was violent, I got affection,” Leyden said, adding that it was not until later he realized it was a false sense of love.
During those years of gang involvement, Leyden recounted brutal beatings he doled out on innocent people simply because they looked different.
“If you were black, Hispanic or Asian, you were lucky if you got out of the neighborhood and didn’t get beat,” Leyden said. The rationalization was, “I can’t walk in your neighborhood after dark so you can’t walk in mine,” he said.
Often the attacks were fueled by white supremacist music, which Leyden on Tuesday criticized Apple for allowing to be downloaded through iTunes.
Upon graduating high school and joining the Marine Corps, Leyden’s racism became more organized, as he learned to recruit others to the movement and join forces with other like-minded people.
Leyden criticized the military for allowing known racists to spread their beliefs yet forbade homosexuals from serving.
Leyden said he distributed copies of the “The Turner Diaries” — a work of racist fiction — and Adolf Hitler’s “Mein Kampf” to fellow soldiers. The military allowed him to do so because the distribution of the literature was considered a “passive” tactic.
During the question-and-answer portion of Tuesday’s presentation, Leyden, who has a gay brother, admitted that if his brother had come out to him while he was active in the movement, he would have killed him.
Then came a defining moment in Leyden’s life.
Flashing a picture on the screen of two of his sons hugging each other as young boys caused the crowd to murmur, “aw.”
Leyden then told of one day when his sons were watching a show on the Nickelodeon cable television network and one of the boys used the word “nigger.” Leyden saw the child’s innocence was gone.
“I knew who my boys would grow up to be. They would grow up to be second generation skinheads,” Leyden said, adding that life would only lead to prison or death.
So, on April 26, 1996, Leyden left the movement and started speaking out against hatred instead of promoting it.
Working for the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles six years ago, Leyden got speaking engagements through the center’s Museum of Tolerance. He became a mentor and successfully steered 82 children out of the white supremacist movement.
Leyden’s five sons also speak out against racism.
Leyden hopes to one day open a center in Las Vegas to get children out of gangs and he has released a book, “Skinhead Confessions: From Hate to Hope.”
Leyden said the hardest part of leaving behind the movement was abandoning the white supremacist mindset.
“I realized hating someone for who they were was ignorant. It’s harder to get over the entitlement,” he said.
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