I first found true love through violence. I was 10, hanging out with my cousin, who was pushing and antagonizing me. Finally, I snapped and started using my karate moves against him. By the time we were done fighting, I had dislocated three of his fingers and his shoulder. My aunt was furious, yelling at my father over what I had done. But my father couldn’t have been prouder. He gave me a hug and a kiss, the most meaningful embrace and words of love I’d ever received from him.
I chased that euphoric high for years, beating up neighborhood bullies and later getting into punk-rock music. At one show, I befriended some older, tough kids who were skinheads. I was drawn into their world pretty quickly as they took me under their wing and encouraged my violent tendencies. For the first time, I had older brothers who looked out for me; their camaraderie felt like an extension of my father’s love.
(Courtesy of T.J. Leyden) - Activist T.J. Leyden was in the white supremacy movement for 15 years. Now, he counsels young people on how to abandon racism and violence.
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I’ve since climbed out of that world of hate and have spent 15 years atoning for my past. But the tragedy of this past week, when Wade Michael Page
killed six people at a Wisconsin Sikh temple, pulls me back into the memories of those years. I’ve met a lot of people who could easily do what Page, who had ties to white supremacist groups, did. Such atrocities make me wonder: Could my former self have committed a similar act? Could I have been Wade Michael Page? It makes me sick to say that I don’t know.
Since leaving the skinheads, I’ve been working with troubled kids, counseling them on how to escape the seductive grip of violence and hate. I’ve gotten 86 kids out of the white-supremacist movement across the country, almost as many as I helped draw into that culture when I was younger. I have a lot more work to do.
It’s surprisingly easy to get sucked into this dangerous lifestyle — and extremely hard to climb out. For me, it started with the violence and anger instilled in me as a young child. I grew up around old-school fighting Irish men who picked fights with each other and strangers for sport, a tradition I fell into after winning that first fight with my cousin. My teen years weren’t much better; my parents divorced after years of a rocky marriage, and I started to lie to them about where I was and what I was doing. During this time, I was hanging out on the streets and becoming entrenched in the early punk-rock movement of the late 1970s in Southern California.
At one punk show, when I was 14, an older guy of about 17 or 18 stopped me from going into the restroom, saying, “Stand next to me, kid.” The next thing I heard was the sound of someone being beaten up in the restroom. Then, a bunch of guys ran out, and I went in, where I saw the victim, a young kid, covered in blood and lying in a urinal. As I left, I thanked the guy who had stopped me from going in and becoming part of the fight — and asked if he could score me some alcohol.
This skinhead was the first I’d met. I hung out with him and his friends the rest of the night. They gave me a sense of belonging that I had never felt before, an unconditional love — or so I thought. But it was a bond that came with a price. I would later use this same kind of twisted love to suck other kids into this world of hate.