August 10, 2012

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.

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.


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. (Courtesy of T.J. Leyden)

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.

Because I was one of the younger, smaller ones, and therefore appeared less threatening, I became the kid who was tasked with drawing other boys into fights. I’d be the one to identify and corner a boy I thought was gay in an alley so that the others could swoop in, and we would all beat him up. My role, and my ability to recruit other troubled kids like myself, made me feel cool. This camaraderie, which felt like family, was really just a hate-filled gang, and I was now a huge part of it.

“Treat someone normal like a winner and he’ll fight for you, but treat a loser like a winner and he’ll kill for you” became a phrase that I took to heart in recruiting others. As the years passed, I started to care more about the power of being high in the hierarchy of the white supremacy movement, so I started to go along with the ideology, even ideals I didn’t believe in or care about, such as Holocaust denial.

Like Page, I’m a veteran of the U.S. military. I joined to prepare myself for the war against the American government that I believed was coming. I wanted to be a soldier for the white race. When I returned to civilian life, I threw the first Aryan Fest outside Oklahoma City, a festival full of neo-Nazi “hate music,” exactly the subculture in which Page was a figure.

At these types of festivals, everyone is white. To neo-Nazis, it’s an environment that feels great, very safe. When they get back to the real world, with people of all colors, they feel like it’s an assault on Aryan dominance, and plenty of them feel compelled to attack this diversity. The skinhead movement is trying to distance itself from Page now, but in a year or two, I imagine that bands will be yelling, “This one is for Michael Page!” before playing songs that glorify what he did.

If it weren’t for my sons, I don’t know where I’d be today. The beginning of the end of my enchantment with white supremacy came one sunny day in Hailey, Idaho, in 1995. My 1-year-old son, Konrad, and I were watching the children’s television show “Gullah Gullah Island.” We were having a great time, watching and laughing, when my 3-year-old, Tommy, walked into the room and turned off the TV.

Tommy shook his finger at me like a little parent, saying, “Daddy, we don’t watch shows with n------ on it in this house!”

At first I was proud of him, a chip off the old block. But then, as I watched my boys playing on the family room floor, I began to see their future: a nowhere life filled with hate, prison or even death. These were the lives my friends and I had. I wanted more for my sons. I wanted them to be better than I was.

About a year later, I drove to my mother’s place in Southern California. I told her that I’d decided to leave the movement. When she encouraged me to go to the Simon Wiesenthal Center, a Jewish human rights group, and its Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles, I started laughing at her. “Are you on crack?” I said. But she kept bugging me.

Eventually, I went. I ended up spending about 21 / 2 weeks there, handing over 15 years’ worth of racist literature to the center’s senior researcher and talking to two rabbis.

We discussed everything. Sometimes the rabbis asked me the same question three or four times. They seemed as skeptical of me as I was about talking to them. But a lot of my misconceptions of them — and theirs of me — were broken down quickly.

When the rabbis asked if I would speak out against my former friends in the white-power movement, I was reluctant. I went home and met with my family. “You spilt the milk,” my brother said to me. “Now you have to clean it up.”

The year I left the movement, I also divorced my wife. Our love had been based on mutual hatred of other people. Once we stopped sharing that, we didn’t have much in common. I also began removing or covering the tattoos I’d acquired during my years as a skinhead.

A lot of people walk away from the white-power movement, and you never hear from them again. At first, that’s what I thought I was going to do — just work and be a dad. But then I realized that my brother was right: I needed to help clean up the mess I had helped create for 15 years. I ended up consulting for the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Task Force Against Hate for five years and continue to do work with the center today.

Today, I give about 30 lectures a year to school kids, colleges and universities, law enforcement and the FBI, talking to them about how I got involved in the white-supremacy movement and how I got out.

One year I did a lecture for the Department of Health in Kern County, Calif. It was a good talk, though nothing different than any other lecture I’ve given. The next year I came back to the same group, and a young woman introduced herself afterward. “Mr. Leyden, I saw you last year,” she said, “and I was a pretty messed-up kid. Since I saw you, I decided to get my life on track and make something of myself, and now I am enrolled in college and doing pretty well.”

At that moment, my head swelled. Just as I was congratulating myself for helping her, she finished up by saying, “If a dumb--- like you can change, then so can I!”

The truth is, that is the best compliment I have ever gotten.

I wish I could have spoken to Wade Michael Page; maybe I could have helped him find the strength to leave white supremacy behind. I work with troubled youth, standing up as an example to them that they can climb out of a life defined by violence and hate. When you ask a kid to abandon his violence and his gang, you’re asking him to give up his identity, his sense of self. I try to show them that it’s possible, that I’ve replaced my hate with something better: love.

outlook@washpost.com

T.J. Leyden is the author of “Skinhead Confessions: From Hate to Hope.”

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