American history ex

A former skinhead talks about how young people like him -- and Benjamin Smith -- get recruited.

Published July 8, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

When T.J. Leyden heard about Benjamin Nathaniel Smith's Fourth of July shooting spree against blacks, Asian-Americans and Orthodox Jews -- which ended with Smith turning his gun on himself during a police chase -- he was probably one of the few Americans who was not shocked. Nor was he perplexed that a young man like Smith -- who grew up in a comfortable Illinois suburb, attended elite public schools and was versed in Plato -- would end up as a disciple of the World Church of the Creator, a racist organization.

At 33, Leyden has seen it all before. In fact, he has lived it: His life in violent neo-Nazi movements was launched at the age of 14, when he began punching out kids at punk rock concerts.

But unlike Smith's story, Leyden's is one of transformation. Four years ago, after watching his small son recoil in revulsion at the "niggers" on television, he quit the movement and his marriage to a fellow skinhead. Today, he is a full-time consultant to the Task Force Against Hate at the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, monitoring racist groups and, more importantly, trying to extract young men and women from them. In fact, while Smith was prowling the suburbs of Chicago and Bloomington, Ind., last weekend, Leyden was at a rally of skinheads in Las Vegas -- this time as an enemy within their midst, hoping to reach some youth before they end up on a rampage like Smith.

In the wake of the weekend's violence, Leyden spoke to Salon Mothers Who Think about the vulnerability of youth, what he learned from his own children and his dealings with Benjamin Smith's mentor, Matthew Hale, the head of the World Church of the Creator.

What kind of person is Matthew Hale?

I've never met him, but I used to talk to him on the phone when we were organizing concerts and festivals. We'd network. He's smart, a good talker and a great propagandist. He's only 29. He knows how to manipulate the whole thing, like saying he's a white separatist, not a white supremacist. That's a lie. They believe in RAHOWA -- the Race Holy War -- that you have to cleanse the world of all non-Aryans. The COTC, as they call it, is really starting to grow over the last couple of years, they're in 35 cities now. That's partly because of Matt.

What effect will last weekend's events have on his movement?

In one way, it's bad for Matt because it's brought to light a lot of stuff that he'd preferred not to have come to light. But in other ways, it's good: There will be kids who say, "This group is actually doing something, they're not just big talk." And they'll join. That's what Matt wants, and that's what he'll get. In some way, Benjamin Smith will become a martyr.

You spent 15 years in some of the most violent skinhead movements, mostly the Hammerskins of Southern California. Didn't the violence ever bother you?

When I first got involved, I didn't really like the violence. But after a while, nah, it didn't bother me at all. It was just something we did: violence, fighting. At first, we wouldn't beat up a lot of people; we'd just recruit more and more kids. Then we started getting into violence. We would beat up white kids in the neighborhood who weren't involved, or blacks and Latinos who weren't supposed to be there. We used to call it a bonus if we got blacks and Latinos -- if they came into our neighborhood, they'd get beaten up.

One kid that we fought -- he was white -- we cracked his ribs, separated his shoulder, kicked four of his teeth out and broke his jaw. And I broke the kid's thumb; it shattered when I kicked it. Supposedly he tripped a skinhead girl -- or that's what she said. I don't know if he did. He was in the wrong place at the wrong time.

How does it happen that someone like you, a good kid from a good neighborhood, winds up a violent racist?

Benjamin Smith grew up like I did: nice neighborhood, good family, parents who supposedly loved him and cared about him even though they didn't support his racism. Neither did my parents.

I was from an upper-middle-class neighborhood in Fontana, Calif., part of the Inland Empire. All my friends were white, everyone at school was white. My dad ran his own business installing telephones, and he made really good money. My mom worked her way up working for San Bernardino County. We weren't the richest kids in town, but if we wanted something we knew we were going to get it. I got involved after my parents got divorced. My mom and dad didn't know what was going on -- they were going through this divorce and they just kind of lost track of what me and my brothers were doing. My brothers went the opposite way -- one's a cop.

Who recruited you?

First I got involved in the punk rock scene, then I started being a bit more violent than my friends. If someone bumped me at a concert, I'd beat on them. The older guys saw this and liked it and asked me to hang out with them.

Back then, the skins were bi-racial, mostly white and Latino. It was only in 1981 that they got racist. The skins split up into different factions. I was in the racist faction -- the White Tribe, we called ourselves; then American Firm and Hammerskins on the West Coast. We were only about 35 kids. I started getting into a lot of trouble and had a couple of drunk driving convictions and assault charges.

A lot of kids survive divorce, and worse, and don't become racists. What makes the recruitment into these organizations so successful?

Everybody is vulnerable at a certain point in their lives, and you look for people with that kind of vulnerability. Recruitment is everything in these organizations. There is no certain kind of person who gets into these movements -- there are people from all walks of life.

A lot of them are just bored. Really bored. They go home and get on the Internet. The Internet has really, really changed things. The movements have flooded the Internet with racist sites. There are probably over 2,000 now. We find new ones all the time at the [Simon Wiesenthal] Center. So if a kid is unsupervised, it's easy pickings. And mom and dad don't want to talk about race, because race is a nasty subject.

You start listening to people saying this group is scum and that group is scum. You don't have the facts. You're young, you don't care about the facts, you don't take time to check things. It just somehow fits your description of the world, why this country is such a mess -- the blacks and Asians are to blame, the Jews control the banks and so on.

This is what I try to tell parents now: The Klan isn't trying to recruit blacks and Latinos, they're trying to recruit your son and daughter. Most skinheads don't come from the poor part of town.

Doesn't cracking down on racist activists stop them?

Well, I've been in jail a lot. How many times? Don't know -- at least 12 times in five states between 1987 and 1995. Actually, jail didn't bother me. It was a country club after a while, once I knew the game I knew the ins and outs. It's not nice, but it's not hardcore. Usually you have associates in there and you can work things out inside.

I finally saw I was going to do some real serious damage to someone and go to jail for a really long time. So I had to leave. I joined the Marines. They accepted me because I had no felonies on my record. I was a race recruiter in the Marines, in Hawaii -- I passed out literature and got people to join the Hammerskins. I also started working with the Nation of Islam in the Marines, to start race riots, so we could both recruit people. We'd start as many as we could, so it was easier for us to recruit them. People thought they were just fighting each other, but in reality, we were pulling all the strings.

What finally made you leave the racist movement?

I got out of the Marines in 1990 and married a girl from Texas I'd been writing to. We married 14 days after we met. She was racist, I was racist and we wanted kids. We had two sons and I decided I wasn't going to be a street soldier anymore. I had a family now -- I'd get guys like Benjamin Smith to do my dirty work for me. So I became a race recruiter. But then my kids started doing racist things, thinking it was really cool. They saw TV shows with someone black and say, "Turn it off, we can't watch shows with niggers on" -- little things like that. It's one thing you doing these things, but when you see your kids doing it ... I just turned it off. Nicole and I got divorced. The boys are 5 and 8 now; they live half with me, half with her. Without my boys, I'm sure I'd be in prison somewhere.

When the movie "American History X" came out last year, a lot of reviewers thought it was ridiculous that a racist could go through a total transformation. In fact, it seems to be your story.

A couple of the screenwriters came to hear me speak before the movie was made, but I don't know if I'm the inspiration. Things happen to transform people -- for this kid [in the film], it was jail. The movie was really accurate, as close as Hollywood's gotten to portraying the race movement. Perhaps the transformation was very cut and dry, but you have only so much time in a movie.

You've turned your own transformation into a full-time campaign. What do you do for the Simon Wiesenthal Center?

I travel around a lot, talking at schools, colleges, churches, synagogues, to anyone who'll listen to me. I talk to law enforcement people probably on a daily basis.

I talk to racist kids. I do it by becoming their friend, telling them they can learn from my mistakes. Of course I get called all sorts of nice little names. I've been called a "race traitor" by every movement out there. I've got 10 kids out of the racist movements over three years. That may not be a lot, but it's a start. You get a couple of kids out and you're stopping them from recruiting more.

Ten kids in three years! But the Internet, you say, could be drawing in hundreds of them. How do you ever get ahead of the curve?

I wish I had the answer to that; it's an incredibly difficult question. You have to work out everything very slowly. I tell parents they have to talk to their kids about race. We keep an eye on these groups and we monitor certain days: Hitler's birthday [April 20, the day of the Columbine school massacre]; Nov. 9, Kristelnacht; and Dec. 8, the day Robert Jay Matthews was killed in a firefight with the feds in Idaho in 1984. July 4 is Day of Revolution -- I was in Vegas not celebrating Independence Day but monitoring white supremacists. There are plenty of Benjamin Smiths still out there.

By Vivienne Walt

Vivienne Walt is a frequent contributor to Salon. She was recently on assignments in Russia, Zimbabwe and Iran.

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