Reformed skinhead Tom “TJ” Leyden took an overflow crowd in Baker Hall on a harrowing ride in a 90-minute lecture on Sept. 17, describing a hate-fueled life of violence.
Leyden said his 15 years as a neo-Nazi white supremacist and recruiter included episodes of random violence, broken bones, and victims disfigured in a flurry of fists and steel-toed Doc Martens – the neo-Nazi footwear of choice.
“We used to call it a boot party,” said Leyden, now a father of five who travels around the country to preach a message of acceptance. “We used to do it to someone we were trying to recruit. We’d tear them down and then build them back up, the same way they do in the military and on sports teams.”
The young recruits, said Leyden, were made surprisingly malleable by virtue of their desire to belong.
“Every kid wants to have a sense of belonging,” he said. “I don’t care if it’s the chess club, the glee club, the football team or whatever—they want to feel a part of something and be accepted.”
Potential recruits are also seduced by cultural influences that have become effective tools in the white supremacists’ arsenal, Leyden said. These influences, he claimed, include social networking web sites, magazines that tempt young recruits with images of appealing young women, hate music, Aryan Nation clothing, racist-based home-schooling programs, comic books such as “The Saga of White Will,” and even video games.
“The White Power movement targets children as young as nine years old with video gaming. There are games like ‘Ethnic Cleansing,’ where kids kill as many blacks and Hispanics as they can before hunting down the ‘Master Jew’ who lives in the subway,” he said as gasps fluttered through the crowd.
“That game sold three million copies. In fact, the white supremacist movement has made so much money that mainstream video game manufacturers have started including racist elements in their games—some games many of you are probably familiar with.”
A breeding ground for hate
A former Marine, Leyden described the nation’s military as a breeding ground for racist hate groups.
“As long as you’re considered a passive racist, nobody bothers you,” he says. “I had a swastika flag on my locker, racist rock’n’roll blasting, I’m passing around (white supremacist novel) ‘The Turner Diaries’ to my Marine buddies, and it’s fine. At the same time I was doing that, a guy by the name of Timothy McVeigh was doing that in the Army.”
McVeigh, who was executed for his role in the 1995 bombing of a federal building in Oklahoma that claimed the lives of 168 people, and his co-conspirator, U.S. Army veteran Terry Nichols, were part of what Leyden called a long line of former military men who committed acts of domestic terror: Eric Rudolph, the 1996 Olympic Park bomber; John Allen Muhammad, the Beltway sniper who killed ten people during a 2002 shooting rampage; Buford Furrow, whose 1999 shooting rampage at a Jewish community center left a postal carrier dead and five others wounded; and James Burmeister, who was convicted in the 1995 murder of an African-American couple in North Carolina.
“I’d love to tell you that the military despises racism,” Leyden said. “But it’s not true.”
Leyden said his moment of transformation came when one of his children used a racial slur.
“My first reaction? I was thrilled,” he said. “Hey, what can I say? I was a racist. But then I tried to imagine my sons as a doctor, or a lawyer, or a cop. And I couldn’t. I kept thinking of the kind of life I led—how I was arrested 16 times, how I was stabbed 18 times, how I was shot at. I watched friends die and I watched friends go to prison and I know they’ll never come out.
“And I knew what my child would become,” he said while flashing up on the screen a mug shot of a young man whose face was covered in racist tattoos. “This is a second-generation skinhead, whose father raised him to be a racist. That’s what my boys would have become.”
A visit to the Wiesenthal Center
Leyden said he started talking to people of different races and religions, challenging his own beliefs and those of his former comrades. At his mother’s urging, he began visiting with officials of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, which was founded to confront anti-Semitism, hate and terrorism, and he eventually transitioned into an anti-hate activist. Simon Wiesenthal (1908-2005) was a Holocaust survivor who gained fame following World War II for tracking down Nazis and bringing them to justice.
Leyden's autobiographical book, “Skinhead Confessions: From Hate to Hope,” was published in 2008. He continues to write, maintains a website
and speaks at colleges and universities across the country (including six this year in Pennsylvania, which Leyden calls a hotbed of white supremacist activity). But security is a constant concern as his former comrades vow retribution.
“There are orders up on these skinhead websites—‘Terminate on sight,’” he said. “If I’m on the news in Pennsylvania, guarantee, I will have three or four threats the next day. This is just something I have to live with.”
Leyden asked his audience to fight hatred by challenging anyone who uses racial slurs, even in humor, and by mentoring a young man or woman.
“You can help out at schools or the Boys Clubs. You can make a difference anywhere,” he said. “I guarantee you there’s a kid out there right now who needs someone to be his friend. Please, become active anti-racists with your mind, not with your fists. Keep this world from creating someone like me.”
Leyden’s talk was sponsored by the Office of Residence Life, the Council for Equity and Community, the Community Service Office, the Women’s Center, the Multicultural Office, the LGBTQIA Office, the Hillel Center and the Student Activities Office, as well as by three student organizations—the Residence Hall Association, the Indian Student Association and the Global Union.
Leyden was invited to speak at Lehigh by Quiana Daniel from Lehigh’s Office of Residence Life, who learned about Leyden through the National Conference of Race and Ethnicity.