No way out

Spokane Spokesman Review/December 3, 2000
By Jeanette White

Severing ties with white supremacists can get former followers blacklisted, threatened.

Joining was easy. Daniel Benson was panhandling on a downtown Spokane street corner when the shaved heads approached. He expected to get thumped. Instead, he got a sales pitch. "Aren't you tired of seeing your own people get stomped on? White people?"

The skinheads cajoled: "You're our family. We care for you. We care for all white people."

Benson remembers the lines well. The illusion of a caring, protective family appealed to a teenager with an alcoholic mom who raised her children in a van and married six times.

Joining the skinheads was easy. But leaving them hasn't been.

White supremacy in the Inland Northwest took a huge hit recently when Aryan Nations leader Richard Butler lost his North Idaho compound in a lawsuit backed by the Southern Poverty Law Center. But that court victory hasn't, unfortunately, made it any easier for a skinhead to walk away from a movement that considers dissenters Enemy No. 1, says Benson.

Ever since Benson, now 22, shredded his Nazi flags, former buddies keep warning him to watch his back. He's been blacklisted as a "race traitor" -- an offense sometimes punished by death, say hate group experts.

Once a loyal believer, Benson didn't hesitate to cover his body with racist tattoos. Now each etched line is a trap he inadvertently helped set. The swastikas chase away potential new friends and employers. They also send up a flare for the racists he wants to avoid.

"It makes me nervous when I'm on the street," Benson says, "having to watch over my shoulder all the time." When white supremacists go looking for new recruits, guys like Benson make easy targets, say those who study the movement. They've had rough childhoods. They're angry. And they're struggling to find their place in a world where they don't fit.

"A lot of these boys come from families where the father is gone," says Randy Blazak, a sociologist and hate crimes researcher at Portland State University. "I can predict that a mile away."

Skinheads offer a one-size-fits-all solution to the nagging question: Why can't I get ahead in life? Simple. They claim that a Jewish-run government is turning over the God-given rights of the white men who built this country to minorities.

Suddenly every disenchanted kid has his answer -- one that conveniently lays the blame elsewhere. "You find out this is why your life sucks. There's this big conspiracy," says Blazak, who runs Oregon Spotlight, an organization devoted to helping people leave racist groups.

In Portland, skinheads recruit near homeless youth shelters. In Spokane, they score in places swarming with disenfranchised kids, such as the STA bus plaza, street corners, sometimes schools.

"The primary risk factor is low self-esteem," says Spokane Police officer Larry Saunders, who works with the department's gang unit. Recruiters "go where kids go -- the plaza, juvenile clubs, the malls, anywhere kids tend to congregate."

The way Benson remembers his childhood, self-esteem was hard to come by. He was the kid who bounced between divorced parents, raised mostly by a mom who was often high on drugs or booze. Some nights, home was a van; other nights, a tent by the Spokane River.

"I was like a ping-pong ball," says Benson. "I pretty much raised myself." His mom, 42-year-old Cheryl Porta, says her three sons were so confused that when she finally lost custody, each boy asked to live with a different stepdad, none of whom were their biological fathers.

"Daniel's been a pass-the-buck kind of kid. Nothing stable in his life, ever," says Porta, who describes herself as a train-hopping alcoholic with no intention of quitting.

Benson was living on the streets when the skinheads came his way. At first, he stayed on the sidelines, but within weeks he let a buddy shave his head. Benson loved the attention when he swaggered down the street and considered himself important when police who track gangs photographed his tattoos.

"I was like, `I'm a big guy now, don't dare mess with me,' " says Benson. "For a while, I felt I was on top of the world."

Benson describes house parties featuring whiskey and beer, racist music and impromptu "preaching." Drunk, indignant and angry, partiers took to the streets in search of beating targets -- usually black men standing in parking lots or on the sidewalk. That's how skinheads earn the red bootlaces and suspenders they call braces.

Benson had both, and bloody stories to go with them. Benson, who long struggled to control his anger, now had a way to vent it. He called his buddies "comrades" and collected racist flags, brochures and jewelry. Some of his fellow skinheads attended church at the Aryan Nations compound and marched in the Coeur d'Alene "white power" parades, Benson says. He attended an Aryan Congress but shied away from the church because he isn't religious, Benson says.

His father, who lives in California, soon received a frightening letter in which Benson boasted that he'd "met his pinnacle of success" by joining the skinheads. "Daniel was beginning to fulfill all the worst things I was afraid he'd do," says Glenn Benson, once a KC-135 boom operator stationed at Fairchild Air Force Base.

Daniel Benson lived with his dad for a couple of years after his mom lost custody, but the two didn't get along. Back in Spokane, he soon landed on the streets.

Porta worried for her son's safety when the tattoos began appearing, but she realized he blended well with his new friends. "They're all from broken homes, dysfunctional families. All full of anger and don't know who to take it out on, so they join a little club," says Porta. "They've all got something now they can hate."

Law enforcement officials don't know how many racist skinheads are in the Spokane area, because groups fluctuate and are often loosely organized by design. Police Sgt. Greg Harshman estimates there are a few dozen "hard-core," active skinheads. Many others stay on the fringes. For Benson, who quit school his sophomore year, each tattoo made him feel more connected to a bigger cause. "They're badges of honor, as if a Marine were wearing his ribbons," says T.J. Leyden, a former skinhead and consultant for the Simon Wiesenthal Center's Task Force Against Hate in Los Angeles. "It's a show of loyalty."

Benson says he began doubting his racist beliefs after he married and had a daughter. "I want her to have freedom of choice," says Benson. "I don't want to teach her to throw out her right hand" in a Nazi salute.

He also met black people he liked and began to feel like a hypocrite. It's a realization many skinheads reach in young adulthood, when their world views expand, experts say. People who aren't deeply immersed in the racist lifestyle can sometimes just walk away. Others face more pressure to stay.

When Benson revealed his ambivalence, other skinheads "started to get on my case," he says. After his marriage broke up last year, Benson says he decided to get out. His ex-wife, Rhianna Benson, doubts he's sincerely given up white supremacy. She figures he just doesn't want those beliefs used against him should he try to get partial custody of his daughter.

"You can make (racism) invisible, but you can't take it away from the person himself," she says. Courts issued a no-contact order last December keeping Benson away from his ex-wife after he shattered her glass figurines and had a friend leave them at her home.

Last spring, Benson says he shredded his racist paraphernalia so skinhead associates would know he was serious about changing. They apparently got the message. Benson has been featured on a skinhead Web site under the words "TRAITOR ALERT!" The site details his tattoos and favorite hangouts and offers this summary: "Dresses like a Skinhead/biker but acts more like an anti-racist commie." The site instructs readers to avoid sharing "private matters" with Benson.

"He needs to get out of there," says Steven Stroud, a former skinhead who helped found Oregon Spotlight. "His tattoos have to be covered. He has to disappear for a while." Stroud and Blazak say skinheads despise so-called race traitors above all. "For them, the worst enemy, greater than Jews, greater than blacks, is the race traitor," says Blazak. "Not only do they know the secrets, they also know it's all (wrong)."

Benson is nervous but doesn't plan to leave. He says he wants to be near his 2-year-old daughter and can't afford to move anyway. He can't afford to get the unwanted tattoos removed, either.

"My dreaded thing is one day meeting up with my daughter and having to explain all my tattoos," he says. "`Cause it's going to have to be explained."

Benson, who is unemployed, is also working with a Spokane counselor on deep-seated anger problems that have led to suicidal thoughts in the past. "I think he's very motivated," says counselor Oscar Haupt. "He has a lot of potential. He comes across at the beginning as a tough kid, but he has some very good qualities."

Benson says he regrets luring several rootless teens into the skinheads himself and hopes they find their way out. Stroud, also branded a race traitor, says there unfortunately isn't much help for young people in Benson's situation. Stroud helped form Oregon Spotlight after realizing Portland had organizations to help minority youth leave gangs, but nothing to assist those wanting to leave white supremacist groups.

"Turning our back on these kids when they want to get out . . . is making yourself no better than the Nazis are," says Stroud.

"You have to put out your hand and be willing to overlook their transgressions. That's what's going to stop this movement. That's what boils down to love, and that's what hate fears most."

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