Ex-racist 'skinhead' tells gripping story of hatred and redemption

The Athens News/January 30, 2003
By Adam Townsend

A former Neo-Nazi "skinhead" outlined his career as an active white supremacist during a speech Tuesday night at Ohio University, describing methods hate groups use to recruit new members, and recounting his reformation.

"This story I'm about to tell you is not a story I'm proud to tell you," said Tom Leyden, a former recruiter for white supremacist groups, opening his speech in the dimly lit Baker Ballroom.

He embarked on a narrative of the hate and violence that consumed his life for many years, as attendees in the packed venue listened in rapt silence. People lined the walls and filled every seat beneath the ballroom's chandeliers.

Leyden said he started as a teenager in 1978 going to punk rock concerts. Anarchy was the political philosophy of punks of the time, he said, which meant violence prevailed at the shows, or "might makes right," as he put it. He hooked up with racist skinheads at these events, he said. "The older kids loved my violence," Leyden recalled.

After a period in a skinhead gang, Leyden said all the beatings and violence in which he participated -- against both whites and blacks -- resulted in local police making life miserable for him. To escape the pressure, he joined the Marines.

He said at that time, the military accepted any member of a hate group, as long as he or she was a "passive member." Leyden said, however, that he displayed a Nazi flag over his bed at the base, owned numerous pieces of hate literature, and openly played racist videos on his television.

"Our base commander considered these acts passive and OK," recalled Leyden.

After the Marines gave him an "other than honorable discharge" for "drinking as much as (he) weighed and fighting all the time," he utilized his military training in gaining support for the white supremacist movement.

"The military made me a better racist," Leyden said.

He and his fellow white supremacists developed cunning recruitment strategies targeting children as young as 12, he said. One strategy was to post hate flyers near schools and campuses. Minority students, he said, believed white students at their school posted them. When altercations occurred between white and minority students, the skinheads were always around to help the Caucasian. This way, he said, the skinhead became the "savior," ingratiating himself with the white student.

Hate groups used the "teardown and rebuild" strategy to essentially "brainwash" a new recruit. This method, used in U.S. military training and fraternity and sorority hazing, consists of negative reinforcement for undesirable behavior and positive reinforcement for desirable behavior.

Leyden also listed recruitment tools used by hate groups today, including music, magazines, comic books and the Internet.

"Music is the most powerful recruitment tool ever," he told the audience. "Music is so powerful, guys; it will dictate the way you walk, the way you talk -- even your politics revolve around music."

The number of hate sites on the Internet -- about 5,000 -- is second only to the number of pornography sites, according to Leyden. Three 24-hour Web radio sites play hate music, often as a soundtrack to old Nazi propaganda footage.

"The white power movement has started their own MTV," Leyden said.

About 800 hate groups operate across the United States, he said, including the Hammerskins, a huge white supremacist gang based in Houston with chapters in the U.S., Europe, South Africa and South America.

In Ohio, hate groups include the Ku Klux Klan, racist skinheads (as opposed to SHARPs, or Skinheads Against Racial Prejudice) and the Nation of Islam, a black separatist group.

According to Tolerance.org, a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center, 28 racist groups operate out of Ohio. A white supremacy group close to Athens is the Lancaster branch of the National Skinhead Front, the Web site reports.

Leyden said several factors changed his racist views, the most important of which was his becoming a father. One afternoon, he recalled, he and his sons were watching a television show on which appeared an African-American actor. Leyden said his son, then 3, flipped off the television and said, "Daddy, you know we don't watch shows with niggers on them in this house." Over the next 18 months, Leyden said he gradually came to realize he was living a terrible life.

"I was the worst thing my boys could ever ask God for a father in life," he said. "I got lucky in my life. I got people constantly coming my way, making me look at things differently."

In closing, Leyden entreated his audience to "become a mentor to a group of kids in your neighborhood. My legacy of hate can't stop. Make sure the world stops creating people like me."

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