Inside Skinhead

Thomas (T.J.) Leyden, whose skin was once emblazoned with 29
neo-Nazi tattoos, spent 15 years in the skinhead movement before
renouncing racism and going to work as a consultant for the Simon
Wiesenthal Center, a human-rights organization based in Los
Angeles.

The Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Report
interviewed Leyden about his life in the movement, his analysis of
what makes it tick, and the appeal of racist activity for today’s
youth.

What brought you into the skinhead movement?

I was hanging out in the punk rock scene in the late ’70s, going
to shows and slam dancing. In 1980 my parents got divorced, and I
started to spend more time in the street. I was venting my
frustration and anger over the divorce. I went around attacking
kids, punching them and beating them up. A group of older kids who
were known as skinheads saw this, and I got in with them. We didn’t
like people who weren’t skinheads, but it wasn’t really about
racism yet.

In 1981 four big-time racist bands came into the movement:
Skrewdriver, Skullhead, Brutal Attack, and No Remorse. We started
to listen to their music, and that broke the movement into two
factions, SHARPs [Skinheads Against Racial Prejudice] and the
neo-Nazi skinheads. Since I lived in a very upper-middle-class,
white neighborhood we decided to establish one of the first
neo-Nazi gangs in Southern California.

When did you learn the ideology of racism?

After I joined the Marine Corps in 1988. They teach a philosophy
that if you do something, you do it all the way, not half-assed. So
since I was a racist, I started reading about Nazism, World War II,
Adolf Hitler. Then I started reading about George Lincoln Rockwell
[the founder of the American Nazi Party]. Maybe because he was
American and a commander in the military, for me he was a better
role model than Hitler. Tom Metzger [the founder of White Aryan
Resistance, or WAR] was also influential for me.

How did you get to know Metzger?

When I was in the Marines, I was writing to one of my friends in
California, and he wrote back saying he was doing security for Tom
Metzger. I said, ‘Wow!’ Then, all of a sudden, Tom writes to me and
sends me the WAR paper. So I start corresponding with him. I didn’t
actually get to meet him until I got out of the military [in
1990].

I was recruiting, organizing Marines to join the racist
movement. I manipulated guys through little things, talking to them
about Nazism on a small scale. Like the fact that Marines never had
tailored uniforms until after World War II, and then all of a
sudden we were tailoring ourselves because we wanted to look sharp
like the Nazis. We wanted to walk and have thunderous footsteps
like the Nazis. I would take things in the Marine Corps and say the
Nazis did this first.

Eventually, I was kicked out for being involved in
alcohol-related incidents??not for being a racist. If you look at
my military packet, you’re not going to find anything about me
being a racist, and I had two-inch-high Nazi SS bolts tattooed on
my neck! Once I got cut, I decided to be a [neo-Nazi] recruiter. I
was going to get younger kids to be street soldiers.

How did recruitment work?

We incited violence on high school campuses. We’d put out
literature that got black kids to think the white kids were racist.
Then the black kids would attack the white kids and the white kids
would say, ‘I’m not going to get beat up by these black guys
anymore.’ They’d start fighting back, and we’d go and fight with
them. They’d say, ‘God, these guys are really cool. They came out,
and they didn’t have to.’

That put my foot in the door. Then I could start talking to
them, giving them comic books with racist overtones or CDs of
racist music. And I would just keep talking to them, giving them
literature, indoctrinating them over a period of time.

Who were you focusing on recruiting?

I was trying to take people from a wide background, not just
people in the racist movement?people who were angry about taxes,
about the government. They would say, ‘I don’t have a problem with
blacks, my problems are with the government.’ You could find them
anywhere, at a bar, a guy sitting there drinking who was pissed off
at the government for what it had done to him. We had a place out
in the desert where everybody went to shoot where you could find
people. I would talk to these guys at bars, gun clubs, pretty much
anywhere.

How would you characterize the skinhead movement now?

Tom Metzger always says that for every kid that leaves [the
movement], 100 more join. He knows that’s a crock, the movement
isn’t growing that fast.

But these guys are becoming more adamant about terrorism. It’s
not a joke anymore, not when they’re starting to do surveillance on
families, police officers, politicians. They want to know where
these guys’ wives work, where their kids go to school. They’re
learning from the IRA and the PLO.

What finally brought you to leave the movement?

It was an incident with my son that woke me up more than
anything. We were watching a Caribbean-style show. My 3-year-old
walked over to the TV, turned it off, and said, ‘Daddy, we don’t
watch shows with niggers.’ My first impression was, ‘Wow, this
kid’s pretty cool.’ Then I started seeing something different. I
started seeing my son acting like someone 10 times tougher than I
was, 10 times more loyal, and I thought he’s going to end up
actually doing something and going to prison. Or he was going to
get hurt or killed.

I started looking at the hypocrisy. A white guy, even if he does
crystal meth and sells crack to kids, if he’s a Nazi he’s OK. And
yet this black gentleman here, who’s got a Ph.D. and is helping out
white kids, he’s still a ‘scummy nigger.’

In 1996, when I was at the Aryan Nations Congress [in Hayden
Lake, Idaho], I started listening to everybody and I felt like,
‘God, this is pathetic.’ I asked the guy sitting next to me, ‘If we
wake up tomorrow and the race war is over and we’ve won, what are
we going to do next?’ And he said, ‘Oh, come on, T.J., you know
we’re going to start with hair color next, dude.’

I laughed, but when I drove home, 800 miles, that question and
answer kept popping into my head. I thought that kid was so right.
Next it’ll be you have black hair so you can’t be white, or you
have brown eyes so somebody in your past must have been black, or
you wear glasses so you have a genetic defect.

A little over two years after my son said the thing about the
‘niggers’ on TV, I left the racist movement.

What has been the personal cost of your involvement in the
movement?

A little bit of my dignity. I look at myself as two people, who
I am now and who I was then. I see the destruction I did to people
by bringing them into the movement, the families I hurt. I ruined a
lot of lives. That’s the biggest thing I have to pay back. I don’t
forgive myself. Only my victims can forgive me.

From Intelligence Report (Winter
1998). Subscriptions (4 issues/yr.) available with $15 minimum
donation to Southern Poverty Law Center, 400 Washington Av.,
Montgomery, AL 36104.

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