TJ Leyden, a former neo-Nazi who spent nearly half his life advocating and recruiting members into the white power movement, told his story to a rapt Fordham audience Wednesday, April 18 at the Rose Hill Campus.
It was as ugly a story as one could tell.
“I’m going to use words that will offend every one of you in this room many times,” he said. “This is necessary so that you can understand my mindset.”
Leyden, who spoke also spoke at the Lincoln Center campus on Thursday, April 19, gave the audience at Keating First a crash course in the subculture of paranoia, fear, violence and loathing that fuels the white power movement in every state in the country.
From the map of a racially divided United States that was proposed in 1963, to the 1988 brawl between blacks and skinheads on Geraldo Rivera’s show that resulted in the hosts’ broken nose, he detailed the ebbs and flows of the movement that views blacks, Hispanics and Jews as genetically inferior.
And lest anyone mistake the phenomenon as one of the past, Leyden showed images of Nazi toys currently for sale, Ethnic Cleansing, a video game that has sold eight million copies, and songs for sale on iTunes like “Fire up the Ovens” and “Six Million More.”
He directed a great deal of ire toward the U.S. Armed Forces, where he noted that he was allowed to serve in the Marines while sporting numerous blatantly racist tattoos. A picture of a group of Marine Corps snipers stationed abroad holding a Nazi “SS” flag under the Stars and Stripes that he shared with the audience was taken a month ago.
He also noted that convicted murderers Buford O’Neal Furrow, Eric Rudolph, John Allen Muhammad, Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols had more in common than crimes committed on U.S. soil.
“They were all trained by the United States Army,” he said. “Not one of them came into the military a racist. Not one of them had a racist affiliation before they came into the military. They were all recruited on active duty by other military personnel who were connected with racist groups.”
Leyden placed himself firmly in the middle of the movement, and made clear just how hard it was to turn away from a way of life that had consumed him for 15 years. In the 18 months it took him to consider leaving to the day he did, he noted that he never told his wife, for fear of what his former friends would do if she told them.
They divorced, and he has joint custody of their two sons, who he said are still allowed to attend white supremacist rallies with their mother. It was their future that convinced him to have a change of heart, got work with the Simon Wiesenthal Center to promote tolerance, and write Skinhead Confessions (Cedar Fort, 2008).
“I’m the luckiest man, first of all because still I’m alive, and second of all because I did have people in my life who always tried to have me look at life differently,” he said. “People who were always trying to make me look at the good of life.”
He cautioned against responding to acts of racism with hatred, noting that a white supremacists’ most potent weapon is paranoia and suspicion.
“This was our plan: ‘Let’s go to a junior high school or a middle school at night. Let’s put up any racial slur, lie or innuendo we could think of.’ Why? Because we knew the next day when the black, Hispanic and Asian students found this, who would they blame on campus for doing it? They’d blame a white student. ‘It was that white kid in gym class; I heard he was saying those racist statements last week,” he said.
“Now a certain segment of the black, Asian and Hispanic students take their racial fear and animosity and hatred and take it out on the white students that they perceive to be racist. They’ve actually become the very first tool in the white power movement.”
Although his story is hard to fathom for most people, Leyden cautioned that each of us is capable of passive acceptance of intolerance.
“The next time one of your friends makes a racist joke or a negative comment, or you turn your back when you see something negative happening, I want you to remember something. At that exact moment, you just became silent, indifferent and complacent, which means you just became sick. You just became part of the disease of spreading racism, not part of the cure of ending it,” he said.
Leyden’s appearances were sponsored by the Fordham Office of Multicultural Affairs, Offices of Student Leadership and Community Development, and Offices of Residential Life at Rose Hill and Lincoln Center.