Wednesday, November 9, 2011

5 Questions for "Skinhead Confessions" Author T.J. Leyden

“Every night, everywhere we went, my gang and I were packing guns, knives, and enough ammo to take down the Alamo. I always had my 9mm pistols with me. At times, I got a weird a feeling—fast, strong, and shocking. The tension had become almost palpable every night we went out, and were out every night. Something inside me inherently knew what we were doing was wrong, but eventually I came to believe so heavily in the cause that it didn’t matter. I was a soldier for the movement, and I was committed to my very core.” – Excerpt from “Skinhead Confessions.”

There have been a few recent memoirs written by survivors of the white supremacy movements in the United States—one of which was written by T.J. Leyden. “Skinhead Confessions” is Leyden’s story of his broken home leading to his life of racial hatred and violence, and his shocking moment of truth where he turned his back on it all. T.J.’s childhood and family life in the beginning of the book start out like many at-risk youth story: his father was an alcoholic and the family suffered through his verbal and physical abuse. His parents eventually divorced and he went through a period of numbing himself and disassociation. 

T.J. joined the white supremacy movement when he was a teenager. He took part in physical violence against others, he began drinking heavily, and he began actively recruiting other people into the movement. He eventually developed a reputation that caught the attention of local law enforcement agencies in Southern California. After some brushes with the law, he joined the United States Marine Corps and began recruiting members of the military into the movement. He eventually married his girlfriend who was also involved in white supremacy. When he and his wife became parents, they began to raise their young children to be white supremacists, which later inspired him to leave the movement.  

After T.J.’s moment of truth and rejecting the movement, he found himself at the Simon Wiesenthal Center, allowing himself to be interviewed and interrogated by the people he once loathed entirely, confessing to them all of his sins, and giving them information to help them in their fight against these groups. He became an employee of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, he began doing speaking engagements, and he became a marked man by several white supremacists.

Today, T.J. Leyden continues to speak to law enforcement agencies and political leaders, he also gives presentations to teens and gang members, he’s helped people leave the movement, and he has appeared on several news networks to discuss the issues related to white supremacy gangs. His now ex-wife and his children are out of the white supremacy movement. T.J. is now remarried, a member of the Church of Latter Day Saints, and he recently celebrated 11 years of sobriety.

You mention at the beginning of the book that you came from a violent and broken home, that you found an outlet for your anger in the punk scene, and that you eventually found an attraction to the Neo-Nazi lifestyle. I remember seeing an HBO documentary years ago about Neo-Nazis who said they sought out young individuals such as yourself: teens from broken homes, teens who were angry, and teens searching for a family environment. Plus there are people who left the movement such as yourself that said you believed minorities were the source of all your problems. Do you find that this mentality is hard to overcome when someone wants to leave racial identity movements? 

The mentality of racism is easier to break then people think. Racism is an ISM or a belief. So, if a belief can be proven false or untrue, then you are a fool to follow it. The truly hardest thing to give up is the power and sense of identity it gives you. When one’s own life agenda gives them power over others, it’s very hard to surrender that power and control.

    The one thing that is interesting about you is in order to avoid jail and to try and escape the notorious criminal reputation you built up for yourself, you joined the United States Marine Corps. You handed out white supremacy literature and your commanding officers knew that you were doing this. You tell an interesting story about a commanding officer that was African-American and a racial separatist, whom you had mutual respect for. Are racial identity movements common in our military?

Racial groups are still alive and well in the United States Military. The FBI just released a report that proves this. The FBI said that there are 53 different gangs in the U.S. military--and that’s just the ones they know of. Below is a picture of two of the US finest, one covering his buddy so he can tag a wall in Iraq.

    Your family life during the times of when you were in the movement is probably the hardest part in this book to read. Your wife at the time was in the movement, you were still very deep in the movement, and you began to raise your children to accept the movement. There’s an interesting story that I’ve heard you tell about the exact moment when you knew you didn’t want this lifestyle for your children. Can you explain that moment and how that began your exit from the movement? 

Well, it was a morning when I was watching TV with my youngest at the time and we were watching a show on Nickelodeon called “Gullah Gullah Island.” We were laughing loud and woke up may oldest son who came out in to the living room and saw what was on the TV. With an angry look on his face he turned off the TV and said, “we don’t watch TV with Ni**ers on it!” At first I was proud of him, but once I started thinking about my boy’s future, I knew who they were going to become. I really wanted more for them than jail, gangs and fighting. It was the first time I think in my life that I was more concerned about someone else.

    When you left the movement, you showed up at the Simon Wiesenthal Center with loads of material to give to them in order to help their cause against white supremacy groups. Over a period of time, you let their staff interrogate you and ask you question and after question in a tone of which that suggested they didn’t really know what to think about you being genuine about leaving the movement. They even asked you to come back on certain days to answer more uncomfortable questions and interrogate you, to which you agreed. Did you feel that this was this part of the healing process for you? 

This is and was a part of the healing process. I thought I was doing a good deed, so they could have asked me to come back 100 times and I would have. I did it to try and pay back a little of the wrong I had done. I never thought in a million years they would ask me to come to work for them and speak out. Over the past 15 years I’ve been speaking out, I still have healing moments.

You have the book; you’ve been a commentator for racial issues on various news outlets; you’ve met presidents and several influential figures; you travel around the country speaking and doing presentations for law enforcement agencies; you are an encyclopedia on things such as the language of white supremacy groups, as well as the symbols—some of which you still have tattooed on your body to this day; you are still a marked man amongst the white supremacy movement; you’ve helped people leave the movement; you’ve probably saved a lot of lives; and you haven’t stopped educating people since you left the movement. Do you ever have days where you wish you could just put all of this behind you and feel satisfied with what you have accomplished after leaving the movement? What would you like to see happen for yourself for the long-term?

I am never satisfied--and never will be--as long as one kid is at risk from these groups. I do feel that I have accomplished many things and I feel I still have much to do. What would I like to see happen for myself long-term? I would like to put myself out of work. I would love to see tolerance become real. I don’t really like the word tolerance, because it means to “put up with.” I would love to help the world get to acceptance.

Many thanks to T.J. Leyden for allowing me to interview him. You can learn more about T.J. and purchase the book at Skinhead Confessions. You can also follow his blog at Former Skinhead

Video of T.J.

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