Former Skinhead T.J. Leyden Tells His Story

An interview with a former racist

Last November, an outbreak of racist Skinhead violence hit the normally tolerant city of Denver. A Denver police officer was killed, another was apparently ambushed, and suspected Skinheads dumped a dead pig with the slain officer's name daubed on it in front of a police substation.

The violence shocked residents who'd seen an earlier Skinhead upsurge crushed by police who cracked down hard in the early 1990s, and raised fears that racist Skinheads are making a comeback around the nation.

Thomas (T.J.) Leyden, whose skin is emblazoned with 29 neo-Nazi tattoos, spent 15 years in the Skinhead movement before renouncing racism and going to work as a consultant to the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles.

Since joining the human rights organization in June 1996, Leyden has given speeches at more than 100 high schools, the Pentagon, FBI headquarters, police agencies and in other venues. Leyden, who worked as a Skinhead recruiter for years, decided to leave the movement after he heard his 3-year-old son using racial slurs and began to fear for the boy's future.

The Intelligence Report interviewed Leyden about his life in the movement, his analysis of what makes it tick and the appeal it has for today's youth. The interview began with his description of how he got involved in Skinhead violence.

INTELLIGENCE REPORT: What brought you into the Skinhead movement?

T.J. LEYDEN: I was hanging out in the punk rock scene in the late '70s and early '80s, going to shows and slam dancing. In 1980, my parents got a divorce, and I started to hang out in the street.

I was venting lot of 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 Skinhead movement: Skrewdriver, Skullhead, Brutal Attack and No Remorse. We started to listen to their music, and that broke the Skinhead 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 Skinhead gangs in Southern California.

If we caught somebody black, Hispanic or Asian, we'd attack them, beat them for sure. But 90 percent of my victims were white because it was rare for somebody black, Hispanic, or Asian to be walking down my street.

Probably the worst beating was at a party. A young Skinhead girl came over and said this guy, a long-hair, tripped her. We walked over to him, myself and three younger Skinheads, and we attacked him. When we were finished, we had broken his jaw, his nose and four teeth. My friend was standing on his hand, and I kicked his thumb so hard that I broke the bone and ripped the webbing.

I was a neo-Nazi street soldier between 1981 and 1988, and in that period I was probably involved in 150 to 200 fights.

IR: Did your racism come partly from your parents?

LEYDEN: My mom was nonracist and my dad was a stereotypical man. I mean, if somebody cut him off on the freeway, if they were black, he'd use the word "nigger". That was his generation.

But the racism I really learned came from my grandfather, a staunch Irish Catholic. He would say, "You don't bring darkies home" and "Jews killed Christ."

IR: What are the circumstances that lead teenagers to join neo-Nazi gangs?

LEYDEN: We were middle-class to rich, bored white kids. We had a lot of time on our hands so we decided to become gang members. When a kid doesn't have something else constructive to do, he's going to find something, whether it's football, baseball or hanging with neo-Nazi Skinheads.

I tell people all the time, "Every kid wants a sense of belonging." And what easier group to fit in with than Skinheads? You're white, you're Nazi, you fit the criteria.

IR: When did you start to really learn the ideology of racism?

LEYDEN: 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 everything I could read about Nazism, World War II, Adolf Hitler. Then I started reading about George Lincoln Rockwell [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.

William Pierce [leader of the neo-Nazi National Alliance] was influential for me, and Tom Metzger [founder of White Aryan Resistance, or WAR].

Tom's more of a public speaker, able to pump people up. Pierce is better as a writer. Pierce would probably put you to sleep at a rally, whereas Tom bores the hell out of you when he writes.