Suburban Youth Drift into Neo-Nazism, Extremism
Amid huge social changes, an underclass of white suburban youths is emerging that could shape the future of hate groups and hate crime in America
LOS ANGELES -- Inside the sprawling Men's Central Jail here, photographs of tattoos on almost every body part cover the walls of the gang unit. There are swastikas, Celtic crosses, symbols of the white supremacist Aryan Brotherhood. There is even an X-ray of a homemade dagger concealed in the rectum of one inmate's body.
An overweight, baby-faced 23-year-old is led in, chains clanking. Randall Rojas, a former member of the Nazi Low Riders (NLR), is accused of helping to murder a homeless black man four years ago and of a particularly grotesque killing that allegedly was followed by a 16-year-old girl's boasts of having "played" with the man's eyeballs.
In the hour that follows, Rojas talks about his past. His father, he says, was a white supremacist and completely absent parent. His mother, a longtime victim of spousal abuse at the hands of another man, largely ignored him. At 17, after years of drugs, beatings and trouble in school, he finally landed in juvenile hall for assault.
After he got out, he found a new home with the Nazi Low Riders, a gang largely devoted to the drug business but with a white supremacist ideological overlay. Then, two years after the homeless man's killing and while serving time for assault, Randy Rojas was charged with murder.
"A murder happened," says Rojas, choking up now. "I was scared."
Rojas' is a tale like so many others. Around the country, but especially evident in southern California, an underclass of white youths, in many cases buffeted by the winds of huge social changes and dislocations, is altering the face of American hatred.
The Roots of Discontent
Where are these young men, along with a few women, coming from? It is true that many youths come to the white supremacist movement propelled by no particular hardship. The Rev. David Ostendorf, head of the Center for New Community, a Chicago-based anti-hate group, says it is a "gross stereotype" to depict all racist youth as coming from deprived circumstances.
Many are alienated, middle-class kids who are led to neo-Nazism through Web hate sites or other propaganda. But a far larger -- and, apparently, growing -- crop of white supremacist youth has sprung from the soil of socioeconomic discontent.
"There's a lot of gangs, groups forming out there among the young," says Rojas, a young man who now says that he rejects white supremacy and has found religion instead. "It's spreading. Even [graffiti] taggers are evolving into gangs. It is escalating."
Randy Rojas and others like him live on the edge of the country and of the economy, outside of the World Wide Web. They inhabit a bleak suburban world -- the so-called "edge cities" -- of aging strip malls and fast food restaurants.
It is a world peopled, in part, by the downwardly mobile, those who are struggling to remain in the lower middle class and are often characterized by one-parent or dysfunctional families.
Many of the children of these families have experienced racial conflicts in their schools, racially changing neighborhoods, reduced expectations and fears that the modern economy is leaving them behind.
"Edge cities are where hate crimes happen," says Jack Levin, a hate crimes expert at Northeastern University. "There are more hate crimes in the suburbs than in the city and it's much more likely to happen where there's an influx of minorities.
"But it doesn't have to be the neighbor down the block. It could be the first Latino student in a dormitory, or a gay at a party, or the first Asian in the office. It's happening in schools and work places. There are simply more threats and challenges to the advantages of white people."
Levin says that hate crimes, more than half of which are carried out by individuals under the age of 22, are very largely a furious backlash by young people.
"It's protest by proxy," Levin says. "The real enemy can't even be attacked because it's an abstraction like global competition or downsizing. How much satisfaction can you get from attacking an abstraction? ... [Instead, hate criminals prefer to] attack a human face or put a dehumanized face on the enemy. It's the old scapegoating thing."
Telling the Story in Numbers
Recent social indicators tell much of the story.
While child poverty has been dropping in inner city and rural areas, it jumped 52% between 1975 and 1993 in the suburbs (in 1999, 19% of American children live in poverty, for the worst rate in the developed world).
Income inequality -- which one study found is particularly marked in California -- has grown to levels not seen since the Depression, with the top 2.7 million people enjoying as much income as the bottom 100 million. (Executives made 419 times what factory workers did in 1992; in 1980, they made 42 times as much).
Between 1973 and 1992, median income plunged by 47% for young families with children headed by a high school dropout. In the last 30 years, white male manufacturing workers with no college have seen a 10% to 20% drop in their buying power.
Family structure, and the support it provides children, is weakening, too. The U.S. divorce rate has doubled since 1960, with half of all marriages ending in divorce.
During the same period, the number of children living without a father present went from 9% to 28%. Even children with two parents probably do not see much of them, as fewer and fewer families are able to survive on only one income and everyone works more.
In the past 20 years, Americans have added 335 hours a year to their workload -- meaning they work 350 hours a year more than Europeans and 70 hours more than the Japanese. Kids are growing up alone, with one study showing pre-schoolers spend six hours a day watching TV.
While overall drug use has been declining, the use of methamphetamine -- a powerful drug that can stimulate violent tendencies -- seems to have been growing among whites, particularly those in lower-middle-class suburbs.
This has helped draw increasing numbers of youths into the criminal underworld and, in many cases, prison. Once there, even many of those who had no former affiliations join gangs, typically racist organizations.
Overall, according to a July study by the Children's Rights Council, California ranked 46th of 50 states as a place to raise children. High rates of child poverty, juvenile arrests, child deaths and teenage birth rates were among the factors used to rank states.
'Too Much Reality'
Just ask Stanley Zukowski about the state with the Hollywood image.
"I wouldn't want to raise my kids in Southern California," says Zukowski, a 23-year-old parolee and self-described white supremacist. "There's a lot of chaos, too much reality for any youngster. Gangs, violence, crime, a lot of negativity. No escape. It's competitive, harsh, dog-eat-dog. Just look at how people drive on the freeway."
Or talk to Tobin, 24, another California skin interviewed by the Intelligence Report who asked that his last name not be used. His view of the world around him? "Chaos. Ultra-violence. The whole world is fucked. This is definitely the greatest nation in the world, and it's going to shit. My race is slowly getting dragged into the mud."
Young white men like these seem to come mainly from dysfunctional families in a lower income bracket, part of a growing underclass (see related interview, Youth and Hate).
They often start off as kids seeking an alternative family in a racist street gang and are drawn into crime through the drug culture and hate music (see related story, Money, Music and the Doctor).
When they go to prison, as many do, they typically join racist prison gangs -- either predominantly criminal groups like the Nazi Low Riders or more overtly political ones like Hammerskin Nation. Once back on the streets, these men, now seen as older heroes by many younger kids, recruit more youths into street affiliates of the prison gangs.
The parents of many of these young men originally moved to California seeking new opportunities -- but at the same time leaving tight-knit communities and social support systems that might have helped them through hard times.
Many settled in edge cities -- like Lancaster, the L.A. suburb where Rojas' family moved -- thinking the suburbs were a better place to raise their children. Often, things then went from bad to worse. In Lancaster, job losses in the aerospace industry caused a crash. In other edge cities, similar events occurred.
Too often, some demonized victim ends up paying the price.
A Murder in Lancaster
Milton Walker, a 43-year-old homeless black man, became such a victim one November night in 1995. Walker was found behind a McDonald's restaurant in Lancaster, murdered by assailants using a 2-by-4 and a length of metal pipe.
A participant, 19-year-old Michael Thornton, implicated Rojas and two others in the attack. Prosecutors say that immediately after the murder -- at around midnight -- some in the group went to a tattoo parlor to get the lightning bolt tattoos they felt the killing had earned them.
Rojas -- who expressed remorse although he declined to discuss the killing in detail -- says he was drunk that night, coming off an LSD trip and high on methamphetamines. He freely describes the childhood that apparently helped to make him what he is.
Rojas says he loves his mother. But then he speaks of the problems. "If I argued with my mom and she didn't understand me, I'd get mad. And I'd find myself beating up other kids, or smoking, doing drugs, because I loved my mom and father so much.
They wouldn't listen and I would do these other things to make it bad on them. But it was bad on myself. I wanted them to see my feelings. My mom was young, 17, when she had me."
Rojas only saw his father a few times before he himself turned 17. Then he landed in juvenile hall for assaulting a skateboarder.
After he got out, Rojas says that he and his father -- a man whose occupation Rojas now describes as "going to prison, drugs, rock and roll" -- finally "became real friends." He says they started doing drugs together.
"My father had a major influence on me. He had a lot of hatred inside him because my grandfather would get drunk and shoot at him with a gun to scare him. He had swastika tattoos and bolts. He always said he just didn't like niggers. I got into this stuff to prove to him that I'm his son. And he doesn't even write to me in prison. That really hurts."
Absent Parents, Wayward Youth
Tobin, who grew up in San Luis Obispo, tells a similar story in an interview in the California Youth Authority. Like Rojas, he says, he came from a dysfunctional family, with an absentee father. His mother, Tobin adds, was a mentally ill alcoholic and drug addict.
An only and lonely child, Tobin at age 9 began hanging out with older Skinheads -- men who lionized working-class whites -- and taking drugs with them.
"Their ideology seemed pretty good to me," he says. "I didn't have a job when I was 10, but I was brought up working-class. They were white nationalists and proud of our heritage."
Tobin's parents never married. When he was 20 -- after being arrested for armed robbery at age 15 and years in and out of the system for failed drug tests -- he tracked down his father through the Internet. He carried his dad's phone number in his wallet for four years, afraid to call, until a friend finally contacted Tobin's father for him.
"I didn't know what to say to him, you know?" says Tobin, who was on parole until recently, when he was returned to the California Youth Authority for leaving the state without permission. "I was already grown up. It wasn't like I needed a dad to help raise me or anything. But I was kind of afraid that I might talk shit to him.
"Like, 'Why weren't you there?' You know?"
Now, Tobin and his father are talking. Tobin sent a photograph to his dad, who told him that they looked "totally alike" and added that Tobin has Irish ancestors. But his dad is holding back -- he wants a blood test before he will fully acknowledge his son.
Stanley Zukowski speaks of his parents' divorce when he was 5. He says his mother married three alcoholics in a row. "The screaming that went on for years really affected me," he says. "There was too much going on for any young guy's head."
Zukowski says his father died a year ago, and his mother moved leaving no forwarding address -- while he was in jail for assaulting a police officer at age 15. Now, he cannot find her.
The parents of Thomas Powell -- an incarcerated, 19-year-old Skinhead who has been in and out of the youth hall since 1995 for stabbing a black man and on drug charges -- are still married, although he spent some time in foster care. Powell says his father, who he claims introduced him to methamphetamines at age 13, taught him to hate.
"My dad would always say 'fucking blacks' and this and that," Powell recalled in a recent interview. "My dad hated them. That's where a lot of it comes down from, you know? When you're little, you're always listening to your mom and dad."
Desperately Seeking Family
Soon, these young men discovered the street. Typically, such youths, insecure from the start, begin slipping in school. Then they drop out and make friends on the streets while their parents work. Soon, they're in a gang with others even less fortunate.
"A lot of street kids are looking for a family," Spokane, Wash., police Sgt. Greg Harshman says. "Maybe there's an older guy at a beer party spouting hate stuff. The kids are just talking the talk... . [But] this guy supports them, gives them a place to sleep." In time, whether or not older people are involved, they join the alternative family.
Rojas remembers it well. "The feelings we had were so strong. We had more love for each other than any of us had for our own families. So we made a family of friends and it started going downhill from there. After a while, we just started hating a lot."
Like all the young men interviewed, Tobin sought desperately to construct a family, a history to give him roots. He found it in the white race. "I have a heritage, a culture, a past. My family. I'm proud of who I am, a white man of European descent.
"I have history forever."
A few youths like these are recruited by organized white supremacist groups. But far more are influenced by less explicitly political gangs like the Nazi Low Riders, which began as a prison-based gang but has come to have influence on the streets as well.
In the case of Rojas and his friends, the person who influenced them was Willie Fisher, a kid who came out of jail and told others in Lancaster about the NLR.
Soon, Rojas and the others took the name of the Lancaster NLR for themselves -- although they never officially belonged to the real Nazi Low Riders -- and the series of hate crimes they committed in the mid-'90s earned Lancaster the name, in some quarters, of "Klancaster."
When Rojas was charged with the Walker murder, he already was serving time for beating a 19-year-old Hispanic man outside a 7-Eleven store. Ritch Bryant, another Lancaster NLR member charged in the Walker murder, was also already serving time, in his case for the screwdriver stabbing of a black high school student.
Prison as the Incubator
Many who get into trouble -- typically, through drugs or assaults -- are not overtly political when they enter the youth halls or the prison system. But once there, most youths are organized into race-based gangs, largely for self-protection -- and many of these gangs are explicitly white (or black, or brown) supremacist.
Increased juvenile incarceration rates also mean that more young racists are being created in jails. And adding to the racially charged prison atmosphere is the fact that blacks typically outnumber whites.
"The black kids didn't like us," Tobin says of the Paso Robles prison unit where he and Zukowski were the only whites. "There were like 100 people in there. The black kids would walk by us and look at us all crazy and talk shit from outside the door."
From prison, these youths go different ways.
Some return to the street as members of racist criminal gangs like the NLR, dealing drugs and in other ways participating in the criminal underground. Others grow far more political in prison, joining serious revolutionary organizations like Hammerskin Nation or other old-line hate groups. (Interestingly, California authorities say criminal gangs like the NLR are the most dangerous.)
And a few turn back, attempting to go straight.
Thomas Powell, who calls himself a "supreme white power" Skinhead, is not well-schooled in the American white supremacist movement, but he hopes to create his own racist group when he gets out.
Stanley Zukowski speaks of Hitler as "an exceptional, powerful man," but he says he is against violence and he has managed to do well while on parole at his $40,000-a-year job as a refrigeration mechanic.
Tobin, the most overtly political white supremacist of those interviewed, knows the movement well and says he will join forces with other revolutionaries once the race war begins. Randy Rojas, who faces a possible life term, has renounced the movement that birthed him.
'They Need to Look at the Future'
The world these youths inhabit -- and the gangs they go on to create -- is probably seen most clearly in California, a state that has historically set trends for many others. Next year, California whites will become a minority for the first time in over a century -- a pattern other states will follow between now and 2050.
The U.S. Census Bureau predicts that some 8 million immigrants will move to the state by 2025. By that same year, 33% of the state's population will be under 20, a percentage second only to Alaska.
But California is not alone. Already, similar white supremacist youth scenes -- and the kind of socioeconomic conditions that have helped to spawn them -- have appeared in the suburbs of south Florida, around Boston, in Portland, Ore., and Salt Lake City.
And more will likely be created.
"California is where everything starts, including the Church of Jesus Christ Christian," Spokane's Sgt. Harshman says of the neo-Nazi group now based in Hayden Lake, Idaho. "It got its anti-Jewish twist in California, just like surfboards, mopeds and bikinis were first there. It's the trendsetter, especially west of the Mississippi."
If that is so, there are more heartaches ahead -- even for those who try to turn back from the racist gang life. That may be best exemplified in the case of Randy Rojas, who says he was introduced to religion by an inmate who is black. "I know it sounds sad," he says now, "but I am happy inside here. I've found God. I've found myself."
Rojas spends his time reading books on creative writing. He hopes to take a computer course while he is locked up. His dream, he says, is to become a youth counselor.
"I'd take them into a prison to talk to someone like me, who's getting ready to do a life sentence, and scare them," Rojas says of the young people he would like to inoculate against the disease of hate.
"Really tell them how it is. That is the most effective way. They need to see how they're going to be. They need to look at the future."