Intelligence Report

Former Skinhead T.J. Leyden Tells His Story

Read the story of former Skinhead T.J. Leyden, who now works with the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

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.

IR: How did you get to know Metzger?

LEYDEN: 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 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 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 [Skinhead] recruiter. I was going to get younger kids to be street soldiers.

IR: How did recruitment work?

LEYDEN: 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.

Later on, in 1993 and 1994, I started doing a lot less recruiting and a lot more military training, more gathering guns, doing surveillance on law enforcement officers, finding out which shifts the police department worked, if there were more SWAT team members in the morning or night.

The aim was that if anything happened, I wanted to know when they were the most powerful and the most weak. I starting watching LAPD, DEA, ATF, SWAT videos.

We didn't have enough soldiers to overthrow the U.S. government. The only way we could attack was the terrorist way — IRA-, PLO-style. Our big thing was blowing up ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN. Blow up one of those, and you get worldwide coverage.

During the L.A. riots there were 40 Skinheads who were ready to go down to Florence and Normandie and start wasting black people. What stopped them, believe it or not, was Tom Metzger. He said we didn't have enough soldiers to do something of that nature.

I think Tom Metzger lost face with a lot of Skinheads because of that. They said later, "Who cares if we didn't have enough? We should have done it and hoped that it was a spark."

IR: A spark to start a race war?

LEYDEN: Yeah, and a whites-only North America above the Mexican border.

IR: Who were you focusing on recruiting?

LEYDEN: 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.

IR: How important are racist rock music and the Internet for recruitment?

LEYDEN: If I filled a room with 1,000 neo-Nazi Skinheads and asked them, "What's the single most important thing that influenced you to join the neo-Nazi Skinhead movement?" probably 900 of them would say the music.

The Internet is also extremely important. Before, the kid you were going to get, eight out of 10 times, was going to be a street soldier, a kid ditching school, basically a thug. But now with the Net, you're getting the bright kid, the 11- or 12-year-old who knows how to surf [on the World Wide Web]. I'd say there are probably as many racist recruiters on the Net as there are on the street now.

What they're trying to do now is get more affluent kids. They've been trying on college campuses, and a lot of times it hasn't worked. So now they're saying, "Let's get the bright kid when he's 12, and by the time he's 18 or 19 and going into college, we've already indoctrinated him."

IR: What finally brought you to leave the racist movement?

LEYDEN: 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'd 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 okay. 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 at it, 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.

IR: How would you characterize the Skinhead movement now?

LEYDEN: Tom Metzger always says that for every kid that leaves, 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 guy's wives work, where their kids go to school. They're learning from the IRA and the PLO.

In the 1980s, everybody in the right wing thought The Order [a terrorist organization responsible for the murder of a Denver talk show host and the robbery of almost $4 million] was nuts. Now, you won't find one racist group out there that will oppose the [Order's 1984] declaration of war against the U.S. government.

Tom Metzger, on his hotline, says everybody should be sending Timothy McVeigh Christmas cards, birthday cards, money, saying how great he is. I believe the Murrah Building [in Oklahoma City] was picked because it was a very easy federal target and it had a day care center.

They wanted to send a message: "Hey, look, we're going to start killing children in this war. So I hope you're ready to die for what you believe in, because we're ready to kill your children for what we believe in."

With the [white power] music scene on the rise, you're going to get a rise in Skinheads, both anti-racist and racist. Probably 65 percent of the movement is non-racist, but even if they're not racist, they're usually into a subculture of violence. I think that you're going to see a big increase in hate crimes again.

IR: What is the relationship between neo-Nazi Skinheads and the antigovernment Patriot movement?

LEYDEN: The militia and Patriot movements are the biggest recruitment ground for neo-Nazis.

What the Patriots do is say, "The New World Order is coming." So now a kid is told by his father, "The NWO is coming, son, they're going to take away guns and free speech." The kid says, "Dad, where is the NWO coming from?" And the dad has no clue.

But the neo-Nazi Skinhead walks over and says, "The NWO is The Protocols of the Elders of Zion [an infamous anti-Semitic tract that purports to show a global Jewish conspiracy]. Just take out the word 'NWO' and put in 'Jew'."

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

LEYDEN: 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.