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PWJS: 'Hate is learned' What about tolerance? - June 2010

PWJS: 'Hate is learned' What about tolerance? - June 2010

Leyden & partial view of audience at "Turning Away From Hate" Community Forum,

Thomas James (TJ) Leyden, the former white supremacist who now speaks out against intolerance, has spoken on campuses and in communities nationwide and is the author of "Skinhead Confessions: From Hate to Hope." His speech is developed for students, parents, educators and law enforcement personnel.

His presentation "Turning Away from Hate" is a critical study of the white supremacist crusade in America as well as an inspiring story of a man's profound change of heart and way of life. He shared his story with around 75 people - including Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsey - at a community forum organized by the Paradise Center for Tolerance and Nonviolence, in Paradise, CA.  Paradise Center receives funding from the Peace With Justice Sunday offering.

Leyden (pronounced LYE-den) became a Skinhead during his teen years, around 30 years ago, after his parents divorced and he found his place within the Southern California punk-rock scene. Rampant violence brought him to the attention of the San Bernadino County Sheriff's Office; with the dragnet closing and specter of more jail time looming, Leyden enlisted in the Marine Corps, where he did double duty: serving Uncle Sam while serving up recruits for the Neo-Nazi movement that considered itself in a state of open war with the U.S. government.

According to Leyden the military gave tacit approval to his affiliation. This was not a precursor to "don't ask, don't tell" - there was no question Leyden was a racist, since he advertised his White Power stance on his neck, shoulders and arms. Yet, despite all the tattoos and subverting activities, his file carried no mention of his overt racism when he received his "other-than-honorable discharge" … for drunkenness.

Out of the Marines, Leyden continued to gather white supremacists, though he targeted much younger recruits: adolescents. "The more violent I became the more power I had. Violence equals power!"

This was the formula that TJ Leyden lived by for some 15 years; a trajectory that saw his rise from skinhead street-thug in southern California to leader in a national, neo-Nazi movement that sought to ignite a race war and overthrow the government of the United States by force. That was more than a dozen years ago. Leyden's leap from dangerous, bitter extremist to champion of non-violence evolved from a seemingly ordinary family moment. He describes this powerful awakening in his presentation.

He married, became a father and displayed a Nazi flag over the crib of his newborn son. It wasn't until he was a father for the second time that he had the moment of reckoning that changed his life forever. While watching TV with his 5-year-old and his 3-year-old his 3-year-old made a racial slur about the program. Thrilled at first, Leyden felt his pride flip upside-down when he envisioned his sons following in his violent, 16-arrest footsteps. "If I didn't want my kids to be me," he relayed, "what was wrong with me and my beliefs?"

He soon had another thought about the future he was shaping: "If the world's all white, who do we hate next?"

Eighteen months after that fateful day by the TV, he left white supremacy. TJ Leyden, now 43, renounced the culture of hate. His renunciation became public when he began speaking on behalf of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, a human-rights organization and emerged as a leading advocate for non-violence and racial tolerance through education, activism and community service. He has served as a consultant to the U.S. Dept. of Homeland Security, the FBI, the Pentagon and several U.S. military bases.

Leyden was a keynote speaker at President Clinton's White House Conference on Hate. He's conferred with former President G.W. Bush; served on former Gov. Gray Davis' Assessment Panel on Hate Groups in California, and advised law enforcement organizations throughout the U.S.

Leyden lives under threat of the white supremacist version of a fatwa - the reason for the five imposing volunteers keeping an eye on things at the Elks Lodge - but so far the worst resistance he has faced have been taunts, leaflets and bricks through car windows at places where he has spoken.

---adapted from a story by By Evan Tuchinsky,
Paradise Center for Tolerance website

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