The murders of six people at the Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wis., by a gunman with ties to white supremacists has raised questions about the prevalence and influence of hate groups in America — who they are, what they do, and how they recruit new members.
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LYNN NEARY, HOST:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Lynn Neary, in Washington; Neal Conan is away. Little is known about Wade Michael Page's motives for opening fire at a Sikh temple earlier this month. What we do know is that Page had ties to white supremacist groups, and that raises questions about the prevalence and influence of hate groups in America: who they are, what they do and how they attract new members.
If you have questions about hate groups, or if you or someone you know have had experiences with hate groups, give us a call. Our number is 800-989-8255. Our email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. And you can join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Later in the program, Brigadier General Tammy Smith on being the first openly gay general in the U.S. military. But first hate groups in America. T.J. Leyden is a former neo-Nazi skinhead. His op-ed, "What I Might Have Told Wade Michael Page," ran last week in the Washington Post. He joins us now by phone from his office in St. George, Utah. T.J., welcome to TALK OF THE NATION. Good to have you with us.
T.J. LEYDEN: Thank you, ma'am, welcome to be here.
NEARY: First, how did you get involved in hate groups?
LEYDEN: I got involved in the hate movement when it was just - I guess the hate movement had been around for a long time, but I got involved in the neo-Nazi skinhead movement in its infancy, here in the U.S. I was hanging out with the skinhead movement when it was fractured into two separate subcultures.
And the group that I was hanging out with a lot, was a lot more of the white guys. We were listening to more of the white supremacy kind of bands, and it just pulled us in very, very quickly.
NEARY: But what do you think sort of attracted you to that group of people to begin with? You write in your - in that essay that appeared in the Washington Post that when you were a kid, you were sort of validated for beating up a cousin by your father, and that same kind of support you experienced when you joined up with these young people in these hate groups. I wonder if you can explain that dynamic for me.
LEYDEN: Well, you know, my father - the first time I ever felt real affection, real love, kind of like a joy from my dad was when I severely injured my cousin in a fight that we had had. My father came over and gave me a big hug, kissed me on the forehead and told me he loved me.
And then, you know, you shake your son's head and say way to go, he kind of did that. Contrast that with a couple other incidents that happened, I mean, I beat up a neighborhood bully in my neighborhood, and my father came home from a business trip, and I had a - he walked me to the - he had a big toy for me.
So I started to equate violence with love. So when I started hanging out in the streets, and these, you know, neo-Nazi skinhead, and I was hanging out with them, the more violent I was, the more friendship, the more camaraderie, the more love they showed me. So it was a perfect extension of my father's love, this organization was, this group was.
NEARY: So did you just sort of fall into this, or were you recruited actively, or did you go seeking out hate groups?
LEYDEN: I didn't go seeking out hate groups. I wouldn't say that I was actively recruited, but I wouldn't say I fell right into it. I guess it was just, sadly, the right timing for me. They were the group that was there, that picked up, you know, the pieces. I mean, it could have been something different, I guess, in my life. At one time, I guess, you know, I could've been a drug dealer, sad to say.
But this group filled that void. They found what I was, you know, lacking and what I needed was, you know, with that friendship, the camaraderie, the thing that all kids need. And this was the easiest group to fit in with. I only had to be the right skin color.
NEARY: Well, let me ask you, so when we're talking about a group, what are we talking about? Are we talking about an organization? Are we talking about a gang? Like how many people were involved in this? How organized is this?
LEYDEN: Well, in the beginning I belonged to a group that was very, very small. We only had about 12 members. But that continued to grow and grow and grow, and then eventually the group I belonged to got absorbed into another group, and then eventually we got absorbed in what was known as Western Hammerskins.
And then Western Hammerskins became part of Hammerskin Nation, which is now a - it's a global entity. It's not just here in the United States, but it has regions. So it started off, like, with 12, and now, you know, Hammerskins are, you know, I would estimate 50,000, 60,000 strong.
NEARY: Really, that many?
NEARY: OK, so what is - and what does this organization do? What is the idea? What is the philosophy behind it? And do they actually - do they do...?
LEYDEN: The philosophy of the organization has always been to basically overthrow the United States government. Everybody thinks of the Ku Klux Klan, the neo-Nazi skinheads, Arian Nation, as this group that wants to save America. That's the Klan and the hate groups of the 1960s. The groups of today want to model themselves off of like al-Qaida and things of that nature.
They want to be, you know, the next Timothy McVeighs. I mean, I'm sure, sadly, Wade Michael Page drove by that place, and he saw a temple. So he probably thought: You know what? It's a Jewish place. But then as he pulled up and saw the Sikhs, he probably thought, you know what, this will work, too.
NEARY: All right, so you're saying this is a pretty big organization, pretty well-organized group of people. So how do they go about getting kids to join now? And is it usually kids we're talking about now at this point, or are we talking about, you know, older people, as well?
LEYDEN: No, they'll try to attract anybody, but mostly - I was a regional recruiter. My job was to recruit kids into the movement. And my number one recruitment tool was music. And I would target kids as young as 12. Now, some of the guys out there would actually target kids as young as nine. So and - and just so the audience is kind of understanding, I'm sure everybody listening right now at one time in their life had been listening to a car stereo, a CD player, you're listening to your iPod, your MP3 player, and you turn it off, and you walk around for an hour or so with that song stuck in your head.
Now if that song's talking about white supremacy, that song's talking about hate and violence and racism, that message is getting in there. Because if you turn it off, and you walk around with that song stuck in your head, that can change your attitude.
And we would drive around and give out these CDs for free. I would drive back three or four days later, I'd have kids waving me down because they loved the music, and they wanted more. That was an easy step for me then to start recruiting that kid into the racist movement.
NEARY: Where did you go to find these kids? Where were these kids, on the street?
LEYDEN: Oh, high schools, junior highs, right out of - as soon as the kids got out of school, the malls, walking down the street. Anywhere kids hang out, we would go.
NEARY: All right, well, we're going to bring Brian Levin into the conversation now. He's an attorney and professor of criminology at California State University in San Bernardino, and he directs the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism. He joins us from his office in San Bernardino. Welcome to the program, Brian.
BRIAN LEVIN: Thank you so much for having me today.
NEARY: Now Brian, we just heard - we just heard T.J. describing this one particular group that he joined when it was very small, now many thousands of people, apparently, according to him, are members of it. How many groups would you say - when we're talking about hate groups, are we - how many - you know, what's the - how many people - not how many people, how many groups are there out there that we're talking about?
LEVIN: Well, that's a great question. Let me try and address both. First, our estimates on the number of neo-Nazi skinheads in the United States, not just belonging to Hammerskins, is far smaller. I don't know, maybe T.J.'s talking internationally, so I'll just diverge from my friend on that.
Let me try and address this sequentially. First, I think the hardcore hatemongers, whether they're in a group or not - and I'd say the plurality are not - are probably about a quarter of a million or less in the United States today. And you probably have somewhere between 4,000 to 7,000 skinheads, 3,000 to 5,000 Klan members.
But the notion of hate groups - of which my friends at the Southern Poverty Law Center, where I used to work, count 1,118, which is well over a 60-percent increase from the year 2000. Now the year 2000, though, was a time when they were at near-historic lows.
Let me also say that if you look back a decade, the major hate groups that were around - National Alliance, Aryan Nations and World Church of the Creator - are now shadows of their former selves. So what we've seen over the last decade is an increase in the aggregate number of hate groups but a decrease in the effectiveness of large, hierarchical, centralized national-based organizations.
So there's been a splintering and decentralization of hate groups, but let me just say many people are on the tangents of these hate groups, where they might go to a rally, they might buy a record album, they might even look at a website, but they won't necessarily be part of a hate group.
Indeed, you know, Stormfront, which was the first hate website, launched in the spring of 1995, is probably more influential than any, quote, hate group that's out there.
NEARY: OK, let me ask you - let me - because I want to take this definition further when we're talking about the word hate group. And there's another phrase we should be using, I don't know, but what are the - what is the purpose of these groups? Are they all violent? Are they all racially motivated? Is it like a social club where people who think along the same lines just get together and sort of feed each other's ideas? Or are they actually - what is their purpose?
LEVIN: Well again, great question. It depends on the group. So for instance, our definition of a hate group for our center deals with groups that promote some or all of the following: bigotry, violence or an undermining of the institution, the institutions and processes of our domestic society and democracy.
So that's how we would list a hate group, also one that maybe promotes conspiracy theories. Southern Poverty Law Center, similarly, has a definition like that, although not - criminality is not a part of the definition. So a group can be listed by us or the Southern Poverty Law Center, for instance, and not be engaged in criminality, but they might be engaged in promoting bigotry and violence without actually orchestrating it themselves.
But most people in the movement are not card-carrying members. The thing that has changed over the last decade in particular is because of prosecutions and because of civil lawsuits and the advantage of the Internet and social networking, hate groups can have a presence, a physical let's say brick-and-mortar presence, if you will, but they also have a virtual presence of which they know they'll get fellow travelers who won't necessarily join but who will be influenced by the rhetoric, belief system and folklore of the movement.
NEARY: Right, so you're saying this can range from a website, a group that is literally just a website, to a sort of larger, more well-organized kind of group?
LEVIN: That's correct, and I would say that Southern Poverty Law Center and our center, as well, and I presume the ADL and Simon Wiesenthal, tend to try and avoid listing or identifying sole proprietorships. They really want something that does constitute a group.
But many of these groups are often quite small. So, like, there were some Klan groups several years ago that were in Orange County, and they probably only had a handful of members. Even the national socialist movement...
NEARY: Brian, we're going to continue this discussion in a moment. We have to take a short break, and we're going to continue talking about hate groups with T.J. Leyden and Brian Levin. This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.
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NEARY: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Lynn Neary. We're talking about hate groups, who they are, where they operate and how they recruit. The Southern Poverty Law Center tracks hate groups in the country, more than 1,000 active organizations as of 2011. They count more than 80 in California, dozens each in Texas, Florida, Georgia, New Jersey and other states.
If you have questions about hate groups, or if you or someone you know have had experiences with hate groups, give us a call. Our number is 800-989-8255. Our email address is email@example.com. You can join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Our guests are T.J. Leyden, himself a former neo-Nazi skinhead. He wrote the book "Skinhead Confessions: From Hate to Hope." And Brian Levin, he directs the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University in San Bernardino.
We're going to take a call now. We are going to go to - we're going to go to Steve(ph), and Steve is in Portland, Oregon. Hi, Steve.
NEARY: Go ahead.
STEVE: Well, I was just calling to comment on, you know, my experiences with neo-Nazi organizations, particularly skinheads in the punk-rock movement and kind of reinforce what your guest is saying with, you know, a lot of the recruiting practices and seeing a lot of those things firsthand. You know, being pretty involved in the punk scene as a kid and high school, the neo-Nazis and the skinheads were a pretty big group in Phoenix at the time, and it was something that we dealt with, you know, every show, everything we went to.
But what always - you know, to me what was always so ironic to me was the hypocrisy I would see in things. And, you know, a lot of times they would be, you know, fighting and harassing people at the punk-rock shows, and, you know, which is generally a 95 percent white group. Or, you know, I was blonde-haired, you know, fair-skinned, blue-eyed, and I was treated pretty well when I was young, but by the time I was large enough to kind of speak up, you know, we would get into altercations over how long your hair was, what race your girlfriend was.
You know, and we were always like they're never directing their energy at the minorities. It was really just something they wanted to belong to. It was very much a bully, you know, mentality. And the folklore that you guys mention and the, you know, misunderstanding of their own history and things, really I could see how the large organizations could use those things and prey upon it.
NEARY: And you're saying you went there for the music, you didn't go there to have anything to do with these guys, but they...
STEVE: No, we didn't want to have anything to do with them, but they was something we had to deal with every time, and we would see friends get pulled in, our friends, you know, in and out of the scene and things like that. But it was really like a group of bullies, you know, to us. And that was something that we felt. But I could see how people would fall into it and want to belong to something, people that didn't have their own identity.
You know, that's what we'd always say. We're like, well, they've got nothing to be proud of, so they're just proud of being white, you know, rather than, you know, the other things that they're doing.
NEARY: Thanks so much for your call, Steve, and thanks for that insight into it. And I want to turn back to T.J. Leyden because I think what he just brought up is the fact that, you know, we're talking about the music thing, but the music scene wasn't necessarily all, you know, kids were part of hate groups or wanted to be part of hate groups. You just sort of found kids there who might be attracted.
LEYDEN: Well, yeah, we found kids, you know, everywhere. The music was just a catalyst to kind of pull them in and kind of keep them going. And there was a lot of infighting, I mean, and it was a lot of times - you know, the biggest group the white supremacist hate are whites who are not racist. I think that's one of the things a lot of white people need to understand.
It's not, you know, the Ku Klux Klan again of the 1960s. The number one enemy for those guys inside there are white people who aren't racist. They hate them the most. That's who they look at as the enemy.
NEARY: It's interesting what he just said because he was talking about the fact that, you know, looking on these people who came and tried to recruit kids, and he wasn't interested in them, that he and friends just said they have no identity, so that's - they're just going to - that's why they're going with this because their only identity is to be white.
How important is identity to the kids who get involved with these kinds of groups?
LEYDEN: I think identity is everything. I think these kids are lacking in. I mean, they're not - I mean, like I said, you know, these kids aren't the jocks. They don't have that jock identity. They're not a nerd. They don't have that nerd - this is the easiest group to fit in. It's like the guy said, you only have to have the right skin color.
I mean, as long as you have white skin, you fit in. I mean, that's really the criteria. And I'll say this right now, and Brian can probably back me up on this: A lot of the guys in the white power movement, you look at them, and you're like, I'm sure you're not 100 percent Aryan. But as long as they're spouting it, and they're talking it, guess what, they're as white as snow.
And that's the hypocrisy inside the white supremacy movement.
LEVIN: T.J.'s 100 percent right on that.
NEARY: OK, go ahead.
LEVIN: Yeah, a couple quick things. Yeah, I think part of this, it's not only identity, but identity is a function of a couple of things, one of peer validation but another protection. I can't tell you how many neo-Nazis and skinheads I've interviewed who said once they took the trappings and the look of a white supremacist, the jocks stopped bothering them. The Latino kids stopped picking on them. The black kids stopped picking on them. The white kids that were cool stopped picking on them.
So that was one thing. So it's a function of both peer validation as well as identity and security. And then for some, some of these kids are really socially isolated, as well. T.J. is also 100 percent correct with regard to the violence. As I wrote over the weekend in the Newsday op-ed, you know, they not only attack minorities, they'd attack other racists because there's all kinds of turf battles.
Some wanted to claim a particular geography. Some dealt drugs, others didn't. So one thing that is really interesting about this movement, it's not only about bigotry, but it's also about violence. And with regard to the last point T.J. made, I was just an expert in a state cross-burning case out here in California, and one of the defendants was Mexican-American.
NEARY: But when you say it's also about violence, that's what I'm trying to get a little bit of a handle on. I understand what you're saying about, you know, T.J. earlier you said that, you know, you felt support, you felt love, you felt a sense of community among these groups, like a gang, you know, you get a sense of identity.
I understand all that, but when you start saying it's all about violence, is it random violence? Do they actually sit down and meet in cells and say we are now going to go out and attack such-and-such a place, or, you know, we're going to go out and, you know, commit an act of violence against such-and-such a group? What do you - how structured is this, really, and is it structured at all, or is it just random people deciding they're going to do a random act of violence?
LEYDEN: I would think that approximately, and Brian can probably back me up on this, I think 90 percent of it is just random acts of violence: wrong people at the wrong place at the wrong time. It could possibly even be higher than that. Very, very seldom is it that a group of guys get together and say, you know, this is what we're going to target, this is how we're going to rob it, this is what we're going to do.
Ninety percent of it is spur of the moment. It's after a concert, and they're drinking, and the music's been talking to them all night about attacking, you know, Jews or blacks or Hispanics, and they leave that show, and they drive down the street, and oh my gosh, the first person they happen to come across is maybe an interracial couple or a poor black gentleman or Hispanic walking down the street. Bang, that's their target.
NEARY: So a lot of this is sort of just feeding into a certain way of thinking, and it can come out in random violence, you're saying. Would you agree with that, Brian?
LEVIN: Yeah, I think T.J.'s absolutely right. Most of it is random violence. They get drunk, they are part of a folklore and a peer group that glamorizes being a warrior and violent, and they'll take whoever comes up. However, that being said, I agree with T.J. 100 percent, we saw a plot by a group called the Fourth Reich Skinheads back in '93 that wanted to target a black church and kill Rodney King, and it was infiltrated by an FBI agent named Mike German.
Most recently in Florida, in Central Florida there were a bunch of white supremacists who were undertaking weapon training to start a race war, and they were part of the American Front. So what we read about in the news is usually the stuff that's more violent and more organized, but I would say the overwhelming majority of the crimes that take place are these random street attacks that take place after a rally, after a meeting or after listening to some music.
Indeed, the Burmeister case out of North Carolina, with these active-duty military folks, they were listening to hate rock and drinking pitchers of beer, and then they went out into Fayetteville that night just to target a random black couple to murder. So that's what most of it is like.
NEARY: All right, we're talking about hate groups. If you'd like to join the conversation, the number is 800-989-8255. We're going to take a call now from Nancy, and she's calling from Baltimore, Maryland. Hi, Nancy, go ahead.
NANCY: I'm calling because my sons were recruited into the white supremacist movement. My older son identified two reasons. One, our divorce, his parents, and then that led to my sons and I living in poverty, and he said it was so difficult. And he became drawn into the local punk scene, listening to loud, angry music, using drugs and alcohol to escape the shame that he was feeling.
Then he was recruited by flyers and posters at a concert, and he said, at first, the literature was patently absurd, but then it struck a chord in me. I was impressed by its message of power and sense of unified strength. And when you feel that you have no hope or opportunities in life, there's no end to what you will convince yourself to believe in...
NEARY: Now, what did you - Nancy, when this started happening to your sons, how did you react? What did you do? Did you try and pull them back from it in anyway, or were you...
NANCY: I immediately did. I went public on our local TV station. I talked to them constantly. I challenged them. And they were really brainwashed. You could just see their eyes. It was like a shutter would come down, and they would just not listen at all. They were so brainwashed. And as Mark said, it felt like these men were providing a family for him, a home for him that he felt he no longer had, and they made him feel important.
NEARY: Now, what - and what happened in the end? Did your sons stay with that or...
NANCY: No. My older son was arrested and put in jail for some things he had done. I did not bail him out. While he was sitting in that jail cell, he had a change of heart. He also began to realize that the rhetoric started to change from equal rights for whites to more violent talk about an apocalyptic race war, and he was very uncomfortable with that. He realized it will lead to trouble, so he just took himself out of the movement, and his younger brother followed. But it took five years of constant talking to these two sons of mine to keep reminding them this is not the values that they were raised with, and this was wrong. And thank God, both of them are retrieved, and they have completely turned around...
NEARY: All right, Nancy...
NANCY: ...but it was a very difficult struggle.
LEVIN: Nancy, you made an excellent point. In 1995, the ADL wrote this in The Skinhead International, and I quote, "a high proportion of American skinheads come from broken homes or single-parent families. Their gangs - like other American youth gangs - often serve as surrogate families for their members."
NEARY: Yeah. And I think, T.J., that's very much parallels - Nancy, thank you so much for your call, by the way...
NANCY: You are welcome. Thank you very much.
NEARY: ...I'm very interested...
LEVIN: Thank you.
NEARY: ...to hear your perspective and I guess...
LEYDEN: Yeah. It very much parallels my existence. My parents divorced. It was very, very messy, very ugly. I turned to the streets. I was lying to my parents - Mom, I met Dad. Dad, I met Mom - when really what I was doing was I was just doing what I wanted out in the streets. And, you know, I was pretty easy pickings probably when you look back on it, somehow.
NEARY: All right. T.J. Leyden is a former neo-Nazi skinhead, and we are discussing hate groups with him and with Brian Levin, attorney and professor of criminology at California State University. And you are listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. We're going to take another call now. We're going to go to Sam, who is calling from Atlanta, Georgia. Hi, Sam.
SAM: Hi. How are you?
NEARY: I'm fine. Go ahead.
SAM: Hi. I'm a member and speaker at several organizations that are denounced as hate groups by so-called (unintelligible) groups like the Southern Poverty Law Center, and I must say that the - what we're hearing today is an effort to prevent the consideration of ideas by linking an idea to crimes committed in its name. The same thing could have been done to the SDS back in the 1970s and to a limited extent that was (unintelligible).
NEARY: Can you tell me a little bit about the groups you're - what's the name of your groups? What do you - who do you represent?
SAM: American Renaissance is a group that's dedicated to studying the issue of race, the issue of heredity and race, the discrimination against whites to race, color, and for some of us, it's the desire to create for our own people the same kind of ethno states that Zionists who created for the Jewish people in Israel (unintelligible)...
NEARY: So why are you - and why are you - why do you object to the idea that you would be described as a hate group? Why would you say we are not a hate group?
SAM: We're not a hate group. We're no more a hate group than Polish people who were fighting for their freedom when they were under Soviet rule were a hate group or Jews are a hate group because they want a Zionist state (unintelligible)...
LEVIN: Can I interject?
LEVIN: Can I interject? Don't you think it's hateful to say in fact blacks and Hispanics are compared to whites far more likely to be poor, illiterate, on welfare or in jail and then talk about by no definition of international competiveness can the presence of these populations be anything but a disadvantage. That's right from the American Renaissance from 1990. You guys are a hate group, sorry.
LEVIN: You might not all be involved in crime and no one ever said that.
NEARY: You know what, I'm going to say - I'm going to interrupt you. I'm going to interrupt you, Sam.
NEARY: I'm not going to resolve this. We're not going to resolve this.
LEYDEN: Hang on. Look, we already had an all-white nation that discriminated based on race, color and religion this man is talking to, and it killed nearly 12 million people on the planet execution style through the gas chambers and other methods and nearly another 30 million men fought to destroy that.
LEVIN: American Renaissance - let me - I want to be clear so your listeners know this. This is how subtle bigotry can be today. This is a group that uses the words of science to promote the theory that blacks are inferior. That's it.
LEVIN: They're a hate group.
LEVIN: I'm sorry.
NEARY: All right. OK. The caller is gone now. I - we don't have much time left, and I just - and I want to end with you, T.J., because I want you to tell us what you would tell young people because I know you're trying now recruit people - get people to leave hate groups. What do you tell them? How do you get them to leave?
LEYDEN: I - basically, I try to sit down with them, and I just work with them a little at a time. You know, they've got to come to the realization that everybody, you know, has the right to exist on this planet. And the biggest thing is they've got to look at the facts because I show them scholars and scientists that are from all, you know, races, ethnic backgrounds, sexual orientation and show them that, you know, the white world isn't the only world out there that's contributing to society, and the white world is not the only people that have ever contributed to society. And I work with them. And sometimes I win, sometimes I lose, but to let them know that this lifestyle, as they say in the racist movement, is going to end up in only a few places. You're going to end up in prison. You're going to end up in - you're going to end up dead or you're going to end up a very lonely individual.
NEARY: And just one other thing, you have about two seconds to tell me this. I know one of the reasons you left hate groups was because of your sons. Were you - do you feel you were able to give them a different upbringing than you had?
LEYDEN: I have been able to give my kids a different upbringing than I had, thank goodness. My boys are incredible. I have five young men in my family. All my boys judge people on the content of the character and not the color of their skin. My sons date interracially.
NEARY: Great. Thank you so much, T.J.
LEYDEN: And, you know, they're just good kids.
NEARY: T.J. Leyden, thanks so much for being with us. And, Brian Levin, appreciate you being with us as well. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.