Former neo-Nazi activist speaks out against hate groups’ crimes, racism
T.J. Leyden, a former enlisted Marine Corps soldier and neo-Nazi activist for 15 years who now speaks out against the skinhead movement, came to the Washington University campus on Tuesday to speak about the nature of racist groups and their use of new media for recruitment purposes.
Leyden’s presentation was a part of the programming organized by the Jewish Student Union (JSU) for Holocaust Awareness Week.
The separatist movement in the United States
Leyden spoke about the activities and traditions of skinheads and different racist groups throughout the country. He emphasized that all these groups aim to bring anarchy and divide the national community.
Referencing the recent neo-Nazi rally held in downtown St. Louis, Leyden said the goal of such separatist movements is not solely the destruction of marginalized identity categories.
“I think the National Socialist Movement showed up here in St. Louis to use it as a way to be antagonistic and as a social recruitment tool. The real goal is not about white pride or destruction of others, but they use these rallies to polarize two people [based on their different backgrounds],” he said.
Furthermore, Leyden said the strategies employed by racist groups have evolved into targeting teenagers and other demographics through popular culture.
“The White Power movement targets children as young as Web sites on the Internet, especially on Facebook, MySpace and YouTube,” he said.
Leyden said he was motivated to distance himself from the skinhead movement when he started thinking about the future of his five sons. After working at the Simon Wiesenthal Center, a Jewish foundation, he gave his first speech in 1996 and, since then, has addressed more than 650,000 students.
Naomi Daradar, the University’s coordinator for student involvement and multicultural leadership, attended the presentation and agreed with Leyden’s call to protest hate and racism.
“Wash. U. is not perfect and there are incidents of hate and awful things that happen on campus,” Daradar said. “But I really do think that there are students here on campus that are fighting against hate.”
Daradar referred to groups like Connect 4, Association of Black Students, Ashoka and the Asian-American Association that attempt to spread awareness of students’ multicultural backgrounds and create dialogue among people coming from different backgrounds.
Leyden’s unique background
Members of the JSU said Leyden was invited for his broad-based appeal to the student body.
“We decided to invite T..J. to come to campus, because we thought it would be a powerful and meaningful experience for all those who attended. As the coordinator for JSU’s Holocaust Awareness efforts, I wanted to reach out and educate all different types of people,” said junior Cara Staszewski, JSU vice president of cultural and educational programming.
Part of the planning included contacting the Washington University Police Department (WUPD) to provide the necessary security for Leyden.
According to Staszewski, three police officers and several security guards were at the presentation because “in his contract, T.J. requests an armed guard to accompany him from the time he steps onto campus until the time he leaves.”
“His life is often threatened, and he must take the necessary precautions to protect himself. Because of the proximity of the American Socialist Party rally to T.J.’s arrival on campus, WUPD recommended that we have increased security at the event,” Staszewski said.
In his presentation, Leyden said he did not come here to boast about his past or to justify his past wrongdoings, but rather to show the seriousness and pervasiveness of hate crimes, racism and the separatist movement.
Students who attended the presentation said they were intrigued by Leyden’s unique background.
“I think it’s rare to encounter someone like Mr. Leyden, who has been able to turn his life around in such a positive way, especially so late in his life. He has a unique perspective on racism in America,” senior Aryeh Roskies said.
Racism and hate crimes in Missouri
Leyden’s presentation included information about hate crimes in Missouri and in the United States as a whole.
There are currently 30 hate groups in Missouri, which ranks 11th among all states in terms of the number of hate groups. In the past year, hate crimes reported in Missouri were organized under four major categories: race, sexual orientation, disability and gender.
Leyden also remarked on how institutions in the United States worsen racism. The prison system, he said, separates inmates based on race.
While he was an active member of the Marine Corps, the military allowed him to participate in passive racist acts. Leyden estimated that at least 3,000 racist individuals who champion the separatist movement are currently being trained in the U.S. military.
Students react to Leyden’s lecture
Roskies said he was troubled after hearing how rampant and pervasive hatred in America is today.
“What I took away from his presentation was that we really shouldn’t underestimate racist movements in America,” Roskies said. “In particular, I was struck by his points about the Army and the military training that members of racist organizations receive there. All in all, I thought Mr. Leyden was fantastic. He has a lot of courage to be doing what he’s doing, and I’m really glad I had a chance to hear him speak.”
Although some students were reserved at first, many had a rewarding experience by the end of Leyden’s presentation.
“I was impressed by how engaging it was. At first, it was difficult to listen to, because a lot of the things that he had done in the past were pretty graphic, brutal and hateful actually,” Daradar said. “I was moved by what he had done in a positive way now.”