Heading off hate
Former neo-Nazi white supremacist T.J. Leyden gave Glenwood Springs High School students a challenge Tuesday: “Please help the world stop creating guys like me.” For almost 20 years, the now 40-something Leyden made it his life’s goal to hate. Leyden, of California, now travels throughout the United States talking about his life as a neo-Nazi while promoting the 180-degree values of tolerance, acceptance and understanding.His presentation was part of Big Idea Day at GSHS. The event was sponsored by the J. Robert Young Foundation, the Aspen Gay and Lesbian Community Fund, the Gay and Lesbian Fund for Colorado, the Ninth Judicial District Office of the District Attorney, and other donors.Big Idea Day, now in its second year, was organized by the student Climate Committee and put on by 60 students, parents, and volunteers, including the Stepstone Center. The day was divided into two main themes: Martin Luther King Jr. and civil rights; and bigotry, hate and violence.The idea behind the event, said student organizer Chas Salmen, was to promote a positive atmosphere at the school through respect and tolerance. Violence isn’t a problem, but Salmen and others hope to see more interaction between Anglos and Latinos.For the civil rights portion, students viewed a video and read and discussed “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” written by King in 1963 to fellow clergymen in response to criticism of his policy of nonviolent direct action.”I felt that it was such a passionate piece, full of calmness but bravery,” said Marco Salmen, co-organizer of the program with his brother. Every student should read the letter before graduating, he said.The second program included videos and Leyden’s talk.”Big Idea Day – 2002″ is a student-produced film on prejudice at GSHS. Set to Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On,” the video used hate crimes and other statistics and GSHS students’ personal stories to show how the seeds of hatred may have already been planted at the school, and that students can stop hatred from growing.A second film, “Journey to a Hate-Free Millennium: Stories of Compassion & Hope,” was directed by Brent Scarpo (“Shawshank Redemption” and “Air Force One”). The film documents nationally publicized hate crimes, including the Columbine High School shootings; the murder of James Byrd, a black man dragged to death by white men; and the murder of Matthew Shephard, a Wyoming youth beaten and left to die because he was gay.Both sides of T.J. Leyden were featured in the film – as a neo-Nazi and as a promoter of peace. In the film he held a sign that read, “God Hates Fags” at the trial of Matthew Shepherd’s killers; and spoke to groups of children about tolerance.Leyden spoke bluntly to nearly 700 GSHS students about hatred, bigotry and violence, and about the events that ultimately changed his life. His body is covered with tattoos of swastikas and gang-related icons.”Gang members put their rsums on their bodies for the world to see,” he said.Leyden talked fast and furiously, often humorously, about being a neo-Nazi. He explained how everyone wants to belong, and how easy it is to suck people into a gang. Most hate crime victims are chosen at random. It may be their skin color, the way they wear their hair or something they say, he said. Most are simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.He put on a tough-guy image to tell his story, noting that he wasn’t bragging, just trying to put his experiences into perspective.He’s been arrested 16 times, shot at and stabbed. He graphically described brutally beating people, and said no one ever went to the police because they were too afraid of gangs. Incarceration wasn’t a deterrent to his life of crime, he said. “Jails are facilities for how to be a better criminal.”He joined the Marines, where, he said, he learned how fight and how to recruit other gang members. “I brought my racism, prejudice and bigotry with me into the military,” he said.Leyden’s parents and siblings never gave up on him, even though he was living at the Aryan compound in Idaho. It was his children who woke him up.About seven years ago while he was watching TV, his son, then 3, turned it off, telling Leyden that he wasn’t supposed to watch shows with blacks in them.At first, he said, he was proud of his son. Then he thought of what kind of men his sons would be. He realized they would be like him.”All day I kept seeing darkness,” he said. For the first time in his life he was afraid, not of gangs or of death, but of himself. “I was the worse thing God gave my kids,” he said.”I’ve seen nine kids who have died, some of them begging for mom,” he said. He didn’t want that for his own children.It was a start, he said. He left his wife at the Aryan Nation compound in northern Idaho and went to his mother to ask for forgiveness.He later kidnapped his children from the compound. The court returned them to their mother, a supremacist, because he had kidnapped them. He now has shared custody and has remarried. The Aryan nation’s website now has a photo of Leyden. It gives advice to members to “terminate on sight.”That tells him he’s now doing something right, he told his audience.When a students asked him if he hated white supremacists, he replied, “You don’t hate the haters because that’s exactly what they want. You hate them, they win.”When asked what people do to encourage hate and intolerance, he replied, “The worse thing you can do is to be complacent. The problem right now is that the bad voices are so loud and the good voices are so quiet.”Leyden urged students to be cautious about the messages they receive in the music they listen to, literature they read and video games they play. He reminded them that minorities helped build this nation.Following Leyden’s talk, students quietly walked to discussion groups to share thoughts and ideas.So now where?Big Idea Day was the main event, said Marco Salmen. It provided the message. “We’re hoping that tolerance and acceptance continues in each individual,” he said.
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