NEW PORT RICHEY — TJ Leyden's words are offensive, his stories sickening, but his message is clear: Fight hate using your brain.
During his sometimes shocking two-hour presentation Thursday night at Pasco-Hernando Community College, Leyden spoke about his painful 15-year past as a white supremacist, neo-Nazi skinhead.
He spoke fast, and his sharp, raspy voice seemed to fit the abrasive material he was presenting. If one didn't know how his story turned out, it seemed the complete antithesis to the message of Peace Week, going on now at PHCC.
Leyden kept the audience's attention with graphic, R-rated stories about his violent life. He was drawn into the skinhead movement in southern California as teenager who vented his rage over his parents' divorce by slam-dancing and fighting at weekend concerts. He enlisted in the U.S. Marines, where he said he kept a swastika flag and Hitler poster in his military locker and passed out booklets to recruit other soldiers while the military turned a blind eye.
"The military made me a better racist," he said, adding that the discipline, weapons training and other racists he met there helped further his cause.
On Thursday, he displayed pictures of the tattoos running up and down his arms and across his neck and back, some removed and some still there: swastikas, "skin head" and other recognizable words and symbols of hate, intolerance and anti-Semitism.
He played samples of racist heavy metal music and showed pictures from violent, "white power movement" video games targeting children.
He showed pictures of various types of Confederate flags, which he said continue to be an outward display of racism and bigotry.
He spoke about his time in prison, saying the prison system is set up to promote separatism, keeping the different races apart.
But then, about 90 minutes into his presentation, his tone changed.
He told the audience he began rethinking everything one day after watching cartoons with his sons. During an episode of Gullah Gullah Island, a children's show that has black characters, his 3-year-old said: "Turn it off, no n----- watching in this house."
Leyden recalled putting his feet on the coffee table and sitting back like a proud father. But then he started thinking about his sons' futures, what they were going to do and who they'd be like.
Suddenly it hit him: "If I didn't want my children to be me — what was wrong with me?"
"My kids kicked my head so hard that morning the lights came on … and there was no one around to clean up the dust," he said.
Leyden started to talk to people of other races, asking lots of questions.
"I did a lot of soul searching, father to father," he said. Then he realized, "I've got to pick: I'm in or I'm out."
Soon after, his mother sent him to the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, an organization that promotes tolerance through education about racism and the Holocaust. He was very reluctant to go and went with an attitude. He took a few boxes of hate paraphernalia, fliers, letters, posters and other propaganda from his car and left it there. A couple of the rabbis called and invited him to come back, and suddenly, he found himself completely on the other side of hate.
For six years he helped the center learn more about his former life, and traveled around the country educating others.
In 2000, he started his own company called StrHATE Talk Consulting and continues spreading his message online, in print and during presentations like the one Thursday night.
Leyden has trained members of the military, law enforcement and FBI, and has spoken to more than 800,000 students around the country.
The PHCC audience members peppered him afterward with questions, and he told them nothing was off limits. He admitted to receiving death threats, and he showed images from white supremacist websites where he's now demonized.
PHCC student activities coordinator Jessica White brought her two teenage sons, students at River Ridge High School, to hear Leyden speak.
"You can envision how this happens all over America," she said. "It's a perfect fit for Peace Week, to see the opposite of peace and know what we're up against."
Leyden pointed out to the audience that when people laugh at someone's racist joke, like they often did during his talk, that "laughter is passive acceptance," and silence to things like bullying is part of spreading the disease of intolerance.
He urged people to become activists. Find people with "deep pockets" to help get the message out. Become a mentor for troubled children.
"Please, find that lost kid," he said. "If you don't, someone like me will."