Up From Hatred

Michael D'Antonio is a free-lance writer based in Miller Place, N.Y. His last article for the magazine was a defense of science

At 4 a.m., the stars in the Allegheny sky are so bright and so numerous that it looks as though God is shaking salt on the Earth. Standing outside an all-night gas station, shivering in the cold, Floyd Cochran is too obsessed with his mission to notice. A rail of a man with receding brown hair, a full beard and a craggy profile, Cochran shifts anxiously from foot to foot. He takes one last pull on his cigarette, flicks the butt onto the concrete. "Let's go," he says. "I hate to be late." * Outside the car, rural Pennsylvania glides by like a stage set of small-town America. Soon, the landscape turns into farms, and then the farms become mountain wilderness. Miles pass without a light breaking the darkness on either side of the two-lane highway. Cochran is on the road to redemption. He intends to reach his destination by telling his story over and over again. * The tale that Cochran carries across the country can help us understand hatred, racism and the rage of poor white men. To view Cochran's life is to view the development of the militia mentality that might lead to an Oklahoma City bombing or the battle at Ruby Ridge. In telling the story, he hopes to atone for his past. His success depends, in large measure, on whether we believe him. * "I don't expect people to love me automatically," Cochran says. He stares out into the darkness. "My old friends don't love me, that's for sure. Of course, they weren't really friends either. My first true friends in all my life were Leonard Zeskind, who's Jewish, and Loretta Ross, who is black. In the old days, if you had told me that I would be friends with them, I'd have laughed in your face. But the truth is, they saved me." * Loretta Ross almost laughed herself when she was first called to the telephone to speak to Cochran. It was the summer of 1992. Ross was a researcher at the Center for Democratic Renewal, an Atlanta-based organization that monitors Aryan Nations, the Ku Klux Klan and other white-supremacist groups. A few months before, Cochran had been named in the press as part of a plot to assassinate civil rights leaders in the Pacific Northwest.

"Is this Floyd Cochran?" she asked."The Floyd Cochran?"

The voice on the other end of the line assured her that it was, indeed, the national spokesman for Aryan Nations. Ross had seen and heard Cochran on television. He had a deep voice, like that of a radio announcer. He also had a way of delivering neo-Nazi thinking that made it seem not so threatening, not so perverse. The voice and the demeanor made Cochran one of the white-power movement's most effective and frightening leaders. "I was expecting a death threat," Ross recalls. "These people don't call someone like me to just talk."

A full-time resident of the Aryan Nations compound in northern Idaho, Cochran was one of a handful of senior officials in one of the nation's most prominent organizations of racist fanatics. Aryan Nations has been linked to bombings, murders and bank robberies. The group's master plan calls for establishing a whites-only domain in the Northwest. As head propagandist, Cochran had been praised by the Aryan Nations chief as "the next Goebbels."

In a movement full of bombast and bullying, he was articulate and soft-spoken. Though he dressed in a blue uniform with fascist shoulder patches, Cochran didn't carry a gun to press conferences or appear accompanied by menacing bodyguards. Instead, he courted the local media with doughnuts and coffee and pleaded to be quoted fairly.

Nevertheless, he was committed to hate. Jews were "Satan's offspring" who controlled world finance, the United States government and the media. Blacks were "animals" who should be returned to Africa. All other minorities were "abominations" in the eyes of God. Homosexuals, Cochran believed, were "evil perverts" who should be "put to death." When he was younger, those ideas--and too much beer--got Cochran into more bar fights than he can remember. They also got him arrested and jailed in New York State on what today would be called hate-crime charges. (He publicly threatened to torch a synagogue.)

Loretta Ross knew Cochran's resume when he called to say that he had had an epiphany and that he needed help. It had begun during the 1992 Hitler Youth Festival. One of the other men at the compound had casually brought up the subject of eugenics. In the promised land of the whites-only future, he had said, the disabled and deformed would be put to death, including one of Cochran's sons, who had been born with a cleft palate.

"This really worked on me," Cochran recalls. "I thought about it and thought about it. After a couple months, I went to see Richard Butler [the head of Aryan Nations]. I asked him if this was really a part of the Aryan policy. You know, he didn't even answer me out loud. He smiled and said nothing. But that was my answer. I knew it was true."

With the annual Aryan National Congress just weeks away, Cochran was scheduled to address hundreds of white supremacists from around the country. When he went to see Butler a second time and repeated his doubts, the high priest of the compound moved swiftly. Cochran was handed $100 and escorted out of the compound and into downtown Coeur d'Alene.

Alone, jobless and homeless in rural Idaho, Cochran went to a local church and begged for a small tent, which he pitched in a park. He walked into a nearby gas station and arranged to mop the floor every night. In exchange, he received food, cigarettes and access to a bathroom. Cochran was racked by fear and anxiety. He worried about suffering the retribution of his former neo-Nazi comrades, who considered him a traitor. Cochran also thought about the 20 years of choices that had led him to this low point. And he realized that from the moment he embraced neo-Nazism, he had slowly lost everything that mattered--work, relationships, family, home, security.

"I remember watching some boys--blacks, whites, Hispanics--playing basketball. They were all friends, and they were having a good time. I was part of the master race, but I was living in a tent. I was alone. I had nothing."

Desperate, Cochran couldn't think of one person who might help him. "I was feeling a lot of pain, and it was all because of the choice I had made to live that life. It made me think."

The suggestion that Cochran find help among his old adversaries came from Leonard Zeskind, one of Loretta Ross' colleagues at the Center for Democratic Renewal and a longtime monitor of racists and anti-Semites. Zeskind's contacts had informed him of Cochran's defection. Zeskind thought Cochran might be willing to give him inside information about Aryan Nations. He called a friend in Coeur d'Alene, who hunted Cochran down in the park and gave him the telephone number for the center. "I used that number because I needed to talk to someone, and I knew they would be interested," Cochran says. "I had information about the white-supremacist movement. I thought they would help me figure out what to do next."

Zeskind's organization paid for Cochran to get to Kansas City, where they would meet. The former neo-Nazi and the Jewish human rights monitor became friends, but not until Cochran overcame his anxiety. Years later, both men remember the strange way that the process began.

"I was a little reluctant to stand close to Lenny. I said hello. Then I walked all around him," Cochran says.

Zeskind recalls what he said to reassure Cochran. "Don't worry. I've turned them off. The negative electrons. They're turned off."

Cochran was shocked. He didn't think that outsiders knew about his fear that Jews were "negatively charged," while non-Jewish whites carried a positive electrical charge. It's a bit of pseudoscientific superstition held by many white supremacists. "I kind of laughed," Cochran adds. "I knew it was ridiculous, but I couldn't help myself. And I didn't realize that if we had opposite charges, they would attract. I think that's kind of interesting now."

Preposterous ideas--like the notion that Jews are negatively charged--are delivered as fact in white-supremacist literature and shared in casual conversations at places like Aryan Nations. Among the other concepts that Cochran once accepted was the belief that pigs are the descendants of ancient Jews, and that communism is a Jewish conspiracy. Others in the movement believed that Russia operated, at the North Pole, a secret "weather machine" that created droughts, floods, etc. (Cochran says he never fully accepted that idea.)

Cochran insists that in the through-the-looking-glass community of hate, almost anything can be explained by a Bible verse twisted out of context or by a conspiracy theory. "I wasn't stupid," he says, "but I was very ignorant. And it was much easier for me to believe this stuff and blame people I could hate than to take responsibility for the fact that I didn't graduate high school, didn't have a job, didn't have a wife. It was a hell of a lot easier to hate than to look at all those problems I had."

After circling each other at the airport, Zeskind and Cochran shared a meal at the Black Eyed Pea restaurant. Cochran, who hadn't eaten much in days, wolfed down two complete dinners and a dessert. The two men then went to a motel, where they settled in for three days of talking about the inner workings of America's white-supremacist movement. Zeskind filled several computer disks with the information he received from Cochran. In the end, he concluded that the man was sincere.

"I don't believe in instant conversions," Zeskind adds. "But I watched his eyes, I watched his face and his hands. I could see he was someone who was lost. He was lost emotionally, lost politically, and he was willing to make a break with his past."

As he left Kansas City for upstate New York, Cochran told Zeskind that he wanted something more. He wanted more support, someone else to telephone when he was lonely or confused. He wanted someone to help him find a way to redeem himself. He wanted another friend. Zeskind gave him Loretta Ross' name and Cochran called her.

Others had turned to Ross for help in leaving white supremacy. She had never offered them much sympathy. "To me, anyone who wore the swastika, and he did, was the devil," she recalls. "There was no humanity underneath the uniform. In fact, I thought that people like Floyd had forfeited the right to be considered human. They were beyond being understood--or forgiven."

Cochran was different. He had the zeal of a religious convert who wanted to spread the good news. He seemed eager to do whatever Ross suggested to earn his redemption. In exchange for Ross' help, Cochran agreed to let her into his heart and mind. He answered every question she could pose about his past and his evolution as a racist. "Floyd wanted me to be part of his process of becoming a real human being," Ross explains. "He was racist, anti-Semitic, homophobic and misogynistic. But I could tell that he was too smart to be like that. And I knew he could explain that world to me. Suddenly, I realized that I had been very ignorant about who these people are. Floyd could help me understand."

*

Born in 1956, Floyd Cochran grew up in upstate New York, near the town of Cortland. Rolling hills dotted with apple orchards and dairies, it is the same isolated farm country that produced Timothy McVeigh (convicted of the Oklahoma City bombing) and Jack Wycoff (a prominent white-power activist). Cochran says that his mother was jailed for armed robbery soon after he was born and that he never actually lived with her. His father, a farm worker, placed him in the state foster-care system.

As a young boy, Cochran drifted among foster families in the hill country around Cortland. He never lived more than a few miles away from his real parents, who raised other children to adulthood. "I saw them once every few months, for an afternoon," he remembers, "and even then they couldn't wait to get rid of me. Looking back, I guess I hated the wrong people. I should have hated my parents, but I guess I couldn't do that. So I just decided to hate almost everyone else in the world."

In his foster families, Cochran was exposed to a wide variety of fire-and-brimstone religion, which taught him to revere the Bible and respect a preacher's authority. He says he was physically abused by his biological father. He recalls that, at about age 8, an uncle tied him to a tree in the woods, leaving him alone for hours while men in the family did farm chores. In one foster home, he says, he was required to spend all of his time sitting quietly alone. At 6 o'clock, he was allowed to watch the news on television. Otherwise, he lived in virtual silence. Cochran doesn't tell these stories to excuse or explain his past. In fact, he believes that he was an unremarkable child until he discovered Adolf Hitler and made the Nazi dictator his hero. "I admired Hitler because he had raised himself up from nothing," Cochran explains. "He had started out like me--white trash."

As a fifth and sixth grader, Cochran read every book he could find about World War II, Nazism and the Holocaust. By junior high, he was writing reports on books about the Third Reich and research papers on Hitler's life. He told a black teacher that slavery had benefited those who were brought from Africa in chains. The reaction he got was exciting. And it taught him that words have power. "I was fascinated by Mussolini, Huey Long, George Wallace--they could use their voices to control other people."

Cochran has trouble explaining why he chose authoritarian role models. Many children are abused and neglected. Few turn to "Mein Kampf" for solace. Why did he? Cochran suspects that his early life was so tenuous that he craved order and control. And he is certain that his isolation bred a profound feeling of resentment.

In his childhood, Cochran was not in the Boys Club or Little League. No one steered him toward books on great scientists, sports figures or humanitarians. And when he began to talk about the inferiority of blacks or the evil of Jews, no one spent much time correcting him. "My neighbors made derogatory remarks about black people," he recalls. "And I heard some teachers say things about Jewish people. I just got the message that it was OK not to like these people."

Some experts in hate believe that such bystanders play a critical role in the development of a bigot. "The tacit support of his community is one of the most interesting things this man describes about his past," notes Ervin Staub, a psychology professor at the University of Massachusetts and author of "The Roots of Evil," a seminal work on racial hatred. In most cases, Staub says, extremism grows when those who could stop it fail to act. The same dynamic holds whether it involves an entire nation or an individual.

"As a child, he was neglected, abused, helpless. Other people controlled him," Staub says. "There was no adult to intervene, to show him a positive response. So when he went looking for someone to emulate, he found Hitler. What is the thing about Hitler that was so unique? His power was expressed in the direct control of other people's lives. It's not an accident that Cochran found Hitler so appealing. And then when he began to mention this, he got a reaction that made people pay attention to him. He was meeting his need to be noticed--to get some kind of status--and identifying with someone who controlled people."

Neo-Nazism also gave young Cochran a stronger sense of identity. "All adolescents ask, 'Who am I? How can I be a worthwhile person in this world?' " Staub says. A movement that promised membership in the master race proved irresistible to an impoverished, isolated, estranged boy. "Often these people can't help themselves," Staub adds. "They have a drive for the status and the attention they get, and they must satisfy it."

"I did like all the attention I got by being a bigot," Cochran agrees. "It made people notice me, and not just for a day or two. It really made an impression. I enjoyed that."

After high school, he married and became a full member of the Klan. He worked when he could--mostly milking cows--but he rarely made more than the minimum wage. Though the marriage produced two sons, it didn't last.

By the mid-1980s, Cochran was divorced, living alone in a trailer and spending much of his meager income on alcohol. He kept up his contacts with the racist network. One of his favorite sources for information was the Aryan Nations compound in Hayden Lake, Idaho. "I'd call up the lady who worked there, Betty Tate, and we'd have these nice conversations. It was always very pleasant, like she was happy to hear my voice. She was like the grandmother I never had."

By 1990, Cochran had no contact at all with his parents, his foster families or his siblings. His wife had remarried and kept his sons away from him. His home was a battered trailer reserved for hired hands on the farm on which he worked. He had no car, few real possessions and no savings. He had little claim to an identity, except for the belief that he belonged to a superior race. By July of that year, it wasn't difficult for him to decide to take the few dollars he had and hitchhike to Idaho for the Aryan Nations Annual Congress. There, tucked beneath 80-foot pines, he found a picturesque little community and a group of people who would accept him just because he believed what they believed about race.

Founded in the 1970s by a racist activist named Richard Butler, the compound is home to both a church--the Church of Jesus Christ Christian--and the political organization called Aryan Nations. The church's theology is built around the belief that today's white Christians are actually what are referred to as the Jews of the Bible. According to this theology, those we call Jews now are the children of Satan, which makes Adolf Hitler something of a saint. And blacks--called "mud people"--are less than human. The politics of Ar- yan Nations begins with the belief that America is the true Israel. According to believers, the nation is being denied its destiny by ZOG, the Zionist Occupied Government in Washington. Variations on these ideas can be found in all sorts of right-wing, anti-government extremist groups from militias to the Ku Klux Klan. Most believers liken themselves to the patriots of the American revolution--men and women fighting an authoritarian regime.

Through Aryan Nations, Butler has tried to unite the Klan, neo-Nazis, skinheads and rural militia groups and prepare them for a war to create a whites-only homeland in the Pacific Northwest. For the most part, the believers do little more than talk and train themselves to use weapons. In such an atmosphere, otherwise ordinary men can think of themselves as a courageous few, chosen by God to lead a race of befuddled white "sheeple" into the promised land. "It made life seem very exciting," Cochran explains, "and it made you feel pretty darned important.

"All you had to do to qualify for this was say you believed and prove you were white," Cochran adds. Of course, there were degrees of whiteness recognized by the true believers. These were discerned in frequent eugenics classes, Cochran says. The men and women living in the compound would examine each other's features--eyes, noses, hair color, stature, skin color--in order to establish their place. Nordics and Alpines were at the top. Mediterraneans qualified as white, but just barely. "My facial features made me an Alpine," he adds, "which helped me."

Cochran's first significant assignment for Aryan Nations involved bringing a group of young skinheads to a public ceremony in Idaho honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. "I had on the blue shirt, pants and tie. I just walked in and stared at the people. There was a choir, and they couldn't sing because we bothered them. Everyone got very upset that we were there. They said that no one should leave until the police got there to protect them. We didn't have to do anything, and they were scared. It was exactly the effect we wanted to have."

After that one event, Cochran was put in charge of generating favorable publicity for white supremacy. Previous Aryan Nations spokesmen had greeted the media wearing pistols and frowns. Cochran offered his hand and a smile. "I convinced the leadership that the media in the Northwest wasn't Jewish," he explains. "They were white people who had their eyes closed. But this meant they could be allowed on the compound. Of course, if there were any blacks, they were still banned."

"Floyd was good," says Robert Crawford of the Coalition for Human Dignity, a human rights group in Seattle. "He went around the Northwest trying to talk loggers and kids into making political alliance with Aryan Nations." Cochran didn't use the frightening rhetoric of hate. Instead, he appealed to the insecurities of working men who were unemployed and youths full of anxiety about the future.

The new approach also made Cochran a sought-after source for local and national media. He was frequently quoted by newspapers in the Northwest. Newsweek called for a comment on the logging issue. And TV talk-show host Jerry Springer presented Cochran to his audience as the face of white supremacy. The attention was intoxicating. Cochran felt powerful and important. As he confesses today, "It beat the hell out of milking cows for a living."

*

Gradually, Loretta Ross came to see Cochran and his fellow white supremacists as something more than enemies. She began to see them as human beings. "I never thought much about white men who had no education, no real jobs and very little hope," Ross says. "I never thought there were white men who felt so left out, felt so much grievance. No wonder they are looking for someone to blame for what they don't have."

As time passed, Ross and Cochran began to discuss subjects beyond politics and race and religion. Each was surprised to learn that they shared the same hopes for their children--happiness, security, fulfilling relationships. Cochran also convinced Ross that white supremacists are not necessarily stupid. "When you talk to Floyd, you realize that he isn't stupid. In fact, he's pretty intelligent. But he was turned off. His mind had been turned off during all those years when he had nothing. Maybe it was how he lived as a kid. Maybe it was school. I don't know. But the Aryan Nations people come along and they gave him something. He was lonely and alienated, and they made him feel important. You can see how it might happen. This is the rank and file.

"They are damaged people," she adds. "And I came to see that if we don't deal with their pain, we're going to have a lot more Oklahoma City-type events."

Without the structure of the Aryan Nations organization, Cochran was forced to create his own life. His experience as minister of propaganda had revealed a talent for public speaking. With Ross' encouragement and the help of Leonard Zeskind, he began speaking at conferences held by human rights groups. They were the kinds of meetings he once crashed as a neo-Nazi. At first, he was unsure about what to say. But Zeskind and Ross both told him to stick to the topic he knew the most about: the life of a white supremacist. And they offered one more suggestion: Speak from the heart.

Cochran wasn't sure what he expected to achieve at that first public appearance at a college in Montana. Though he was shaky at the start, he stood up and told of how a farm boy from upstate New York came to be one of the top officers in one of the nation's best-known racist organizations. He finished with a line that became the staple of all of his later public appearances. "If my racism harmed you in any way, directly or indirectly, I am sorry."

Cochran lives in Coudersport, Pa., a mountain town near the New York State border, where logging trucks crowd the road and one of the biggest tourist attractions is the nearby Pennsylvania Lumber Museum. When he is home, Cochran shares a brand-new double-wide house trailer with his companion and her children. Cochran has made an office out of one room in the house. From there, he monitors hate groups and publishes a newsletter.

But most days find him driving to churches, high schools, colleges--anywhere he finds an audience that will listen. He also consults for the military, visiting bases where neo-Nazi activity is suspected. Cochran is paid for most of these appearances, but he usually receives little more than expense money. (Last year, he reported a gross income of about $14,000.) He considers it his duty to warn young people, who might be seduced by friendly recruiters from the racist underground.

"Jesse Jackson doesn't have the same credibility I have when I go into these rural towns and talk about the Klan or other white-supremacist groups," he says. "I know how people talk and think about these issues in those places."

One spring day, he arose before 4 a.m. and took to the highway, bound for Huntingdon County, Pa., to address a high school class. At South Huntingdon High School, hundreds of students filed into an auditorium to hear Cochran talk about life inside and outside Aryan Nations. The front row of the hall was filled with teenage boys, many of whom wore the razor-shorn short haircuts and heavy black boots common to skinhead youth. For many young people, that look is fashion, not politics. Though some of the boys smirked and laughed during much of Cochran's talk, he couldn't be sure if they were racists in the making or just rowdy boys. Cochran tried to tell them that it is easy to slide from ignorance into hate.

"I grew up in a place like this, in northern New York City. The first thing you learn to hate is New York. It didn't take long then to transfer those feelings to people of color. Then you start believing that blacks don't belong here, that they should be sent back to Africa. And you say to yourself, 'I don't hate other people. I just love my own race to the point where I'm willing to kill to protect it.' "

During the question-and-answer period, some of the students express serious concerns:

"Is the rebel flag a sign of racism?"

"Yes, I think so," Cochran says.

"Why was Aryan Nations so appealing?"

"I loved the uniform and the power. You walk into a room wearing a Nazi-type uniform, and people react. I went from milking cows to being in Newsweek in one year. That's pretty exciting."

"Why should we believe you are different now?"

"You'll have to make up your own mind about that. But I can tell you that ever since I stopped being a bigot and stopped being paranoid, my life is a lot better."

These responses, like his new relationships with Zeskind and Ross, move Floyd Cochran one step closer to redemption. But he suffers enough setbacks to remain convinced that his work is far from done. Earlier this year, Cochran offered himself for a leadership position in a Pennsylvania human rights organization but was rejected after rumors spread that he was a double agent for a white-supremacist group. Nothing he said could erase the stain of the rumor. He may forever be the former neo-Nazi who cannot be trusted.

On the road, among the people he hopes to save with his story, Cochran also encounters skeptics and worse. At South Huntingdon High, the last of the teenagers' questions gave Cochran all the reason he needed to keep up his crusade.

"I have to ask you something about the Klan and Aryan Nations," he said.

"What?" said Cochran.

"Where do I go to sign up?"

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