A Cure for Hate: Former White Supremacists Reveal What Turned Them Around

Tim Zaal poses for a portrait at the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles. Zaal, a former neo-Nazi skinhead, speaks regularly at the museum to battle white supremacist ideals. (Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times)
Tim Zaal poses for a portrait at the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles. Zaal, a former neo-Nazi skinhead, speaks regularly at the museum to battle white supremacist ideals. (Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times)

Tim Zaal was a scary guy.

At 17, in boots studded with razors, he brutally beat a gay teenage runaway on the streets of Hollywood. By his 20s, he was a full-fledged acolyte of the white supremacist movement.

He had a reputation to live up to. And he did.

Throughout Southern California, he used violence to prove his devotion to saving the white race. In Normal Heights, he and fellow skinheads would target gay men. In Belmont Park in Mission Beach, they’d look for minorities to harass.

He did jail time for assaulting an Iranian couple whom he mistook for Jews.

An ocean away, TM Garret was another kind of menace.

He spread white power propaganda in his native Germany through neo-Nazi bands with names like Wolfpack and Hounds of Hell. He started his own chapter of the Ku Klux Klan.

His allegiance to the cause was spelled out in tattoos — the word “skinhead,” a Celtic cross.

To them, it was a raucous good time, built on a community, a cause, and an identity.

Can hate that deep be reversed?

“Unequivocally, yes,” said Pete Simi, an associate professor of sociology at Chapman University in Orange County who researches extremist movements.

While the in-your-face skinhead movement that Zaal and Garret came up in is somewhat fading, it is being replaced with a new force that presents the same, hateful ideologies in softer tones and harnesses the power of social media to radicalize a new generation.

“It’s old hate in new wrapping,” said Rabbi Abraham Cooper, founder of the Digital Terrorism and Hate Project at the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles.

The stakes have also gotten deadlier, with the shooting at a Poway synagogue this month the latest example of mass violence in the name of protecting the white race.

But Zaal and Garret are testaments of something else — hope.

“Sometimes there’s this tendency to think once you go down that road it’s a permanent deal, there’s no hope for redemption,” Simi said. “That’s an inaccurate and dangerous way of looking at it. It guarantees it will be much more difficult for people to change if it is viewed as a beyond-all-hope kind of thing.”

But, Simi cautioned, “It’s not a clean or easy process.”

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SOURCE: KRISTINA DAVIS
San Diego Union-Tribune

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