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Up From Hatred

As National Spokesman for Aryan Nations, Floyd Cochran Was Committed to Hate Until He Realized That, in the Group's Final Solution, His Own Son Would Die. Adrift, Cochran Turned to His Former Enemies for Redemption.

August 10, 1997|Michael D'Antonio | 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

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."

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