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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

"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."

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