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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

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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