Pull off the hood and robe of a Ku Klux Klan member and you’ll find a ranting, gold-toothed idiot with a gun holster and the brainpan of an amoeba. His knuckles scrape the ground when he walks. He hunts deer, keeps his truck up on blocks and has a bottle of Pabst Blue Ribbon permanently stuck into one of his mitts when he trolls around his trash-filled yard.
It’s the kind of image many people conjure when the words “hate group” or “bigot” are uttered. But ex-neo-Nazi Floyd Cochran has seen the framed college degrees of organized racists: their computer technology, their video cameras, and their psychological recruiting tactics.
Cochran once donned a uniform with a swastika armband and preached the tenets of white supremacy and Christian Identity in rural communities. In the summer of 1992, he made a promise to himself to “take a step up from the negative doctrines of the ‘master’ race to become a positive member of the human race.”
Now he stands shoulder to shoulder with long-time activists for social justice at teach-ins and conferences across the country. Under the auspices of his own anti-hate group organization, Education & Vigilance, Cochran speaks about the tactics of bigots from his inside experience. He presses the point that white supremacists cross economic and educational lines; tells stories of their successful multimedia campaigns, and offers up solutions for combating organized bigotry.
“I didn’t wake up one day and say, ‘oh, I can’t join the chess club, so I guess I’ll join the Klan.’ It was a natural progression from the bigotry I learned from the world,” he says. “I lived in an all-white farming community in upstate New York, so the first thing I learned to hate was New York City. Then the images of people on welfare or committing crimes were always black. Listening to my parents and teachers I heard that there were ‘good colored people’ and ‘bad colored people.” Never once was I taught that there were just good people and bad people. I was predisposed to labeling, so the foundations were there.”
Until 1989, Cochran milked cows for a living. When he was indoctrinated into Aryan Nations, he was given a title — Director of Propaganda for the Aryan Nation Church — and rigorously trained in public speaking. In 1990, his picture appeared in a Newsweek article on hate groups. He was buoyed from obscurity into his first fifteen minutes of fame. In 1991, he was a guest on the “Jerry Springer Show” where he hurled epithets at an African American mother. A year later, he returned to the show to apologize to her face-to-face on the air.
His authenticity and integrity were constantly questioned as he moved away from white supremacy. But he’s set out to prove that his ideological shift is not a capitalist venture: “I haven’t written the book, there’s no Tuesday night movie,” he says.
He’s spent the last three years doing most of his speaking engagements for gas mileage and hotel expenses—oftentimes scheduling free educational programs alongside those he is paid for. He is not the “pet former neo-Nazi” of any organization, although he would draw a more consistent paycheck if he were. He wants to make his way on his own.
“I don’t consider myself a liberal,” he says. “A liberal is a person who has ideas and expects someone else to do the work. I’m progressive. I have my own ideas, and I actually get involved in carrying them out.”
There was no moment of catharsis that prompted Cochran to surrender his swastika, gun and Bible. It took time for him to realize the destructiveness of a movement based on hatred—from there he began a new learning process.
“I believe the shift is still going on, I don’t think I can say that I’ll never have a bigoted thought or a racist idea again. I’ve spent over three years as a non-racist and the shift has been a learning experience,” he says.
“I didn’t become an organized bigot overnight and certainly you don’t stop having bigoted ideas overnight.”
Cochran goes where many members of the left fear to tread—rural white communities, churches and police departments. Rush Limbaugh and his kind, Cochran says, have successfully cast the left as anti-American. Someone needs to approach the meat and potatoes set with the idea that “you can have leftist ideas—ideas about equality, ideas about diversity—and still love America.” And there’s no better place to do what he does than the same turf where the Klan, Aryan Nation and the like are doing their most aggressive recruiting.
“I spend a lot of time preaching to the converted,” says Cochran. “And a lot of the converted get angry with me when I do conservative or fundamentalist radio shows—but those are the people who are joining hate groups—and those are the people who need to be reached.”
“If we’re going to put together effective solutions to combat hate groups, we have to change our perceptions about bigots, When people saw me as a stick figure, one dimensional, I had it made. They thought I was a kook, so I could sit back and set the agenda. When people took me seriously as a threat, I was concerned. When government officials decide ‘if we ignore them, they’ll go away,’ racists continue to recruit, one at a time, planting the seeds. I think we’re much further ahead by acknowledging that we have these people here. When we have racists in our community, we have to ask ourselves, ‘now what are we going to do about it?’”
Violent anti-Klan protests generally made Cochran and his fellow neo-Nazis more determined in their efforts. When they were pelted with rocks, it was easier for them to play the victim.
“When you beat me up, it only confirmed what I was doing was right, it didn’t make me change my mind. When white people would scream and yell at me, I often thought they looked at me and saw something in themselves they didn’t like,” he says.
“There are no programs brought into schools,” he says. “Anti-racist people get arrested and the Klan is able to say ‘we were persecuted, we just wanted to do our American thing.’ Why not take that commitment, that militancy to fight bigotry and put it into education?”
The strategic manipulation of free speech and religion affords hate groups protection. The growth of Christian Identity (the faith KKK members and other neo-Nazis practice—is the glue that bonds the racist movement.
“Being of religious faith helps the movement to grow, affords it more protection from society, It allows you to mask you hatred in religious words and symbols,” he says. “This movement is more than just gut-emotional hatred, it’s actual religion.”
People like Cochran value the ability to examine the right wing’s successful campaigns and learn from them. Stealing their tactics to forge a new progressive agenda could be the greatest hope for those who stand against bigotry.
“Wherever I go, I talk about taking our ideas and packaging them so that everyday people can understand them,” he says. “the extreme right hits you in the gut with its message. They keep it down to short, simple phrases. There is the Christian Coalition or Aryan Nations. In the progressive movement you have the Pennsylvania Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice or the Pittsburgh Coalition to Counter Hate Groups and Bigotry—by the time you say that, you’re tired.
The Klan used a simple phrase — they said “peace, bread and land.” They didn’t put out vast intellectual arguments and expect the masses to sit down and read them. They talked in a language that everyone understood.”
Because of his activism, Cochran now has white supremacists show up at his lectures with guns, He works hard to keep his phone number and address under wraps, but neo-Nazis still find his property. When the periodic bigot decides to leave the hate movement and calls for help, Cochran takes other anti-racist activists along. He needs the physical protection, and he doesn’t want anyone to think he will revert to his old ways.
“The new title the racists have given me is ‘the greatest race traitor,” he says. “I’m not into titles anymore, but I kinda like that one.”