Former skinhead speaks out against hate

The Daily Barometer (Oregon State University), Feb. 24, 2003
By Katie Willson, Barometer Staff Writer

Corvallis residents must open their eyes and look for signs that a hate group might be forming in the area, said former skinhead Steven Stroud.

Shaved heads, bomber jackets, military-style boots with white or red laces and white or red suspenders are popular among the groups known as skinheads. But Stroud cautioned a crowd of at least 60 on Thursday at the Corvallis-Benton County Public Library not to judge all young people who fit that description as members of a hate group.

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Skinheads Against Racial Prejudice, or SHARPs, dress similarly, but favor white and black checkered designs and tight polo shirts.

Residents should also learn to identify symbols of hate, he said, which are listed on the website of the Jewish Anti-Defamation League.

The site lists acronyms like WPWW, or, “white pride worldwide,” and number symbols such as signaling the Ku Klux Klan as “311,” a signal for the Ku Klux Klan — the letter K is the 11th letter of the alphabet — and “88,” a symbol popular with neo-Nazi groups because H is the eighth letter and stands for “Heil Hitler.”

“We need to accept our youth,” Stroud said. “Offer them guidance, teach them love and self-respect. If we don’t, there’s a hate group out there that will open its arms to them.”

Community Alliance for Diversity invited Stroud as part of its forum series “Can We Talk,” which meets once every other month to discuss local issues. Community members held the first forum after the September 11 terrorist attacks, fearing repercussions on minority community members.

The organization also hosts six-week study groups to focus on diversity issues affecting the community.

Stroud is co-founder of Oregon Spotlight, a non-profit organization working to reach out to skinhead members in the Northwest.

He’s appeared on Oprah Winfrey’s and Sally Jessy Raphael’s television shows, as well as “Good Morning America,” The Discovery Channel and MTV. Stroud works nights as a bouncer for bars in the Portland area that are notorious for gang violence — but he didn’t choose to move to Portland because he likes the roses.

“I moved to Portland because there’s a lot of hate here,” he said. “There’s a huge silent war going on and if people knew just how big it was, they’d be scared to death.”

According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, at least eight organized hate groups are operating in Oregon.

The center began monitoring hate groups in the United States in response to the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan in the early 1980s. Its web site shows Maine and Vermont as the only states that currently have no active groups. The site lists California, Texas and Florida as having more than 40 active hate groups.

In Oregon, five of the eight reported groups are clustered in the Portland area. The site also tracks hate groups operating in Springfield, Salem and The Dalles.

Corvallis Police Captain Jon Sassaman said that the problem is statewide. Although he knows of no organized hate groups operating in Corvallis, Sassaman said individual incidents still occur and that’s why these forums are so important.

“These make sure that diversity is alive,” he said. “And the dialogue helps assure that people don’t stop talking about it.”

Stroud stresses discussion.

“Don’t stay silent,” he said. “Without talking, how can we fight them?”

Fighting has long been a way of life for Stroud. He said his mother abused him until age 13, when the state sent him to a group home, the first of many. He lived intermittently on the streets of Seattle, waiting behind McDonald’s at closing time to feast on cold, unsold fast food. During his adolescence on the streets, Stroud suffered broken ribs, a shattered jaw, and a broken foot and hip.

“Life on the streets is cold and there are no hugs for you, no pat on the backs,” he said. “And there’s no time to sit and cry about it either. You don’t know what I would have given for a hug. Heck, I would have loved to even get yelled at.”

In the homes and on the streets he met other boys like him: angry, alone, white. He felt camaraderie with the other white kids in a foster care system with more minority children than he had ever been around. Together, he said, they “rolled gays in Freeway Park,” meaning they stripped men they assumed were homosexuals, beat them and stole their wallets. The police didn’t react, Stroud said, and he took their silence as approval, even encouragement. Loosely affiliated with several white supremacy groups, he mostly acted independently.

In one group home, he said, he tormented a Jewish boy named Todd, writing swastikas on the bathroom mirror in soap day after day after day. Then one day when he was 14, he smashed Todd’s head through the glass of a bus shelter, leaving him scarred for life.

Finally, at 16, Stroud was placed with foster parents who “loved the hate right out of me,” he said. Stroud began to see himself the way they saw him. He began to like himself, and he began to change.

The same technique Stroud’s foster parents used on him, he uses today when he works with skinheads: separating the individual from his actions, loving the person while transforming the actions. He spends his days talking to school kids, college students, parents and police about how to detect and fight the resurgence of racist organizations in the United States.

Stroud urges communities to get involved, get interested, meet their neighbors and not depend on the government for protection. He explained that when the law gets involved and a member of a skinhead group is sent to prison, he is likely to meet others like him and come out of the system a more educated, and angrier, skinhead.

“You can’t start by making a law against hate. Those laws have not stopped a single hate crime,” Stroud said. “What makes a difference is when people take it into their own hearts and then it can seep out into the community.”


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Religion News Blog posted this on Tuesday February 25, 2003.
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