To Timothy Zaal, violence was like breathing.
“I gave up being a skinhead years ago,” he wrote in a column to Politico. “But now, I’m getting uncomfortable feelings of déjà vu as I watch footage of the bloody events in Charlottesville.”
Zaal looked into the white supremacy groups that took over Charlottesville, Virginia last weekend and saw all the connections with his former days as a skinhead. “They hate the same minorities we did. They spew the same conspiracy theories. They consume the same kinds of propaganda.”
The “Unite the Right” rally at Emancipation Park was led by armed white supremacists and right-wing groups protesting the removal of a statue dedicated to former Confederate General Robert E. Lee. During the rally, one individual slammed his sports car into a Black Lives Matter counter-protest, killing one woman and injuring at least 35 others.
“Terrifying New Generation of Extremists”
Zaal believes the white nationalists succeeded in ways the older skinheads had failed.
“When you see crowds of hundreds marching through the streets with their faces uncovered, when white supremacist leader Richard Spencer holds a news conference a few days after a woman was killed by one of his fellow travelers and hosts reporters in his home, it becomes clear just how much more terrifying this new generation of extremists is,” he wrote. “They’re savvier than we were. Better connected.”
He related the growing hate group to his own former desire to join skinheads when he was a teenager. “I know how easy it is to slip into a racist group and become so passionate about the cause that it becomes unthinkable to leave.”
Zaal wasn’t recruited, though — he actively sought out white supremacist groups. His hatred for other races originated from when he was a child, when his brother was shot by a black man.
He recounted a tale of violence that seemed so commonplace to himself at the time: Beating a gay man to death with his friends, leaving him for dead. Years later at Charlottesville, white nationalists would share a similar sentiment, shouting “Fuck you faggots!”
But Zaal’s hatred dissipated, and he later met the gay man, Matthew Boger, by coincidence and have since worked together to deter people from committing hateful violence.
In his twenties, Zaal also attacked an Iranian couple and a black man with other skinheads, landing himself a jail sentence and increasing his hatred of other races. “ I felt more victimized by what I thought was the Jewish-controlled state and by the police — paranoid delusions I bought into because of the warped media I was consuming instead of the mainstream press.”
The Growing Movements
In his peak white supremacist days, Zaal was a part of both The White Aryan Resistance and Hammerskin Nation, becoming the face of white supremacy and passing out propaganda to encourage more people to join them.
“Because of this propagandist role, I was told to distance myself from the guys I knew who may have been making bombs and stockpiling weapons, because if I was found to have any connection with them, it would discredit the organization and the movement as a whole.”
Zaal points out a main struggle of the white supremacist movement back in his days was a failure to “soften” their image — a struggle that the current white nationalists overcame.
“When I was associated with the older white supremacist groups, we were told to go to college, to grow our hair out, to not get tattoos, to join the military, to get into influential business and political roles if possible — to become embedded in respected parts of society. Today’s alt-right has done that, from Spencer’s “think tank” that calls itself the National Policy Institute to protests like the one on Saturday, which was organized under the inoffensive name Unite the Right, as if it had more to do with conservative politics than it did white supremacy.”
Eventually, Zaal left the movement. He travelled, meeting new people of all races and by extension distancing himself from the insulated white supremacist-dominated world he lived in.
The factors that kept him in the moment, which were largely propaganda footage and validation by other supremacists, seem “stronger than ever” to Zaal. In his day, the only ways to get propaganda media was to order them in the mail. Now with the internet, it’s far easier to locate white supremacist misinformation and find like-minded individuals to share your hateful racist and homophobic views.
“I wish I could be more hopeful. Instead, I’m watching a new generation of white nationalist and supremacist organizations flourish right in front of our eyes. And I’ve never been more frightened for the future of our country.”
Check out Zaal's video with Boger below.