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Changing colors

Once a rising star in the white supremacist movement, Floyd Cochran now attacks racism with equal fervor. Is he for real?
by Adam Hochschild

Until July 1992, Floyd Cochran was the fifth-ranking member of the Church of Jesus Christ Christian/Aryan Nations--a white supremacist group that combines Nazi ideas with a racist brand of biblical fundamentalism known as Christian Identity. Aryan Nations is based in heavily armed compounds in Utah and Pennsylvania, with smaller outposts elsewhere; the Idaho headquarters was disarmed when the state passed the Terrorist Control Act of 1987. The organized white racist movement, of which Aryan Nations has been a key part, has been linked to at least several dozen murders since 1980.

Floyd Cochran brought to Aryan Nations something that few such hate groups have had: media savvy and an instinctive flair for marketing. When reporters visited, he served them coffee and doughnuts instead of chasing them away. He became Aryan Nations' chief recruiter and took the group's racist message to young people with music videos. Calm, articulate, with a knack for the headline-catching phrase, Cochran quickly became the group's national spokesperson. Aryan Nations' chief, the Rev. Richard Butler, proudly called him "the next Goebbels."

One day in the spring of 1992, shortly before he was to be the featured speaker at Aryan Nations' annual Hitler Youth festival, Cochran was chatting with Wayne Jones, then head of security at the Idaho compound. Cochran had just gotten a phone call from his ex-wife: Their four-year-old son was having an operation to repair a cleft palate.

"He's a genetic defect," Jones told him. "When we come to power, he'll have to be euthanized."

Cochran was stunned. Then 34, he had been an avid reader of Ku Klux Klan and Nazi literature for almost 25 years. For the first time, as he tells it, he realized that the hate he'd preached could circle back to people close to him.

Several months after that conversation, Cochran confessed his doubts to Butler, who gave him $100 and said, "You've got five minutes to get off the compound." Within seven or eight months, Cochran was traveling the country speaking out against racism as articulately as he had once defended it.

Like many others, I was skeptical when I first heard about Floyd Cochran. People drop out of hate groups all the time, not always with good motives. Some are escaping prosecution by becoming FBI informants. Others hope to sell their story. But Cochran had not been under threat of arrest and, since leaving, has actually turned away publishers offering ghostwriters and money.

When I finally reached Cochran by phone, his voice had a sort of bottled-up tension, but his words had the immediate ring of truth. "If ever anybody tries to tell you that a change like this happens overnight," he said, "don't believe them. It's a long business. For me it's still going on."

January 1994. Floyd Cochran is visiting the University of Mississippi. Worried about right-wing death threats, he has registered under another name at the Ole Miss campus guest house.

Cochran is of medium height and extremely thin. His eyes have a hollowed-out look. From time to time his face crinkles into a warm smile, but at rest its expression is one of sadness. He smokes, and he drinks about 15 to 20 cups of coffee a day. As Cochran goes through several days of meetings with students, faculty, and local ministers, he leaves all his meals half-finished.

Again and again during the days I spend with him in Mississippi, Cochran returns to that pivotal moment when Jones told him his son should be euthanized. He would still be in the movement, he says, if this had not happened.

I'm not so sure. Testimonials sound better with dramatic turning points, but life is usually more complicated. At least as important to Cochran's change, I suspect, is the paradox that at Aryan Nations he had found his vocation. Discovering his talents as a speaker and writer--he turned out articles and pamphlets on racist themes--may have left him with less need for scapegoats. Also, Cochran has one quality that would have made it hard for him to stay in any cult forever: a sense of irony.

"One night I was doing guard duty. It was 1 o'clock, and a taxicab pulls up to the gate. Aryan Nations is 10 miles from the nearest town, so it's not like taxis are cruising by all the time. A man gets out and says he wants to see Pastor Butler. I say, 'Hold on! We need to see some identification.' He unbuttons his shirt and pulls out his stomach, and on it is tattooed 'ARYAN WARRIOR.'

"I tell him to stand there, and i call up to Frank, the sergeant. Frank comes running down to the gate, dressed in nothing but his bvds and carrying a shotgun. So I've got this cab driver sitting there, it's midnight, and this guy with his gut hanging out, and Frank with a shotgun and a pair of underpants on. And I'm thinking to myself: 'I'm saving the white race?'"


I would teach people that Jews had negative electrons. The first time I was with Leonard, who is Jewish, I kept walking around both sides of him. Finally he said, "I shut 'em off."

An estimated 25,000 activists form the hard core of American hate groups such as Aryan Nations, the Ku Klux Klan, and the like. Perhaps another 150,000 people are active sympathizers who attend the occasional rally or buy the literature.

"Armchair racists" is what Floyd Cochran calls those in the latter category. He was one himself until four years ago, when he left his native upstate New York to live with fellow white supremacists at the Aryan Nations headquarters near Hayden Lake, Idaho. The life he left behind had not been happy: a childhood partly spent in foster homes, a divorce, some heavy drinking, and several years in county jails-- bad checks, drunken driving, breaking and entering. The rest of the time he'd worked as a farmhand.

A social loser, Cochran, like many others, was attracted to right-wing fringe groups, and he put this experience to work as Aryan Nations' chief recruiter.

"We used to send people into the cities to pick up homeless kids and bring them back to the compound," he says. "You give a homeless kid some food and a place to stay and tell him that you love him--you can do a lot of things with that kid.

"The number one thing is that nobody in the racist movement gets blamed for anything. My marriage didn't work? It's not my fault, it's because I was a racial activist and my wife couldn't stand it. I didn't graduate from high school? It's because my Jewish English teacher didn't like me. If you couldn't find a job--hey, it's not your fault, it's the Jews'. Or it's because of affirmative action . . . even though northern Idaho is 98 percent white!"

I watched as Cochran showed audiences slides and a videotape of life inside the Idaho compound-- watchtowers, Nazi and Confederate flags, a wedding in which the young couple marches under arms raised in "Heil Hitler" salutes. The Aryan Nations' various outposts can contain everything from firing ranges to printing presses to schools for the children. The women do all the cooking.

When he arrived in the Aryan Nation's mini-state, Cochran began to thrive. It was the first community he'd felt a part of. The strict discipline--no drinking, no drugs--was good for him. And he enjoyed the limelight. "When I went to Aryan Nations, I'd milked cows all my life. Six months later, I'm on 'CBS News'! I'm in Newsweek! I'm in a PBS special!"

When Cochran left Aryan Nations, he found himself with no job, no home, and no money to leave Idaho. For several months he lived in a tent. Eventually a local sheriff linked him up with the Center for Democratic Renewal, an Atlanta-based civil rights organization that monitors the radical right.

"Leonard Zeskind was the first person to contact me from there," says Cochran. "Leonard is Jewish. I mean, here's a person who a month earlier I was advocating killing. And he's the first person to call me up. And not to ask for anything, other than, 'Do you want someone to talk to?'"

Not long after, Cochran and Zeskind had the first of many meetings. Cochran was uneasy: "In the racist movement, one of the things I would teach people was that white people had positive electrons. But the Jewish people, the children of Satan, had negative electrons. And if you walked into a room with them, those electrons would go off. The first time I was around Leonard, I kept walking around both sides of him. I didn't say a word. Finally Leonard said, 'I shut 'em off!'"

The other person who most helped Cochran was a co-worker of Zeskind's named Loretta Ross. Ross is black and, like Zeskind, has done civil rights work for many years. "In the summer of '92 I got this call from Floyd Cochran," she says. "'You mean the Floyd Cochran?' I thought he was calling to deliver a death threat!"

Ross was the first black person Cochran had ever really talked to. "The first time we met," Ross says, "he was very guarded. He censored himself. But it's been fascinating for me to watch his growth.

"I also have to confess that my own feelings underwent some transformation. I used to feel toward racists a lot of the things they felt toward me. But they're people with aches and pains and loves and hates just like me. I think most blacks in America, especially in the middle class, don't get to see the face of white poverty."

A speakers bureau sends Cochran to a college campus every month or so, but he usually stays on at each spot for up to a week, speaking for free to any church, YMCA, high school, or jail that will have him.

Although Cochran changes his phone number frequently, his former comrades eventually learn it and call to say they're going to kill him. When he was about to go on a TV show to debate some white supremacists recently, one pulled a gun from a holster beforehand. "He didn't point it at me. But he made sure I saw it." About 90 percent of such threats are bluster, he says, but Cochran worries about the other 10 percent.

Cochran always hunches forward slightly, as if he is walking against a perpetual wind. Despite his newfound commitment to human rights, shedding decades of prejudice hasn't been easy. He recently testified before the Montana state legislature on behalf of two civil rights bills for gays and lesbians. "I had a real struggle with that. My stomach was in knots. I began to sweat. My mind was saying one thing, but inside it was something else."

Another piece of unfinished business is Cochran's sense of guilt. "How do I apologize to someone that I've made to feel less than a man or woman? I told a whole room full of black people that none of them were going to heaven."

Then there's a teen-age boy, Jeremy Knesal, who now faces up to 45 years in prison in connection with the bombing of an NAACP office in Tacoma, Wash. Cochran worked closely with Knesal at the Aryan Nations compound. "I made sure he came to Bible study, to Race Eugenics class, to the Racial History class that I taught. I pumped him up. So I'm indirectly as much responsible as if I'd thrown the bomb."

On his last night in Mississippi, on at least his 15th cup of coffee that day, Floyd Cochran speaks at Ole Miss. He begins the talk, as always, with an apology for his past. Then he tells his story, spending a lot of time on the complex genealogy of the various right-wing sects. They are so numerous, he says, because there are "so many people who want to be the fuhrer, and not enough followers!"

After an hour and a half, the speech and question period are over; the crowd applauds and drifts out. But Cochran never leaves until every person who wants to talk to him has done so. This evening I see why.

He chats with a dwindling group until, finally, as the lights are going off and the video equipment is being packed up, only two people are left--a white couple in their early 20s. The man speaks with a heavy Southern accent. His face is intelligent, intense; his forehead is knotted in worry. His story comes pouring out in a rush:

"I was a skinhead. For ten years. I'm out of it now. My best friend is black. He's going to be the best man at our wedding. But I'm having trouble getting rid of some of the attitudes. A lot of trouble.

"My girlfriend here has helped straighten me out. But I got into an argument with a black student, and I threatened to crack his skull. I feel real bad about it."

I've seldom seen anyone look so tormented. He and Cochran continue the conversation the next morning, in a coffee shop. The young man, whom I will call Ben, grew up here in Mississippi. His parents told him, "We better not catch you playing with niggers on the playground." His uncle, fearing a racial Armageddon, has stockpiled thousands of guns.

Ben joined the skinheads after there were race riots in his high school. "I was standing out in the parking lot with an AK-47." When he left the movement, his parents kicked him out of the house.

Ben's fiancee is four months pregnant. He again mentions the black friend who will be best man at their wedding. But he agonizes about even that: "I don't know if I'm doing it because he's been a good friend to me who's been there when I needed him . . . or because it will throw my family into a complete culture shock."

And, it emerges, Ben has an ex-wife and small child who are still "in the movement." He hasn't seen them since he left.

"I don't know how to deal with the things I've done," Ben says, still trembling. Under the table, his fiancee holds his hand. I suspect that there may be things he hasn't told us and that his journey onward may be much harder than Cochran's.

Floyd Cochran's transformation is, as he says, still under way. Soon his 15 minutes of fame will be over, and his speaking dates and talk-show invitations will dry up. On bad days, he worries that he might relapse into the habits that used to land him in the county jail. But whatever happens, he will never again think of himself as a defender of the master race. To him and his new friends, that's a victory.

And who and what is it that needs to be defeated? It would be a mistake to focus mainly on fanatics who dress up in Nazilike uniforms, make death threats, and live in fortified compounds. They are the easy target.

The more important one is the racism that denies its own existence, that pretends to be about something else entirely, such as quotas or immigration or crime.

Looking back at his days in the white supremacy movement, Cochran thinks of the 1988 presidential election: "George Bush reconfirmed for me everything I always thought about black people when he used the Willie Horton ad."

Adam Hochschild's latest book, "The Unquiet Ghost: Russians Remember Stalin," was published by Viking Penguin in March. The Center for Democratic Renewal publishes educational materials and provides advice for dealing with hate groups of all kinds. It can be reached at P.O. Box 50469, Atlanta, GA 30302; phone (404) 221-0025.

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