Floyd Cochran used to thrive on hate. “As a child at the age of 8,” he said in a recent telephone interview, “I learned from my local Baptist church that Jewish people were responsible for crucifying Christ. I became involved with the Klan when I was 15, and they said basically the same thing.” As an adult with a criminal history, a murky future and a skewed social compass, he joined the racist Aryan Nations, which coupled Nazi racist doctrines with a religion called Christian Identity that holds that people of color are “beasts of the field” and Jews are the biological offspring of Satan.
“Christian Identity,” Cochran explained, “is different than, let’s say, the Baptists or the Methodists or the Presbyterians in that Christian Identity teaches that the true Israelites of the Old Testament are not Jews but white people from Northern Europe.” He would later publicly promote such ideas as Aryan Nations’ national press secretary and chief spokesman — “the next Goebbels,” according to the organization’s leader, Richard Butler.
But now when Cochran, 44, speaks out about white supremacy, it is not to spread racist ideology but to expose the mindset and tactics of the ideologues, so that “people won’t make the same mistakes I have.” He is wrapping up a 21-day speaking tour of Washington and Idaho organized by the Northwest Coalition for Human Dignity, a Seattle-based nonprofit that researches hate groups and organizes against bigotry based on race, religion, gender and sexual orientation.
Cochran grew up in rural upstate New York. Raised in foster homes, he became a ne’er-do-well, drinking heavily, serving jail time for crimes like passing bad checks and breaking and entering, and doing farmwork when not incarcerated. Given his religious upbringing, the ethnic stereotyping common in small-town America in the 1960s and ‘70s, and his involvement with the Ku Klux Klan, Cochran said that joining Aryan Nations “wasn’t really a huge mental leap for me to take.” He took up residence at the Aryan Nations’ compound in Hayden Lake, Idaho, in 1990, climbing to the fifth highest position in the organization and advocating white supremacy in venues like talk radio and “The Jerry Springer Show.” In the alternate world of organized hate, Floyd Cochran had found his niche.
However, that world turned upside down for Cochran one night in 1992. In conversation with Wayne Jones, the compound’s head of security, Cochran mentioned that his 4-year-old son’s cleft palate required corrective surgery. Jones remarked that, as a “genetic defect,” the child would have to be euthanized when white supremacists rose to power.
Cochran was plunged into emotional turmoil. “If, on the one hand, it was wrong to kill my son,” he wondered, “how was it okay for me to want to do that to other people? And to believe in a belief system that would kill people? That just worked on me over and over again….I would try to think of Bible verses that would justify one and not the other, and try to think of some sort of rationale, and there wasn’t any.”
Thus began an unaccustomed process of disavowal. “I mean, here was the people that had made me a human being, so to speak, but at the same time I couldn’t get it out of my head that this was a philosophy that would kill my son,” Cochran recalled. As for ethnic tolerance, he said, “You don’t go to bed one day as a Nazi, and the next day you want to hold hands and sing ‘Kumbaya’ with people. So in the very beginning it was a difficult decision: You just don’t turn off that many years of hating people from religious and political points of view.”
In 1993, Floyd Cochran began to speak publicly about the white supremacy movement. He is the founder and director of the Mifflin, Penn.–based Education & Vigilance Network, an anti-racist research and information center. He is also a member of the education staff of the National Liberty Museum, a Holocaust center and tolerance exhibit located in Philadelphia. Cochran has appeared on such programs as “48 Hours,” “ABC Nightline,” and “Good Morning America,” and has received awards from the FBI, the NAACP, the YMCA and the U.S. Navy Security Command.
He makes over 100 presentations a year, at schools, houses of worship and other forums, and has addressed over 20,000 people since March. He said that recruiters for hate groups are targeting white youths, and that most of his own anti-racist efforts are focused on all-white rural areas.
“I think oftentimes when we discuss racism and bigotry, we do it in the big metropolitan areas,” he noted. “But hate groups are moving into the rural areas, playing on people’s fears and stereotypes.”
Floyd Cochran’s comments on community response to hate incidents:
“Certainly when I was in the racist movement and a synagogue was attacked or somebody was attacked, and there wasn’t a community response or there wasn’t someone coming to stand with the victim, that sent us many different messages: one of them, that racism is acceptable or anti-Semitism is acceptable in that community. And it also makes the attackers grow bolder…
“I believe that all communities should come together, but…the onus is upon the Christian community, especially when you have an organization like Aryan Nations, whose technical name is the Church of Jesus Christ Christian ... and also, given the history of anti-Semitism by the Christian community…”
On Holocaust denial:
“In Aryan Nations there was there was the public pronouncement and then a private one. The public one was: ‘The Holocaust never took place: It was a hoax; those pictures were fake, they were done in the studio.’ And the private one was: ‘Hitler was doing God’s work, so “Six million more!”’...“Within the buttoned-down, suit-wearing type of organized white supremacy, the intellectuals, they’d probably be more apt to argue that the Holocaust didn’t happen, where Aryan Nations or the Klan people might tell you that Hitler was just doing God’s work.”
Floyd Cochran’s last presentation on his current speaking tour will be in the USO Building, Ft. Worden State Park, Port Townsend, on Saturday, April 28, beginning promptly at 7 p.m. (doors open at 6 p.m.); admission free; open to the public. For information, call 360-385-0942.
The Web address of the Education & Vigilance Network is www.evnetwork.org.
The Web address of the Northwest Coalition for Human Dignity is www.nwchd.org.