Erasing hate

2011-10-29 00:00

ATLANTA — For years, Bryon Widner­ thrived on hate as a violent skinhead — a razor-carrying “enforcer” who helped organise other racist gangs around the United States. His hate was literally etched on his face in the form of tattoos with racist and violent themes.

But with the help of the Southern Poverty Law Centre — the nation’s leading monitor of hate and extremist activity — Widner left the white-power movement and endured nearly two years of excruciating laser­ treatments to remove the tell-tale tattoos so that he could start a new life with his wife and children.

In Erasing Hate, a one-hour documentary, Widner’s life within the white-power movement, the decision that led him and his wife to leave it, and the procedures he received are recounted. He now seeks to create a new life for himself and his family as he spreads the word against racist hate.

“This is a powerful story of human redemption,” said Joe Roy, the SPLC’s chief investigator, whose meeting with Widner led to the removal of his tattoos and, ultimately, the documentary. “Bryon, by his own admission, did horrible things in his life. But he made the decision to reject racism and leave behind his life of hate and violence.”

During his 16 years as a skinhead, Widner became known as a vicious brawler who would fight at the slightest provocation. Today, he says he’s haunted by the things he did.

“If I can prevent one other kid from making the same mistakes I did, if I can prevent one other family from having to go through the same crap that I put my family through, maybe I can redeem myself,” Widner said.

Widner gained notoriety within the movement for the tattoos covering his face and body. Eventually, he caught the attention of SPLC officials, including Roy, a former police detective who has spent 25 years monitoring hate and extremist movements for the SPLC.

“He was the pit bull of the movement,” Roy said. “He had a reputation of being an enforcer.”

In 2005, at a white-power music festival in Kentucky called Nordic Fest, Widner met his future wife, Julie­, who was also active in the white-power movement. Together, they began to see the hypocrisy of the skinhead culture and realised it was no place to raise a family. Despite death threats and harassment, they left the movement.

As Widner attempted to get his life on track, the tattoos that made him an intimidating force in skinhead circles became a liability as he searched for a job to support his family. Since he couldn’t afford to get his tattoos removed, it seemed his racist past would remain branded across his face.

Then he found an ally in a former enemy — the Southern Poverty Law Centre. After SPLC officials learnt of Widner’s struggle, Roy and Laurie Wood of the SPLC met with him.

The SPLC provided financial aid that allowed Widner to get the tattoos removed from his face and hands at Vanderbilt University Medical Centre in Nashville. Each treatment left Widner’s face badly blistered and swollen — a sort of penance­ for his violent past.

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