Whiting Out Racism
‘Erasing Hate’ – screening Saturday at All Saints Church – helps white supremacists see the error of their ways
By Carl Kozlowski 08/04/2011
When Bryon Widner started getting tattoos as a teenager in Albuquerque, he never imagined that he would someday be portrayed on national television as a notorious example of racial hatred. At the time, he was just a high school dropout living on the streets who had fallen in with local skinhead gangs because they offered him a sense of family and a place to live.
But as he grew out of his teens and drifted through his 20s, with only rage and fellow gang members to guide him, Widner became disenchanted with the hate that surrounded him. By the time he decided to make a real break out
of the white supremacist underground culture at age 30, he’d wasted 16 years of his life on a cause he now despised.
With his arms, legs, chest and face covered in swastikas and other flashy symbols of hate — including the actual word “hate” tattooed across one set of knuckles in capital letters, and a giant arrow splashed across his face as a symbol that he would be ready to kill or die for white supremacy — it was impossible to find work. So when the Southern Poverty Law Center offered to help Widner remove his most visible tattoos, he jumped at what he saw as a chance to start his life over.
The journey he underwent as he removed dozens of tattoos and escaped the white supremacy movement along with his wife and kids has been depicted in a new documentary, “Erasing Hate,” by Burbank filmmaker Bill Brummel. While the hour-long version is airing on MSNBC, the feature-length version — currently making the rounds of film festivals in search of a theatrical distribution deal — will be released on DVD this fall.
The film will also be screened at 5 p.m. Saturday at All Saints Church in Pasadena, with a post-screening discussion led by Brummel. The local screening will give the film a chance to resonate with area residents eager to prevent similar groups from spreading into Pasadena and the San Gabriel Valley.
“After about my 10th year in the movement I was disenfranchised with the white power aspect, but I didn't know any other way to be,” explains Widner from a secret location. “My wife was in it, too, for five years and was already disenfranchised. Politically, we were both out of it but were in it for a sense of family at that point.
“The head of my crew I was in tried to make me choose between my family and them, and that’s when I got out,” Widner continues. “The crew is supposed to be your family, and they don’t want you to change your priorities from doing anything — anything — for them. I was no longer useful to the crew, because I was no longer able to be in it on that level.”
And so began a 20-month ordeal in which Widner had dozens of tattoos removed at Vanderbilt University. The excruciating pain he endured served as a form of penance for the man, who had become accountable for the evil acts he had committed in beating and taunting minorities.
And yet, even as he was boldly undergoing the removals, Widner had to also fear for his life and the lives of his family, because skinhead groups share other street gangs’ attitudes about “blood in, blood out.” When he saw some of Brummel’s other anti-hate videos at the SPLC, Widner realized that he’d found the man to tell his story in hopes that together they could convince others not to take the same road he had.
“I think Bryon all his life was looking for a sense of family, and he thought he found it,” says Brummel, who has been making documentaries since the mid-1990s for the History Channel and the Discovery Channel. “I don’t know that Bryon never really believed in the racist ideology. He’ll tell you he did. But that was the ideology of his family, and it wasn’t until he met his wife and she was also thinking of getting out that he saw what family was truly about and that accelerated his way out.”
Brummel recalls how their first meeting offered a stark lesson in just how badly Bryon’s tattoos had affected his daily life. In January 2009, he went to meet the Widners in Michigan’s cold and desolate Upper Peninsula, where they were then in hiding, and found that when they walked into a crowded restaurant, “the decibel level dropped 60 points in seconds.”
“People were making judgments based solely on appearance, and I understand that, but it was a lesson in don’t judge a book by its cover, and Bryon has to live with that every day of his life,” says Brummel. “The reaction that Brian had was an ‘Oh, my God’ reaction from strangers. He wanted that when he was in the movement, but not when he got out.”
The fact that Widner covered much of his face in tattoos put him on the extreme side of the skinhead movement. According to Brummel, the group’s sole purpose was to “make sure the world is frightened of you,” but most skinheads still maintain the common-sense desire to have a job and a life and thus avoid damaging their facial appearance.
Bryon’s dramatic change of heart was finalized when he met his wife, who had been in the “suits and boots” wing of the white supremacy movement for five years. That meant she was more educated and was in a part of the movement that blended in with a more professional image, spreading the message of hate through email and social networking.
Julie had four children from a previous relationship when she met Bryon, and the guilt she felt from teaching her kids with hatred of other races and cultures started to wear out her passion for the cause. They fell in love and were quickly married, but when they learned they were going to have another child, they made the decision to break away for good.
“It’s quite remarkable to witness his transformation back to normal,” says Brummel. “The pigment on his skin appears bleached a little, but before you could see him coming from a mile away. The tattoo treatments, especially the first six or seven, were so excruciating for Brian and me. It’s incongruous to see this tough guy with a violent past and see the pain he’s going through, and it took much longer than any of us expected, because he had 25 treatments in a year and a half when we thought it would only take six to eight months to complete. There’s no way he can afford the 10-year process to remove them all.”
Along with his tattoo removals, Bryon earned his general equivalency diploma (GED) and landed a job as tattoo and body modification artist. He and his family had to go underground, assuming new identities in a faraway city because of the death threats they received from gang leaders they’d once naively considered “family.”
According to Joe Roy, chief investigator for the SLPC’s Intelligence Project, which monitors the numbers, locations and activities of white supremacist groups nationwide, a movie like “Erasing Hope” shines a light of hope amid the darkness.
And these are dark times, indeed, as the number of Caucasian-run hate groups operating in 2010 numbered at 1,002. The SLPC also estimates there are 800 other anti-government extremist groups. The high numbers are no doubt fueled by the fact Barack Obama is the nation’s first African-American president, as well as the extreme right’s frustrations with a bad economy and what it considers a left-wing Congress.
“Actually, we were very encouraged by ‘Erasing Hate,’ because it gave us hope that there is a way out for kids to get out of this movement if they want out badly enough,” says Roy. “So often, they’re trapped because they get tattoos all over their bodies. You’re not going to get that job as a lifeguard when you’re all tattooed up with swastikas. Then when you become disenchanted with the movement, you’re stuck because you’ve alienated yourself from the rest of society.”
Nonetheless, Roy warns that despite California’s reputation as a multicultural, liberal-leaning state, it harbors between 50 to 80 hate groups due to the mix of ideal climate and the fact that many of these groups see the adjoining Pacific Northwest as a last bastion for America’s Caucasian population.
“We’re much too mobile a society, and the planet is getting smaller and smaller and now those groups, like everyone, talk every day all day long rather than twice a year,” says Roy. “Some of these groups fracture into small groups, but that can be more desperate and dangerous as they compete for attention and members. It’s a war that has to be waged just to keep them in check and keep the playing field level. It’s a constant battle.” n
"Erasing Hate” will be presented at 5 p.m. Saturday, followed by a post-screening discussion estimated to end at 9 p.m., at the Forum at All Saints Church, 132 N. Euclid Ave., Pasadena. Admission is free. Call (626) 583-2742 or visit firstname.lastname@example.org.