“Yeah, I believe my brother being shot by a black guy was the main catalyst. The bullet went through one of his main arteries. It was too close to his spinal cord to be removed. So it was a family trauma. But he survived.

“And then when I was young, I got involved with the whole punk rock thing. My mother went back to work and my father wasn’t really around emotionally. So I had afternoons off by myself and didn’t really fit in very well with the middle-class community we moved to, Glendora.

“I was just angry, and I liked to fight. Not that I was a good fighter. But I was bigger and taller than most kids. I was just angry, you know, at the world.”

Timothy Zaal was explaining his circuitous life journey, from a misfit lonely adolescent to a punk rocker, then skinhead and white supremacist, and, finally, antiracist advocate. 

“Why did you like to fight?” he was asked. The query caught the 53-year-old off guard.

Again, he believed it had something to do with punk rock and teen rebellion. That, of course, and his older brother being randomly shot on a corner by an African-American. Bashing blacks and gays just made him feel good and, strangely, at peace.

“For me it was like” — and he paused — “it was like centering prayer. That’s the only way I could put it. It made me feel alive. It made me feel whole. There was something missing. I don’t know what it was. I still don’t.”

Zaal and his buddies really liked to drive into L.A. on weekends from the suburbs and hang out at a place called Oaki Dog on the border of West Hollywood. There were lots of hookers to throw stuff at, gay kids to harass.

On one particular night, the group was on a rampage after being thrown out of a bar and hassled by cops. They wound up, after drinking all evening, at the outdoor stand eating Oaki Dogs: two hot dogs topped with pastrami and chili, wrapped up in a tortilla. Looking around, they got more and more ticked off at the gay street youths taking over their place.

So they chased a bunch of them down an alley, but one was left behind. They beat him with their fists, stomped on him with their boots. Then left him for almost dead.

A few years later, Zaal belonged to a subgroup others liked to call “Nazi Punks.” They would disrupt concerts, making other punks’ lives horrible. That was all fun and games. He decided, however, it was high time to be in some actual combat. Get into the Navy Seals. Do some righteous damage. But he was rejected.

“That was a real downer for me,” he recalled. “I thought if I can’t fight for my country in the military, I’m gonna do it on the street.”

He approached several skinhead groups at concerts, but they were wary of this older guy, thinking he might be an undercover cop. So at 22, he got the home address of Tom Metzer, leader of the White Aryan Resistance in northern San Diego County. Zaal told him he wanted to do something for his race. Metzger recommended him to a skinhead group in Orange County that specialized in organized mayhem and heavy hate stuff.

Soon he proved himself worthy by going on “hunts,” where they’d seek out punk rockers, new wavers, homosexuals, blacks and suspicious-looking members of other mixed races. On one of their tamer evenings, they went around shooting tourists at Disneyland with paintball guns.

Fast forward a couple more years. Zaal was now in Los Angeles, still doing his thing and doing heavy electrical work on four 10-hour shifts a week. Thursday night was his Friday night, going on serious drinking benders, goose-stepping in slam pit nightclubs and often getting his butt kicked.

On Sunday during Memorial Day weekend in 1989, he and three smashed buddies decided: What the hell! They’d start their own damn hate group. And went into a Vons supermarket in El Monte to buy beer and steaks. Spotting an Iranian couple, they gave them hard looks and were pissed when their looks were returned. Out in the parking lot, words were exchanged. A fight broke out between one of his guys and the Iranian dude. The Iranian got the better of his opponent, holding him down, shouting “Call the police! Call the police!” Zaal and the others came running to their pal’s rescue.

When the Iranian’s wife tried to kick Zaal, he punched her right in the head — hard! Then the cops showed up.

“It ended up being a big deal because people were talking about recent hate crimes,” Zaal pointed out. “And they used our trial to attempt to bring about hate-crime laws here in Southern California. So I did a little over a year in L.A. County Jail. But I was originally looking at, like, seven. But they got me with assault with a deadly weapon. And I ended up taking a plea bargain.”

Center studies hate and extremism

Professor Brian Levin knows Timothy Zaal’s story very well, especially how easy it is to become engulfed in a bubble of hate. Since 1999, the founding director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino, has collected and closely monitored hate-crime statistics. But his interest goes back years before, when he filed amicus briefs for anti-hate organizations whose cases went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Plus, the New York City and Long Island native kicked off his career in criminal justice by joining the New York Police Department (NYPD) at 21.

For nearly two decades, the center, under Levin’s direction, has been widely known for analyzing data and releasing yearly reports on hate crimes and extremist groups in America and, especially, here in California and Los Angeles. 

The center’s latest report was released exclusively to the Huffington Post and Angelus News last month. It examined hate crimes in 12 of our nation’s largest cities — and the data was clearly disturbing.

“The center forecasts with a high degree of confidence that hate crimes will rise precipitously in 2017, in many of the most densely populated American cities [among those reporting more than 20 hate crimes annually],” stated the early report.

So far in 2017, hate crimes are up “substantially” in our country’s largest cities. Our six major metropolitan areas had an average increase of hate crimes from 431 to 526 — or 22 percent — from last year at this time, according to official police reports and other sources. And of the 12 cities studied this year, only two reported declines. The cumulative rise for the dozen went from 687 to 815, or almost a 19 percent increase.

With a 50 percent jump in violent hate crimes, such as aggravated assaults and murders, Los Angeles had an overall increase of nearly 13 percent.

New York City saw rises in anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim as well as anti-black attacks, raising the overall increase to 28 percent. Washington, D.C., and Seattle both rose 22 percent. Philadelphia, meanwhile, skyrocketed 46 percent after a decrease in 2016.

Findings for 2016 were equally troubling. For the five largest cities, four recorded double-digit percentage increases: Los Angeles, 15 percent; Chicago, 20 percent; New York City, 24 percent; Philadelphia, 50 percent — with Washington, D.C., topping out with a 62 percent jump.

Last year, groups targeted varied “significantly” by jurisdiction: Jews in New York City, and the LGBT community in Chicago and Washington, D.C. But nationally, racial hate crimes against African-Americans have been the most common target by far — every year since the collecting of this kind of data began 25 years ago.

And many cities that broke down their data by month or quarter showed “dramatic” increases near election time in November 2016. The center pointed out, “Our study last year found a correlation between political speech by leaders and spikes or declines in hate crimes following terrorist attacks, depending on whether the message was tolerant or confrontational.”

Professor Levin stressed that the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism doesn’t have any political agenda. “We just send out requests for information and we see what comes back,” he told Angelus News. “What I thought jumped off the page in 2016 was the increase in religious hate crimes as well as transgender offenses. There is a level of prejudice that is more ubiquitous with regard to Muslims, transgender. Now, unfortunately, even immigrants.”

Levin said he and his colleagues agree on one manifestation of hate crime that seems counterintuitive. Most folks who commit these offenses are not hardcore hate mongers. It’s certainly true the most violent offenses are done by this radical subgroup. But that’s only a “sliver” of all hate crimes.

The more likely perpetrators of run-of-the-mill hate crimes are “thrill offenders,” often young and drunk. Another common type have been labeled “reactive offenders” by social scientists. “Their switch is turned on by some cataclysmic event, like a terrorist attack, or a more mundane thing, like a minority family moving into their neighborhood,” he explained. Another group are simply mentally ill.

Hate crimes in American aren’t new. In 2000, there were twice the number there are today. And the KIu Klux Klan hit its zenith in the early 1920s, with a membership of 5 million and a public march on Washington in their white robes and hoods.

“Their most useful prejudice was anti-Catholic and anti-Semitic — particularly anti-Catholic,” Levin said. “We had just come out of an international conflict. We had the biggest immigration we’d ever had. We were going from an agrarian, small-town economy to a more industrial, urban one.

“And there was the threat of these Catholics picking up the phone and calling the Vatican. We laugh about it now. But anti-Catholic bigotry was a staple of America at the time.”

The Cal State University professor readily pointed out that the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism’s collected data was just a “partial count” of often nonreported hate crimes. The U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics conducts an annual door-to-door victimization survey, and the agency estimated that between 2003 and 2015, it’s likely there were 250,000 hate crimes every year.

Levin had one last observation.

“The values and the institutions — like public schools, newspapers, organized religions, the Supreme Court and Congress — that inculcate these values to trust in them are in continual decline,” he said. “On a macro picture, we’ve become a much more tribalistic and splintered society. And I think hate crime is as much a symptom as it is a cause of this.”

Leaving the ‘bubble’

When Zaal got out of Los Angeles County Jail, he was even more obsessed with defending his white race. So he went back to a growing group out of Texas called the Hammerskin Nation. Their core belief was that a race war was coming and they had to be ready for it. So they did lots of paramilitary training, learned bomb-making techniques and stockpiled all kinds of weapons.

“I remember the L.A. Riot,” he said. “We were locked and loaded and ready to go. Drove down Firestone Boulevard, from the South Bay all the way to the 605. Right in the midst of it with our rebel flag. Shots were fired at us, and we thought this is it. This is the race war. And if we’re gonna go down, we’re gonna go down fighting.”

But the riot, which claimed 63 lives, ended after six days.

He switched back to the White Aryan Nation, which was starting to push a lone wolf tactic using “leaderless resistance.” Zaal and many others became above-ground members, handing out racist material at high schools and college campuses. He also ran a racist hotline on current events. 

“I was above ground for five, six years,” he reported. “And it was something I did religiously. Race was my religion and my skin was my uniform. I was subscribing to something called ‘Creativity,’ which was the World Church of the Creator and was very humanistic based.

“So it was more about working out and not drinking and no drugs — training for the race war,” he said. “And I subscribed to that for many, many years.”

“How did you ever get out of that paranoid life?”

He talked about a friend named T. J. Leyden, the first racist skinhead he knew who left to speak out against racism. But Zaal wasn’t ready to leave. He listened to white racist music, worked and hung out with card-carrying white supremacists. And his female partner was also deeply devoted to the cause.

“So that’s all I knew,” he stressed. “So how do you change that? You have to totally separate yourself from the world that you know.”

He said the first pivotal point happened in a grocery store with his 2 1/2-year-old son. “Look, daddy! There’s a big black …” and the toddler dropped the N word. All of a sudden, Zaal felt shamed by the looks of other shoppers. It was the first time he really thought about his racist lifestyle.

He figured getting far away from Southern California would help. So he moved to the Ozark Mountains, only to discover it was big Klan country. But he was now doing a lot of traveling around the country, especially in the South, for his industrial electrician job. And he was treated with respect by blacks and Hispanics. On his long drives, he thought a lot about that.

 “And gradually, I started seeing that a coming race war was a bunch of malarkey,” he said. “It was a bunch of wasted time, wasted money, wasted brain drain — waste of my energy. And I wasn’t at peace. That hole, the emptiness inside, was still not being really filled.”

Zaal ended up in Colorado. He got into swing dancing with a 1950s revival crowd in Colorado City. That’s where he met a redheaded girl. They hit it off, and she soon learned about his crazy background. When he walked her to the door that evening, she quipped, “I hope you know I’m Jewish. You’ve got a problem with that?”

It was another pivotal point, a moment of clarity where he had the chance to step out of his comfort zone. “So I planted a kiss on her and took off like a little kid,” he recalled. “I drove away thinking, ‘Oh, my God! What did I do? I kissed a Jew!’

“It was like kissing a monster,” he added with a quick chuckle. “A cute monster.”

They dated for a couple years before getting married in Las Vegas, then moved back to California. That was 18 years ago.

“OK, but how did you ever wind up where you are today?” he was asked.

“Divine intervention,” Zaal returned. “Otherwise I wouldn’t be here. Yep, I’ve seen some pretty crazy things and been through some pretty crazy situations. And why am I still alive? Most people who have been through this stuff that I’ve been through are not alive to tell about it or are in prison or strung out on drugs somewhere in a corner, you know.

“I am” — and the former punk rocker, skinhead and white supremacist paused — “blessed to be alive.”

Note: Timothy Zaal speaks regularly at the Museum of Tolerance at 9786 W. Pico Blvd. in Los Angeles.

‘They’ve cleaned up their act’

White supremacists, white nationalists and neo-Nazis are alive and well in America today, according to Timothy Zaal, former member of the White Aryan Resistance and Hammerskin Nation. 

But Charlottesville showed that many have traded in their intimidating combat boots and military fatigues for spiffy-looking khaki pants and white polo shirts. And those images he watched on television Aug. 11 and 12 of the far-right crowd shouting, “White lives matter” and “Jews will not replace us” deeply disturbed him.

“They’ve cleaned up their act,” he told Angelus News. “But way back in the late 1980s and early ’90s, they were telling us in the above ground movement, ‘Grow your hair out,’ ‘Don’t get tattoos,’ ‘Go to college,’ ‘Join the military,’ ‘Work in law enforcement after you get out.’ 

“So these people get a lot of training, and when they come back into society, they blend in. So it’s a long game, not a short game for the hardcore. You’re gonna have them surface and then they’ll back away. But they’ll always be around. They’ll always, always be there.”

Zaal said he was seeing a whole new generation of hate and white supremacist groups crop up — hate groups that are a lot more savvy than his were about integrating into American society.

“I’ve never been more afraid for the future of the United States,” he said.