Ex-Skinhead And His Victim Form Unlikely Alliance For nearly three decades Tim Zaal thought he had kicked a gay man to death during his rage-filled youth. Then one day, he found himself face to face with the man he thought he had killed. After some extreme awkwardness, they decided to use their story to educate people about the dangers of hate.
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Ex-Skinhead And His Victim Form Unlikely Alliance

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Ex-Skinhead And His Victim Form Unlikely Alliance

Ex-Skinhead And His Victim Form Unlikely Alliance

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is Day to Day. I'm Madeleine Brand.

ALEX COHEN, host:

And I'm Alex Cohen. Nationwide, hate crimes were down last year, but just by 100 incidents. The FBI says there were 7,624 hate crimes.

BRAND: Many of them were here in Southern California. Last year the number of hate crimes in Los Angeles County increased by nearly 30 percent. NPR's Dina Temple-Raston has been reporting this week on that surge, but in the midst of her reporting here, she discovered one story of redemption. This is a tale about two young men who first met almost 30 years ago. And then, as Dina reports, their paths crossed in a very unexpected way.

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON: Back in the 1980s, the streets of West Hollywood were haunted by punk rockers, and gays, and skinheads who lived on the rim of society.

Mr. TIM ZAAL: My name is Tim Zaal, and I am - what am I? I'm a former racist skinhead.

TEMPLE-RASTON: When Tim Zaal was in his mid-teens, he used to hang out on Santa Monica Boulevard in West Hollywood with a group of his friends.

Mr. ZAAL: Back in the day, early 1980s, 1981, 1982, this used to be my stomping ground. Mostly punk rockers would hang out around here after concerts. And we would be involved with violence on a regular basis. Violence for me back in those day was like breathing.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Tim Zaal has a wrestler's physique, a big brow, broad chest, and short legs. He's wearing a Henry Lloyd baseball cap over a shaved head. A fleece pullover covers tattoos on his arms. He's missing a front tooth.

These days, he's a computer programmer. And most of the time, it's clear that Zaal has found a way to distance himself from his past, almost as if it was someone else's history.

But bring him back to the streets of West Hollywood, what happened back then, and gradually Zaal sweeps backwards through rooms he's avoided for years.

Mr. ZAAL: Razorblades. I used to put razorblades in my boots, so that when I kicked somebody, then you know they would get cut. It made me feel good. It made me feel wonderful inside. It was like a drug for me.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Back when Zaal hung out here with his skinhead friends, Fatburger was a fast food place called Oakie Dogs. And this is where Tim Zaal, when he wanted to make trouble, came to do exactly that.

Mr. ZAAL: Somebody might drive by and yell punk sucks or something like that out their window, and then they get stuck at a light. And it would not be uncommon for us to run around the car and pull him out of the car and beat the living crap out of him.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Zaal remembers one night going to a club to listen to a band called Fear. It was a particularly violent night. A bouncer was stabbed. The police came. Tim and his friends were juiced up on alcohol, testosterone, and venom. And when they got to Oakie Dogs, Zaal's friends cornered some gay kid. Fourteen of them started kicking him and hitting him.

Mr. ZAAL: I walked up and I said, what's wrong with you guys? Can't you do it right? And he looked up, lifted his head up, and I kicked him in the forehead with my boot. And that was it. And he was out like a light.

TEMPLE-RASTON: The kid stopped moving. Zaal said silence descended on the group.

Mr. ZAAL: I never talked about it, because in the back of my mind I'm thinking that we killed this person. So we jumped in our cars, and we drove away.

TEMPLE-RASTON: For Tim Zaal, it seemed like that would be the end of it. He shoved the whole thing out of his mind until 28 years later.

Mr. MATTHEW BOGER (Manager of Operations, Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles): We both were talking about our childhoods, like how we came to the Museum of Tolerance, why are we here, what is our background.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Matthew Boger is the manager of operations at the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles, an interactive museum that tries to teach kids about prejudice and hate crimes. One day, he struck up a conversation with a guest speaker there.

Mr. BOGER: And there was a moment where I said you know, I lived on the streets, and I was there for four years, and I always hung out at this hamburger stand, which wasn't Fatburger at the time. It is now. And he said you know, we used to pass by there. Sometimes, we hung out there. He said but we stopped hanging out there after this one night that was so violent, I think I killed a kid.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Matthew Boger was that kid.

Mr. BOGER: It was the very first meeting that we had realized who we were to each other 20-something years ago.

Mr. ZAAL: Of course I was ashamed. I didn't really know how to handle the situation. Obviously, he didn't know how to handle the situation. He left as quickly as possible. And it was about two weeks before I saw him again.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Now in his 40s, with a son of his own, Zaal says he better understands why he was so angry. He was scared. When he was a teenager, his brother was shot by an African-American in their neighborhood. Zaal became a skinhead a short time later. He thought preying on people like Matthew would somehow provide protection. Instead, it's haunted him.

Mr. ZAAL: You know, I went through some turmoil. But at the end of the day, the right thing to do is to apologize. I mean, what else am I supposed to do? Ignore him? You know? Pretend like it didn't happen? Pretend like we didn't have the conversation?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Today, 28 years later, Zaal and Boger present their story and their unlikely friendship to high school and middle school students around Southern California.

Mr. BOGER: What this is really designed for - in case you guys thought you're going to sit there in silence and listen to two guys talk to you, no. This entire thing is designed to create a dialogue with you guys.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Zaal and Boger do a tag-team presentation one Sunday every month at the Museum of Tolerance. It begins with a DVD film of their story...

Mr. BOGER: The last thing I remember was a boot went right to my forehead. And I was out.

TEMPLE-RASTON: And ends with a question-and-answer session.

Unidentified Man: I'm curious why you still choose to not have hair as a hair style.

Mr. ZAAL: Well, I have a little slogan that I often say when people ask this question. "If you can't grow it, mow it."

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BOGER: He actually has no hair.

Mr. ZAAL: My hair line is like down here.

(Soundbite of laughter)

TEMPLE-RASTON: What is clear as the two men interact is that whatever happened in the past, at this middle point in their lives, they genuinely like each other. They can tease each other.

Mr. BOGER: What about Timothy, I know exactly when someone will ask how did you get out of the movement? I know that it's time for me to sit down, because I know it's going to take ten minutes to answer the question. And I know the answer. And there's times where Tim is not around when I've had to do the presentation, and someone will ask me how did he get out of the movement? And I say not that I'm here to answer Tim's, or tell Tim's story, but I'll give you that answer.

Mr. ZAAL: How long does it take you to do it?

Mr. BOGER: It takes me about two and a half minutes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

TEMPLE-RASTON: Zaal and Boger have just finished writing a book together. They hope that telling their story prevents more young men from resorting to hate. But that's easier said than done. Earlier this year, in nearby Oxnard, an angry middle school student gunned down a 14-year-old classmate just because he was gay. Dina Temple-Raston, NPR News.

BRAND: Nationwide, crimes like the one that brought these two men together, ones based on sexual orientation were up last year by about five and a half percent. Hate crimes based on ethnicity or national origin also up slightly, but incidents based on race fell by four percent.

COHEN: You can find out more about Dina Temple-Raston's series on hate crimes, including the roots of white supremacy in Los Angeles and how music has played a role in recruiting for hate groups. You can find that at our website. It's npr.org.

NPR's Day to Day continues.

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