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What My Friendship With a Former White Supremacist Taught Me About Repentance

17 minute read
Greenblatt is CEO and National Director of the Anti-Defamation League. He is the author of It Could Happen Here: Why America is Tipping from Hate to the Unthinkable

Around one in the morning on June 10, 1990, a white Crown Victoria approached the West End Synagogue in Nashville, Tennessee. It was dead quiet; nobody around. Without provocation, someone sitting in the passenger seat shot about half a dozen rounds with an automatic weapon, shattering one of the synagogue’s windows. The car drove off into the night, its headlights darkened to avoid detection.

The FBI soon caught up with the triggerman. Leonard William Armstrong was indeed a Ku Klux Klan member; in fact, a fairly important one—grand dragon of the Tennessee White Knights of the KKK.

The other person in the car—the driver—was a seventeen-year-old skinhead by the name of Damien Patton. A native of Los Angeles, he had come to Tennessee weeks earlier at the invitation of Jonathan David Brown, a well-known music producer and white-identity preacher who bankrolled white-supremacist groups. Brown put Patton up in an apartment, paid for his living expenses, and introduced him to other local white supremacists as an up-and-coming leader. Patton began attending local white-supremacist events, and, hours before the shooting, was among hundreds of people who attended a meeting of the Aryan Nations.

“Jews . . . were felt to be the evil of all problems,” he testified to grand jury in 1991. “We refer to them as Kikes or ZOG, which stands for Zionist Occupied Government, which means our government was occupied by Jews and Jews only.”

He did not tell the grand jury the secret he also withheld from his compatriots: Damien Patton was Jewish himself.

He grew up in Torrance. His parents divorced under unpleasant circumstances when he was about five years old. Although his mother had custody of the children at first, she struggled to take care of him, his brother, and his sister on a hairstylist’s income, so Damien and his brother went to live with their dad and stepmother. “Life sucked,” he says.

Jewish by birth but nonpracticing, Damien’s mother spoke Yiddish on occasion with Damien and took him to bat mitzvahs and other family religious events. Being away from his mother was “probably the hardest thing ever in my life.” His father and stepmother both struggled with personal issues, and their home was a “tough household” filled with tension and animosity.

Damien responded by acting out at school. Once an A student, by the sixth grade he began to abandon his studies and withdraw socially, dressing outlandishly in tiger-print bandannas and taking his fashion cues from celebrities like Madonna. After an altercation with a teacher at the private Lutheran school he attended (she had called him a fag and he had responded with an obscenity), he transferred to a public school. There, he continued to rebel by adopting punk fashion, shaving his head into a mohawk, and wearing jackets with safety pins.

He befriended a Mexican classmate named Pablo, and by the time Damien was in eighth grade, was spending long stretches at Pablo’s home in Lennox, a gang-infested section of Los Angeles near LAX airport. Warfare between the Crips and the Bloods was then in high gear, and Damien found himself in the frightening and dangerous world of lethal fights and drive-by shootings. He became sensitized to the racial differences that defined the identities of the various street gangs contending for territory and power — not just Black gangs, like the Crips and Bloods, but Latino gangs and white skinhead groups.

Damien’s descent into white supremacism took place over just a few years. He didn’t make it through his freshman year because school officials asked him to leave. He began his sophomore year at a different school and was asked to leave again. By this point, he was living almost entirely without adult supervision. His friend Pablo and his family had moved to a neighborhood located about an hour and a half away, and without asking anyone, Damien would regularly take a Greyhound bus out there by himself. He was beginning to live in abandoned buildings off Hollywood Boulevard, becoming part of an underworld of runaways and drug addicts who had come from across America (incredibly, Damien never actually did drugs himself).

Pablo joined a Latino gang whose members were stealing cars, manufacturing methamphetamine, and committing other serious crimes. Damien began flying gang colors as well, “just a thing” that kids on the street did, he says. During his sophomore year, older gang members began asking, “What’s this white kid doing around us?” And Pablo increasingly distanced himself from Damien, who fell into crisis. “I didn’t want to be left out, and I was losing everything, my friends, everything.”

So Damien, a Jewish kid, did something that today appears astonishing: he joined the skinheads.

As Damien remembers, he knew little at the time about white-supremacist ideology. What he cared about was making friends and feeling accepted. As an alienated, homeless white kid, he found that the skinheads filled his needs. And he gravitated toward them for another reason: he knew firsthand that they were capable of protecting him. On two separate occasions in recent years, skinheads had accosted him and beat him up. It happened once in a public park and another time while he was practicing with his school’s football team. “I knew that skinheads were not to be messed with. They were the tough people if you want to be in a street gang.”

Of course, not all skinheads were created equal. There were “street punk” skinheads, posers who tried to look tough but who were disorganized and didn’t have any core ideology. And then there were white-supremacist skinheads, a real power on the street. “These were the hard-core ones,” Damien says. “If you wanted to go up against the Crips and the Bloods or the Hispanics, you had to be with them. People were scared of them.”

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Damien’s entrance into a local skinhead gang came via Matt (a pseudonym), a man whom he looked up to. Matt was a construction worker who owned his own house, drove a yellow Firebird, and had an attractive girlfriend. He seemed to have everything Damien wanted. After befriending Damien, he introduced him to members of a white-supremacist Skinhead gang he led.

“It clicked real fast,” Damien recalls. “All of a sudden, I had these new friends. The camaraderie was so strong. One day it’s like you’re the weird kid, the odd man out, the kid who dresses funny. Next thing you know, you’ve got like ten best friends and girlfriends wanting to hang around you. It’s like, whoa—magic.”

Matt had not only welcomed him but positioned him as something of a leader in the group. As a result, people were taking their cues from him. For the first time in his life, he was popular and dating attractive girls.

The attention was addicting, as was the sense that he had a “tight group of friends who I felt weren’t going to leave me. I was addicted to what I called family, a family unit that had more stability and structure than my own family did because it was so screwed up.”

A turning point in his indoctrination came around this time when Damien visited his mom’s house and brought a fellow skinhead with him so that she could meet him. His mother had gotten used to seeing him dressed like a skinhead (combat boots, jeans, bomber jacket, shaved head) but hadn’t thought there was any ideological component to it. But his friend was wearing something else: a red armband emblazoned with a black swastika.

Seeing that, his mother realized that he had joined a white-supremacist group. She went ballistic, exclaiming to Damien within earshot of his friend, “How can you be a Nazi when you’re a Jew?”

Damien denied it. He chose his friends and what he thought of as his new family over his birth family and his religion.

“I told my mom in front of my friend to go f–k herself,” he says. “‘What are you talking about?’ I said. ‘We’re not Jewish. We have nothing to do with Judaism. So why would you say such a stupid thing?’ And I left home and never went back. I completely rebelled at that moment. I went hard and full-on into white nationalism as fast as I could.”

Damien embraced a whole new identity, convincing himself that his old life simply didn’t exist. He began to recruit other kids to become skinheads. Remember those abandoned buildings where he sometimes lived? This was “the number-one recruiting point where we found new skinheads.” The runaways he met there had fallen through the cracks of society and were every bit as vulnerable as he had been. “So many of the kids, especially the girls, were victims of sexual abuse. It was insane. And we felt like protectors. ‘Don’t worry,’ we’d say, ‘I’ll protect you from your stepfather in Iowa. He won’t get you here.’ And then you go out and steal her a flight jacket and boots. She’s now a skinhead, even though she didn’t know about white supremacy five minutes ago.”

Older members of the Ku Klux Klan and other white-supremacy movements began approaching him to work with them. Recognizing him as intellectually gifted, they asked him to organize groups of skinheads to serve as security at their events. The validation further filled the hole in his life. Not only had he found a new family; now he’d been plucked out of a crowd and told he was special.

At one point, an older Klansman invited Damien to a secret meeting of white supremacists in Reseda, a town in California’s San Fernando Valley. This was a big deal; none of the other skinheads had been invited.

The meeting took place in a room on the second floor of a shopping center. Inside, Damien found himself among dozens of hardened white supremacists. These weren’t the usual high-school kids Damien hung out with. Many were middle-aged, and some were as old as seventy.

They passed literature to one another, gave speeches, and watched Birth of a Nation. As the evening drew to a close, a man told Damien that he was headed out to Tennessee. If Damien could drive him (Damien had managed to buy a car at a police auction), he could live with him out there and help organize skinheads. Damien agreed to do it. By his way of thinking, he had hit the big time. He was all of seventeen years old.

In Tennessee, his past was erased. His new friend introduced him as a budding white-supremacist leader. Damien was soon hanging out with highlevel members of the Aryan Nations and their wealthy financial backers.

One of them, the well-known music producer Jonathan David Brown, quickly became a kind of father figure to him, paying his expenses and inviting him to spend weekends on a big farm he owned outside of Nashville. Among the local skinheads, Damien was perceived as a kind of golden child, which he found intoxicating.

On the evening of June 9, 1990, Brown introduced him to Leonard William Armstrong, grand dragon of the Tennessee White Knights of the KKK. Brown vouched for Damien, telling Armstrong he was an up-and-coming leader and “our guy.” With other skinheads, they went into downtown Nashville and as a group harassed some Black men who happened to drive by; Damien told them that he “had a ticket for them to go back to Africa.” Afterward, Armstrong asked Damien to drive him to an undisclosed location. It turned out to be the West End Synagogue.

The shooting led to another turning point. Aware of the FBI’s interest, Brown arranged for Damien to flee Tennessee, paying his expense as he lived on the road with a girl he was dating. After Damien returned to Tennessee toward the end of 1990, he fell into disputes with Brown and Armstrong, and set off on his own: In the space of a few months, he went to Hawaii to reconcile and live with his father, joined the Navy, underwent basic training, and was sent to a base in Virginia.

At about this time, he also reconciled with his mother and stepfather. In 1991, while he was living in Virginia, the law finally caught up with him. He was about to deploy to the Persian Gulf for his first of two tours of duty, but his use of his Social Security number as part of the deployment process allowed law enforcement to track him down.

He made a deal to return to Tennessee after six months of deployment to testify against Armstrong, who was sentenced to three and half years in prison, and Brown, who was sentenced to more than two years plus additional penalties. Damien served six months probation, and as a minor when the synagogue shooting took place was dealt with as a juvenile and his record was sealed.

Another re-invention followed: Damien would come to pretend he had never been a white supremacist. This was tricky at first. On Damien’s first day of basic training, a Black drill instructor spotted the white-supremacist tattoos on his body and said, “Well, Robert E. Lee, looks like you and I are going to have some fun together.” At graduation, after Damien had finished first in his class, that same drill instructor approached Damien’s mother and stepfather and acknowledged what a tremendous transformation he had undergone.

By the time he was twenty years old, he was completely done with white supremacism. He spent several years in the military. Following his discharge, he pursued a love of auto racing and worked in NASCAR as a mechanic. He then taught himself to code and went on to become an extremely successful entrepreneur. A software company that he founded, Banjo, became a high-growth start-up that, over a period of years, attracted almost a quarter of a billion dollars in financing.

As Banjo’s CEO, Damien gave well-received speeches at industry conventions and was touted as a success in the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, and elsewhere. In his public appearances, he told an inspiring story about his difficult past, including his homelessness and gang activity, but omitted any mention of white supremacism.

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But in April 2020, some three decades after the incident at the West End Synagogue, the technology-news website OneZero ran an investigative report detailing Damien’s past, complete with a photo from a 1992 newspaper report showing him giving a Heil Hitler salute. Other media picked up the story, and weeks later, Damien resigned as Banjo’s CEO, publicly apologizing for his actions. He withdrew for a year to take stock of his life and explore his past.

And that’s how I came to know Damien Patton.

In April 2020, when the news about Damien broke, a friend of mine in Silicon Valley texted me and asked if I was available to talk. I found myself spellbound. I was the head of ADL; would I be willing to talk to him?

I agreed without hesitation. ADL as an organization has long tried to exemplify the Jewish concept of teshuvah, or repentance. Everyone has the ability to atone for misdeeds and seek forgiveness. All of us have the duty to help in that endeavor if we can and not write anybody off out of hand.

I quickly researched Damien online, discovered coverage of the allegations, and followed the trail on social media. I called my general counsel, a longtime ADL employee, and asked if he had heard of this story. He went into the files and, sure enough, found a hard-copy ADL bulletin from 1990 in which we had written about the incident.

I spoke to Damien late that same day. It wasn’t an especially long conversation. I offered to speak with Damien again when he returned to Salt Lake City, where he lived with his wife and where Banjo was headquartered.

He agreed. A few days later, when we connected via Zoom, he rarely looked at the camera. His eyes were glassy and his mind seemed elsewhere.

Despite that difficult conversation, Damien and I struck up a friendship and began talking to each other on the phone almost every week—a relationship that, as of this writing, remains ongoing.

When people learn of my relationship with Damien, many of them ask why I have invested so much time in it. The answer is simple: I genuinely like Damien and believe that his contrition, his repudiation of white-supremacist ideology, and his desire for forgiveness are genuine. Damien always claimed to me that he didn’t know Armstrong intended to fire his weapon, and in a media interview, Armstrong confirmed this. “This was not something that had been plotted or planned out. I was a drunken idiot acting spontaneously, and I got him in trouble,” he said. “He didn’t know that I was going to do the thing that I did.”

And yet Damien has never shrunk from his moral responsibility. “I’m not absolving myself,” he told a member of my team. “Listen, I was in those hateful groups. I believed in that hateful shit. I was never full-on ‘I hate people’ because, again, I was there for a sense of belonging. That’s why it was as easy for me to get out of it as it was to get into it. Unlike some people, I wasn’t raised in a life of hate. I hated my [childhood] situation, but my parents didn’t teach me to hate people based on race, religion, whatever.”

As we talked about his process of teshuvah, he acknowledged that it was time to go deeper and honestly confront everything in his past. Eager to help, I tracked down the West End Synagogue’s religious leader during the early 1990s, Rabbi Ronald Roth, who agreed to speak with Damien. The two have since developed a relationship. Damien and I hope to visit the synagogue together, and he will make amends by giving a talk or performing some other community service. In addition, Damien has reconnected with his Jewish heritage; he’s engaging with a local Chabad congregation in Salt Lake City, spending time with a rabbi studying Torah, and using his newfound knowledge of himself to process his past.

It’s tempting to want to “cancel” people like Damien once and for all, and of course moral censure is important when people don’t repent and cling stubbornly to repugnant views.

But we should reserve such censure for the worst culprits, those whose serial offenses over a long period demonstrate a deep refusal to change or even acknowledge an alternative point of view.

Canceling individuals for a single example of poor judgment or a few errant social media posts or even a material transgression made in their youth strikes me as wrong. We should strive to adopt less of a cancel culture, which attacks individuals for any failing, and more of what a friend of mine, entertainer Nick Cannon, describes as a “counsel culture.” We should try to work with those who have sinned rather than simply sitting in judgment of them.

When people engage in genuine reflection and express a sincere desire to change, we need to hear them out. All of us would be wise to remember that we’re all human. We all make mistakes.

Adapted from IT COULD HAPPEN HERE by Jonathan Greenblatt, published by Mariner Books. Copyright © 2022 by Jonathan Greenblatt. Reprinted courtesy of HarperCollinsPublishers

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